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Cheltenham Literature Festival

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Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.


In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.


After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.


And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.

Books Cotswolds

Report from Cheltenham Literature Festival

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the Cotswolds. I spent the first night of the festival at an intimate evening with the bald spot on the back of a gentleman’s head and the much maligned Mr. Franzen.

Before he began to read, Franzen noted he was in the fourth week of touring to promote his new novel, Purity, and admitted he he had hit a wall just before the start of this event. Despite his fatigue, he still managed to charm. I particularly enjoyed hearing him read from a scene in the book where a couple has sex on a nuclear missile in Amarillo, Texas.

However, an opportunistic journalist hoping for another Iraqi-war-orphan-esque gaffe would have been rewarded towards the end of the Q&A when a woman in the audience asked him about his relationship with his mother. He started his answer by offering his gratitude for the middle-class privileges his parents had bestowed on him, including an education and disapproval of his writing—which he said gave him “something to prove.” Then he went on to note that on top of all that, they were also nice enough to die when he was in his thirties, liberating him to write things he could have never written when they were still alive, including The Corrections. I can just imagine the headline: “Franzen Glad His Parents are Dead.” The audience seemed to take the answer in the spirit in which he intended, though. No gasps or tutting as far as I could hear, and the line for his book signing was still out the door by the time we finished dinner and moved on to the next event of the evening.

I spent the next hour in a much more intimate setting, just 30 or so audience members, the moderator and Nell Zink, Franzen’s literary protégé who was profiled in The New Yorker earlier this year. My friend headed to the tent next door to see the wildly popular Caitlin Moran, and the uproarious laughter from that crowd occasionally seeped into our venue.

Nell Zink reading from The Wallcreeper

Zink was funny, too. Not necessarily ha-ha funny, but odd and awkward and charming and all over the map. At one point she veered off in an explanation of a character’s hairdo in The Wallcreeper to enlighten us about an eighteenth-century hair condition amongst German peasants that included dreadlocks and was referred to as Plica Polonica (a Polish braid). There appeared to be little filter between her darting to-and-fro mind and her mouth, which was a good thing as far as I’m concerned.She was, in short, exactly how I imagined someone who had written the lighting-paced and weird and wonderful The Wallcreeper to be, and I would have been disappointed if she had been any other way.


The Bishop, the Mistress, the Scribe, and the General

Church yesterday was full of surprises. The Bishop of Gloucester made a guest appearance in the tiny, ancient church hosting the service for our benefice. This is my second bishop sighting in as many months, a good track record considering my spotty history of church attendance in the last twenty years.

Stevie Winwood, the worst kept celebrity secret in this corner of the Cotswolds, was also there. He was sitting right next to the dreary postmistress who had been at our very table the night before at the wine tasting fundraiser. Last night her complaints were drowned in a tide of Beaujolais. Church also seemed a safe place to sit beside her, hymns and the etiquette of silence a safe harbour from her litany of woe.

The bishop preached a sermon on the economic crisis, surprising me with his liberal touches. He warned against jumping to the conclusion that the meltdown was a punishment from God for capitalist greed, citing parallels with the rush to condemn homosexuality at the onset of the AIDS crisis in the eighties. He went on to talk about using this as an opportunity to revert to a simpler, greener way of life — a splendid eco-warrior in his kelly green robe and golden pope hat.

Most Sundays a good sing song in church is enough to power husband through the day. But even today’s star-studded version wasn’t enough to hold back a plunge into depression. I’d almost forgotten about it over the past few months, buried as it was underneath the manic efforts in his new job. Of course I knew the early mornings and late nights and the fact that the only conversations that seemed to hold his attention were work related was less than healthy. This was just the latest version of a lid on the boiling pot even if, as far as coping mechanisms go, it was much preferable to watching husband spend four hour stretches on the couch watching repeats of property shows.

This is how the dynamic of depression works in our relationship. There’s a good patch of days or weeks or even months, fuelled by meds or work success or some other stroke of luck. Things are so “normal” that when a depression does set in – and it always does – I feel shocked. It’s as if an old lover of husband’s has showed up at the door and asked me, straight-faced, to come in for a shag with him. How dare she come back after all this time? And yet I know I have to let her in, and she’ll stay as long as she likes. My efforts to expel her with logic and reason and breaking down problems into manageable chunks just leave me feeling exasperated. All the while the mistress waits patiently on the couch for me to exhaust myself and stomp out of the room.

Yesterday’s mistress brought along the same old baggage, conflating every issue related to my new job offer with husband’s entire human history of regret and resentment. Gone was his encouragement and infectious enthusiasm that prompted me to look for a job in the country to start. In its place was a whole raft of unattractive insecurities that, in their essence, amounted to a concern over who was going to take care of him if I was spending all my time in the country. Next time perhaps the mistress could be polite enough not to show up in the middle of a life changing decision, although she’s never been known for tact.

By the time I walked into the Everyman Theatre to hear Julian Fellowes speak in the evening, I was primed for some words of wisdom, some advice, a sign from God – anything really that would help me decide whether or not to take this job. It was the final day of The Cheltenham Literature Festival, and Mr. Fellowes, director (of Gosford Park), writer (of the fine Snobs) and actor, did oblige.

“When life opens a door you have to go through it, don’t you,” he responded at one point to a question from the interviewer.

That was it. A perfect if cliched summary of what I had to do. This job was on the table and I had to take it.

But wait, what is Mr. Fellowes talking about now? Something about that sick feeling when as an actor you find yourself cast in a role to which you can offer nothing, cast through some happenstance of the right actor just not being available. Has Mr. Fellowes also been wondering why I’ve been made a generous offer to do a job I’ve never really done before after only one in-person meeting?

Useless old thesp. Useless husband. I am on my own with this decision.

Finally and thankfully, General Powell is not suffering from my crisis in decision making. As speculated in the weekend papers, news came at the end of the day that he’s endorsed Obama. On the matter of Palin he maintained his characteristic reserve, stating simply that she is not ready to be president. Ms. Palin pushes so many people’s buttons, including my own, that such understatement has been rare in the public discourse about her. And for that General Powell was all the more effective.