There’s a literary festival to suit all appetites. There’s Hay-on-Wye dubbed the ‘Woodstock of the mind’ by former President Bill Clinton, Cheltenham for the die-hard bibliophiles and then there’s Cliveden, which, last weekend proved is far and above the most glitzy boutique festival in the land. Set at England’s most dazzling Italianate mansion it brought together the greatest thinkers, writers and politicians to chew the fat on the lead topics of the day before a fabulously well-dressed audience.
In popular imagination – Cliveden is synonymous with the Profumo Affair. The house with the ‘scandalous pool’ as Newsnight veteran Emily Maitlis exclaimed in 2019 when invited to discuss her gripping memoir Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News. Intrigue, espionage, sex and scandal are core ingredients of the house – and, by osmosis, the festival. For 350 years, Cliveden has served as a muse to scribes and scholars from Alexander Pope to Lord Tennyson. It’s the spirit of these great writers that Natalie Livingstone, the festival’s highly glamorous chairman, wants to evoke in restoring Cliveden as a sanctuary for lovers of literature.
Where to begin, where to start in a summary of the two days – possibly with the news that the Georgians have eclipsed the Victorians in popular imagination? At least that’s what the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt relayed in his talk entitled Crazy Rich Georgians. A talk set against the backdrop of an intricately carved 16th century fireplace and a Singer Sergeant painting of Nancy Astor. A home away from home for the director of a museum with a collection that spans antiquity to the present day. He explained that there was a ‘weariness’ with the Victorian era and that historians had begun ‘unearthing the excitement’ of the preceding Georgian era. Undoubtedly helped along by Netflix’s smash-hit Bridgerton.
Then, there was Emerald Fennell, the very definition of A Promising Young Women – the title of her Oscar-winning film. Elegance incarnate in an Emilia Wickstead one-shoulder pin-striped suit she mused upon the shock of winning that Academy Award – so much so, she hadn’t prepared a speech. To this day, she hasn’t watched her speech back – as she’s too shocked to discover who she failed to thank.
As the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government arrived – aka Michael Gove – the photographers were aflutter, darting to capture the amiable man in the blue suit. He willingly posed for photographs before making his way to a talk entitled The Diary Enquiry. His co-panelists? Sasha Swire, author of Diary of an MP’s Wife, Emma Soames, whose mother Mary Churchill – a daughter of Winston – kept war-time diaries and journalist Dominic Sandbrook.
From cutting-edge new voices to well-seasoned authors, incisive journalism to side splitting comedy, the literary festival – in all its vibrant tented glory – is back and Tatler couldn’t be happier. Cheltenham, Cliveden, here we come
Swire, the wife of former parliamentarian Hugo Swire, described her diary-writing as a ‘compulsion’. Gove asserted that ‘the best diarists are on the sidelines, as a speaker you cannot see the people rolling their eyes. If you are directly involved, you are a participant, and therefore not an observer.’ It’s all about existing on the periphery.
What was left out of Swire’s no-holds-barred diary? ‘Tons and tons,’ apparently. ‘The expurgations I will leave to my children to do what they want with it.’ It was a legally fraught process: ‘What was told at private parties, I couldn’t pass on – but, with Michael [pointing to her fellow panelist], it was of public interest.’ Did Gove read Swire’s diary? ‘I read every page, I was gripped and some I would like to go down as historical fact.’ The elephant in the room was that Swire devoted an entire two-pages suggesting that Gove was rumoured to be very well endowed.
And, these were just mere titbits of the day’s events. The weekend, whose sponsors spanned Chanel to Veuve Clicquot via Jaguar Land Rover and was attended by stars, star columnists and leaders of industry was as boutique as a festival can get. Go to YouTube now and watch Barbara Amiel lock horns with Andrew Roberts, Elif Shafak put the world to right in conversation with Yana Peel and, in quite a coup, General Petraeus, the former director of the CIA, speak at length to Andrew Roberts about the hunt for Bin Laden. You’d be a fool to miss next year’s.
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