Friday 26 February - Sunday 6 March

Tag Archive: Bath Literature Festival

  1. Priding herself on being quicker than many of younger models on the fashion shoots that take her from South Africa to Sydney

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    Daphne Selfe: The Way we Wore

    The world’s oldest working super-model, 87-year old Daphne Selfe is an eminently practical woman. Dressed elegantly in charity shop finds, she comes from an age where discipline was key and tenacity essential.  She is not one to cry over spilt milk or succumb to the inertia that can often accompany old age.

    She came to modelling by chance as a young woman, despite the fact that her heart was really in working with horses. When that didn’t bear much fruit she was employed as a shop girl in Heelas in Reading (now John Lewis) and before long she began to model, continuing to do so until she married.

    While bringing up her three children, Selfe worked as an extra. But at the grand old age of 70, she made her comeback on the catwalk for the fashion label Red or Dead. Her children thought it was “cool, very cool”. A shoot at Vogue followed, and representation by Models 1.  “It’s always fun to dress up and prance about wearing clothes you can’t afford” she says, before telling Viv Groskop, the festival’s director, that the most she has spent recently on an item of clothing was £50 on a dress in Oxfam.

    Priding herself on being quicker than many of younger models on the fashion shoots that take her from South Africa to Sydney, Scotland to Beijing, she is a consummate professional, and hopes that other older models will follow in her trailblazing wake, especially as the population of the UK continues to age while the mainstream media is increasingly filled with fashion for teenagers.

    Botox is an absolute no-no. Then again, she is blessed with the most wonderful bone structure.  Pressed to name the one thing she would change about herself she suggests her hands.  They’re not pretty, she says, but she does value their capability.

    She struggled to find a publisher for her book, partly for its lack of sensationalism. A keen diary-keeper from the age of 17, she had a lot of material to drawn upon, not least the fall into poverty by her middle class family that saw them move from a house staffed with six servants to a small flat in Muswell Hill. That, as with most else it would seem, Selfe takes in her stride.

    She swears by a lifestyle that celebrates good health above all else, born of a childhood where rationining was the norm for many years. “I exercise every day.  I do yoga, keep-fit, Pilates and ballet.  Discipline is what you need.  You have to eat the right things.  I eat a little of everything and I make all my own food.  And drink a lot of water.” Her distinctive long grey hair, which “makes me look like a hag” she admits, when not styled for a shoot, is seldom cut by the hairdresser.

    Yet, she does admit to owning a pair of trousers with an elasticated waist. That is, as one might expect of Selfe, a matter-of-fact decision: “When you shrink during the day, as you do with age, your waist has to go somewhere. So elasticated waists are marvellous. In the morning, you’re tall; in the evening, you’re fat.”  Hard to believe this of Selfe, but if you like her straight-talking approach there’s plenty more good advice on her website for all of us who’d like to walk a little taller.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The Independent Bath Literature Festival Friday 26 Feb – Sunday 6 March 2016

  2. Images of the Jungle at Calais and Syrians and other displaced people crossing the Mediterranean, throwing themselves on the mercy of the West fill our screens daily

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    Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of Radio Congo brings us City of Thorns, a book that could not be more topical.  Images of the Jungle at Calais and Syrians and other displaced people crossing the Mediterranean, throwing themselves on the mercy of the West fill our screens daily, making immigration the issue du jour.

    Rawlence – who assumes the position of the storyteller onstage at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, legs crossed, seated in an armchair – visited the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya over a period of five years.  A semi-permanent metropolis, it is the sort of camp that exists in multiple incarnations the world over.  Home to approximately 350,000 displaced persons, mainly Somalis, it may be an “unimaginable place”, but Rawlence brings it vividly into focus with his narrative reportage that follows the lives of nine of Dabaab’s inhabitants.  We meet Guled, a former child member of al-Shabaab; Monday and Muna, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet’; and Nisho who has learned to tamp down his ambitions, amongst others.

    Dabaab is the size of Bristol. There is no plumbing, no established electrical grid, no coherent infrastructure; no one is allowed to leave, and no one is allowed to work.  The earth is red, the acacia thorns black, the sky an implacable blue. Yet, schools and cafes, football leagues and cinemas have sprouted there.  There is an organic civic structure and an annual black market turnover of US$25 million.  If the Kenyan government were to allow refugees to work legitimately, Dabaab could be a self-sustaining economy.  But any progress is sabotaged by the authorities.

    Reaching Dabaab itself is challenge enough: it lies 90 miles beyond the border of Somalia and Kenya across desert plains where bandits and the Kenyan police forces ‘rinse the refugees’ for all their money. Once in the camp, there is no guarantee of a good life, and even less of prospect of ever leaving.  A very few do, but the options are severely limited.  Living in Dabaab, Rawlence says, is like being in a pressure cooker: with social, political, economic and cultural tensions all bubbling away constantly. And with the cut in the UN quotas, provision of food to the camp’s inhabitants has been reduced.

    Incessant conflict in lawless lands and the effects of climate change, especially in the Horn of Africa will lead to the creation of many more ‘Dabaabs’, Rawlence predicts.  “This is just the beginning. We need an international system of co-operation that deals with displaced people.”

    He has been heartened to see the positive local response to the question of refugees and immigration while touring to promote the book and wishes to see that replicated on a national level. The biggest myth about migration, he believes, is the myth of control.  There is no way to stop the flow of people travelling abroad with hope for a better life elsewhere. What needs to be addressed urgently and globally is “the apocalyptic problem” to counter “the essential threat that borders will be compromised and the integrity of nations changed.”

    And poverty should not be conflated with radicalism.  In his experience, Rawlence says, refugee camps are not a hotbed of fundamentalism: rather they are places of refuge from such extremism.  To be a refugee is to be scared and humiliated and eager to make a better life for oneself and one’s family.  Where we can help, we should.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  3. “People felt like something fundamental had shifted,” says Shenker. “But they – and we in the Western media – didn’t have the language yet to describe it.”

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    Tahrir Square: Five Years On

    Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson

    It’s five years since Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted with the clamour of Egyptians wanting change.  Over the period following this remarkable expression of civil unrest, Mubarak fell, Morsi was voted in and then ‘removed’ from power, and Sisi has risen.  But the legacy of the revolution is still undetermined and uncertain.  The world waits and watches to see what will happen next: whether Egypt’s fate in the wake of revolution will set a precedent for other countries in the region struggling to emerge from the shadow of the Arab Spring is anyone’s guess.

    For lack of a template, a popular leader, an idea going forward that focused the force and tumult of the revolution, the new beginnings that it promised, a strike against an authoritarian, military-backed and patriarchal regime, has lost its impetus to produce meaningful change of the status quo.  As Guardian writer, Jack Shenker, author of The Egyptians: A Radical Story says: “We’re at a crucial historical moment, but it’s difficult to identify the contours of the political movement.”

    Experienced journalists, Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson, witnessed firsthand the occupation of Tahrir Square.  So firsthand was Shenker’s familiarity with the fervent protesters that he was arrested, smashed about a bit and driven on a truck out of town, but had the good fortune not only to have his Dictaphone to hand on which to record the testimony of his fellow captives, but also to manage to escape.

    Where his book begins with a detailed track back through the history of modern Egypt in an attempt to evaluate what led the country to its current schizophrenic state, Steavenson’s Circling the Square is a more immediate account of what she saw on the streets.  It’s a smorgasbord of conversations held with ordinary citizens while the foundations of their country came crashing down around them, and puts across forcefully a sense of the very “uncertain mosaic of causes” that brought Egypt to the point of implosion.

    Steavenson was interested less in the idea of attempting to offer “an authoritative” version of the revolution, choosing to eschew exposition altogether, and more in the process of subverting the idea of the journalist as being the first witness.  “Maybe I was too lazy,” she jokes.  But her instinct to place her reader right in the middle of the “chaos and inchoateness… to pay respect somehow to the confusion of it all” by recording the dialogue, anecdote and stories of the people in the street has produced a vivid portrait of the country from the ground up.

    “People felt like something fundamental had shifted,” says Shenker.  “But they – and we in the Western media – didn’t have the language yet to describe it.” Just as any attempt to predict how the Middle East will be re-shaped and re-configured politically, socially, economically and culturally in the early twenty-first century is near impossible to say the least, so the language of revolution by which its demands and hopes and fears might be fully articulated is still in its infancy.  But for those interested in one of the most significant episodes in modern history – and who could not be – there is no better place to begin than in reading what Shenker and Steavenson have to say.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  4. a few brave male souls have dared to enter into the discussion of how women are coming to terms with the ageing process

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    Women and the Ageing Process

    There aren’t a lot of men in the crowd packing out the banqueting hall of the Guildhall on Saturday afternoon, although a few brave male souls have dared to enter into the discussion of how women are coming to terms with the ageing process. This talk isn’t for the faint-hearted or coy. This is about women and sex and beauty and age and sexism, and why the older generation should go out not with a whimper, but with a bang (apologies to T. S. Eliot).

    Ageing may be inevitable, but attitudes towards the process are no longer set in stone. You don’t have to fade away into the background past 60, grey-haired, twin-setted, be-slippered and demure.

    You may still have to decide between your face or your derrière (only one will retain any youthful plumpness after forty); the whole business of sex might resemble a military campaign (the declaration of intent, the summoning of the troops, the preparation of the terrain) more than a joyful expression of spontaneous, mutual lust; and when no longer able to pass for ‘young’, you’ll have to decide whether to opt for looking ‘old’ or ‘done’.

    But at least now it’s all talked about openly, debated in the media, both in the printed mainstream and by vloggers, You-Tubers and online ‘real’ columnists. We don’t have to consume an exclusive diet of models beautified and photo-shopped to inform us how to look, produced by a industry that is trying to make us feel un-valued for their own commercial interests.  Subjects previously off the agenda are the stuff of frank discussion: the menopause; the sexploits of seniors; vaginal dryness; to Botox or not to Botox.

    You can take your cue from fiction – author Maeve Haran’s latest novel, What Became of you, my love? explores what it’s like to be 60 and still feel 19.  Or equip yourself with the straight-talking companion, Pretty Honest, penned by journalist and beauty columnist Sali Hughes. It’s an encyclopaedic tome covering  a myriad issues, from where to buy a good wig following chemotherapy to what make-up to pack for the morning after the night before.  And then there are the short stories of Arlene Heyman,the New York-based psychiatrist and debut author, deliciously entitled Scary Old Sex. In the chair, broadcaster and author of Stop the Clocks Joan Bakewell, describes them as “eye-wateringly explicit”, to the evident delight of the audience.

    Hughes argues that the conflation of beauty – as in healthy vanity – and the beauty industry, which preys on our neuroses, is self-destructive. All the panelists lament the tendency of women to fall into mascochistic behaviour: from young girls starving themselves, to older women equating the loss of their youthful looks with the loss of self.

    As Bakewell says, although getting old is indeed about loss, “there is also a great deal of gain. The falling away of rivalries, jealousies and ambition.” While Haran points out that, “getting older brings a sense of achievement.” But perhaps the most important cry to arms comes from an audience member in the Q&A at the end of the talk: “The most important thing is to remember to have fun!” she says, and the audience bursts into spontaneous applause.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  5. She likens this ancient poet to a Hoxton hipster; a man who played down his wealth, partied hard, made witty flirtation into an art – and in the true mould of many a brilliant young man, died young.

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    Daisy Dunn – Catullus’ Bedspread

    The Roman poet, Catullus, might not appear at first glance to be a prime candidate for a biography – not least because there are only six facts known about him. Add to that, the detail that he lived over 2,000 years ago and died probably aged 29 or 30 and the challenge of stitching together a picture of this notorious poet mounts.  Yet, this has not deterred Daisy Dunn – whose academic credentials include a degree from Oxford and a PhD from UCL – from weaving together a lucid version of his life in her debut book, Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.

    Informed largely by Catullus’ own poems (her translations are published in conjunction with the biography), supplemented with descriptions gleaned from studying ancient Latin sources, enhanced by her rich depictions of the political, social and cultural milieu in which Catullus was writing, Dunn’s biography sheds light on this mystery man, breathing life into a poet whose work she believes passionately deserves to be read and lauded by a modern audience.

    The chief of a new school of poets (poetae novi) Catullus was at the forefront of an innovative, epigrammatic style.  “Goatish and scatological”, witty, concise and irreverent, his poems abandoned the didactic, traditional model of epic accounts of battles between men and gods, in favour of powerful personal matters and outpourings of raw emotion.  Dunn fancies that he was a ‘proto-feminist’, in touch with his feelings, in tune with the women around him, of whom the most notable was one ‘Lesbia’, or Clodia Metella, to give her formal name.

    She was the wife of a senator, the object of Catullus’ lust, the woman with whom he conducted a heated affair. “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque vivemus”, he tells her.  “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love.”

    Others of his poems, in the true spirit of a rebel, can only be described as obscene. So much so that until relatively recently, editions of Catullus’ poetry were censored, a veil drawn over his more vulgar verses for fear of corrupting young minds.

    What is known, for sure, about Catullus is that he was alive during the dying days of the Roman Republic. Like other Latin poets of repute – Martial, Horace, Virgil and Ovid – Catullus grew up away from Rome.  Home was Verona, then a part of Gaul.  In recognition of its famous son, the Verona airport still bears his name.  He moved to Rome, travelled awhile to Bithynia and then returned, not to the capital, but to Sirmio (modern-day Sirmione), where the “Grotto of Catullus” stands to this day on what is thought to be the site of his original house. As Sirmio, a place of great beauty situated on a peninsula in Lake Garda inspired Catullus, so too did it captivate Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ezra Pound.

    It is Poem 64, a miniature epic, four hundred lines long, in which Catullus tells of the love between Peleus and Thetis (parents of the hero Achilles) that features the bedspread from which Dunn takes her title. Clearly, the author is smitten by the image of the embroidered coverlet, which depicts the marriage of Ariadne and Theseus, before the latter abandons the daughter of Minos on the island of Naxos, a scene depicted in glorious detail by Titian.

    There’s no doubting Dunn’s passion for her subject.  She likens this ancient poet to a Hoxton hipster; a man who played down his wealth, partied hard, made witty flirtation into an art – and in the true mould of many a brilliant young man, died young.  Somewhat wistfully, she reflects: “I haven’t yet met a modern man who measures up to him.”

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  6. Likening herself to a French maid in a farce caught fluffing the pillows onstage as the curtains draw back to encourage an air of intimacy with the audience, Barker starts with a short reading.

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    Pat Barker – Noonday

    Alex Clark is in the chair and Pat Barker is on sparkling form to celebrate the opening night of the Independent Bath Literature Festival.

    With the publication of Noonday, Barker, “a novelist not content with writing one trilogy,” concludes her second.  She admits that, perhaps, the impetus to write a series of three novels set during the years of World War II did not come from her:  “I read in the papers that it was meant to be a trilogy, so I thought I’d better write one.”

    Likening herself to a French maid in a farce caught fluffing the pillows onstage as the curtains draw back to encourage an air of intimacy with the audience, Barker starts with a short reading.  Not enough to spoil the plot, but it’s a good teaser.

    Inspiration is one of the questions Clark puts to Barker: where does it come from?  How far to you trawl contemporary sources, eye-witness accounts and personal memoirs for detail and anecdote?  A fair bit, Barker says, but ‘it’s always better to get personal reminiscences in: they have greater force than taking things from a book of memoirs or memories.”  There’s also the danger that you might not be the only writer rummaging in the ‘bran tub’ of source material as she realized, on reading a William Boyd novel and recognizing they had both drawn on the same story.  Although, she graciously says, “he did it better.”

    She was drawn to the subject of World War II by a desire to explore the lives of a generation who ‘dropped the catch’.  They had lived through the ‘war to end all wars’, knew the horrors of being gassed in the trenches, and yet here they were, fitting gas masks to their own children.

    There’s always the danger, says Barker, of confusing writing from the depths with succumbing to a tendency to exercise your craft. “I like to think that I throw away the stuff that isn’t genuine,” she laughs.  I throw a lot away!  You can’t do it by rote.” And re-reading earlier novels can be hazardous. Either you’re convinced you’ll never write that well again, or you think  ‘that’s not very good’.  Either way, the characters ‘all start rabbiting on’ which proves most distracting.

    And what keeps her from writing about contemporary conflict?  A sense, Barker says, that it is the nature of all conflict that underpins her work and she is more interested by the idea of the common man drawn into battle through conscription as in the world wars, rather than the experience of the professional soldier. Besides, ‘what can an English writer truly write about a war on foreign soil?”

    A cluster of rejections by publishers shaped Barker’s determination to write, as did significant encouragement from Angela Carter, despite their work being very different in style.  Carter encouraged Barker to give the ignored lives of women some air.  “I was drive back to the fundamentals of my experience,” she says. In time, however, she realised that she didn’t want to focus on women’s lives to the exclusion of men.  Writing from a male perspective, she says, forces her to be more considered, as it isn’t an intuitive process.

    And what next? No more trilogies! Instead, a re-telling of The Iliad from a female perspective. “So totally unlike anything I’ve done before.”  She’s jettisoned the entire central section because  “the cake has sagged in the middle” but what is the life of a writer if not one in which you go on challenging and surprising yourself?

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362

  7. Japan Now: Both authors find some aspects of English culture a little baffling. The fact that doors on trains don’t open automatically seems counterintuitive. And Marmite? An unequivocal no.

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    Japan Now: Soji Shimada and Kyoko Yoshida

    Despite, or perhaps because of the remarkably low rates of homicide in Japan, the appetite of the reading public there for murder mystery novels is unusually high, providing the perfect spawning ground for masters of the genre. No wonder then that Soji Shimada, author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, renowned as the “God of Mystery’ has gained a loyal audience both at home and beyond his native shores.  Part of the reason he’s here in England – a country for which he has a deep affection – is a self-confessed desire to act as a stimulant to bring out the hidden mystery writers of the UK.

    It’s not just the details of murder that appeal, but the mystery, the game, the whodunnit, and how. “The mystery has the appeal, and the murder is the icing on the cake” he says. Since the Edo era, Shimada explains, the Japanese have always loved puzzles.  Books to exercise the brain always sell well and when it comes to fiction, an added dose of surrealism only enhances the element of surprise, the distance between cause and effect.

    What Shimada finds truly mysterious is the high number of suicides in Japan, around 30,000 each year. The failure of the population to come to terms with the outcome of World War II may be one reason behind the epidemic.   Senility and geriatric illness may be another.  And Shimada wonders whether domestic violence plays a part.  But he has no certain answers.

    Kyoko Yoshida, who joins Shimada onstage to promote her debut collection of short stories, writes graphic and visceral tales that read like daydreams, immediate and comprehensible to the characters in her fiction, but offering an altered reality to the reader. It’s like having a cramp when you’re asleep, Yoshida says: you feel as though you’re falling, but you’re not actually falling.  She chooses to write in English, which adds another layer of the fantastic to her work.

    These two authors follow in the trail blazed by Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto who not only bring international audiences to Japanese fiction, but whose successes abroad have also impacted on the concept of national domestic literature in Japan.

    Unlike Shimada, Yoshida hasn’t been translated into Japanese yet – although there is a Swedish version of Disorientalism – and has no plans to translate the book herself: “It would be like writing it all again.”  Writing in English has its own problems, not least getting to grips with spelling.  And both authors find some aspects of English culture a little baffling.  The fact that doors on trains don’t open automatically seems counterintuitive.  And Marmite? An unequivocal no.

    Claudia Pugh-Thomas

    The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
    Bath Box Office 01225 463362



  8. Letters to lovers, to intellectual heroes, to colleagues and acquaintances..

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    It was on the recent National Libraries Day, when so many people celebrated what libraries had meant to them, that I remembered those post-school teenage afternoons when my grown-up reading life began in earnest. Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Dostoevsky – novelists I had heard of but had little real exposure to. And Iris Murdoch, who mapped her complex philosophical and moral enquiries on to the most thrilling tales of jealousy, desire, ambition and disappointment. They seemed to me the height of sophistication and week after week I would zoom through The Bell, The Black Prince, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, avid for more. Men and women constantly leaving one another and taking up with someone else! Battles for good and evil in the most peculiar locations! A girl called Julian!

    That’s why I’m so delighted to have the opportunity to talk all things Murdoch with novelist and poet Sophie Hannah and Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, who have edited Living on Paper, a wonderful collection of the writer’s correspondence. Here are letters to lovers, to intellectual heroes, to colleagues and acquaintances, all of them demonstrating Murdoch’s constantly bubbling mind, her curiosity and her lively, vivid wit.

    Alex Clark Iris Murdoch – In Her Own Words on Monday 29 February 6.15-7.15pm. Guildhall £9 (£8) Booking at

  9. Artistic Director’s Festival Pick: What’s Happening in Egypt? Tahrir Square Five Years On Viv Groskop on two foreign correspondents who have the inside track

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    Is it really five years since the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo? Security forces killed 1,000 supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Over a quarter of a million took to the streets in protest, spawning slogans such as: “Lift your head up high: you’re Egyptian.” Outside of Egypt, millions followed the protests on social media for the first time, suddenly able to see for themselves both the possibilities of “citizen journalism” and the limitations of using hashtags to understand complex ideas.


    Political demonstrations are not easy to understand on the ground. They’re even tougher to follow from a distance. I have to confess: I’m not sure I understand exactly what happened at the time or what has happened since. There are so many news events which capture our attention in the moment and then the months pass and are we really any the wiser about how these things fit into the grand scheme of things?

    Thank goodness, then, for two dazzlingly brilliant foreign correspondents coming to Bath at the end of this month. One is a firm favourite of mine: Wendell Steavenson, the author of a book which changed my life in 2003. Her first book, Stories I Stole, an evocative, moving memoir about post-Soviet Georgia, inspired me to make a series of trips to the capital, Tbilisi, and to report on the country’s political difficulties. (“Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world,” one man told me in 2008, when I was reporting for the New Statesman.) Now several Georgians are amongst my closest friends.

    circling the square

    Steavenson is one of these people who can jet into a place and just immerse themselves instantly. She’s tough, intelligent and sensitive. And she is great at relaying the nuances of a country and its culture to a wider audience. Having reported extensively from Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut, she arrived in Cairo in January 2011, four days after young Egyptians had taken to the streets in the protests that would bring down president Hosni Mubarak. Her new book Squaring the Circle is about what happened next – and how hard it was to figure out what was going on. “I began to realise that witnessing something did not give you any good sense of what had really happened,” she writes. “A person bearing witness was the most unreliable narrator of all.”

    Joining her to discuss Egypt’s fate since then is former Guardian Egypt correspondent Jack Shenker, whose book The Egyptians: A Radical Story uncovers the roots of the uprising and explores a country now divided by two irreconcilable political orders. The international media may have moved on from Egypt’s explosive cycles of revolution and counter-revolution, he argues, but the Arab World’s most populous nation remains as volatile as ever.

    The Egyptians Front 300dpi

    Shenker’s work is truly impressive: Paul Mason, Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky are fans and this book has already been listed as one of the most important non-fiction reads of 2016. He was also one of the first to write extensively about the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean in 2012, which earned him an award for News Story of the Year at the One World media awards, where he was also shortlisted for Journalist of the Year.

    Often we need “translators” to explain these events, bring them to life and keep reminding us why they’re important: Steavenson and Shenker couldn’t be better placed.

    Tahrir Square: Five Years On with Jack Shenker and Wendell Steavenson is on Monday 29 February at The Guildhall, Bath, at 8pm. Tickets:

  10. Sofka Zinovieff – “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me”

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    In the Salon at the Guildhall, filled to capacity, George Miller, Editorial Director of Granta from 2002 to 2007, interviews Sofka Zinovieff about her latest book, “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me.” It’s a glorious read, rich in quirky detail, peopled with the many unconventional characters who gathered around Lord Berners, one of England’s quintessential eccentrics of the mid-twentieth century. An avant-garde composer, novelist, painter and sometime diplomat, Berners had a penchant for hand-dyed doves, which flew about the grounds of his home, Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, now owned by Zinovieff.

    Zinovieff’s maternal grandfather, Robert Heber-Percy, the “mad boy” of the book’s title was a flamboyant, superstitious and decadent exhibitionist who moved in with Gerald Berners, a man many years his senior, soon after meeting him in 1931 or ’32, and lived as his companion until Berners’ death in 1950. Though ostensibly homosexual, the mad boy dabbled sporadically with members of the opposite sex, marrying Jennifer Fry, a “mad girl” in 1942 and fathering Victoria, Zinovieff’s mother, or so it was supposed… The ménage a trois did not endure for long. Robert, it seemed, couldn’t bear to be married and Jennifer moved out in 1944.

    Over the years a “sprinkling of high society” passed through Faringdon, from Nancy Mitford to Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky to Evelyn Waugh. The rule was that guests had to be entertaining; being dull was unforgivable in such circles.

    Zinovieff never knew the house as a child but on her first visit, made aged seventeen in the company of her mother, her grandfather marked the occasion by serving champagne in pewter tankards, (an audience member points out that, although unconventional, it ensures that the fizz stays cold). She never expected to inherit it – Faringdon was destined for a cousin – not least because her mother and maternal grandfather had a difficult relationship and Jennifer had brought her children up to reject everything that Robert stood for.

    Nonetheless, there was a “spark between us” Zinovieff says, and she became a frequent weekend visitor – much to the surprise of other guests who had no idea that Robert had a grand-daughter. She remembers fondly the breakfasts brought to her in bed by Rosa Proll, the formidable housekeeper whose loyalty to Robert was unfailing. Rumoured to be a Hitler sympathizer, Proll was extraordinarily competent, seeing to every aspect of the upkeep of the house with an almost militaristic zeal. To stay in the house, Zinovieff says, was to feel as though one had stepped onto a film set frozen sometime in the 1930s.

    And then, one day, her grandfather announced that he had changed his will in her favour. Zinovieff, twenty-five at the time, was flummoxed at the prospect, but there seemed no need to make any immediate decisions. Six months later, however, Robert was dead and the house was hers.

    How strange it was to inherit Faringdon House, Zinovieff says, but it is even stranger now that she actually lives there after many years of renting it out to cover the maintenance costs. She moved back to England, and into the house, only six months ago. It is still, she admits, somewhat overwhelming to live in a place imbued with so many ghosts and associations, and yet it has presented the perfect opportunity for her to delve deep into the past, “to tease apart the details and find the real story” of her extraordinary family.

    Claudia Pugh Thomas