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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?