Independent Bath Literature Festival: Follow in the footsteps of Austen, Defoe and Mr Pickwick

A glittering array of writers of fiction, poetry and politics will appear at the Independent Bath Literature Festival from next Friday. John Walsh looks forward to 10 days celebrating the written word.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?" breathed Catherine Morland, the star-struck 17-year-old heroine of Northanger Abbey. Who indeed? Literary folk, fictional and otherwise, have always been drawn, like heat-seeking missiles, to the city: Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Fanny Burney. Jane Austen lived there for five years. Mr Pickwick came to try the waters (which conveyed to Sam Weller "a very strong flavour o' warm flat-irons"). Sheridan's play The Rivals was set there. Angela Carter wrote three of her novels while living there in the 1960s. Sir Christopher Frayling studied literary vampires nearby. And let us not forget that towering literary work A Practical Essay on the Use and Abuse of Warm Bathing in Gluty Cases published there in 1740 by local penman Dr William Oliver, inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit.

Independent readers are invited to invade this most elegant of English cities, descend in bookish hordes on its Abbey, Spa and Royal Crescent, and enjoy 10 days of literary cut and thrust at the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2012. The festival was founded in 2005 and, under the directorship of James Runcie, the novelist and documentary-maker, brings a starry troupe of local, national and international writers to the city centre from 2 to 11 March.

The bicentenary of Dickens's birth in 1812 will be celebrated in several events. On Saturday 3 March, Clare Tomalin, the nation's most empathetic biographer, discusses her new life of "The Inimitable", including the evidence of a dark, cruel side to his nature downplayed by earlier biographers. The author's favourite novel, David Copperfield, will be read in public, in its entirety, at St Michael's Without church, with Alan Titchmarsh leading the way; and a fascinating compendium of extracts from the earliest, silent-film, adaptations of his work will be shown in the Little Theatre Cinema, including a version of The Cricket on the Hearth, his "quiet and domestic" depiction of Victorian home life, directed by DW (Birth of a Nation) Griffith.

It's 20 years since the death of Angela Carter, whose feral imagination brought rich post-feminist slants to fairy- and folk-tales. In an eclectic celebration, Susannah Clapp, author of A Postcard from Angela Carter, discusses Carter's life with her publisher Carmen Callil, agent Deborah Rogers, and biographer Dr Sarah Gamble, author of Angela Carter: A Literary Life; her stories will be explored by Helen Simpson and Michele Roberts and her novels by the author Ali Smith and the academic Gill Frith; and the Little Theatre Cinema will screen Kim Evans's Bafta-winning film, Angela Carter's Curious Room.

Women – as writers, mothers, daughters, wives, feminists, vamps, bluestockings or scientists – will be feted (in wholly non-paternalistic ways, obviously) as the 100th International Women's Day is celebrated on Thursday 8 March. There will be readings from the work of 100 women, kicked off by Dame Harriet Walter. Attendees can select a favourite passage by a woman and read it aloud. For a different engagement with brilliant women, try to get tickets for Sandi Toksvig, dry-as-bone Danish dominatrix of Radio 4's The News Quiz, or to Lynne Truss, scourge of sloppy punctuation in Eats, Shoots and Leaves and martinet of maladroit manners in Talk to the Hand.

A strong line-up of fiction writers is headed by William Boyd, whose new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, is set in 1913 Vienna, the trenches of the First World War and a web of counter-espionage in London. Hisham Matar's 2006 debut novel, In the Country of Men, a key work on political oppression, won a stack of awards and was translated into 22 languages. It's set in Tripoli (where Matar grew up) and concerns a nine-year-old boy whose father, an anti-Gaddafi activist, is in trouble with the authorities. The author will discuss life under Gaddafi, the fall of the tyrant, and the interface between history and fiction.

Nobel laureate and Booker prize-winner Nadine Gordimer discusses post-apartheid South Africa and her new book, No Time Like the Present, with the Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin. AL Kennedy will introduce her new novel, The Blue Book, a love story involving a dubious spiritual medium. Tony Parsons, a matchless anatomiser of the modern British male in Man and Boy and its offshoots, will talk about his day job as writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport, and his forthcoming novel, Catching the Sun. Elsewhere, Joe (Submarine) Dunthorne discusses the comic weirdness of family life with Marina (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) Lewycka, Joanna Briscoe and Esther Freud explore appearance and reality in contemporary fiction, and Dame Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5, discusses her life as spook-in-chief, her new career as an author and her latest thriller, Rip Tide.

Dickens apart, the art of biography is on fine display throughout the festival. Michael Holroyd, doyen of life-writing whose subjects include Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John, discusses his career and the "illegitimate daughters and absent fathers" linked in his swansong work, A Book of Secrets. The prolific and controversial AN Wilson considers the oddest cheerleader of Christendom, Dante Alighieri, who provided maps of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell in The Divine Comedy and nursed a lifelong obsession for a woman called Beatrice whom he barely met.

The lives of two important British painters are examined in depth. In The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Fiona MacCarthy, who has written acclaimed lives of Eric Gill and William Morris, brings unrivalled art-connoisseurship and sympathy to Edward Burne-Jones, the deeply conflicted Victorian artist whose androgynous, square-jawed maidens appeared on stained-glass windows and greetings cards, and who became a star of the aesthetic movement. In Mysterious Wisdom, Rachel Campbell-Johnston recounts the long and tragic life of Samuel Palmer, who brought a religious ecstasy to his visions of the English countryside and set up a community of like-minded aesthetes in Shoreham, Kent.

History lovers who have enjoyed Simon Jenkins's omniscient studies of buildings in England's Thousand Best Churches and its sister volume on houses will be delighted to hear he has taken the next logical step: the history of England. From Anglo-Saxons to Liberal Democrats, he tells the long story in a surprisingly short compass. The nation's favourite inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman, is coming to Bath to discuss the troubled history of the British Empire with his customary briskness and wit ("The British Empire had begun with a series of pounces. Then it marched. Next it swaggered. Finally, after wandering aimlessly for a while, it slunk away.") Meanwhile Sir Ian Kershaw, biographer of Adolf Hitler, examines the end of the war and the reasons why Germans went on fighting to the bitter end.

The shadow of the 2012 Olympics looms over us, and the festival will put the event in context when David Stuttard describes the original, ancient Olympic Games – what it was like to be there, to witness the official banquets, the bloody arena-fights and the victory celebrations.

Rome and its visitors down the centuries is the theme of Matthew Sturgis's new book, When in Rome: 2000 Years of Roman Sightseeing, a dashing chronicle of what the world and his wife made of the Forum, the Pantheon and the Colosseum. The body, which will be tested to breaking in the 400m race and the beach volleyball event in August, is the subject of several lectures, notably Professor Raymond Tallis on the brain, arguing that you can't explain human consciousness and behaviour in purely biographical terms; and Susan, Baroness Greenfield, populariser of science and scourge of Facebook, who tries to do exactly that in "You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity".

Exploring less objectively pin-downable human territory is Lisa Appignanesi, the novelist and social analyst, who has trained her forensic intelligence on love – where it comes from, how it makes us drooling slaves, and why it departs. Her book All About Love concludes that, without it, "we would have little our individuality, less literature and no society." And Marcus Berkman explores a malaise that affects more men than prostate cancer or gout – namely, middle age. The author of A Shed of One's Own talks to science writer David Bainbridge about mid-life crisis, the eruption of nostril hair and whether it's more embarrassing to acquire a Fender Stratocaster, a Harley-Davidson or a Sailor Jerry tattoo at 45. And, since we're skirting around sex, don't miss a talk on the first Sunday by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Oxford history fellow, whose book The Origins of Sex was one of the best-received non-fiction debuts of recent years. In it he shows how, between 1400 and 1600, our attitudes to sex changed: people realised that sexual morality couldn't be imposed by force and that people should be left to behave in private as they saw fit, no matter how much Church and state disapproved.

Several events will pitch Independent readers into the crucible of current affairs debate, in a series called "Independent Voices". The MPs Tristram Hunt and Don Foster will join Independent editor Chris Blackhurst and author Malcolm Dean, to ask, "Are politicians and the media as bad as each other?" In the wake of the Arab spring and last summer's riots and Twitter-led protests, Paul Mason of BBC's Newsnight discusses "Why is it kicking off everywhere?"

The legendary broadcaster and writer Joan Bakewell talks to Anne Atkins and Rosie Millard about sexual imagery and the death of innocence, to ask, "Has sexual freedom ruined our children?" The fate of the NHS, currently the hottest topic on the political agenda, is explored by Colin Leys (co-author of The Plot Against the NHS,) Professor Allyson Pollock (NHS plc) and the writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch. Debating the significance of wearing a veil or burqa, or of "slutwalking" in your underwear, are BBC correspondent Ritula Shah, stand-up comic Shaista Aziz and Independent columnist Joan Smith. The thorny question of university education – which will soon cost many students more than £40,000 – and its alternatives is aired by Melissa Benn, Maureen Freely, James Runcie and Jonathan Bate, as they ask, bluntly: "Are universities worth the money?" Among the poets appearing at Bath will be the laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, whose new collection, The Bees, has been praised as "a love song to the lyric muse." She will read from the new book at the Guildhall, and she will be accompanied by crumhorn virtuoso John Sampson.

Last December, the multiple award-winning poet Alice Oswald caused a stir by pulling out of the TS Eliot Prize shortlist because she objected to the award's sponsor. Now, in her new collection, Memorial, she re-focuses Homer's Iliad to concentrate on the lives of war dead. At Bath she talks to the festival director James Runcie about ethics in poetry and battle.

Coincidentally, both The Iliad and The Odyssey, those twin pillars of Western culture, are being staged at the festival in two hour-long performances by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, described as "stand-up tragedians." They offer the most economical introduction available anywhere in the world to the death of Hector, the Trojan horse, the "face that launched a thousand ships", Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Ithaca, and Penelope and her suitors.

Another classic of world literature gets a dazzling spring-clean when Martin Rowson, a cartoonist of such savagery and wit he has been compared to Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson rolled into one, takes on Gulliver's Travels. It's a homage to Swift, but also a modern re-casting of the great satire on human greed, duplicity and grossness, through which Rowson will guide the audience with customary relish.

These are exciting times for believers and non-believers. With the Church of England approaching schism over gay marriage and women bishops, with accusations of a rising tide of "militant secularists" and a growing backlash against Richard Dawkins's Darwinist atheism, it's hard to know what to believe. Luckily, here comes Alain de Botton, popular philosopher and savant, whose Religion for Atheists argues that non-believers can look to religion for insights into how to build communities and relationships.

Elsewhere, the question of how much modern Pakistan should be defined by its people's religion is discussed by Allan Little, Kamila Shamsie (author of Offence: the Muslim Case) and Anatol Lieven (author of Pakistan, a Hard Country).

Francine Stock, presenter of Radio Four's The Film Programme, takes the stage at the Little Theatre Cinema to talk an audience through her personal selection from a century of movies, as explored in her book, In Glorious Technicolor. And for a truly unique film experience (especially for fans of the Oscar-multi-nominated The Artist) you must attend the festival's opening-night gala event – a screening of the classic Buster Keaston silent film, College, about a bookish student who abandons his studies in the cause of love. In a novel twist, the film will be accompanied by a band of musicians, under Philip Sheppard, who have never seen the film before and will be obliged to react to its various moods without rehearsal. It could be bliss; it could be hell.

Music and silence are the twin poles of Nick Coleman's fascinating book, The Train in the Night, about the deafness and tinnitus that descended on him one morning and threatened to cut off this long-time music devotee from the sounds he loved best in the world. It's beautifully written, moving and, coming from a 1970s, Yes-loving prog-rocker, surprisingly moving.

There's so much else to see at the festival – events on dogs, camping, book-jacket design, the golden age of Arabic science, the Victorian invention of murder, and the psychopathology of human cruelty. And that's before we've even started on the daily writing lab at the Holburne Museum, where aspiring writers aged 12-18 will be offered advice by practitioners on the gentle art of finding a voice.

The festival ends on Sunday evening on a poignant note as director James Runcie celebrates Pericles's funeral oration: a eulogy, a lament, but also the first great political manifesto – arguing "to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave".

Pericles couldn't have known at the time, of course, but to be really happy, one has simply to make one's way to Bath from Friday, 2 March and enjoy all that this vast, multifarious festival of words and books has to offer.

Further event-information and booking advice about the Independent' Bath Literature Festival is available at or on 01225 463362

Order of the Bath: 12 talks to catch

Opening Night Gala and Buster Keaton's 'College' 8.30pm, Friday 2 March

Claire Tomalin talks to John Walsh about her life of Dickens 2.45pm, Saturday 3 March

William Boyd talks to James Runcie about 'Waiting for Sunrise' 8pm, Saturday 3 March

The art of biography with Michael Holroyd 2.45pm, Sunday 4 March

Hisham Matar on growing up under Gaddafi 8pm, Sunday 4 March

Fiona MacCarthy on Edward Burne-Jones 11.15am, Monday 5 March

Sandi Toksvig in conversation 8pm, Monday 5 March

'Independent' Voices Debate: Are Books Doomed? 1pm, Wednesday 7 March

Stella Rimington 8pm, Thursday 8 March

Angela Carter: The Life 11.15am, Saturday 10 March

Alexander McCall Smith on lady detectives (and on the bassoon) 8pm, Saturday 10 March

'Independent' Voices debate: Are politicians and the media as bad as each other? 1pm, Sunday 11 March