Article published on October 19, 2017.
Another year, another superb ten days of literary highlights, another post-Cheltenham slump as you realise you have to wait another 350-odd days until the next one.
As ever, this year’s Cheltenham was an absolute feast for booklovers of all ages, tastes and interests, with a programme that kicked off with Nobel-Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and culminated on the final day with Hillary Clinton via all manner of authors, sporting icons, stars of stage and screen, chefs… and YouTubers. The only problem with the festival as far as I can see is how to organise it so you can see as many events as possible as there are genuinely that many that appeal, and even those that may not seem to be your cup of tea can often end up being the most pleasantly surprising, interesting and entertaining.
This year I managed to cover debut novelists, bestsellers, editors and a comedian, though of course there was much, much more that I would have loved to have seen. The events as ever were well-attended and run smoothly and professionally. The venues offer a great range of intimate settings and larger, more lively settings, suited to the style of the event and author.
On the line-up at the Canongate Proof Party were debut novelist, Mick Kitson, and Jess Kidd and Catherine Chanter, both with their second novels forthcoming. This was a sort of showcase event for the big titles to look out for from Canongate in 2018, with each author introducing their books and talking about the processes of researching, writing and editing. Kitson’s novel, Sal, he described as the sort of book he would like to read, and very much in the vein of one of his favourite reads, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Jess Kidd, author of the much-loved Himself, spoke about her second novel, The Hoarder, which stems from her own experience as a carer, whilst Catherine Chanter, whose debut novel The Well was a Richard and Judy book club choice, introduced her second novel, The Half Sister, which originated after Catherine experienced an earthquake. With readings from each of the books and plenty of airtime given to the authors, I was sold on all three counts, though Kidd’s novel in particular, published at the start of February, seems like one to watch out for.
For anyone like me, imagining that the daily life of a literary editor on a newspaper was all hours spent joyfully reading great literature and writing about it, and evenings spent wining and dining with authors, Meet the Literary Editors, with Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, and Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times, soon put paid to those fantasies, with both men assuring the audience that they no longer read for pleasure. Inundated as they are with around 250 new books a week, they explained how much of their reading was simply first chapters and very rarely endings. It is possible, they argued, to know if a book is going to be any good from the very first sentence, which led to some debate but is certainly a litmus test worth trying out on the next book you read. Theirs was a fascinating insight into an increasingly exclusive world, where they have to dodge those about whom they’ve written bad reviews and to avoid being friends with anyone in the literary bubble to maintain a distance and integrity in their responses to books. Andrew Holgate, who was one of the judges for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2005, revealed how the process of reading a book several times in the course of judging can lead to the best books not always scooping the award, though both editors were staunch in their backing of Lincoln in the Bardo for this year’s ManBooker award. Their autumn recommendation, Rome: A History of Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale, was not one that had previously been on my radar but I may just add it to my wishlist. And in terms of non-fiction, they picked out The Inner Life of Animals, for those who’ve always wondered what a squirrel is thinking!
Cheltenham’s success perhaps lies in its range and diversity of speakers, which cover not only the breadth of the publishing world but the different spheres of ‘entertainment’. There is always a particularly strong presence of TV personalities and figures from the world of showbiz and this year was no exception. Amongst the likes of Bear Grylls, Miranda Hart and Nadiya Hussain, my chosen event was Sarah Millican, whose autobiography, How to be Champion, is out now. It was, as expected, a raucous, side-splitting affair, and that was just hearing Sarah read from her book. As with all comedians, Millican can be quite a divisive figure – she certainly doesn’t hold back – but fans of hers will surely love this book. In conversation with Emma Kennedy, Millican was naturally warm and quick-witted, though there was also an honesty to her discussion particularly when speaking about being bullied and she seemed quite touched in her final reading which was a thank you to her fans. Again, another a book that is hastily added to my reading list, though perhaps not one to get for your gran this Christmas.
In the years that I’ve been going to Cheltenham there have been many highlights: getting books signed by some of my all-time favourite authors, the surreal moments of walking past Mary Beard and Andrew Marr on the street, and meeting sporting legends, but this year one man topped it all – Matt Haig. He was admittedly the first name I added to my order this year and the one event I absolutely didn’t want to miss. In conversation with Georgina Godwin, he spoke candidly about his life and passionately about books, admitting that although Reasons to Stay Alive is not his best book, it is the one book he would want to be out there in the world. He also suggested that he has moved away from the pessimism of his first books towards optimism and hope in the later books, including his newest release, How to Stop Time, and that his raison d’etre as a writer is to connect with people, of which there is no doubt he manages to achieve time and time again. Whilst Haig’s event was a real joy, it was after when I met him in the signing tent that I had one of those moments that could happen nowhere else but at Cheltenham. As I introduced myself to Matt and explained I’d reviewed How to Stop Time, he completely took me aback not only by recalling the review but actually quoting it back to me, telling me that he owed me a thanks. This was without question my proudest moment as a reviewer, and was both humbling but also uplifting to think that my review had reached the author and, in some small way, connected with him. I’m not quite sure how Cheltenham 2018 is going to top that for me but I’ll be looking forward to whatever’s in store.