Swindon is most conveniently located for beautiful countryside, a whole host of heritage sites and some wonderful events, among them the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
On this year's pilgrimage Leah and I listened to Clare Clark, Juliet Nicolson and Frances Osborne describe several Women of Substance, the subject of their latest novels. Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark is the story of Maribel Campbell Lowe, wife of a Victorian radical MP, who is a lady with a past, but not necessarily the one she tells polite society. Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter, talked about her latest book Park Lane, an upstairs, downstairs tale of the Votes for Women campaign and one that particularly appealed to me. The third panelist was Juliet Nicolson talking about her book Abdication and the set that surrounded Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. Three more books to go on my wish list.
In the Waterstones tent for the signing we rubbed shoulders, and I mean we rubbed shoulders, with Iain Banks who was standing next to us signing copies of his book to put on the shelves for late comers.
Next stop was a special Cheltenham Literature Festival recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze. Does public service broadcasting have a future, and if so how should it be funded, Michael Buerk asked panelists Michael Portillo, Claire Fox, Matthew Taylor and Anne McElvoy. In the hotseat were David Elstein - Chairman of Broadcasting Policy Group; journalist Robin Aiken; Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Steve Barnet Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster.
The highlight of the day though was seeing J.K. Rowling in conversation with James Runcie at the Centaur, an impressive venue at the Cheltenham Racecourse, but not without it's drawbacks - more follows. Jo, as I now feel I can call her, was there to talk about her latest novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. The 2000+ audience comprised Potter fans old and young, so of course she wasn't going to get away without any reference to the famous boy wizard. After some 45 minutes James turned to the floor for questions and answers and a forest of hands shot up. Those lucky chosen muggles prefixed their question with 'I love you Jo,' to which our heroine graciously returned the sentiment. Twentysomethings who had grown up with Harry Potter spoke in a tremulous voice and two young women delivered flowers and a letter to the stage where Jo stooped in her sky scraper heels to give her two devotees a hug. There was a palpable air of awe in the auditorium - behind us a woman wept into her handkerchief, but you sensed that Jo was well used to such public displays of emotion. Great swathes of the audience left half way through the event to take their place in the line up for the signing. However we had already been warned there would be no time for personal dedications or conversations and photographs. A wasted opportunity to hear the author speak, I felt.
So what happened next? Cheltenham Literature Festival organisers and the bus company failed to mention that although it was possible to catch a bus from the town centre to the venue there were none returning after the event. We telephoned for a taxi but there was an hour and a half wait by which time we would have missed our train back to Swindon. The only option left was to walk the two and a half miles. We arrived at the station with less than five minutes to spare. On board the 9.19 to Swindon there was a palpable air of relief, I can tell you.
Clare Clark signing copies of Beautiful Lies
Rubbing shoulders with Iain Banks
Waiting for Jo