Apples, Lyrics & Elves: Highlights from the Cheltenham Literature Festival

Tracy Chevalier book signingLast night I caught a fleeting glimpse of the magical white-tented world that is the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Passing through, from Coventry to Cardiff, I was only able to attend three events, but each one was thoroughly enjoyable. With a similar set up to the Hay Festival, including an almost identical bookshop tent, the same (though fewer) toilets, and extortionately priced refreshments, there was an air of familiarity that was somewhat comforting.   

The evening was balmy, the seats were actually comfy, and the fact that there was allocated seating made it an altogether pleasant experience. Here are a few highlights from my evening in Imperial Square:

A Ballad of the Sea

Poet Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

I enjoyed hearing Blake Morrison read a slightly shortened version of his ballad ‘Shingle Street’, based on a real place in East Anglia, which suffers from intense sea erosion. With lines such as: “the waves maraud”, “the winds oppress” and seals “singed by grief”, it’s soft rhythm lulled me to another place and time.

Tales of Lost Literature

We heard an amusing story from Matthew Hollis about an early draft of his pamphlet Stones. Whilst writing in a sunny beer garden, a gust of wind blew some of his poems into the Thames. It was at that moment that he had to ask himself the dreaded question, “Just how much do I love my poems?”. In the end, as he followed them downstream, he managed to retrieve some of it by reading the words as the pages floated past, but much of his work was lost. The pub landlord comfortingly advised him that “perhaps it was God’s way of telling you it was sh*t.” Fortunately, the final version is a beautiful evocation of the passing of time.

Simon Armitage on Bob Dylan, Elves and Writing Poetry

books tracy-chevalier-and-simon-armitageAs well as informing us that he no longer writes his own poetry, but has, instead, a team of elves to do it for him, Simon Armitage answered the age old question of how you know when a poem is finished. He described this as the moment when you realise that what you’ve written is not what you set out to write – a feeling of astonishment at what has appeared on the page. He also firmly suggested that any aspiring poets should read plenty of contemporary poetry: “What comes out is a version of what goes in… You are always going to be influenced, so you might as well situate yourself in proximity of the good stuff.”

Someone asked the inevitable question about Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he replied that he thought it was “good, but it is also a bit silly, and I like silly, so that’s good too”. He explained that Dylan’s lyrics make “pretty poor poems” by themselves, with “mixed metaphors and cheesy rhymes” but that “his genius was in setting his words to music”, turning something “inane” into something that becomes “ecstatic” when combined with guitar chords. I must say that I agree with that.

Apples and Historical Research from Tracy Chevalier

Famed author of eight fiction books, Tracy Chevalier talked about her most recent novel At the Edge of the Orchard. She loves apples, and historical research, and explained that she came across a character (Johnny Appleseed), whilst researching for her previous book, The Last Runaway. Johnny intrigued her. He was a real person, but has become part of American folklore. He was a businessman who walked around barefoot, in ragged clothes, selling apple seeds and preaching to those he met. The book is set in Ohio in 1838, and focuses on a pioneer couple who disagree about whether to grow sour apples, for cider, or sweet apples, for eating. Watch this space for my review when I’ve finished the book…

Chevalier explained that her next novel, a re-working of Shakespeare’s Othello (part of the Hogarth project) is set in 1974, within her own lifetime. Consequently, she hasn’t had to do much research, and found the writing process quite different. She asked the audience to vote on whether they saw 1974 as historical or just nostalgia and, although it was pretty even, I think the nostalgia contingent won (possibly due to the age of those present).

I look forward to reading more of these writers’ work, and to reviewing At the Edge of the Orchard and Pearl (Simon Armitage’s translation of a story written in Middle English). It was an excellent way to spend a Friday evening.

2 thoughts on “Apples, Lyrics & Elves: Highlights from the Cheltenham Literature Festival

  1. Pingback: Lit Fest Highlights of 2016

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