Article published on August 14, 2017.
For the last few years I’ve been a regular at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Despite it being relatively on my doorstep, I must admit somehow it had escaped me until then. Yet the Festival is one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the literary calendar. Since 1949 it has been welcoming some of the biggest names and brightest talents in literature and now its gamut covers everything from classic fiction to cooking to sport. Its authors are always varied and its programme diverse, during my own visits I’ve chatted with England footballer Sol Campbell on the green, passed classicist Mary Beard on the way to an event and stepped aside as Andrew Marr got out of a taxi. That’s not to mention all of the wonderful authors I’ve listened to and met in the book tents afterwards. And with the announcement of this year’s full programme, the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017 looks to be another show-stopper.
It’s hard to pick out highlights in such a dazzling line-up; there really is something for everyone and it’s worth looking at the programme in full. But I’m particularly excited by this year’s poetry contingent, which includes the great young, up-and-coming talents of Kayo Chingonyi, who I had the pleasure of interviewing for Nudge, as well as Hollie McNish and multi-award-winning Andrew McMillan. There are of course the big hitters too: Amit Chaudhuri, Roddy Doyle, A L Kennedy, Maggie O’Farrell, Salman Rushdie and Sarah Waters to name a few. As well as a number of new and emerging talents, not least Paula Hawkins, but also Gail Honeyman (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine), Ali Land (Good Me, Bad Me) and Ayisha Malik (The Other Half of Happiness).
The events themselves are wide-ranging and thought-provoking, with Juno Dawson and CN Lester talking ‘Transgender Politics Today’, women who challenge the narrow image of Muslim women in ‘Things I Would Tell You’, and the culture of grime in ‘How Grime Shutdown UK Culture.’ Just looking through the programme really gives a sense of the diversity of literature today and is testament to the Festival’s organisers who manage to provide such a wealth of speakers and conversations. Families are catered for too with children’s authors in abundance, and celebrity fans won’t be disappointed in this year’s billing, which includes the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Mary Berry, Russell Brand, Tom Daley, Miranda Hart, Nadiya Hussain, Judy Murray and Robert Webb. There’s not many places, I imagine, where Booker-Prize winners rub shoulders with comedians, reality TV stars and Olympians, and where the reading public get to experience it all. So I, for one, am already counting down the days until October 6th when the Festival starts. And despite the crazy logistics of pulling together such an event, Head of Programming for the Festival, Nicola Tuxworth, kindly agreed to an interview ahead of this year’s Festival.
Jade Craddock: For anyone who hasn’t been to the Cheltenham Festival how would you describe it in three words?
Nicola Tuxworth: Dynamic, stimulating, fun
JC: What is it about Cheltenham that works so well as a setting for the festival?
NT: We are in the heart of a small but vibrant spa town and every year build our site in leafy parkland surrounded by Regency buildings. With great transport links (the railway station is walkable and the M5 within easy reach) Cheltenham is a destination in itself – lovely shops, bars, restaurants, green spaces – the Festival is the icing on the cake.
JC: The Cheltenham Literature Festival has been going for nearly 70 years, what do you put its longevity and success down to?
NT: Great and loyal support from sponsors and from audiences – we have parents and grandparents who came as children and now bring their own families. An ability to move with the times, perfect timing for thinking about what to read and give as gifts over the winter as we all hibernate…And October – it’s a bit like New Year, schools are back, parliament is sitting, Summer is over – people are thinking “what’s next?”
JC: What have been some of the most significant moments across the history of the Festival? And what are the biggest changes that the festival has undergone?
NT: It’s very difficult to isolate particular moments – there have been some encounters that have changed the course of literary history (Kingsley Amis met Elizabeth Jane Howard here) and there have been some extraordinary speakers – Seamus Heaney, John Betjeman, Judi Dench, Kofi Annan, Toni Morrison, Allan Ginsberg and many, many others. One of the things I enjoy every year is seeing people making new friends in the Writers’ Room (our Green room) The Editor of the Archers chatting to Margaret Atwood, Sol Campbell deep in conversation with Colm Toibin….I suppose the biggest change over the years has been growth, more events, the addition of our fantastic family and schools programmes and a broader focus in terms of events.
JC: Each year the festival continues to grow and develop, what changes have been made this year?
NT: We are really concentrating on the festival experience for 2017 – making the site more visually exciting and attractive, including lots of free stuff for families, changing the catering offer, and, hopefully, making the site somewhere you want to visit even if you haven’t got a ticket for an event!
JC: How do you go about planning a festival and how easy is it to get the writers on board?
NT: Some of the parameters are pre-determined – the dates and length of the festival, the number of venue slots, the size of the different venues and so forth. So that is the framework we are working with. We have a theme each year – this year’s is Who Do We Think We Are? Last year’s was America. We consider the hundreds and hundreds of pitches made to us by the publishing industry, we look at significant anniversaries, and news stories. We programme events in different, loose subject areas –fiction, classic literature, history, stage and screen, lifestyle, poetry, current affairs etc. As we have such a great reputation for brilliant engaged audiences, and taking great care of our speakers, most of the people we ask jump at the chance to be part of the Festival. sometimes schedules and prior commitments get in the way but that’s life.
JC: How do you decide which writers will be on the roster?
NT: We work as a team to agree what events and speakers will be interesting for all the various kinds of audiences we attract – our weekend audiences are different from our weekday, daytime audiences for example. A leading cultural figure publishing a new book will be an obvious choice, but as a team we have many different interests and have our finger on lots of different pulses as it were, so we are constantly looking to bring new voices and surprising content to the programme.
JC: What are the biggest challenges of organising a festival?
NT: With over 1000 participants and 500 events, the logistics are daunting. I sometimes describe it as like wrestling an octopus into a string bag – there is always a tentacle poking out somewhere! Then there are the unknowns – arriving in the office on day three of the festival to find that an overnight storm has meant no trains from Paddington station – as happened in 2015. Thanks to the incredible ingenuity of the operations team all the participants got here on time and none of the events were late starting.
JC: And what are the highlights of organising a festival?
NT: Too many to list – we all love what we do. For me it’s the challenge of getting the best programme you possibly can in place, and then sitting in a packed venue full of an audience on the edge of their seats and thinking – this is happening because I made it happen!
JC: How do reading habits and the reading public shape the decisions about the festival? Do readers ever request certain speakers?
NT: The audience of course want to see authors they know and love – to be in front of your literary idol is a great moment for a reader. But as a team we also want to promote the writers we love that they may not have encountered yet. We very rarely have requests for particular speakers – I think people love the variety and not being able to predict who will be coming….
JC: The Cheltenham Festival has welcomed most of the biggest names in literature, who do you still have on your wish list and which one author from the past would be your dream speaker?
NT: We are lucky that so many great writers want to come to Cheltenham – Each member of the team would have a different answer to this – we would love to get Dave Eggers to Cheltenham one year, and of course the mysterious Elena Ferrante! From the past it would have to be George Eliot for me.
JC: We’re used to hearing about the extravagant requests of celebrities when they go on tour, are authors a more rarefied bunch or, without naming any names, do you ever have your work cut out with them?
NT: We try and offer a really great experience for our participants– we meet them from the train station, our superb events team welcome them to the Writers’ Room, which is a fully catered, relaxed and convivial space, so the whole experience is hopefully as pleasurable and unstressful as possible. Many catch up with old friends, or they might want to quietly prepare for their event. Some participants need special security or arrangements on site and we are very used to working with their teams and the security services as necessary.
JC: What can visitors expect from the festival this year?
NT: A packed programme with something for everyone – a great family programme, some amazing big names, really challenging debate and ideas….and a completely new Festival Village site.
JC: What are you most looking forward to this year?
NT: The arrival of old friends and new in the Writers’ Room, relaxing with the team and some wine at the end of a very long day, being in an event when one of those remarkable encounters between audience and speaker happens…having one of the “lightbulb” moments in an event when a speaker says something imaginative, clever and thought-provoking.
JC: And have you already got any plans for 2018?
NT: Yes but you will have to wait and see!
Many thanks to Jade and Nicola for whetting our appetites for what promises to be an unmissable event.
The full programme from The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017, taking place between Friday 6th October and Sunday 15th October, is now available to download from cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature
To buy tickets on the first day of public booking (1pm on Wednesday 6th September) create a wish list in advance from the website. Thereafter, book events online or by phone 01242 850270. Booking for Cheltenham Festivals Members opens at 1pm on Wednesday 30th August.