The participants, at least, were enjoying themselves

Cheltenham Diary

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A recently liberated Edwina Currie arrived at the Cheltenham Festival gagging for it. There was nothing in the hotel that would suffice, she told an intrigued John Walsh, this year's festival director. "Sometimes", she said, "you've just got to have something red and hot inside you, nothing else will do."

Ever accommodating, Walsh and the hotel management sheepishly suggested room service and a young boy was duly dispatched to fulfil the great one's needs - a double cheeseburger and large fries, hurriedly bought from the High Street.

Suitably satisfied, she gleefully set off to lecture the good ladies and gentleman of Cheltenham on the excitement of her life thus far. She showed them a couple of recent purchases, one a newly printed T-shirt proclaiming: "I'm the best there is, but I'm not available."

A revelation that caused a huge sigh of relief from the single men in the audience who feared it may have been a Kiss Me Quick Hat.

A piece of promotional attire that the broadcaster Sarah Kennedy was unlikely to need for a while. For Sarah, here to spread the word about her first novel, has nabbed a toy-boy. "It's wonderful," she boasted. "Even though I'm nearly 140, he's only 31 and quite unlike the other men I have known who are all in their forties. He's so sensitive and caring. I highly recommend it." The Cheltenham ladies discretely made notes.

If Ms Currie had arrived earlier her ex-school teacher sensibility could have come in extremely handy for the job of minder for the slightly more colourful members of the Irish Poets Society. As it was, that job was foisted on to John Wyse Jackson, an Irish writer here to publicise his much respected book on James Joyce's father.

With Aiden Higgins in one hand and Dermot Healey in the other, he valiantly trolled them around Cheltenham's finest bars and public houses. A sad business. None of them were quite authentic enough. Fruit machines, unforgivable. Loud music, see fruit machines. Guinness at not quite the right temperature; and a severe lack of Cheltenham young ladies on to whom they could pour their poetic attentions was the final straw. Desperate, John tentatively suggested they join the more sedate members of the literary establishment at a delightful wine and nibbles party being thrown at one of the most civilised residencies in the town.

They were finally persuaded when John murmured that this house had often played host to none other than the Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney.

"Yer man," they both chimed and off they set.

In a library stacked with the works of the great and the good, the lyrical duo settled in for the night. Aiden, ever the aesthete, nested comfortably into the chair that Seamus used to sit in while Dermot went off in search of larger prey - the hostess's young daughter.

He was last seen manoeuvring her out on to the patio and inquiring: "Where's the fooking Guinness?" A clarion call he was to repeat each time the South African red moved his way.

The following day rain and bad light fell on the Gloucestershire town heralding the arrival of the nation's favourite umpire, Harold Dickie Bird. He was joined by the accomplished painter and England wicket keeper Jack Russell - who, as one Festival-goer confided in me, is rumoured to be planning to have his hands amputated when he dies and donated to the Lords museum.

Dickie confessed that he was on a bit of a sticky wicket with fellow Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott. In his recent autobiography, the purpose of his trip down south, Dickie names what he considers to be his dream 11. And our Geoff isn't on it. The world's most famous finger told us that he has received a message saying, "I want a word with you Dickie Bird. I'm not happy."

But Geoff will be pleased to know that although he wasn't on the dream team, if his life depended on it and he had to select a batsman to save him from being shoved off his mortal coil, Dickie would have no hesitation in selecting Geoff. Who, Dickie added, would be at home right now, counting his money and watching videos of himself.

By the time that news had reached Cheltenham of Arundhati Roy's Booker win she was probably at home doing exactly the same thing, having left the Festival that morning. Her fellow contemporary Indian writers meanwhile were out in the Festival bar celebrating hers and their own personal victories. Some, more than others.

The writer of Looking Through The Glass, Mukul Kesavan, looked into the bookies and pocketed pounds 150 while Urvashi Butalia, the Carmen Callil of India, who had earlier defended her views on the debacle of Partition and the extremities of the Empire in a debate entitled End Of Empire, was ecstatic. Projecting into the room like a woman who had just pocketed the bonus ball, she threw her fist in the air and announced "The Empire Strikes Back."

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