Nicola Barker

Nicola Barker

Paddy Ashdown

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"I NEVER think my books are about the interesting things," novelist Nicola Barker told an enthralled Edinburgh Book Festival audience yesterday. "They're about the stuff that goes on around the interesting things."

Does that stretch to book festivals? Barker's usual reticence to appearing at such events may suggest not. But guest selector Ali Smith convinced her to say yes and so here she was blinking under the lights after a galvanising introduction that hailed her as one of the most original writers at work.

"I'm just going to be a disappointment now," Barker said. She was anything but. What was she then? A slightly eccentric, self-deprecating, attractively unfussy intellectual who believes writing is "about exciting joyousness".

In their hour together Smith and Barker covered everything from love to the viciousness of green parrots. And because she goes walking on a nudist beach we also got to learn that nudists call the rest of us "textiles".

Better than being called illegitimate perhaps, as Paddy Ashdown did, tongue firmly cheek. "I was never elected to be Prime Minister of Britain and I know why. Because not enough of you b******* voted for me."

Ashdown was really here to tell the story of the men of the Maquis, the French resistance fighters of the Vercors. Not a happy tale, but vividly told. But it was clear during a sadly short Q&A session that both Ashdown and the audience had so much else to talk about.

Lamenting military adventures in foreign lands, he asked:"Why do we spend so much money on instruments of war and not enough on the instruments of peace?" There wasn't time for an answer.