Not being one to follow convention, or, as others call it, being disorganised, I’ve decided to tell you all about The Cheltenham Literature Festival two weeks after it finished.
This was the first year we seriously followed the festival. Lady Barton St Mary and I went to a couple of talks last year (Ian Botham, Johnny Vegas, Midge Ure) but never really did the ‘literature’ bit. We needed to prepare, so we became festival members. Of course, in order to look the part, I needed to visit Marks and Spencer and purchase a new sports jacket, some chinos and a flowery shirt. Sort of ‘Paul Merton casual chic’.
Indeed, this year, we did get to see a lot more literature rather than celebrity. It was an opportunity to play the part of the sophisticated intelligentsia, whatever that is. Sitting in Cheltenham Town Hall, enthralled by Kazuo Ishiguro, talking us through his distinguished career as a writer, I nodded in all the right places and started to realise what it was like to be a proper writer.
In fact, as I saw more and more of people who wrote books for a living (Will Self, Nick Hornby, Martin Amis) I came to realise that what they did was a job. Not writing a load of old claptrap like this. Mind you, Ishiguro’s wife read the first 80 pages of the novel he’s writing at the moment and told him it was crap. He started again. It’s nice to know that other people rely on their wife’s opinion as much as I do.
Of course, there was the celebrity bit, too. My hero, Danny Baker, was appearing at the festival to promote the second part of his memoirs. My colleague Little Andrew had been to see her personal hero Brian May the night before I saw Danny Baker and had been disappointed. Brian had been a bit grumpy, although that may have been because Little Andrew turned up with his guitar book to sign rather than the art book he was trying to flog at £45 a go. Never meet your heroes, they say.
In this case, ‘they’ were wrong. Danny was a real pleasure. The whole hour was wall to wall Danny Baker stories, most of which I’d heard before in different forms but still immensely entertaining.
“He’s like this all the time,” said Emma Kennedy, who was interviewing him. We queued up to meet him and sign my books. It took over an hour, but all you could hear in the Waterstone’s was Danny’s cheerful voice and encouraging tones. I hoped I wouldn’t lose the power of speech when I shook his hand.
Fortunately, I didn’t. He was amused at Lady Barton St Mary’s title. I told him that I’d followed him since the days when he co-edited ‘Sniffing Glue’ the punk fanzine, through his NME days and radio career. His upbringing has some parallels with mine – for example, when he impersonates his dad, it’s as if he’s channelling mine. I explained that my dad was a cockney and my granddad a docker, like his dad. Danny was a really nice bloke. Thanks, Danny Baker.
Gerald, my old fag from school and his wife Sarah (who won’t use her title for political reasons) joined us for the final weekend. More sports jackets and colourful shirts. I considered a cravat. I was getting lost in this literary fervour.
Saturday morning, Gerald joined me to see Rod Liddle. The surprise was that he was interviewed by Anne Robinson, the hard-nosed, surgically enhanced hack and host of The Weakest Link.
Afterwards, as we left the venue and headed to the local coffee shop, I spotted Anne Robinson heading towards us. Gerald braced himself and decided to engage her in conversation.
He leaned forward as the petite but spiky redhead approached.
“Miss Robinson, may I say thank you very mu-“ , he began.
Miss Robinson , not breaking stride, waved a hand in poor Gerald’s face and made a “duhduhduh” noise, almost a perfect impression of Bruce Forsythe in mid dither. Gerald, bemused, stared at her back as the diminutive diva disappeared in the crowd.
For the next hour and a half, Gerald and I spent our time discussing literature and politics in a coffee shop before walking around in Marks and Spencer for more Lit Fest kit. Admiring each other’s choice in tailoring and enquiring as to whether they had Gerald’s size in these slacks and do they have an elasticated waistband, I looked at the expression on the young shop assistant’s face. Naturally, she thought we were an item. She marched off to the stock room. I looked at Gerald.
“You do realise that she thinks we’re a couple of old queens,” I explained to Gerald. He snorted.
“Sorry, I can’t see why she’d think that. You’re not my type”, he replied.
He can be so hurtful sometimes.
Saturday evening and I went to see Martin Amis on my own. For some reason, a talk about concentration camps and the people who worked within them didn’t fit in with everybody else’s idea of having fun, so they waited for me in All Bar One, sampling the cocktails.
As I walked to the venue, I stopped briefly to check messages on my phone. I felt the presence of somebody standing next to me, arms folded, staring out across the park. I vaguely knew him from somewhere, but where? It must be from work. Was he a manager or boss of somewhere? A head teacher?
He turned and caught my eye and smiled.
“Hello! How are you?!” I asked brightly, trying to get some clues, searching my butterfly brain for a name.
“I’m fine thanks. You?” he replied, nodding his head in my direction.
“Oh yes, I’m fine. Are you enjoying the festival? Do you come here every year?” I asked.
“Mmm, yes, I always like to make the effort”, he chuckled.
“Well, nice to see you,” I said, proffering my hand.
“You too”, he said, shaking my hand and giving me a wide smile.
Half way through Martin Amis’s interview, when they were considering how long a prisoner lasted in Auschwitz, the name of my friendly acquaintance dropped down into my head like a penny in a money box. ALAN YENTOB!!!
Yes, I’d asked The Creative Director of the BBC whether he made it every year to the literature festival. Oh dear.
The evening finished with an hour of John Cleese, who was very entertaining. I considered John Lydon, but very often the former Sex Pistol can get over excited and act like an arse when interviewed, so I decided against it. Steeley the Tinkers’ Friend and She-La! did see him. Steeley said he was good. She-La! said he was an arse. Perhaps she’d met him before when she had her minor hit “Touch Me (But Not There) back in the 1980s.
On Sunday, Gerald graciously gave up his ticket to Lady BSM to see Damian Lewis and his wife Helen McCrory read love poems and accompanied me to see Mark Haddon talk about his book ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.
Andrew Holgate the literary editor of The Sunday Times, introduced him to a packed Town Hall.
“Of course, I realise that each and every one of you here have read the book and know the story so well”, he started.
Gerald gave me an alarmed look. ‘I haven’t’ he mouthed.
The next hour I spent listening to Mark Haddon talk about how successful he is whilst trying to stop my old fag from snoring too loudly.
We made our way home as the festival came to an end. I realised that this was the new type of festival going for me, rather than the muddy, drunken rock festivals of my youth. I realised I’d swapped being surrounded by denim and leather to being surrounded by corduroy and tweed, the smell of cannabis to the smell of roasted coffee, beef burgers to Chateaubriand.
What’s more, I’m happy with that. I like feeling as if my brain’s been nourished. I like the occasional cocktail. I’m happy to shop for clothes with another middle aged man who also moisturises.
We’ll be back next year. I’ll look out for my friend Alan.