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28 October 2014

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A feast of literature for all
Spring Literature Festival
Book a weekend between the covers!
Last updated: 06 April 2004 1503 BST
lineThe fifth mini-festival of literature in Cheltenham was a cracker, and our reviewer Nic Baddeley went along to see what was on offer.
Read Tim Telling's review of the Spring Literature Festival MORE

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It was my first ever Literature Festival and I was really looking forward to hearing from some very familiar names. The three day Spring Literature Festival kicked off in Cheltenham on Friday 2nd April and featured the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Martin Bell and Rita Marley.

The dark art of Spin

It all began for me with The Spin Kings on the opening night. This was a highly topical lecture especially after all the recent perceived excesses of spin in modern government.

I was intrigued to discover that nobody knew what a spin doctor was in the early 1990s, much less what they actually did. It was a term coined in America by political aides as an expression of the ability to 'bend' the truth to make a story move favourable. Today, almost everyone knows what spin is and treats it with a groan or a roll of the eyes.

However, when you think about it, spin has existed throughout the ages - just look at any notable individual or organisation who wanted to appear in a favourable light to its people. They almost certainly attempted to twist the truth of a situation to make themselves look as good as they possibly could.

Modern spin, though, has been taken to a new level with the perceived extremes of modern government. Take Jo Moore's now infamous e-mail about releasing bad news in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities - certainly morally dubious but a good example of the extreme heights spin has reached.

Martin Sixsmith was one of the speakers at The Spin Kings, and he has had personal experience of government spin from when he was a Civil Service press officer. He spoke at length about how the so-called 'black art' of spin was used in the new Labour government, how he objected to its extremes and where he feared it could lead the country in the future. He also briefly revealed just how powerful and influential a character Alastair Campbell was at the heart of the government.

I must say that I found the debate on spin truly fascinating. Michael Shea also contributed to the discourse but he seldom found voice such was the intrigue of Martin Sixsmith's narrative. I guess people are as fascinated with spin as much as they loathe it.

The man in the white suit

Matthew Bannister with Martin Bell and Roger Hardy
BBC Five Live's Matthew Bannister with Martin Bell and Roger Hardy

The topic of current affairs was continued with the legendary war reporter-turned-politician Martin Bell and Roger Hardy, who is the Middle East analyst for the BBC's World Service. They were standing in at short notice for Rageh Omaar, who had to withdraw from the festival due to family reasons. It was a shame Rageh wasn't there - to hear about his experiences in Baghdad during the war would have been most interesting - but speakers of the calibre of Martin Bell certainly didn't lessen the event.

With all that's going on in the Middle East and in Iraq, the discourse was bound to be both intriguing and difficult. There are clearly no easy answers to the questions posed in Iraq or the Middle East. The whole situation seems to be descending a vicious circle of violence and hatred to which there seems no end.

Martin Bell, who has seen war at its most horrific intensity in Bosnia, seems to think that we won't see an end to the conflict in Iraq in his lifetime. Personally, I can't see it in mine either.

It seems that the reasons for war in Iraq were largely disagreed with by both those on the stage and those in the audience, although Bell revealed he would have accepted regime change as a legitimate reason for war. However, he vehemently disagreed with the weapons of mass destruction argument and both he and Roger Hardy were concerned with just how easy it was to go to war. They were also critical that no thought seemed to have been given to what would happen in Iraq after the initial conflict was over.

These kind of debates are the lifeblood of democracy and one of the refreshing things about both of these events were the opportunities for the audience to question the speakers. All in all, I was very impressed with the opening night.

Dame Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench with her biographer John  Miller
Dame Judi Dench with her biographer John Miller

Sunday, which was the final day of the festival, stood out for me as a real revelation. I bought tickets to hear Dame Judi Dench speak on her experiences of Shakespeare. This event was held in the newly opened Centaur auditorium at Cheltenham Racecourse.

I was amazed to see so many people there - I later discovered there were over 1700 people who came along to hear her speak. Assisted by her biographer John Miller, Dame Judi was great value. She's played a wide range of Shakespearean characters in her career and she revealed her thoughts on her favourites and her most loathed ones.

She also told an enthralled audience anecdotes of her experiences on the stage like the time she took Shakespeare to Africa. She played to an audience in Nigeria which included real vultures perched high on a wall - she noted that it was a little disconcerting because the play was Macbeth and those who had been 'killed' had to twitch every now and then to make sure the birds didn't swoop down for a meal!

If she ever returns to speak again at a future festival, make sure you grab a ticket because she is as entertaining as she is likeable.

An evening with Jasper

Jasper Fforde with Nic Baddeley
Writer Jasper Fforde with Nic Baddeley

Sunday was rounded off with a visit to Cheltenham Town Hall to hear novelist Jasper Fforde talk about his… well, how can you describe his stories? They're an almost surreal reality where literary characters come to life and life itself is not quite how you'd expect it to be. I would like to tell you more but I've only just started to read his first novel The Eyre Affair (and because its premise is very hard to explain in a nutshell).

Hearing Jasper speak about the unusual world he'd created and his heroine, literary detective Thursday Next, really did inspire me to pick up the The Eyre Affair in the book tent and buy it. I even got it signed by the author which was a real bonus!

An enjoyable festival

I only saw a handful of events at the Spring Literature Festival and I really wish I could have seen them all. The weekend was littered with ordinary people discussing what they'd heard and what it all meant to them. One stranger approached my friend and I, and began enthusing about a poet he'd seen the night before - such were the meaningful impressions left for all those who went along. It's important to see one of mankind's greatest achievements celebrated in such a positive way.

I must say I really enjoyed the events I attended at the Spring festival and I can't wait for the next one which is due to be held in October. I'd recommend it to anyone. As the promotional blurb promised - it really did put a literary spring into my step!

PointerRead Tim Telling's review of the festival

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