Bellowing cows, spurned lovers and death threats – it’s all in a day’s work for Diana Reich, artistic director of the Charleston Festival.

Diana has been organising the festival for the past 25 years and if you think such a very English event is all gentility and cream teas, then think again.

For a start, the Bloomsbury group of writers, artists and thinkers who made Charleston their home were hardly conformists toeing the Establishment line. The festival celebrates the same ethos, embracing new ideas and becoming a focus for contemporary writers, movers and shakers. So it’s hardly surprising that there can be a few hiccups from time to time.

On stage a writer holding his audience transfixed with his reading of a poignant death scene can be interrupted by the bellowing of a cow from the nearby farmyard or by gale force winds threatening to tear the marquee from its moorings.

In the Green Room guest writers have, on occasions, come face to face with a previous lover and new partner or with a critic who wrote his (or her) worst ever review.

“And over the years,” Diana recalls, “I’ve had death threats for not including a particular writer in the festival.”

But after 25 years of weathering such storms, Diana remains philosophical. “The joys far outweigh the negatives,” she says.

She obviously loves her job and was in the vanguard of those who came up with the idea of carrying on the spirit of Bloomsbury through an annual literary festival.

“Charleston was a crucible of creativity and ideas, a way of living. If walls could speak, they would be saturated with experimentation, fun and open-ness,” she says. “And the best way of perpetuating that spirit was to create something living.”

The festival has come a long way in 25 years. The first event was held in an apple-shed which seated an audience of about 30 and there were just nine speakers. This year there will be more than 100 speakers and nearly 40 events in a huge marquee which will be bulging at the seams for much of the time.

A quarter of a century ago there were only three literature festivals – Hay, Edinburgh and Cheltenham. Now there are more than 300 – one of the UK’s great growth industries.

And true to form the programme at Charleston will be packed with colour and controversy, debate and humour, and the sheer brilliance of the written word.

From poetry with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (who has written a special anniversary piece) and friend of Seamus Heaney Paul Muldoon, to that great chronicler of contemporary life, artist Grayson Perry, talking fashion with Justine Picardie. There will be different views of the First World War, from writer Michael Morpurgo and historian Max Hastings; of the first fateful year with Mark Bostridge and its aftermath with novelist Helen Dunmore.

Diana is particularly proud of the fact that this year’s programme will feature so many writers from abroad, many of whom only make occasional visits to the UK. They will be coming from as far afield as Norway, Australia, Canada and the US – big names such as Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding; Lorrie Moore; Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard and Australian Tim Winton.

There are plenty of home-grown starry names too – Alan Bennett, Eileen Atkins in a homage to Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan, Jane Gardam, Penelope Lively, Alison Macleod, William Nicholson – the list goes on.

Over the years, both writers and audiences have changed, says Diana. The image of a lonely figure in a garret has long since gone. Writers these days have to know how to engage an audience. And audiences don’t want to just sit and listen to a writer reading from their latest book. They want debate and discussion. They want to be involved. Years ago, the festival was all about fiction. Now it is much more.

This year the programme spans biography, economics, politics and lashings of espionage from James Naughtie and Ben Macintyre, plus Robert Harris on his re-telling of the Dreyfus Affair.

It is a mouthwatering feast indeed – and there is still a chance to buy tickets for some events.

  • For more information and to book tickets, call 01273 709709 or visit