Sunday, 10 October 2010

Follow your own path and don't worry about the darkness

Cheltenham Literary Festival 2010
Dreams and nightmares

After an early morning and a longer than anticipated train journey (yes, I had my northern head on and presumed that, being in the south, Cheltenham must be only just outside of London), I finally made it to the wonderful little Regency town of Cheltenham.

The theme of The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival 2010 is Dreams and Nightmares, and as I made my way into the Inkpot venue, I mentally prepared myself for a voyage into the supernatural world of ghouls and ghosts.

And what better way to begin than with an event called Fantastic Fictions, a discussion largely centered around Black Water, an anthology of supernatural tales put together by Argentine-born Canadian writer Alberto Manguel.

Manguel was joined on stage by China MiĆ©ville and Maggie Gee, and after a quick reference to the recent ‘Franzen Freedom fiasco’ (the very thought that this can so easily happen gives me the shivers), they each read a couple of passages from some stories in the anthology, such as ‘The Wizard Postponed’ by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Door in the Wall’ by HG Wells, and ‘Lady into Fox’ by David Garnett.

Now, having expected tales of vampires, monsters and other ogres, I was actually confronted with something rather different. As opposed to fantasy, the fantastic deals with the quotidian – using only slight tweaks and twists to give an intrusion into the ordinary, with horrifyingly nightmarish effect.

So, no vampires or zombies here, but all the same, I think I’ll throw my Monkey’s Paw on the fire – just in case.

So, where would my quest for dreams and nightmares lead me to next? Well, to Shakespeare’s Sonnets it seems. A slight diversion from my supernatural journey then, but I think you’ll forgive me when I tell you that the Shakespeare lecture was given by Nutshell favourite Don Paterson. Don has written a new book, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, in which he approaches the work in a non-scholarly, contemporary way. And it seems Don had a whale of a time writing it, mostly whilst in the bath, apparently.

The audience is largely made up of elderly couples, and I’m not sure how his controversial approach will go down, but the crowd loves him. He is certainly an entertaining speaker. He is joined on stage by an actor, who reads out some of the sonnets, with Don providing his own interpretations. And one thing’s for certain – I never expected to hear an analogy between women and hamburgers in a Shakespeare lecture, but I definitely won’t forget it. Lecturers take note.

On the way out of the auditorium I hear one man say to his wife, ‘Well I thought I was going to hate that, but he’s great! Let’s buy the book.’ Success.

But, back to the quest. After a complimentary wee dram of Highland Park (it was free, how could I decline?), it was time for Classic Chills, with Martin Jarvis, Andrew Lycett and Nicholas Royle. As with the Fantastic Fictions event earlier, the panel read and discussed some of their favourite Victorian ghost stories, by authors such as Algernon Blackwood, MR James, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle.

More ghosts this time, but there was still that eerie feeling that the most terrifying stories are those in which something under the surface of everyday life slowly reveals itself.

I left the event suitably chilled and, sadly, it was time to leave the festival. As I made my way back to the station in darkness, I considered the events of the day, and the thing that impresses me most about Cheltenham Festival, more so than other festivals I’ve been to, is that it is a truly individual experience.

The theme, Dreams and Nightmares, is a broad one and, with such a huge range of events taking place, you really have the scope to follow your own path through the festival. I chose a haunted path, but which path will you choose?

The Cheltenham Literature Festival 2010 continues until 17th October, and there are events with many great writers, politicians, comedians and historians still to come. Find out more at