As a part of work, I do my best to maintain relationships with people and organizations relevant to what I do, which brought me to Cheltenham, UK.
By happy coincidence, this trip to Cheltenham has coincided with the 2008 The Times Literature festival—something I was unaware of as I started my search for a hotel. I ended up at the Clarence Court Hotel. The locals looked at the website and said it looked “posh”, which is a word used sincerely and with positive meaning. I looked at the same website and was worried it wouldn’t be posh.
On the whole, I fear that my fears reasonable. The website’s room tours features rooms swankier and nicer than mine. There’s also a step between the bedroom and bathroom, a full 8 inches—and no warning sign!
Regardless, I didn’t spend a lot of time in my hotel room, rather I was out and about enjoying the Literature Festival—and picking up books to read, but there is a catch, of course. Cheltenham has only one new bookshop, and one charity shop. That’s right the city hosting a Literature Festival has exactly one new bookshop, and it’s a chain bookshop, Waterstone’s. Waterstone’s is also the principal sponsor after The Times.
Friday night I hung out with two really excellent locals, Furry und Frau—we had dinner at the Cheltenham branch of Café Rouge. I’m pleased to report that none of our olives had stones.
From there we went to the preliminaries of the 4th Annual Poetry Slam All-Stars competition. This was my first poetry slam (on a planetary level), with my only previous exposure to the concept coming from the days when I used to regularly listen to Ragan Fox’s podcast. Although I stopped listening to his podcast (I only have so many hours in the day that I can listen to podcasts), he used to talk about participating in poetry slams, and I found his recordings of his poems to be a powerful listening experience. Actually, I decided to resubscribe.
It’s my impression from listening to the audio that Poetry Slams are usually something that younger poets participate in, so it was a bit surprising when the first couple of poets were geriatric and reading from pieces of paper. That’s not to say the poems were bad (I’m hardly an expert), but they lacked the energy I expected. It wasn’t until a younger poet in the first heat got up and recited his poem from memory that things started to warm up. It was an excellent poem about the dangers of wanking at home—and it had energy (I wish I had the text, it was brilliant). He was one of five finalists who got through to the Finals held Saturday night—Finals I was unable to attend.
Two other poets really stood out in my mind—one was a woman who waxed poetic about all the impossible sex-positions in the movies. She got a huge ovation, and through to the finals. The other poet who stood out was the last poet of the evening, a nervous younger man wearing a striped sweater and black finger nails. His poem was a chilling description of experiencing electric shock therapy. The poem was profoundly creepy and I found myself shuttering at times—Furry und Frau were also disturbed, and I was quite pleased when he was one of the five finalists through to the end.
I’m not sure, but I am pretty sure four out of the five, if not all five, of the poets who got through, did not read their poems from paper, but had bothered to memorize the poems and to give an energetic reading. I also found poems that turned into rants were not really appealing—an older man bitching about problems with Royal Post was cute the first minute, but by the end I didn’t care. A younger man—suggesting that Global Warning is fake and that 9/11 was a conspiracy—lost me. It’s possible some of these were lost on me because I’m not up on British lingo, but my local friends were unable to penetrate the fog of such complaints.
Saturday I sort of misfired—I didn’t know any of the names on the program, so I picked one that was about a well-known (to the Brits) travel writer, figuring that because I like travel writing, it would be a good fit. Instead it was about a book of correspondence between the travel writer and a woman—he was not present, she was. It had its humorous moments, but I was far too young and most of it went right past me.
Amusingly, this session was introduced by the editor of Country Life magazine, a young man who announced that his magazine was one of the few left where “writing matters”. At the conclusion of the session, we were given free copies—and I might note that in addition to being approximately 50% advertising, one of the cover articles was “How to be the ultimate grandparent”, a sure sign of quality writing and quality material.
Sunday afternoon I went to two sessions, the first was Kate Adie chatting with Nick Cohen. Kate is a British TV news reporter, and Nick is a columnist for The Observer. The discussion was rather sedate, Nick was of the opinion that political correctness’ verbal drive for equality ends up resulting in inequality in society. I wandered through the bookshop where he was signing autographs after the session, and I noticed that few people were in line.
The final session I attended featured Clarissa Dickson Wright with Kate Adie. Clarissa is one of the two fat women of British television. I’d picked up her book and started reading it—I knew she was famous for her work as a chef on television, but it’s clear her story is more complicated and interesting. Her father was a famous surgeon, alcoholic, and abuser. Completely forthright, the audience loved her—and her willingness to be blunt, even as Kate danced around subjects at hand. She wants to be called a fat ex-drunk, not a horizontally challenged former substance abuser.
Her thoughts about common-sense speech, vegetarianism, and the current crop of British TV Chefs were well received by enthusiastic audience.
The message resonated.
On one last final note, the Literary Festival is sponsored by The Times, and there were plenty of free copies around, so I was reading it every day. However, I have to say that ultimately I still prefer The Guardian.