Great truths and the races

Cheltenham Diary
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THE CHELTENHAM Literature Festival has just cracked off on its 10-day romp; and the American Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley, did not have to think twice before accepting her invitation to take part.

Anywhere there is a race-course, admits Smiley, just arriving at the festival in time, after a quick dash out of town to visit the track. There is a beautiful sculpture out there of a little mare called Dawn Run who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, she recommends, as she opens up her vanity case to show me the photos of her own 13 horses.

A couple of moments later, Smiley (author of A Thousand Acres, recently made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange) is seen surreptitiously slipping out to make a phone call - one suspects to place a flutter on the 2.15.


"YOU'RE ALL going to have to sing a hymn," Smiley tells a shocked audience, as she distributes three verses of a rousing anthem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and leads us stridently to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" - "We cross the prairies as of old/Our Fathers crossed the sea/To make the west as they the east/The homestead of the free."


"NOW HOPEFULLY you're all feeling in a suitably self-righteous mood to take in my novel," adds Smiley, as she begins to explain her new epic tale set amongst the Kansas abolitionists in 1855.

The All-True Adventures of Lidie Newton tells the page-turning story of an independently minded young pioneer girl heading out West in pursuit of the rural American dream; and her subsequent attempts to avenge the death of her abolitionist husband - but more importantly the murder of her horse.


ELAINE FEINSTEIN then attempted to winkle out the truth behind another literary death, when she unearthed the salacious facts that lay behind the duel that killed the great Russian poet Pushkin, at the age of 37.


MARILYN BUTLER, the esteemed Rector of Exeter College meanwhile, was prodding about in secret history of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge, Butler reveals, was one of a bevvy of writers (which also included Roget the thesaurus compiler) who joined in the shady scientific experiments of Bristol's Pneumatic Institute.

At the time, Coleridge recorded great rapture breathing in Dr Beddoes' nitrous oxide fumes. A few years later, however, he was swearing that he never inhaled. Sound familiar?


THE UNITED States grand jury could also learn a few other things from the age of Coleridge it seems. Butler went on to tell us about the French mathematician Condorcet, who came to prominence during the French Revolution.

According to Condorcet, there is no reliable way of telling whether or not someone is telling the truth, so all jurors really ought to do is to learn the basics of probability theory.


CHARLES SAUMAREZ Smith, the Director of The National Portrait Gallery, spends much of his time weighing up the probabilities of whether or not a notable figure is going to stay notable for long enough, to warrant commissioning a painting of them.

His recent sitters include AS Byatt and Doris Lessing. "As soon as you pick a politician, you know there is going to be disagreement," says Mr Saumarez Smith, fresh from his illustrated lecture on literary images, "and you can never get anyone to agree on choosing a philosopher. But the position writers in British society tends to be pretty uncontroversial."

As the festival's 300 participating writers weave their way to the launch party, I watch with keen interest which of them have the perspicacity to ensure their immortality by topping up the glass of Mr Saumarez Smith.


Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs until 18 October (01242 227979)

Cheltenham Festival and

book offer, Review, page 17