Independent Bath Literature Festival: facts, fiction and all human life
Leading writers from Lionel Shriver to AL Kennedy and Hanif Kureishi were at their most revealing at a sparkling Independent Bath Literature Festival, reports Alice Jones
Tuesday 11 March 2014
Germaine Greer danced, Hanif Kureishi ranted and Jennifer Saunders brought her dog. These were just some of the memorable moments at The Independent Bath Literature Festival, which ended on Sunday evening. Before it did, audiences had been treated to insights into what the brain looks like to the UK's most senior neurosurgeon ("Like a beautiful jelly," said Henry Marsh); what a former Archbishop of Canterbury reads for guilty pleasure ("There are moments where I feel like the only thing I cope with is a binge on Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers or King Solomon's Mines," said Rowan Williams) and the ins and outs, as it were, of goatskin condoms (with thanks to Bad Sex Award nominee Jonathan Grimwood).
It was a packed programme, opening with a buzzy party last Friday and talks from a triple whammy of strong women – Greer, Saunders and the world's fiercest tiger mother Amy Chua – and closing 10 days later with Joanna Trollope, Val McDermid and a Sunday evening jazz gig, with Jeff Williams, aka Mr Lionel Shriver, on drums.
In between, like the shelves of a well-stocked library, there were facts, fiction and all human life. There were historians and gardeners, psychoanalysts and chefs, economists and comedians. And there were writers – Gary Shteyngart, Lionel Shriver, Alain de Botton, Michael Rosen, David Lodge, AL Kennedy, Penelope Lively, to name a few. There were talks about Virginia Woolf's garden, Ernest Hemingway's boozing and Game of Thrones. Servants and spices, bad banks and badgers, philanthropy and privacy – all of them had their hour on stage. There were debates about the UK's "floundering" foreign policy and women's role in public life. There were insights into the exhausting life of a Booker Prize judge, masterclasses on how to get published and book swaps.
The theme for this year's festival was bliss, as celebrated in a series of excellent lectures. For Williams, bliss was Tolstoy, a writer who always "puts you straight into the room". Philip Hensher chose to talk about Wagner while Anna Pavord went into raptures over a perfectly ripe pear. Olivia Laing, whose fascinating book The Trip to Echo Spring examines why writers drink, talked frankly about the dark joys of intoxication with reference to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and her own upbringing in an alcoholic family. In the most surprising lecture, Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, talked movingly about living with her famous name, finding the courage to write poetry and channelling the tragedies of her life into a new career as a therapist. Bliss, it turned out, was "knowing yourself."
The book festival is a kind of bliss for readers and writers alike. Readers get to listen to, question and meet their favourites. Writers get to enjoy the sound of their own voice, talking about their own work, for an uninterrupted hour. This blissful state tends to induce a frankness in them that is quite different from what comes out on the page, or in the course of normal interviews. Kureishi launched an attack on pointless and expensive creative writing courses that still rumbles on, not least because he is a professor in the subject at Kingston University. Chua lashed out at critics who have called her cultural study The Triple Package racist. Kennedy derided the state of UK fiction and its obsession with "thirtysomething people living in Kensal Green".
Elsewhere, Lionel Shriver expounded on being "naturally tactless" and the simple economics of writing: "At school I was the weirdo. I'm still the weirdo, I just get paid for it." The ever witty and perspicacious David Lodge wondered whether the enthusiastic rediscovery of Stoner by the literary establishment had more to do with the fact its writer John Williams was dead, and therefore not a threat, than its quality. "When you're a professional novelist, admiration is hard to distinguish from competition," he said. And Alastair Campbell revealed that he might have become a writer far earlier had his wife, Fiona, not deleted his first novel by accident 25 years ago. "She pressed a button and the whole thing vanished. To this day we don't know what happened," he said. "I don't do God but I think this was the man upstairs saying, 'This book isn't ready yet.'"
Every day came revelations about how and why writers write. Countless do it as therapy, others (Kureishi) do it "to give people a good time while they're in bed". Some write on their BlackBerry, "in floods of tears" (Campbell), some on the back of a napkin (Grimwood), some fuelled by Diet Coke and baths (Kennedy), some by hunger (Shriver).
The setting for most of these insights of this was the grand Guildhall on the High Street but the beauty of Bath's festival, unlike Hay, say, is that it is a city event. Its tentacles reach out beyond the central venue so that, in the nicest possible way, it becomes hard to avoid. There were breakfast briefings from Gavin Esler (who suggested that MPs should look to Dolly Parton for tips on communication) and the FT's Mrs Moneypenny ("Be careful who you tread on on the way up. Those are the backsides you'll have to lick on the way down.") over eggs and bacon at Hall & Woodhouse. There were long, literary lunches at Allium Brasserie. Stephen Grosz, the psychotherapist behind the bestseller The Examined Life, spoke at the Mineral Hospital. In the evenings, there were poems in pubs and short stories in the Royal Crescent. Thanks to Viv Groskop, the festival's new artistic director, and a stand-up by night, there was bags of comedy, with gigs at Komedia by Lucy Porter, Count Arthur Strong and a night of female stand-up, opened by "token male" Mark Watson.
The green room is the epicentre of any book festival and here, over mini flapjacks, lukewarm tea and some wine, the gossip continued. The journalist Nick Cohen whose latest book attacks "censorship in an age of freedom" moaned about the difficulties of deleting himself from Facebook; Jonathan Aitken said that the Iron Lady would have approved of the backstage efficiency; Lodge wondered quietly whether he should tell his audience that they could buy his book more cheaply on Kindle; Kennedy talked about the time she was paid for talking at an event in chocolate-flavoured condoms and breast-firming cream; Campbell headed straight for the fruit bowl, announcing "First rule of campaigning: if you see a banana, eat it", while the food writer Claudia Roden nibbled on her first ever Waitrose sandwich. On Saturday, International Women's Day, the gilded room was abuzz with brilliant women – Kirsty Wark, writers SJ Parris and Natalie Haynes, the CEO of Whistles, Jane Shepherdson, comedians Ellie Taylor and Rachel Parris, Sarah Bailey, editor-in-chief of Red magazine and Groskop.
Throughout, one other woman made her presence unmistakably felt. The final day of the festival featured not one, but two lectures that declared that "Bliss is... Jane Austen". Joanna Trollope extolled Sense and Sensibility ("Two hundred years and not a dent in its relevance – if that's not genius I don't know what is") while Val McDermid talked about rewriting Northanger Abbey as a modern-day Edinburgh thriller, although she had been equally keen to rewrite Emma as a "lesbian novel". The day before saw James Mullinger's stand-up show about his obsession with period dramas and Austentatious, in which a cast of comedians improvise a new Austen story with the help of the audience. It sold out before anything else on the programme this year. Bonnets, like books, never go out of fashion.
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