Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Saga of the Broken Glass and the Missing Rucksack

My day at the festival started with a walk across Cheltenham’s Imperial Square in the quiet sunshine of an autumnal Sunday morning to the Garden Theatre, where event 42 (‘Do we live in a world which is more virtual than real?’) was soon to be starting. Not exactly expecting the calmness of the morning to be maintained once I stepped inside the doors of the venue, I was not prepared for just how amusing the conversations between Armando Iannucci (festival Guest Director) and comedian Stewart Lee would be. Discussing to what extent the media reflects the real world and the grey areas between news and entertainment, this morning’s event was littered with amusing anecdotes and unrepeatable jokes from the two hosts. Yet, the real humour of the event was to be found in the moments that were completely incidental.

Arriving on stage, Lee made a point of pouring his glass of water from the jug on the table next to him, claiming, “I have always wanted to get up on a podium and do that.” I can see where he’s coming from, there’s something very ‘Parky’ to aspire to there. So, the water had been expertly poured and the conversation was flowing but it seemed that this glass of water could not be drunk with the same fluent skill. The glass came crashing down from Lee’s hands and fell into pieces on the floor. Shame-faced and showing signs of obvious distress about this incident (the podium-jug moment is a proud one), Lee began picking up the pieces of the glass, claiming – after a previous discussion about the power of television editors and the constant manipulation of all that we see – that it could just be ‘edited’ out (this event is to be podcasted), “well, they edit everything however they want anyway, don’t they?” I don’t think he’ll be so lucky. “That’s what was missing from Cheltenham though, the element of slapstick”, Lee quips. Shortly a member of the audience handed him a bottle of water (he kept trying to drink from his smashed glass), “There you go Stewart, you can’t break that, it’s plastic,” Iannucci responds.

Beneath the humour though lay some pertinent issues: the tacit agreements between the press and politicians; the false facts that are presented that once ‘out-there’ can never be forgotten (Lee co-wrote Jerry Springer The Opera – there weren’t 8,000 swear words, just 127); our engagement with sensationalism which presents an inherent contradiction in us all: which do we prefer, fact or fiction? With Iannucci’s sharp wit and irreverent take on politics and the media, it was not surprising that the conversation moved towards examining comedy as a way to find ‘truth’ about what is really going on in the news. If news is entertainment and entertainment becomes news, then where’s the space for truth and integrity? “Just remember, this [Lee points at the fragments of shattered glass around him], this really happened.”

In The Writers’ Room after the event, I was extremely lucky to be sitting next to Iannucci and Lee whilst eating my breakfast (pain au chocolat and Javan coffee). After a few minutes of sitting there a feeling rather in awe, I thanked Iannucci for a thoroughly entertaining hour and for awakening me from my Sunday daze, which then prompted a conversation about the ‘glass’ incident. Iannucci and Lee both admit that comedians will always have a “few scripted gags” but that above all, a comedian “couldn’t wish for a better comic moment” than that like the ‘glass’.

Lee then had to dash off but I was left talking to Iannucci and his delightful wife about their festival experiences, “fantastic but tiring”, says Iannucci, “I can’t work out whether I’ve said the same thing five times or not at all!” I then took the opportunity to ask him what he was going to pick as his favourite pieces of writing in an event later to be hosted later in the day. He quickly rattled of a list, “Little Dorrit, a George Herbert poem, an essay by Orwell, Marlowe’s Dr Faustusermmm, hang on, I have the whole list in my rucksack.” But where is the rucksack? It is not where it was supposed to be anyhow.

As Iannucci goes to where he thinks he has left it but finds it missing, the room breaks into mild panic. The walky-talk clan are working overtime, Iannucci and his wife are scouring the Writers’ Room and I am just sitting in the middle, at my table, with my cake, watching this drama unfold around me whilst I’m thinking, I have just indirectly caused festival HQ meltdown. I did feel useless, although it was quite helpful that I had prompted Mr Iannucci to locate his rucksack (with all his notes in) before he had to get somewhere in a rush, but I felt that there had to be something I could do. So, think Jen, think… Ah! Stewart Lee had been sat there, maybe he or his driver picked it up without realising? It was worth a shot. So I approached a rather panic-striken Iannucci (with a small tap on the shoulder and a sheepish smile), “perhaps Stewart Lee picked it up?” No sooner had I mentioned it that he was on the phone and indeed, there it was. The bag was returned to its rightful owner. “It’s professional sabotage”, remarked Iannucci, resuming his more relaxed demeanour, “now, books… books…” and produced the copies of the text that he had and went through each one with me. This was fantastic, a full preview of one of the festival directors most admired works. I couldn’t end our conversation without asking who was ultimately his favourite author, “well, Dickens, of course”, he replies, “his prose style is so supremely succinct.” I thought it then best to leave, before any more chaos could unfurl (although I was later to become guarder of the bag).

Posted by Jen Tomkins