The annual Cheltenham literary festival is the largest in Britain and one of the most varied events in any book lover’s calendar. Some of our Cheltenham locals attend religiously but for a few of us it was our first visit. As we move into our busiest season, we guiltily escaped the office on a Monday and attended a series of talks together as a day out for our long-running book club. That it happened to a perfect summer’s day in September can hardly be blamed on us.
We purposely tried to find a selection of talks that had ties to past or future reads as it’s always more interesting than going in cold. The four we attended covered a really diverse set of subjects; art history, memoir, photography and the novel.
Our first event was a discussion of The Power of Art by Caroline Campbell. Campbell was an engaging speaker and her passion for the subject paired with personal insights into her early experiences made for a relatable entry point into such a broad subject. The reoccurring message that she seemed adamant to impart was that all art should remain accessible to the public to inspire generations to come as it had inspired her as a child. It was a real reminder of how lucky we are to have so many free museums in the UK and not to forget that art reaches beyond their doors to all elements of design from everyday objects to the vast and powerful architectures of the world’s cities.As such a design-led business, it was particularly apt hearing how the director of the National Gallery of Ireland has found such joy in the design of her coffee mug for every morning over the last ten years. A reminder that all art great and small can have a positive effect in our lives and should never be taken for granted.
After enjoying a lunch from the food trucks in the main festival area and checking out the Waterstones pop up store, we headed back to the town hall for our second talk. This was an interview with Scottish broadcaster, Aasmah Mir, discussing her first book, a recently published dual memoir recounting memories from her own youth juxtaposed with her mother’s. Aasmah came across as a very confident woman and has enjoyed great success in various fields but was quite candid when it came to her latest endeavour. Her reasons behind wanting to write about a dark period in her youth and the life she has led and built was really inspiring. It’s always easy to imagine someone else’s life as so much easier due to their success but as she said in her own words, when assuming her mother’s upbringing was so much more straightforward than her own, we often underestimate and fail to recognise the trials people face, particularly those who straddle the line between two cultures. One of our group had read this in preparation and really enjoyed it. As a result we’ve made it our December book club pick.
It’s amazing how tiring a day of talks can be, despite two really interesting events so far. Luckily Peter Brathwaite’s humorous reclamation of British black portraiture was a real shot in the arm. Peter’s project began in lockdown when the Getty Museum encourage people to recreate a portrait in their home. he was inspired to recreate photographs of portraits using only what he had at hand in his home. The resulting photographic portraiture that follow throughout his book challenge our preconceived notions of black history in a creative and accessible way. Peter’s background is in musical theatre, more specifically opera, was evident throughout as the images and conversation was punctuated by bursts of musical performance to bring even more context to the subjects in the portraits.
By the end of the talk, I don’t think he’d gotten even halfway through all the slides he’d planned to share. Despite the interviewer’s best efforts to keep the dialogue moving at a brisk enough pace, the discussion went off the rails in the best way possible, a testament to Peter’s passion that it couldn’t easily be contained within a mere hour. Visual, musical and a great example of bringing history alive and re-examining the past, it’s the way you wish history was taught when you were growing up.
The final talk of the day was a retrospective of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which is incredibly, already over 20 years old. The club had read or re-read the novel in preparation and for me this was a real highlight of the day.
Ian McEwan was simply amazing to listen to. His knowledge of so may subjects, paired with personal details and funny stories was a real joy to listen to. I expected an ego from such an established talent, but he came across as a genuinely thoughtful, intelligent and considerate artist, and his insight into his own writing and his views in general were really accessible and engaging throughout. A number of us are reading his latest novel Lessons and I myself am going to begin reading it shortly.
The day was a real snapshot of British literature, showing how diverse and healthy our literary scene is. From first time authors to canonical texts, there are so many wonderful and innovative people willing to share their stories and insights. It was a wonderful day and I think we’ll likely be back next year hopefully to hear even more talks, if not too busy.