I was in Cheltenham, England for 12 days as a writer-in-residence, a perfect retreat to start the daunting quest of the next novel. The Cheltenham Literature festival, perhaps the oldest in the world, is an extraordinary celebration of writers and readers.
The village is famous for its spa, steeplechase racing, Regency architecture, cobbled promenades, and high-end shopping. Beyond Cheltenham lay the rolling Cotswold Hills: stone walls, sheep dotted hills, ancient pubs with roaring hearths, lanes bowered in the arms of twisted trees. You feel time in this place. One can imagine looking out on the same landscapes witnessed by Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, kings and noblemen, peasants and stone-cutters, thieves and rogues. A mere twenty-seven miles from Stratford-on-the Avon, this is the cradle of the English language.
Festival highlights included: reading with Lisa Moore (February) and Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads); a side trip with local author Jane Bailey through the Cotswold Hills; lunch with Kathy Lee, wife of the late author Laurie Lee; late night discussions over bottles of wine and scotch with Nalo and China Miéville delving into the heart’s pains; the wisdom and passion of Ramona and David; Trevor at the Queens hotel, who gifted me with a handmade book; the best steak I’ve ever eaten at Hotel de Vin in the Sinner’s Den, and the readers who stopped me on the street. So many generous encounters. And then there were the readings: Salaman Rushdie, Stephen Sondheim, Fergal Keane, Germaine Greer, Audrey Niffenegger, James Elroy, Martin Amos, Sebastian Faulks, Howard Jacobson… with so many distractions it took great effort to retreat to my hotel room and write.
So thanks Cheltenham for the tea, scones and clotted cream. I wasn’t convinced about the Kidney Pie and Mushy Peas or the gastronomical appeal of internal organs. But I was completely enchanted by your festival and the sight of thousands of people holding books close to their chests.