Bath Literature Festival: Stories from the Fringe


PD James: Pride and waspishness

Good news for those with a taste for PD James – Adam Dalgleish is coming back, and we may not have to cover our faces when Death Comes to Pemberley comes to the small screen.

The thriller sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is being adapted by Juliette Towhidi, who wrote the screenplays for Calendar Girls and Testament of Youth. But Baroness James was "not too optimistic" when she spoke about this at the Bath Literature Festival.

"What I would really like to have is some of my own words in the script", she said with a waspishness worthy of her and Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. So she's had a clause written into the contract giving her "some authority" over the script.

James has had "depressing" experiences with TV adaptations, she told her festival interviewer John Mullan. She declared the series based on her Cordelia Gray novels "awful" (Gray was played, successively by Pippa Guard and Helen Baxendale).

"Can you see me writing anything like that?" she said of one invented plot twist. The BBC head of drama has promised her the Pemberley adaptation will be done with "excitement and culture". So-o-o? (Mullan could hear a "but" coming)…

"I don't think they need to alter it, but I bet they will!"

On the Dalgleish front, the author clearly feels more in control. Even at 92, though, she is frantically busy. A recent accident "reminded me I still haven't signed my will yet".

"I have the idea, I have the situation, but I haven't had the chance to start yet. I need peace and quiet. Maybe after April - I'm cutting back on the House of Lords, and giving up the Society of Authors.

"But I still like meeting my readers - they help keep me up to the mark. So it will probably be in the summer."

Fisk on a barrier to the truth

Always watch out for the use of words in reports from the Middle East, The Independent's veteran correspondent Robert Fisk warned a sellout audience at the Bath Literary Festival on Saturday.

"We do these tricks," he said. Israel's wall against the Palestinians - "longer and bigger than the Berlin Wall" – is described as "a security fence". The colonial war that's going on in the country is hidden behind the cosy word "settlements".

In the "50-50 school of journalism", the suffering of victims had to be balanced against the excuses of their oppressors. Much of what we read is drawn entirely from "official sources".

There is "an osmotic relationship between journalism and power, particularly in the US, and increasing here", Fisk said. "But if this is journalism, I don't have a job."

Fisk, 66, has spent 37 years covering the Middle East and north Africa. He came to Bath straight from Beirut, where he lives, and will return to Lebanon today.

In neighbouring Syria, he said, "I sniff a little bit of Yalta in the air." (Yalta was where Europe was carved up between Russian and Western areas of influence at the end of World War Two.)

"There is something going on between the Syrian military, the regime – not including Bashar Al-Assad – and the West. The intelligence services realise the war has gone on far too long.

"They are talking to the Free Syrian Army – they want to bring back the lost cities."

But one of the conundrums of the Middle East, he said, is "how can people who have, by and large, retained their religious faith be dominated – technologically, politically and militarily – by people who have lost it?"

Fisk noted that the main banner of the Arab awakening wasn't democracy, but justice and dignity. The reason was that "all our democracies supported their dictators".

A former editor of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram, Mohamed Heikal, had told him that when a dictator seizes power he entered "a sea of quietness, in which he begins to think of his people as his children".

But then, Fisk added, "the youth of the country grow up and realise that it is their regime that is full of children, even if like Hosni Mubarak they are 84 years old".

The story of the Arab awakening isn't finished – and won't be in our lifetimes, he said. "It's a huge upheaval, such as we had in the West when the financial crisis erupted."

Journalists largely failed to spot these connections at the time. "In the West the bankers were saying, you can't manage without us. In Egypt Mubarak was saying, the Islamists will come in if I go."

Answering questions, Fisk said he did not believe there could now be a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. "Israel has taken too much land, especially now East Jerusalem is going to be cut off from the West Bank by settlements."

Many millions of Israelis "want peace and have a right to it," he said. "The problem is that the government does not act in a way that is conducive to peace – it can't even say where it thinks its western border should be."

On the other hand, the Arabs too had to accept a few realities. The Palestinians were "languishing in their inability to unite".

Riding on the crest of a slump

The timing could barely have been better for an author talking about his book on When Money Dies. Just 24 hours earlier, the pound had dropped below $1.50 for the first time in three years.

OK, hyper-inflation's not here yet. Certainly not the Weimar levels of hyper-inflation which, Adam Fergusson warned, set Hitler on the road to power.

"But I don't see any difference in principle between Germany in the 1920s and what central bankers like Mario Draghi and Ben Bernanke are doing with QE now.

"They don't know if it's working. No banker or economist really understands the mechanics. If it gets out of control, we're all sunk. The whole situation is full of warning signs."

Fergusson was speaking at the Bath Literature Festival on Saturday. And, such events being what they are, he couldn't do without a literary allusion.

"'Neither a borrower not a lender be', as Polonius told his daughter in Hamlet," he said confidently.

As I was talking to the author later - about whether negative interest rates would work, as suggested by the Bank of England's Paul Tucker - a member of his audience approached us.

"It wasn't his daughter, it was Laertes, his son," she confided.

For the record, Fergusson doesn't think Tucker's idea would work. "It won't even get off the ground," he said

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