The Independent Bath Literature Festival: From a dark take on 'Little House on the Prairie' to a lively Brexit discussion

Nick Clark charts this year's typically eventful and sometimes uproarious Independent Bath Literature Festival, and finds how cider can help a book festival

Nick Clark
Monday 07 March 2016 18:35
Acclaimed: Pat Barker discussed her new novel, 'Noonday', in Bath
Acclaimed: Pat Barker discussed her new novel, 'Noonday', in Bath

On its 21st birthday, The Independent Bath Literature Festival was in celebratory mood, demonstrated most clearly in the writers' room where a keg of cider had been stationed, either to steel an anxious author's nerves before taking to the stage, or to celebrate after a successful event.

The festival kicked off with Pat Barker talking about her new novel, Noonday. She revealed that her acclaimed trilogy had been picked up by the BBC – perfect timing to coincide with the centenary of the First World War – only to be dropped again. Surprisingly there were many questions asking her to compare Billy Prior, hero of her Regeneration trilogy, with a A Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley Kowalski. Surprising, that was, until it emerged an A-Level class was in, hoping she could do their homework for them.

Brexit was on the lips early on with a debate pitting “In-ers” Vince Cable and Professor Christina Slade against “Out-ers” Sir William Cash and Kate Hoey. A show of hands at the beginning and end revealed that some changed their minds, but only to become more confused. Sebastian Faulks revealed he had not made up his mind, saying that while he voted “with the big boys” in the 1970s, he said his “inner hooligan” was pushing him to siding with the leavers.

Gloria Steinem packed out Bath's Forum and was met with rapturous applause from the audience, who had come from all over the country to hear the feminist campaigner speak. Later that day was a racy session about women and the ageing process, in which Arlene Heyman thrilled the audience with her eye-watering descriptions of sex among the older generations.

The Abbey Hotel provided much of the after- show parties and had drawn up a suitably literary cocktail list. From Lime and Punishment, pretty lethal with its dose of absinthe, to Tequila Mockingbird and Prime of Miss Gin Brodie, they kept speakers and viewers well oiled for the duration of the festival.

The festival saw a range of speakers rule themselves out of signing up to reality shows. Strictly Come Dancing will not be seeing the talents of Joan Bakewell or Janet Ellis, while The Great British Bake Off will not tempt Marian Keyes into the kitchen.

AC Grayling talked of an overlooked century, the 17th, and how it shaped the modern mind, and going further back Daisy Dunn brilliantly resurrected Catullus for the audience. She compared him to a Hoxton hipster, pointing out that he played down his wealth, partied hard and made witty flirtation into art. “I haven't yet met a modern man who measures up to him,” she added.

Iris Murdoch's letters revealed the philosopher and Booker Prize-winning author as a secret “rock chick”, who not only frequented Rolling Stones gigs but thought the Beatles should be made Poet Laureates.

The actress Carol Drinkwater talked of her experiences working with “Larry” Olivier, and Tom Sperlinger told of his extraordinary time teaching English literature in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, including teaching Romeo and Juliet.

In among the wealth of literary walks Brian Blessed roared and heaved, and Deborah Moggach cast aspersions on the film sequel to the adaptation of her book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Jamie Cullum, a favourite of the Bath audience, talked of his literary aspirations via his magazine The Eighty-Eight, and made his true feelings on the film Whiplash known. From a jazz perspective, he was not a fan.

There was a riotous Literary Death Match, in which authors went head to head for the ultimate prize of being the first Bath champion, which in the end went to Paul M M Cooper, after the tie-breaker went down to a question about James Joyce. Victors and vanquished repaired to the bar after to argue over the results.

Tracy Chevalier was the big name author to visit on Friday and revealed that her new book, At the Edge of the Orchard, was a take on Little House on the Prairie “gone bad”. The same night Ben Miller spoke of his book The Aliens Are Coming!, and he suffered the dubious privilege of being the only author to receive a heckle from a Geordie gentleman who was clearly refreshed and failed to make much sense.

The last day of the festival included women under 30 talking about feminism and Daphne Selfe, the world's oldest supermodel at 87, giving her style tips. The comedy play Austentatious thrilled the Jane Austen-loving Bath audience, as did Stephen McGann, who plays Dr Turner on Call the Midwife, and who once pursued an MA in medical studies.

Sunday marked the end of artistic director Viv Groskop's three-year reign. The much-loved chief was waved off with a raucous party in Igloo, a new venue under the Abbey Hotel, where the drinking and revelling went on until the very early hours followed by teary farewells. A suitable end to a week-long 21st. µ

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