The biggest names in books: The Independent Bath Literature Festival is back

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From Darcey Bussell to Hilary Mantel, and Robert Fisk to Jim Crace, the event brims with attractions. John Walsh picks the highlights

The Independent Bath Literature Festival is back, in all its glory, from 1 March. This is the second year that The Independent has sponsored this sublimely eclectic, entertaining and friendly festival, and readers are warmly invited to descend on the beautiful city during the first week in March, check out the famous Abbey, Spa and Royal Crescent, and sample some of the 200 Festival events. A rich smorgasbord lies before them, of meaty fiction, nourishing history, fishy scandal, fruity biography and pungent current-affairs debates. From folk song to Fascism, religion to the history of British radio, from Darcey Bussell to Thomas Cromwell, this festival has something – no, several things – for everyone.

One of this year's predominant themes is the state of Europe a century ago, just before the First World War. What were the ideals people were fighting for then? And what principles would we be prepared to die for today? The critic Jonathan Bate, provost of Worcester College, Oxford discusses with festival director James Runcie the literature of the First World War – not just the familiar war-poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, but the novels that war inspired: Parade's End, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That. The destruction of a whole generation in the trenches produced a wider dereliction, of trust in authority and national duty. But why do the poems, plays and novels still exert such a fascination?

Allan Little, the author of Death in Yugoslavia, looks at Sarajevo, where the war effectively began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Why was the city so pivotal in the drift to war, and why has it played such a key role in later conflicts such as the Bosnian war of the 1990s? Christopher Clark will discuss his book The Sleepwalkers, a damning indictment of pre-war Europe as "a fractured, multicultural world of clashing ideals, terrorism, militancy and instability" run by a gang of incompetent leaders powerless to prevent a drift to war. A more positive perspective is offered by Charles Emmerson, senior fellow at Chatham House, who, to research his book 1913: The World Before the Great War, travelled from Detroit to Bombay and from Winnepeg to Algiers, to discover that the world beyond Europe was more stable and more international than we think. He finds in this crucial year the beginnings of a truly global economy.

The subject of the conduct of war is everywhere this year. Patrick Hennessy, author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club, was a serving officer in Afghanistan's notorious Helmand province. His new book Kandak: Fighting with Afghans isn't, however, a record of conflict; it's about the close personal ties of friendship that spring up between warriors and soldiers in the intense melee of battle; even between the living and dying. Aminatta Forna's new novel The Hired Man is set in the aftermath of war in a quiet little Croatian town.

And we have a rare opportunity to check out the war photographs of the great society-snapper, Cecil Beaton: after spending the 1930s photographing models and royals in Mayfair studios and living rooms, instead he travelled extensively to far-flung war zones, to Iraq, Palestine, Syria, India, Burma and the Western Desert. The resulting 7,000-strong images have been edited by Hilary Roberts, head curator of the photography archive at the Imperial War Museum. She discusses them in Bath Guildhall with Mark Holborn, editor of the massive Cecil Beaton's Theatre of War.

Among writers who have set novels in the war, the Man Booker Prize-winning Pat Barker stands out. Her Regeneration trilogy dealt in the fall-out from the trauma of war in the human psyche, and mingled historical figures such as Owen and Sassoon with fictional soldiers being treated for shell-shock by WHR Rivers, a celebrated army psychiatrist. Her new novel, Toby's Room, is a sequel to her 2007 novel Life Class, revivifying its characters, a group of young painters studying at the Slade in 1918 under the tutelage of Henry Tonks, artist and surgeon. It's a heartbreaking study of the management of grief.

Three of the nation's most prodigiously bestselling novelists are sure to draw crowds. Hilary Mantel's unstoppable royal progress through the nation's top literary awards continues, as Bring Up the Bodies won this year's Costa Book of the Year, as well as last year's Booker. Mantel is now pretty well established as Britain's finest 21st-century novelist, and her three-volume portrait of the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell one of the great experiments in historical evocation.

When JK Rowling brought her dizzyingly bestselling Harry Potter magnum opus to a triumphant conclusion, millions of readers wondered what her first foray into adult fiction would be like. Few could have foreseen The Casual Vacancy, the story of a parish council election in small West Country town, replete with sex, drugs, swearing, self-harming and Rihanna singalongs. Tickets to her event on Friday evening are, understandably, like gold dust. And PD James, both the queen of British crime writing and a colossal fan of Jane Austen, is coming to Bath to discuss her book Death Comes to Pemberley, a whodunit based on Pride and Prejudice, soon to be made into a film.

Among the starry cast of novelists at the Festival are Jim Crace, whose new novel, Harvest, has picked up delirious reviews; Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring; Rachel Joyce, whose funny and uplifting debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was long-listed for the Booker; Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore, whose The Greatcoat is about the capacity of the past to haunt the present; the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, whose novel Honour is this year's Big Bath Read; Kate Mosse, the Orange Prize founder and author of Labyrinth and Citadel; Michèle Roberts, whose brilliantly poetic 2012 novel Ignorance inspects the wilful blindness to anti-Semitism of a French provincial town before the war; and Radio 4's favourite Dane, the sharp-witted and hilarious Sandi Toksvig, comes to the Bath Festival to discuss Valentine Grey, a love story set in the Boer War.

Biographical studies feature strongly at Bath this year, headed by Lucy Hughes-Hallett's sparkling biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio, 20th-century Italy's most energetic politician, soldier, writer, visionary and obsessive, Berlusconi-esque skirt-chaser. AN Wilson follows last year's short biography of Hitler with a more homely British subject, Josiah Wedgwood, master craftsman and potter extraordinary. Alex Danchev comes to the Guildhall to present his life of Cézanne, the Impressionist maestro who was to "astonish the world with an apple." Danchev talks us through his early trials and friendship with Emile Zola, and suggests that Cézanne is a cultural titan to be regarded as in the same orbit as Marx or Freud. Still in the realm of art, Ross King offers an illustrated lecture on Leonardo da Vinci and the circumstances behind his comparatively late flowering as he prepared to paint his masterpiece, The Last Supper.

Potted biographies of all the key Modernist writers dot the pages of 1922: Constellation of Genius: Modernism Year One, Kevin Jackson's masterful study of the year in which both Ulysses and The Waste Land were published. Was it mere coincidence that the 20th century's most influential novel and poem shared the same birth-year?

Paula Byrne, who investigated the "secrets" of Evelyn Waugh and the real-life Brideshead in 2010, now presents The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. The small things include a portable writing case and a topaz cross given her by her brother. Two centuries after the first appearance of Pride and Prejudice, Austen is ubiquitous. The critic John Mullan, fresh from his conversation with PD James about her re-casting of Austen's debut as a whodunit, now introduces his new book, What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, asking such vital questions as: Does anybody actually have sex in Austen's works? What's the role of servants? And which important characters have no lines of dialogue? There's more scandal to report, I'm afraid, in the form of Daphne du Maurier. The sexual orientation of the author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel has been under the spotlight before. Now, in a dazzling group biography, Jane Dunn looks at the lives of her siblings Angela and Jeanne and discovers they led lives just as unconventional (and as full of creative make-believe) as Daphne's own.

The Festival and The Independent are both delighted to welcome Darcey Bussell, one of the greatest English ballet dancers ever to stand en pointe, to an hour of reminiscence about her career, prompted by the intimate, behind-the-scenes photographs in her book A Life in Pictures. Fans of the 1980s band Everything But the Girl will hasten to hear guitarist Tracey Thorn discuss her upbringing in Hull, her career in "sophisti-pop" and her collaborations with Paul Weller and Massive Attack. And there are some terrific biographical lectures: John Batchelor on the life and manifold eccentricities of Alfred Lord Tennyson; and James Runcie on John Keats, his last letters from Rome and his romanticising of his approaching death.

The synergic relationship between festival and sponsor means that The Independent has been able to collaborate with Bath to present Independent Voices, a series of lunchtime discussions on several serious issues in the news pages and the comment columns. Readers will find some familiar columnists on the Guildhall stage: Robert Fisk, our near-legendary Man in Beirut, will discuss the continuing mayhem and diplomat stalemate in Syria, and the problematic fallout, a year later, of the Arab Spring. Owen Jones, aged 28, will preside over a session called The Youth View, discussing current news stories with students from Bath University and four local Bath schools. Come along and hear what tomorrow's opinion-formers are thinking.

Michael McCarthy, the Independent's passionate environment correspondent, will ask a panel of thinkers some blunt questions: Is British wildlife heading for extinction? And can business save the planet? The novelists and leading feminist thinkers Kate Mosse and Joan Smith examine the rise of the "pornification" of women, especially young girls, in the British media (and ask, "Has 50 Shades of Grey" made everything worse?) Paul Vallely chairs a discussion of world faiths which asks how do religions, which supposedly set out to change people's lives for the better, turn violent? Somali expert James Fergusson talks to Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence and novelist Aminatta Forna about reporting from the world's most dangerous places. And the seemingly unstoppable global drugs trade is investigated by the authors of Narcomania.

The theme of Englishness is addressed in a dozen amusing ways: Harry Mount, author of How England Made the English, explains how we were shaped by geography, climate, history and travel procedures: why we drive on the left, why we drink too much, why we're tongue-tied with the opposite sex. The peculiarities of English spelling are teased out by words-magician David Crystal. The rambunctious Mary Whitehouse, scourge of TV filth and founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association's Clean Up TV campaign in the mid-1960s, is re-examined by Ben Thompson, who suggests she was a harbinger of change in cultural history. Emily Cockayne peers through net curtains of suburban villas to report on the social history of the British neighbour, and how relations between them (Friends? Rivals? Adjacent allies?) have evolved over nine centuries.

Lastly, the festival will examine injustice in various guises. There's historico-political injustice, as exemplified by the British in the Raj – Pankaj Mishra explores the ways in which "Asian resistance" arose to fight back. There's legal injustice, as investigated by Clive Stafford-Smith of Reprieve, who comes to Bath to lecture on a 26-year-long travesty of justice on Death Row in Florida. And there's racial injustice, which can be opposed by creative writing as much as by rhetoric. Over the last four days of the festival, Dame Harriet Walter, along with actors, theatre students and a gospel choir will stage four rehearsed readings of the trial scene from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of most dramatic scenes in literature, a beacon of light in a dark night of prejudice, staged in an actual court room.

This year marks the end of James Runcie's four-year stint as Artistic Director of the Bath Festival. From next year, Viv Groskop, the writer, columnist and stand-up comedian will take the artistic reins. The performances of Mockingbird, directed by Marilyn Imrie will bring this multifariously thrilling festival to a splendid climax.

Best of the festival: John Walsh's recommendations

Saturday 2 March 4.30pm

PD James Baroness James of Holland Park, national treasure, scourge of the BBC and queen of crime, talks about her crime novel 'Death Comes to Pemberley' – and about why 'Pride and Prejudice' still inspires her – with critic and author John Mullan.

Saturday 2 March 6.15pm

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list The judges of this unique and prestigious award, led by 'Independent' Literary Editor Boyd Tonkin, discuss the 15 books they've chosen from the world's literary output in 2012.

Monday 4 March 1pm

Environment, Resources and Economy 'The Independent''s award-winning environment writer Michael McCarthy chairs a debate on one of the most important subjects on the 21st century: can we actually afford to save the planet?

Tuesday 5 March 8pm

Clive Stafford-Smith The founder of the Reprieve charity, and long-time thorn in the flesh of American justice, lays out the shocking facts behind a human rights scandal that has kept the wrong man on Death Row for 26 years.

Wednesday 6 March 11.15am

Modernism, Year Zero One of the UK's top cultural commentators, Kevin Jackson, discusses the 'constellation of geniuses' – including Joyce, TS Eliot, Picasso and Stravinsky – who made 1922 such an epic year in literary history with the publications of both 'Ulysses' and 'The Waste Land'.

Friday 7 March 8pm

JK Rowling The top storyteller of her generation will appear, like a seraph descended from heaven, to meet her public and discuss her first novel for adults, 'The Casual Vacancy'. She'd probably rather not be grilled about Harry Potter. This is not suitable for under-16s.

Saturday 9 March 8pm

Hilary Mantel World-conquering, double-Booker-winning prima donna assoluta of the modern historical novel – and controversial essayist on royal wives – Mantel is writing at the height of her considerable powers. But what is it about Thomas Cromwell that so inspires her?

Sunday 10 March 2.45pm and 8pm

To Kill a Mockingbird A rehearsed reading of the stand-out courtroom scene from Harper Lee's enduring classic about racial prejudice and liberal wisdom, narrated by Dame Harriet Walter, with the US actor Guy Paul as Atticus Finch, plus the gospel choir Nitrovox.

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