Cross the pond for a world-renowned celebration of literature.
by Melodie Robson
For 10 days every October genteel Cheltenham Spa, situated on the threshold of the Cotswolds, relives its glory days as a bustling Regency spa town, when its streets throng with people and its venues are packed with literature lovers. With more than 600 speakers across nearly 500 events, covering everything from political debate, literary discussion, poetry slams, workshops, readings and pop-up performances: The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival is a true celebration of the written and spoken word.
While it seems that every town has a literature festival these days, Cheltenham is actually one of the oldest literary events in the world, and was the first regular literature festival held in Britain. Established in 1949 by local author John Moore, the first festival featured world-renowned actor Ralph Richardson, who was born in Cheltenham, launching the first event, while poet Cecil Day-Lewis, a teacher at local Cheltenham College, gave a contemporary poetry recital. While the early festivals were very small-scale affairs, where authors and readers alike shared the same tables in the café, ensuring that lively debates carried on well after the talks had ended, the festival has grown enormously in recent years to become one of the best in the world.
These days Cheltenham Literature festival occupies two parks in the town center, and a self-contained tented village is created in each once, with theaters, cafes and book shops popping up almost overnight. The festival also uses existing venues nearby, such as the beautiful 1000 seat Town Hall, and is well known for staging events in other local places like restaurants and pubs.
2016’s line up was a stellar collection of literary greats, popular authors, stars of entertainment and sport, political commentators and poets, among them were Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sebastian Faulks, Karl Ove Knausgaard, PJ O’Rourke, Edna O’Brien, Cheryl Strayed, Jacqueline Wilson, and Vivienne Westwood. Meanwhile John Banville, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, and Peter Carey brought the total number of Booker Prize winners speaking at the Festival to an impressive six including Pat Barker and Salman Rushdie.
In this US election year and at this pivotal moment in the USA’s history, the festival chose a theme of America Uncovered, with events focused on aspects of American society, culture and the political system. James Rubin, former US Assistant Secretary of State visited the festival to talk about the Cold War in an engaging talk. Each year the festival highlights one work as their ‘Big Read’ and encourages as many people as possible to join in reading, exploring and discussing the novel. This year’s book was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which encouraged several lively debates about race and prejudice stateside. One of the celebrations involved a silent flash mob in the town center. Local shoppers stopped and watched as the flash mob group read silently in an appreciation of Alice Walker’s novel, while volunteers handed out copies of the book to passers-by and encouraged them to join in with the two minute silent book club, which was also held in celebration of Black History Month.
In addition to lively debate and informative and entertaining readings, Cheltenham Literature Festival has a reputation for the occasional hullabaloo, with speakers letting their guard down and uttering the odd controversial comment. This year’s authors stirred up the debate against retail giant Amazon with pro-bookshop and anti multi-national statements during their talks. However, the most shocking revelation of the festival occurred when a New York Times journalist revealed that Barack Obama was never supposed to comment that Britain would be in the ‘back of the queue’ for trade deals if they voted to leave the European Union. Steven Erlanger asserted that sources close to the president claimed that he had got carried away with that statement, when discussing the UK referendum, meaning to say that Britain would have to join the queue with everyone else, but not at the back. At the time Obama’s statement fueled a lot of debate about America’s involvement in UK affairs, and this admission at the festival fueled a great number of column inches in press around the world as a result.
Those wishing to visit Cheltenham Literature Festival will be pleased to discover that the town itself is blessed with a number of comfortable and good-quality hotels to suit any price range, and is populated with a vast number of cafes, restaurants and bars and characterful independent shops. Situated on the gateway to the Cotswolds, it makes a great base for exploring these traditional picturesque villages and historic houses nearby.
Albion Journey is offering a tour to Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Cotswolds in October 2017, with places still available. You can find out more here: