Cheltenham Literature Festival: Getting in the way

I must confess, I have been away from Cheltenham for a couple of days – things to do in Liverpool too – it’s not all about cake [Yes it is. And Rioja. Ed.]. Returning yesterday, with the aim of attending a couple of events in the evening, when I was still in Crewe at 7pm, that was looking more unlikely. I was a shell of my former self on the train last night, tiredness may not kill you but it renders the most normal of one’s abilities useless, namely being able to string a sentence together and remembering to pick up your suitcase. Anyway, thought it best to recharge my batteries with an early night and throw all my energies into today, the penultimate day of the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

It hasn’t gone smoothly today. Computer problems this morning (I am, as they say, not technologically-minded), not being able to get the tickets that I initially wanted (McEwan sold out, Alex James cancelled), no cake left in the Writers’ Room. Problem after problem. Time to put Plan B into operation. Plan B meant that I was free to do as I pleased until 1pm, at which point I went to see Erica Wagner (Literary Editor of The Times) and Nick Hennessey (storyteller and singer). In a unique ‘Storytelling’ event, Wagner read from her debut novel Seizure and Hennessey sang ballads from his new album A Rare Hunger, a fascinating combination of the spoken and sung, the contemporary and the traditional, taking you on an emotional journey. It was completely different from anything I have experienced at the festival this year; not people talking about their work but performing it, letting the words speak for themselves.

Before I went to see this event though, I was in the Writers’ Room having lunch. Which was a fairly calm and quiet affair. Until that is, I got in the way. Sitting at a table talking reading the paper, with my back to the room, I became aware of a couple of men standing behind me. I turned around and attempted to shuffle my chair around but the gentleman who was trying to get his rucksack from under my table (I hadn’t noticed that before, which worries me as I feel I now have a duty to be vigilant around rucksacks) was adamant that I shouldn’t move. Fine, up until a couple of others were now with this gentleman and I was sitting with my brie and grapes at this table in the shadow of four men. Time to move to the other side of the table. As I do, I get more “Oh, no, please don’t worry” comments but well-mannered as I like to think I am, I say “It really doesn’t matter, honestly, I’m just getting in your way.” Who is it standing behind me but James May, who is obviously rather concerned about interrupting my lunch. Sitting down opposite me he asks, “Is there anything else I can do to ruin your day?”, to which I respond, “Well, maybe but I’m sure you won’t”, “Is there anything I can get you?”, he then says, “Of course not, it’s fine, honestly!” (silly polite me, I could have at least asked him to pass me a cup of coffee but nothing was being ruined really, it was all rather entertaining). There was then a steady stream of journalists and fans after interviews, signatures, photos. Pen, anyone? Jen to the rescue. “Thanks, I promise not to run off with it, that would surely ruin your day.” He certainly draws a crowd, his book signing lasted for an hour and forty minutes and we were then surrounded by a bevy of people. I finished off my lunch and then got up to leave, winding my way through past the BBC journalist, at which point I felt a hand on my arm. “Excuse me”, it was James, “I’m really terribly sorry for ruining your lunch. Do take care.” It’s good to know that manners still exist.

Posted by Jen Tomkins