I spent Saturday in Cheltenham getting my first taste of a major literary festival from the inside. Here are a few thoughts from the point of view of someone who is far more used to large science fiction conventions.
Cheltenham itself seems very nice. The railway station is quite a way out of town, but there is a lovely footpath most of the way into the town center which appears to be at least part-based on an old branch line. I’m not sure that I’d want to use it after dark, but during the day it is very pleasant. The town, once you get there, looks very expensive, perhaps even more so than Bath. I was told that the charity shops there are a good place to shop for designer clothes, so I may have to go back.
The festival covers two large Georgian squares and some of the civic buildings in between. The venues are mostly tent-based, but they are big, serious tents that are probably proof against anything but the most serious weather. They could have done with a few large signs with maps of the layout, but mostly it was easy to navigate. I suspect that the lack of signage to what they called the Authors’ House and what I’d call the green room was deliberate.
The organization was excellent. Everything ran to time. There were helpful staff to make sure that we got to where we needed to be, when we needed to be there. They even did sound checks. Of course it is easier to do that if the programming is fairly light. Venues were not run back-to-back, but instead had hour or more gaps in between sessions so they could be turned round without any crush.
The idea of taking panelists off to do signings immediately after their panels worked fairly well, though the Waterstones tent, where the signings took place, got very crowded at times. Margaret Atwood, bless her, had a queue stretching half way to Bristol. They could perhaps have done signings in the venues, given that they were empty for quite a while after each event, but that would mean moving the books and providing someone to sell them, and anyway people like Atwood needed far longer than an hour to sign.
Inevitably many of the people appearing at the event were celebrities. We were a very bookish crowd in comparison. I was rather looking forward to being able to strut in and thumb my nose at the lobster & Bolly crowd, given that I was on program too, but Caitlin Moran had gone by the time I arrived. The only person I noticed who might have been offended by my presence was Jenni Murray from Woman’s Hour.
All in all, it was a very pleasant experience. I’d certainly go back if asked, though I suspect that’s not hugely likely. I’ll write more about the panel itself shortly.