Beautiful architecture, quaint tearooms and £20 glasses of gin… welcome to Cheltenham.
My first thought when I arrived in Cheltenham was: I really should have practised my posh accent. Having a western accent made me stick out like a sore thumb. However, I was also excited. It was my first ever literature festival, my university had paid for the tickets and transport, and I was ready to enrich myself in culture and a new part of the UK.
But it’s clear to see that this world isn’t for the working class… or for anyone under 50. Not for the first time in my life, I was a fish out of water. It felt strange, it was alienating to be young and, well, poor.
This attitude was felt in the air. In the strong stenches of designer perfume that burned your nose hairs, in the judgemental glare of the surrounding crowds and with the way a bunch of grey-haired women pulled their faces back at the mere suggestion of shopping in Topshop during a Mary Quant talk. Jeez, and I consider Topshop to be way too pricey for me, I thought to myself.
Literature festivals have a reputation for being exclusive snobbery for the white, middle classes. To be honest, I can see why. In the few talks I attended, there was little representation of the working class and it was very much aimed at the older generations, longing for the “good ol’ days”.
Although, as much as I love to ridicule this country’s horrendous class divide, I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy myself. Being in the company of authors and literature lovers was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. All three events I attended were run by women who fought to have their voices heard when the patriarchy was losing their grips on silencing them. They were strong, educated and weren’t afraid to talk about the issues that may embarrass the majority of the room. I particularly admired Kirsty Wark for calling out the fact it’s considered “brave” to create a documentary about the menopause.
In fact, I admired all the women I saw for openly talking about women’s issues and feminism. I enjoyed learning about the history of how Mary Quant helped shape women’s fashion and encouraging them to join the working world. Kate William’s (author of Rival Queens) talk about Mary Queen of Scots was captivating, and I was hooked on every word. Kirsty Wark’s and Janet Ellis’ conversation about challenging how women become “invisible” after they reach a certain age when they’re still killing it was utterly inspiring. There were such powerful, female voices at Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I would encourage everyone to witness them.
That’s why it’s such a shame that these festivals aren’t more inclusive. With such a narrow variety of audience members, I fear that these festivals could one day become obsolete. We desperately need more working-class and minority voices to keep these events relevant and to encourage more to experience them.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved looking back on the past and I owe so much to those women who fought for the rights I have today. But we also need to celebrate the younger generations who are shaping the future. Now, it’s our time to get our voices heard as well as everyone else. Let’s break down this barrier in literature because the arts is the only place there’s supposed to be no rules. Here, we can do whatever the hell we want and create any worlds we want. I’m begging the snobby attitudes in literature to not ruin this because we would be losing something very important.