Cheltenham Literature Festival: Leaving the Writers’ Room

Lunchtime on Sunday and I am sitting at one of the small round tables in the Writers’ Room having something to eat [What, again? ed], whilst reading The Observer at something The Times sponsors. Is that bad festival etiquette? I was shortly going to experience one of the most cherished moments of my time at the festival. Finishing my lunch, I began trying to write some ideas in my notebook for this blog (you would be surprised how little writing occurs in a room that is named as such) but without success (maybe this is why). Whilst getting frustrated at not being able to write a decent sentence about the morning’s events, I must have been exuding signs of discontentment to those around me, as the gentleman sat opposite me (reading The Times: well behaved, he’ll be asked back) says, “Doing your homework then?”, “No, just trying to write”, I reply and look up at a sympathetic face, “You’ve just got to keep writing bollocks, something will come out of it eventually but keep writing, no one needs to see the bollocks, they just get to see the good stuff.” Of course what happened then is that I didn’t write anything at all and engaged in conversation with this man, Steve is his name and advertising is his game.

After covering writers’ block, aids to overcoming writers’ block (wine helps, apparently), the stature of Martin Amis and how to best keep crows off your land (Sting cds, particularily shiny and about all they’re good for), our conversation turned to poetry. In particular, the poetry of punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Enter Cathy Hopkins, author and wife of Steve. “Cathy, meet Jen, and please read us some of John Cooper Clarke’s poetry”, requests Steve. I had barely had a chance to say hello and Cathy hadn’t even sat down before she was reciting with great gusto poem after poem of Cooper Clarke’s. The three of us were laughing away, I was being educated about a poet who I knew little about (not being from that generation and all) and I felt overwhelmed at the fervour people to have to share poetry they love. I hold the Romantic poets in the highest esteem (you may have noticed from my choice of poems on this blog), so I wasn’t entirely sure that this was going to be quite my thing. Yet to hear words come to life and be conveyed so enthusiastically, I was reassured that the spirit of poetry can reach us in many ways. It proved to me that the most fantastic way to experience poetry is to have it read aloud by someone who feels a passion about it and wants to share it, whether that is the poet themselves or otherwise.

I didn’t expect my last emotion when leaving the festival to be one of sadness. I thought that relief would have been what I felt: finally, a day off ahead. It wasn’t, I wanted it to continue. The atmosphere of the Writers’ Room on Sunday evening was tinged with melancholy as people said goodbye to old friends and new, the coffee pots and cake stands were taken away, journalists packing up their computers and pens, organisers revelled in the success of their event but realised that it was all over as they sat together around tables. It has been a remarkable experience, in which I have met many inspirational and talented people, had my mind opened to new ideas and opinions, and of course, enjoyed a fantastic selection of delectable cakes. I left the Writers’ Room completely overwhelmed by the encounters of the last ten days, a sense of poignancy pervading my mind as I thought, this is it now, back to reality. I looked around to spot one last table of people gathering: A. C. Grayling, Sarah Smythe (festival Director) Carlos Acosta, Sophie Dahl, Robert Winston, Jamie Cullum and Howard Jacobson, eating their dinner and sharing in relaxed chatter. Now, where else could you see that?

Posted by Jen Tomkins