Literature Festival, Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 17:23 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

John Moore in his study at Lower Mill Farm

John Moore in his study at Lower Mill Farm

'Though I commend your enterprise, I must add that I doubt if a literary festival is really possible. Literature is from a writer to a reader and nothing public about it. Unlike music and drama, which are communal arts.'

Last year a record 77,000 tickets were sold in ten days, and this year's programme featuring some of the world's leading writers, historians, politicians, poets, philosophers and stars from stage and screen will attract audiences of all ages and diverse literary interests to the Regency town of Cheltenham 5-14 October.

The first of its kind in Britain, the Literature Festival was indeed an ambitious venture even in the culture hungry post war years, and it was John Moore, the Tewkesbury born writer who spearheaded the whole project by charming and coercing his literary friends and Savile Club acquaintances to speak at the first ever festival dedicated to the celebration of contemporary literature. The earliest speakers included Sir Compton Mackenzie and Cecil Day Lewis - just two of the leading writers of the day who were friends of John Moore, whose dedication to the whole concept of the Festival was proved when he directed it himself in 1956, despite poor health and a heavy commitment to his own writing schedules. Now in its 58th year, Cheltenham Literature Festival is the largest and most prestigious in Europe.

The enduring and ever increasing success of the festival is in itself a legacy of John Moore's early work and commitment, the potential for which was realised by the vicar of Tewkesbury when he approached the young local author to start a fund raising project for expensive restoration work on the Abbey in 1934. Moore wrote later that he thought himself to be a most unlikely candidate to be the man for the job. 'The theatre, poetry, actresses, other girls, horses and trout were the chief concerns of my life, in that order. In my native town I was considered a bit of a ne'er-do-well and was known to be leftish; spending a lot of time in pubs, always generally hard up, involved in several love affairs and against most respectable institutions, being openly agnostic and a tease to clergymen in print ...'

Notwithstanding John Moore's self- criticism, he excelled his ambition to launch a Tewkesbury Festival with an impressive group of speakers, including George Bernard Shaw - a daring and risky invitation given Shaw's Fabian beliefs, but as it turned out, a huge success. It was a success that John Moore repeated two years later when he gained support from leading names from the world of theatre, and the Abbey funds benefiting from the BBC for broadcasting Donald Wolfit's opening lecture and a performance of one of the plays in the programme.

Managing his own finances was a different field game for John Moore and in one of his contrite letters to his mother he agreed that he deserved his nickname 'Johnny Head-in-the Air'. He had not inherited his family's business acumen, failing as an articled auctioneer in the established Moore profession, but had their inherent taste for more gentrified living which he earned from his pen to become, as Sir Compton Mackenzie described, the most talented countryside writer of his generation.

The countryside and its conservation were the driving force behind his most prolific writings - as a newspaper columnist and regular broadcaster on Midland's radio he was responsible for introducing a largely urban readership and listeners to the realities and threats to rural England, and his concerns for environmental issues punctuated his most successful books half a century before such phrases became political and popular coinage.

The John Moore Countryside Museum, opened in 1980 in his home town of Tewkesbury, is a fitting living memorial to the writer who so passionately fought with his pen for the preservation of the rural scene, and was a force to be reckoned with when it came to social injustice, irresponsible destruction of natural habitat and demolition of ancient buildings in the dubious path of progress and the more positive road to commercial gain. The countryside collection in the museum honours his prophetic writings and illustrates his extensive knowledge as a naturalist. Appropriate, too, is that the museum is housed in one of the beautiful medieval buildings in the row of cottages which he campaigned successfully to save from the wholesale destruction planned for modernising ancient Church Street. The distinctive timbered house, with its jettied top stories overhanging the entrance, is a precious part of the town's architectural heritage. To mark the centenary of John Moore's birth, a special exhibition entitled 'Countryside Chronicler and Conservation Campaigner' is to be staged at the museum from mid September to 31st October.

Perpetuating the memory of this great writer and supporting the museum is The John Moore Society, founded in 1988, whose objectives are focused on those to which the author devoted his life and talents particularly in aiding countryside conservation, and as guardians of the archival store of the author's letters and personal papers from which extracts are published from time to time in the Society's Journal. It is ironic that in John Moore's centenary year, when this summer's flooding of the town made international news it was just such an unprecedented heavy rainfall that caused flooding at the author's home at Lower Mill when the Squitter Brook broke its banks. Some two thousand letters from all manner of celebrities and several of his annual journals were destroyed along with a collection of valuable books. It was as a kind of replay of the theme of his last and, according to many critics, his finest novel, The Waters Under The Earth.

John Moore, who longed to be regarded as a novelist, but whose lasting memorials will for ever be for his country concerns, is commemorated in the museum and society founded in his name, a school is named after him and his fictional name for his home town of Tewkesbury, Elmbury, is immortalised on road signs and buildings, and a way-marked route takes devotees of his story between the memorable places he wrote about so graphically.

More about Moore can now be found in David Cole's fascinating biography of John Moore, True Countryman. There could be no better biographer than David Cole for drawing up this complete portrait of the man behind the pen of such memorable works, and the result is a memorable story in itself of a character equalling any of which Moore wrote. John Moore's countryside is David Cole's countryside - they roamed the same fields and hills at the foot of the Cotswold hills - fished the same streams and grew up with a mutual love and understanding for the natural world around them and the thrill and skill of country sports - and the complexities of their fellow beings, their foibles and their failings and how and why they achieved fame or infamy in their lifetime to become the subject of interest to others.

John Moore was a familiar figure throughout David Cole's childhood, only a few miles separated their homes, but three decades separated their age so it was as a rather dashing wartime naval officer 'loping in his strange, distinctive gait, along Tewkesbury High Street in full uniform' that David Cole first remembers the man who his mother said was a famous author. Researching that author's life has been carried out with the meticulous thoroughness and attention to detail that earned David Cole the Queen's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1985 after commanding the Criminal Investigation Department of the West Mercia Constabulary. Handling the many facets of John Moore's life have been so skilfully interwoven with extracts from Moore's own writings makes this such an enthralling story, where biographer and his subject are equally memorable in their contribution to the Cotswold literary heritage.

John Moore, True Countryman by David Cole is published by Blacksmith Publishing, Pershore, Worcs and available through local bookshops. If in difficulty, contact The John Moore Society, 29 Hillmorton Close, Church Hill North, Redditch Worcs B98 9LX

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