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Cheltenham Literature Festival: Books and Brains

PUBLISHED: 11:33 03 October 2016 | UPDATED: 11:33 03 October 2016

Antonia Byatt, director of Cheltenham Literature Festival, takes us through the events

Antonia Byatt, director of Cheltenham Literature Festival, takes us through the events


It’s time to write off 10 days of your diary, as a stellar collection of writers and thinkers rolls into town from October 7-16. Antonia Byatt takes Katie Jarvis through the highlights

Bestselling novelist Jilly Cooper at home in Gloucestershire © Edward WhitakerBestselling novelist Jilly Cooper at home in Gloucestershire © Edward Whitaker

Antonia Byatt is the new director of Cheltenham Literature Festival, which takes place from October 7-16. Established in 1949, the festival is the longest-running of its kind in the world: “And certainly one of the big three,” Antonia says. “You couldn’t get a higher profile festival than this.”

Antonia comes to Cheltenham from Arts Council, England, which champions activities across the arts, museums and libraries: “But I felt it was time to go and get my hands dirty again!” she says. “I love the buzz around audiences and events, and this is such an exciting time to be involved in Cheltenham. We’re doing more work around the town; we’re expanding our audiences; and we’re introducing new artistic experiences.“This might be one of the oldest festivals in the world, but it’s also one that’s growing with the times. Every festival needs to do that.”

Antonia, tell us about the festival’s themes this year…

So we have two major themes: America Uncovered, and Millennials. As far as America is concerned, the festival is taking place in the run-up to the presidential election in November; so this will be the biggest platform in the UK for experts and commentators to come together to talk about what’s unfolding.

As for the Millennials, we are really keen on having diverse younger voices in our programme. People in their 20s are leading very different lives from the older generations, but the issues they raise will be of interest to all ages. There will be events on ‘Stuffocation: Living More with Less’; ‘Our Lives Online’; and ‘Is The Selfie Really Selfish?’, looking at female portraiture through the ages. People tend to say of the millennial generation either that they’re self-obsessed, or that they’re having a very tough time. We’ll be interrogating those sorts of questions, and making sure 20-somethings have a platform from which to speak.

America is at an interesting crossroads, politically. Will the festival help us understand some of the conflicting issues pulling it in such different directions?

Interestingly, a lot of the politics playing out in America are not so very different from those in Europe, so this is a relevant, important topic. We’ve picked out some really interesting, perhaps more quirky, things about America, along with some well-known and lesser-known speakers. On the political side, for example, Thomas Frank – author of Listen, Liberal - will be talking to Nick Cohen about ‘How the Left Lost its Way’ – something we know about here in this country, too, of course. There’s a lot about the ‘special relationship’ and American foreign policy, with analysis by experts such as Xenia Wickett.

On the literary side, we’ve some great essayists. One of our festival curators is John Freeman, who publishes Freeman’s magazine, focusing on new writing. As a result of his input, we’ve got Jamaican-born Garnette Cadogan, who isn’t particularly well known here but who has written a fascinating piece on walking the streets of America as a black man. Garnette will also be talking about the Harlem Renaissance in our classic literature strand. Another essayist, Nigerian Teju Cole, who is a great photographer and critic, will be speaking about the inspiration he finds living in New York.

Expect wit and warmth from comedian Reginald D. Hunter � Kash YusufExpect wit and warmth from comedian Reginald D. Hunter � Kash Yusuf

I’m also excited about welcoming Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Her adventure – which was made into the film Wild – is a kind of American frontier discovery story of the 21st century.

You’ve some fab, and diverse, guest curators, who help with the programming. How do you put that panel together, and how does this year’s team gel?

I guess what we’re doing is choosing people who can each give a slightly different perspective. So one of the six this year is the comedian Reginald D Hunter, who has been based in the UK for 20 years. He grew up in the American South, where he was constantly told that America was THE great nation. In one of his events, he’ll be asking, ‘How great is America really?’

And then there’s Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature – and you couldn’t have a better person to discuss ‘The Great American Novel’. She’ll also be talking about American writers in Hollywood – what happened when some of the greats (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and Chandler) tried their hand at screenwriting?

Every year, Cheltenham pulls off amazing coups. Whom are you particular excited about attracting to the 2016 festival?

All sorts of people! It’s exciting having Akala here [the English rapper]: the festival this year will be a bit more gig-y; a bit more late-night-y! We’re bringing a bit of a jazz buzz to it.

At the other end of the scale, we have the brilliant Jeremy Hutchinson who, at 101, is one of the oldest people ever to have appeared at Cheltenham. As one of the greatest criminal barristers of all time, he’s been involved in many major cases of the 20th century, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

And Shami Chakrabarti will be chairing an event with people who have undertaken long-term fights for justice, such as Doreen Lawrence following the murder of her son, Stephen; and Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall.

Joey Barton talks about his controversial career, philosophy, books and his memoir No Nonsense � Robert WilsonJoey Barton talks about his controversial career, philosophy, books and his memoir No Nonsense � Robert Wilson

Is there anyone you’re desperate to attract to Cheltenham but (whisper it) you’ve not managed to secure yet?

Or course, you can have wild dreams; and, of course, there are people you think it would be great to have – and then, quite often, five years later, you get them! Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, is someone we thought would be fantastic – and he’s coming this year. Alan Hollinghurst is returning – to talk about Henry James – and he hasn’t been here for years, so that’s particularly special. A wish-list can be about creating surprising things, too: such as having Joey Barton being asked questions by Owen Jones, which will take that event to a deeper level than a conversation about football.

There’s been a lot in the news, recently, claiming that male and female brains are not so dissimilar from each other at birth. You were previously director of the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University. Do we still need a gender debate?

Yes, we certainly do. I woke up this morning to the Today programme still talking about a lack of equal pay – with the divide starting at the age that women have children, whether they’ve had them or not. There is a lot in our programme around feminism: the millennial events are full of a lot of very feisty young women; and there are some pretty powerful women in the main programme, too, including Joan Bakewell, Jilly Cooper and Clare Balding.

So, finally, let’s go wild. If you could meet one author – living or dead – for dinner (we’ll reanimate them for the occasion, if necessary), whom would you chose and what would you ask them?

Helen Dunmore has had to drop out of our Cheltenham Booker [which is looking at novels written in 1945] so the team substituted me to pick up the nomination of Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s. I’d love to have met Elizabeth Taylor for that reason. But I’d also love to have met her because here was someone so influential on women’s writing but who described herself as a quiet, domestic creature: very unlike a lot of the women in our programme, and probably unlike me as someone who has worked all my life in a job. I think it would be rather nice to have a quiet dinner with Elizabeth. And, of course, that would help me a great deal in the Cheltenham Booker debate!

For more on Cheltenham Literature Festival, visit; or call the box office on 01242 850270


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