CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL REAFFIRMS ITS PLACE AT THE HEART OF THE UK’S CULTURAL CONVERSATION
The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival brought its 74th year to a close on Sunday, October 15, after ten days in the Gloucestershire town that reasserted the place of the world’s longest-running literature festival at the very centre of the UK’s cultural life.
Cheltenham played host to dozens of national news stories, more than 600 speakers across 500+ events, and tens of thousands of visitors – including more than 12,000 school children – in a celebration of the written and spoken word, and of its continuing power to inspire change and connect communities.
From David Mitchell advocating for a reappraisal of Henry V to Judy Murray revealing that women tennis players receive death threats from gamblers; or from former Boris Johnson advisor Cleo Watson claiming that Parliament is ‘an iceberg of sex’ to the historian Tom Holland arguing that Latin is no longer necessary in schools: Cheltenham was again the scene of expert commentary on almost every urgent question currently facing society and culture, in the UK and globally.
Nurturing The Next Generation
Alongside its headline-grabbing main events, Cheltenham also continued to break new ground across its programme, taking the pulse of contemporary culture, spotlighting international literature – and inspiring the next generation of readers and writers.
12,119 school children from 109 schools in Gloucestershire and beyond were welcomed throughout the 10 days as part of Cheltenham Festivals’ learning and participation programme, including a conference for the Festival’s flagship Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils project, enabling teachers and their pupils to rediscover the joy of reading.
The Festival’s Family programme also plays a key role in sparking literary curiosity in the next generation. Book sales at the Festival’s on-site Waterstones Children’s Bookshop hit a record high this year, suggesting that this intentional programming around Reading For Pleasure is having an impact.
Elsewhere, the VOICEBOX programme brought youth voices and ideas to the forefront, creating a dedicated space to discover new talent and emerging voices; and the Read The World theme saw authors from Japan, Norway, Taiwan, India, Ghana, Spain and beyond. The Festival also welcomed delegates from Argentina, India, Turkiye, Botswana and Nigeria for its second international delegates programme, supported by the British Council.
“The Appeal of Human Connection”
Nicola Tuxworth is Head of Programming for the Festival. “As we head towards our 75th anniversary next year, we are reflecting on what the purpose should be of a Literature Festival in the twenty-first century,” she said. “The answer lies, we think, in the appeal of – and need for – human connection: writers with their readers, readers with each other, and the Festival with the community it serves and is rooted within. This is at the heart of everything we do.”
Fully one quarter of the Festival’s programme was free to attend, ensuring that audiences of all kinds were able to access the cultural cross-section on offer across the whole ten days. With free public performances both on the main Festival site and in the town itself, local communities are actively engaged even as speakers of international significance arrive in Regency Cheltenham.
From Lit Crawls to poetry slams, storytelling sessions to public performances, Cheltenham was a hub for all, with ample opportunity to experience the joy and curiosity that can be sparked by culture. Over 100,000 tickets were issued for events across all of the Festival’s venues and programming strands and tens of thousands came to explore the Festival village and free non-ticketed activities.
At The Centre of the UK’s Cultural Life
The Festival explored a range of urgent questions facing the world, with a programme that recognised Mental Health Awareness Day, examined the climate emergency, explored the future of AI, celebrated LGBTQ+ rights – including recognising the 20th anniversary of the repeal of Section 28 – and discussed the new Words Matter policy which aims to end victim-blaming in police communications.
With high-profile speakers including politicians such as Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, leading literary lights such as Mike Gayle and Zadie Smith, and luminaries from the world of entertainment including Succession’s Brian Cox and Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, Cheltenham cemented its position once again at the forefront of contemporary debate – and at the heart of the UK’s cultural life.
The broadcaster and arts commentator Ed Vaizey, broadcasting live from the Festival for his Times Radio show, was impressed: “Cheltenham has a huge wealth of events and must be one of the largest literary festivals in the world. It’s a combination of the big books coming out right now and the themes that are going to be important for the year ahead.”
“Culture At Its Broadest”
Ali Mawle is co-CEO of Cheltenham Festivals, the charity that hosts the Literature Festival – as well as its Jazz, Music and Science Festivals – each year. “Culture is at its best when it is at its broadest,” she said. “Our goal every year is to bring as wide and vibrant an experience of literature, art and culture to as large a number of people as possible.
“In 2023, we have brought the joy of books to more schoolchildren than ever, sparked curiosity among a whole new generation of audiences and speakers, and – we hope – demonstrated the value of bringing people from all walks of life together to connect communities and inspire positive change.
“In 2024, we’ll be seventy-five years young – and we have some very special plans already. See you there!”