On the Night Watch at Cheltenham


I am loitering on the steps of an open-fronted cabin run by a well-known high-street supermarket. A small crowd is listening to three men who are standing behind the counter, discussing various topics, when an old lady steps up beside me and peers into the room.

“What're they talking about?” she asks, straining to hear the conversation.

“Cricket,” I reply pleasantly.

“Oh gawd,” she mutters, and quickly scuttles away.

Standing room only.

I'd never been to Cheltenham before. I'd never been to a literature festival before either. So to be invited into the Waitrose tent to take part in The Nightwatchman's sessions at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was rather exciting. Its dismissal by a hard-to-please old biddy didn't put me off.

It was also rather exciting to get to meet some proper writers and cricket broadcasters: Dan Norcross, TomHolland, John Crace and Jonathan Wilson. Hopefully there would be enough room for a palaeontological witterer.

I caught the train from Durham on Thursday evening, arriving to find Dan and Jon eating in TGI Fridays on a trunk road. This was the glamour I anticipated.

Next morning, we drove over to Montpellier Gardens. In glorious early sunshine, the famous Regency grandeur of Cheltenham pulled no punches. Even the festival tents were pretty upmarket. And then we managed to wangle our way into the Green Room. This was the glamour I anticipated.

A splendid spot for talking about cricket.

Our first session was at 11, with Tom and I asked to speculate about the origins of cricket, and Dan to try and keep us to some sort of structure. From the Piltdown cricket bat to the stumps of Stonehenge, via frivolichnia and fast-bowling hominins, we hopped prehistorically all over the place. Those clustered in the cabin seemed to enjoy it, especially Steve the Irrepressible Yorkshireman, with the requirement of euphony in palaeontological nomenclature proving to be surprisingly popular.

Now veterans of the celebrity scene, we retreated back to the Green Room for lunch and – plonked in front of the sponsors board – ended up having a discussion of why, if there was no mystery to them, anyone would want to go on a Viking river cruise.

We also learned that, at a festival book-signing, Joanna Trollope had stayed for a final tardy fan, only to find they wanted her to autograph a volume of Laurie Lee, which she declined. This led to a serious discussion of the marketing possibilities of having famous people's works signed by other famous people, rather than the author. An untapped seam, it seems.

The afternoon session saw Jon and John talk with Dan about amateur cricket, the Authors XI, and Argentina. As befitting a good tea, there were jam tarts a-plenty.

Back in the Green Room again, we feigned indifference at the famous people milling around, such as Paddy Ashdown, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Kirsty Wark and Salman Rushdie. There was free wine to be drunk, and Canadian international footballers to try and recall. By the time 7.30 came along, and the day's final session, the advertized plan for Dan to lead Tom, John and me through a discussion of cricket, politics, and the Scottish referendum had fallen by the wayside.

Instead, Dan decided he needed me to talk about setting up a cricket association in Newfoundland, to John about how he ruined Robin Smith's career, and to Tom about Kevin Pietersen as an Achilles-like hero. How we crowbarred the links between these disparate topics was unclear, but the wine would surely help. We only hoped that none of the capacity crowd were there to hear about Alex Salmond's forward-defensive.

Warning: the contents of this tent may have shifted during transit.

I'm relieved to say it was – for me at least – great fun. Whether veritas came out of vino was debatable, but the lopsided buttocks of St John's St John The Baptist got a look in, linking seamlessly with Tom's 3 wickets against the Vatican CC (and also, it transpired, with Jon's forthcoming book on Argentinian football, the first copy of which has to be presented to Pope Francis). Somehow or other, I managed to conclude the conversation with the claim that a 45-year-old KP would see out his career for the Bonavista Bog Donkeys in the NPL.

After rapturous applause (in my head, perhaps), the only possible place to go was the pub, and then – circuitously – an Italian restaurant, and finally back to the flat where Dan, Matt and I stayed up till about 3am enjoying that palaeontological treat, Dino wine, and the YouTube highlights of Jacques Brel's amazing career. Remarkable scenes!



If we're allowed back, we really must do it again some time.

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