Something to read in the Bath

Britain's leading novelists dip a toe into history at the city's 11th literature festival
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This year's Bath Literature Festival boasts an impressive fiction line-up that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Andrea Levy, Andrew Miller, David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde and Hilary Mantel.

This year's Bath Literature Festival boasts an impressive fiction line-up that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Andrea Levy, Andrew Miller, David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde and Hilary Mantel.

The festival's theme is "hidden histories", with a raft of historians, scientists, social thinkers and novelists reviewing the past and considering its resonances in today's world. Among them are the naval historian Andrew Lambert, who marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar with an illustrated talk exploring Nelson's military strategy; Adam Zamoyski drawing on first-hand accounts to chart Napoleon's catastrophic retreat from Moscow; the local historian Andrew Swift exploring the contribution of Bath residents on the Western Front and the home front in the First World War; and Xinran, whose Sky Burial charts the story of a Chinese woman who spent 30 years in the mountains of Tibet searching for the truth about her husband's death.

The featured writer who has been investigating the most topical history, though, is Robert Winder, whose Bloody Foreigners chronicles the last millennium of immigration to Britain, from the Normans in 1066 to 12th-century Jews, 18th-century Huguenot weavers and the Windrush generation of the postwar years, to today's most high-profile immigrant, the asylum-seeker. The issue has been batted around for years and will feature heavily in the coming general election, but Winder thinks that there is a dawning appreciation of the history of immigration as a neglected story: "The antiquity of the process is hidden," he says, "and has been deliberately obscured for political reasons. It is presented as unprecedented, but it has been running along in a similar way for the best part of 1,000 years."

When he was researching the book, Winder "started snagging on awkward facts" that didn't gel with the common perception. One of these was that such a large proportion of the British Army in the First World War was not "British". "The iconography of the conflict is so much Sassoon and Journey's End and poppies," he says, "but a third of soldiers were from India, Africa and the colonies."

Other highlights of the festival's nine days will include the entertaining playwright Simon Gray recounting stories from his fifth memoir, The Smoking Diaries; Penelope Lively and Bel Mooney celebrating the late Canadian novelist Carol Shields with her daughter Anne Giardini; the film writer Kevin Jackson and the actor Paul McGann reflecting on the enduring cult status of Withnail & I; and Jeremy Treglown, V S Pritchett's biographer, leading a debate assessing the work and legacy of the great short-story writer.

Bath Literary Festival, various venues (01225 463362; www.bathlitfest.org.uk), 26 Feb to 6 March

Comments