With more than 350 literary festivals in the UK alone, how do you cut through? The Cliveden Literary Festival has the answer – pure HNW appeal, writes Hannah Solel
‘It’s extraordinary that nobody had thought about it before,’ historian Andrew Roberts tells Spear’s on the morning of the inaugural Cliveden Literary Festival. President of the festival’s committee Roberts, currently half way through writing a biography of Winston Churchill, is right: the Grade I-listed, cream-hued house, with its colourful past and myriad of owners dating back to 1666, is unquestionably the ultimate backdrop for a weekend celebration of literature and history.
‘The history of the house is so bound up with great writing and literature of the past and the authors that came here, especially in the 18th century, and then much more recently in the 1930s,’ notes Roberts. ‘It’s like a who’s who of British literature.’
Cliveden, now a National Trust property and five star hotel, sits on the edge of Berkshire on high ground overlooking the Thames and was formerly home to Nancy Astor, who hosted guests including Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi during its heyday at the centre of a particular universe. To many, the place is better known for the Profumo Affair in the 1960s, which helped prompt the collapse of the Macmillan Conservative government and bring the Establishment into disrepute. From a literary perspective, the house has been significant in the careers of several greats of the English canon – not least George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift and Lord Tennyson. So the place has got form.
Bought by property developers Ian and Natalie Livingstone in 2012, it is now the home of one of Britain’s newest literary festival – but a very Spear’s-y one at that. Unlike the Hay Festival where you’ll find more than 100,000 individuals milling around the mud, the Cliveden event is much more exclusive, with capacity for just over 1,000 ticketholders. The glug of Taittinger and the unpacking of Fortnum & Mason picnic hampers set the tone for attendees.
Authors including Ian McEwan and Sebastian Faulks were among this year’s highlights, as was Robert Harris, who spoke at length with Frances Osborne about the extensive six-month research process for his most recent novel, Munich.
Historians Simon Schama, Lady Antonia Fraser, Simon Sebag Montefiore, former Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker editor Tina Brown and Yana Peel, CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, were among the luminaries in attendance at the festival. They shared their views on the role of museums, the Balfour Declaration, the Russian revolution and women in power during a weekend of cultural debate.
From politics George Osborne was spotted in the grounds, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, and MP Kwasi Kwarteng (regarded by many as a future leadership contender) participated in a discussion on the state of topsy-turvy politics.
Additionally Roberts paid tribute to the calibre of the other important participants of the literary festival – the audience: ‘These are people who really engage full-on intellectually and although it’s not just a festival for intellectuals, there are an awful lot of them around,’ remarks Roberts, who notes that the first two questions at the museums panel were from a former chairman of the V&A and the other was on the board of National Museums Liverpool.
Praising Cliveden’s current owners, Roberts says: ‘It’s a sort of love token basically from Ian Livingstone to his beautiful and brilliant wife Natalie. You think of other things that rich and successful men give their wives as love tokens, like cars and yachts and diamonds – forget it! So unimaginative! What an intelligent and rich man should give his wife is a literary festival!’
Hannah Solel is a writer and Researcher at Spear’s