On an evening when the New Labour government passed into history, Michael Portillo spoke to an audience at the Swindon Festival of Literature about being someone ‘with a great political future behind them’.

Starting off his talk at the STEAM museum as more stand-up comedian than former cabinet minister, he regaled the crowd with a finely-tuned patter of political jokes and comic tales that have been perfected during his second career as a media personality.

In truth, Portillo could be held up as a beacon to ousted politicians, who might have been victims in the recent election, that there is life after Government.

He has turned his infamous 1997 election defeat – which became so notorious that a ‘Portillo moment’ has become shorthand for losing a parliamentary seat in an embarrassing landslide – into a kind of badge of honour.

He even took great pride in telling the audience how readers of the Observer voted it their third favourite moment of the 20th century, only slightly ahead of the assassination of Ceausescu.

But there was another reason for him being in the STEAM museum and that is his recent series of documentaries about Great British Railway Journeys, where he used George Bradshaw’s handbooks to take trips on railways around the country.

Portillo’s most recent work has involved making a series for BBC Radio 4 called Democracy on Trial.

He spoke movingly about his father, who came from Spain as a refugee having fought in the Spanish Civil War. He revealed that his father had fought on the opposite side to his brothers, who had supported General Franco.

In his career in the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, Portillo had a ringside seat as firstly the person whose job it was to brief her before press conferences and later as a member of her cabinet.

He said: “Political leaders often reach a point where they lose touch and reach for a sudden self-destruct button.”

He said Thatcher’s was when she failed to mount any campaign against Michael Heseltine’s threat to her leadership of the Conservatives while Gordon Brown’s was his failure to call a general election in 2007, before the financial crisis unfolded and he was ahead in the polls.

He ended by talking about his new television series looking at how meercats behave in the wild and concluded that they were ‘conspiratorial and dictatorial’ animals where the dominant female defeats all the others and then forces the male animals’ testosterone levels to fall while her own levels rise.

He said: “It has led me to a much more thorough understanding of Margaret Thatcher’s government.”

Loving angels at Art Centre

ANGELS. Real or not, what role do they play in society – and what can they teach us about ourselves?

These are the questions posed by Prof David Albert Jones in his new book, Angels: A History.

From one of the earliest recorded stories of angels – when they appeared to Abraham in the Hebrew scriptures some 3,000 years ago – to 19th century paintings of the Archangel Michael appearing to Joan of Arc, they have pervaded our culture.

It is one of the unifying aspects of religion that whatever your creed, angels tend to be depicted in the same way and, with their halos, wings and white robes, they transcend boundaries and are universally recognised.

One would think that, as science teaches us more about life and explains at least some of the phenomena society used to believe were the work of God, the popularity of angels would wane.

Yet, type angels into Google and you will get five times as many responses as you will if you type in Christianity.

And apparently, in the teen world, angels are the new vampires.

So if you want to know more about the history of angels, their place in world religion, art, literature and architecture, or you simply want to know why they have wings and halos, check out this book. GILL HARRIS

Crime author reveals all

A PROLIFIC crime author and former journalist entertained her audience with her razor sharp wit.

M.C. Beaton, real name Marion Chesney, is behind the literary creations Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth, but is also the author of over 100 regency romance novels.

She was at the Central Library yesterday to answer questions from clearly loyal fans.

Asked where she got her inspiration from, she replied that it was often every day occurrences that triggered off plotlines.

A former journalist who grew up in Scotland, Mrs Beaton had some fascinating stories about how she got into the job.

She used her first encounter with the industry to her advantage when she met an employer interviewing her for a copy writer position. She said: “He said ‘I just wanted to look at you, you need advice. Don’t ever say you edited the school magazine, for god’s sake, lie through your teeth.’”

The next time she was given an opportunity to write for a paper and asked if she had any experience she did as he had suggested and got her foot in the door.

Mrs Beaton was full of interesting anecdotes and having lived all over the world probably has plenty more - it was easy to see why she has no plans to stop writing just yet.

Emma Streatfield

It's time to find green solution

THE CHAIRMAN of Britain’s sustainable transport charity has argued that human being’s addiction to technology and fossil fuels is hurtling us towards disaster.

Peter Lipman, who presented Swindon Literature Festival’s safe and sustainable travel talk last night at the Arts Centre, believes the West needs to find a solution to our excessive energy use rather than the “quick-fixes” it is currently seeking.

He argued that rather than focusing on electric or bio-fuelled cars, nations – which are currently suffering from power shortages and hyper-consumption – need to take more drastic measures to facilitate the changes we need to survive.

Mr Lipman used the case of food-shortage riots in Mexico, after America’s introduction of corn fuelled bio-fuels, and world-wide oil shortages, as proof that something has got to give. His solutions include creating Transition Towns which intend to equip communities for challenges including climate change and peak oil – which will occur when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached.

He also called for new infrastructure leading to people reconnecting with their local communities while also travelling in ways that benefit their health and the environment.

Jeremy Grimaldi

Pitbull faces the questions at Steam WHEN former rugby international, BBC pundit and respected journalist Brian Moore calls a spade a spade, you can be sure he’ll describe it a shovel!

As a rugby player and England’s most capped hooker, shaven head Brian, who is built like a tank, was an uncompromising figure, fearsome in the scrum and one not afraid to voice an opinion either.

This he succeeded in doing at the Steam Museum yesterday evening with an absorbing and enthralling talk about his life and, in particular, his rugby career.

The half-Malaysian son of Methodist lay-preachers, he dealt almost passingly about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a teacher as a child, and about being abandoned as child by his single mother and put up for adoption.

Both are outlined in his new autobiography "Beware of the Dog" yet all he would say about these twin demons is that the experience of writing a book enabled him to put these things in perspective.

With Literature Festival organiser, Matt Holland, asking the questions and then the audience pitching in with questions of their own, the slant tended towards rugby, a career which saw Brian win 64 England caps between 1987 and 1995, playing in three World Cups and five British Lions Tests.

The former Harlequins hooker took issue over the hypocrisy within the Rugby Football Union at a time when the game was amateur, and yet there were lucrative foreign tours abroad.

He bemoaned the lack of respect football referees are shown compared to their rugby cousins, admitting that in the oval balled sport players were a little more subtle in their conversations with the match official.

Outspoken in his own BBC commentaries, Brian admitted that he had strayed close to the line on a couple of occasions. "Some people like me, and some don’t, it’s as simple as that."

The man, once known as Pitbull, despises eye gouging and tinkering with the laws of the game, particularly with the scrum.

The most respected front rows were the French and the All Blacks, revelling in how easy it was to wind up the French before internationals.

The best captain he played under was the Scot Finlay Calder and as for former England skipper and now coach, Martin Johnson, Brian offered: "We shall see how it goes, but I don’t think it is going to work".

The former lawyer is articulate, and witty. His dry humour was well received. Brian Moore is an iconic figure of English rugby, one loved by rugby followers for his dogged and bulldog spirit, both on and off the field Dave King

Audience bows to the king of terrors

The only professor in gothic studies, William Hughes had a lot to live up to when he gave a talk at the Highworth Library on Monday for the Swindon Festival of Literature.

And he didn’t fail to please the 35-strong crowd.

It was clear from the start that this man knew what he was talking about, as he took the group through from the start of gothic fiction – The Castle of Otranto in 1765 – to the more recent Alien triology and Resident Evil films.

To help the audience understand the genre better, William set the scene, explaining the reasons for gothic fiction’s rise in the 18th century while the world was very serious and sombre.

And it seems that the beginning of new centuries bring new outbursts with different themes as the world becomes fearful of the unknown and current events spark unease, at least beneath the surface, of the population.

It was certainly an interesting event, and one that will make people read gothic-themed texts with a fresh viewpoint.

William is professor of gothic studies at Bath Spa University and has penned books such as Beyond Dracula: Bram Stoker’s Fiction and its Cultural Context and co-authored many others on the gothic genre and Dracula.

Jennifer Ockwell