No writer could have invented Donald Trump
That, anyway, is the view of the man who helped to create one of the world's most unscrupulous fictional politicians: House of Cards's Frank Underwood. British politician-turned-author Michael Dobbs, whose 1989 novel of the same name featured the ruthless parliamentarian Francis Urquhart and was the inspiration for a BBC mini-series and the hit Netflix show, said on Saturday that "the truth of Trump is worse than fiction". If an author pitched a character "so foul, offensive and abusive" potentially becoming US president, editors would balk – "go away, get out here". On the future of the Netflix series, of which Dobbs is executive producer, he added: "We frankly don't know how long it will last, but it's a project of great joy – and quite a lot of money. So as long as there's joy and money, it will carry on."
Was Darwin wrong?
That was the question probed by popular scientist Tim Spector, whose Saturday talk on epigenetics argued there is more than just nature and nurture at play in determining who we are. For example, said Spector, studies showed that if your grandfather smoked very early in life, you are more likely to have diabetes – something which can’t be explained by strictly genetic or environmental factors. This “third factor”, argued Spector, proves that the life we live has the power to strengthen or “dim” the genetic traits and susceptibilities, once thought to be hard-wired, which are passed on to future generations. It can all be explained as an evolutionary response to sudden changes in environment, such as famine.
Berkoff versus the Bard
The spectre of Shakespeare loomed large over the 2016 litfest, which hosted a special programme to mark four centuries since the playwright's passing. The crown jewel was Shakespeare's Villains, a personal and postmodern walk through the playwright's most infamous stage creations by career screen baddy Steven Berkoff. Performing unaccompanied for 90 minutes on Saturday night, the 78-year-old proved captivating company – at turns witty, wise, intense and hilarious. He carves the Bard's villains into humorous subgroups – branding Richard III a "genius villain", Macbeth merely a "wannabe villain", Iago simply a "mediocre villain". Between extracts from those and others, Berkoff strafed between literary analysis, history lesson, stand-up comedy, insider gossip (his Al Pacino is hilarious) and cultural commentary. This meta masterpiece debuted back in 1998, but Berkoff brought things up to speed with his own contemporaneous swipes at Trump, comparing him to Hitler, Saddam Hussein and the London Evening Standard's theatre critic.
Dubai is the ‘Miami of Africa’ (and the ‘Hong Kong of India’)
Stereotypes about Dubai's "inauthenticity" were tackled head-on in the Eye on Dubai: Fact and Fantasy panel. American journalist Afshin Molavi – who wrote an influential National Geographic story about the city – pointed how the emirate's key strategic trade role has made it a hub for many expat communities whose contributions to the Dubai of today are frequently written out of the conventional media narrative. "These voices would go a long way to telling the Dubai story to the outside audience," he said in his Saturday session. Making the comparison between Miami's cultural and trade bridge between Latin American and the US, Molavi called Dubai "Africa's gateway to the world". Meanwhile, the emirate's long tradition of South Asian merchant families led to the inside joke: "What's the best city in India? Dubai."
It was a feast for the senses – but a veritable banquet for the mind
The 2016 festival hosted the UAE's first ever "literary cruise" on Wednesday. Sailing the creek aboard the Bateaux Dubai, guests savoured fine food, live piano jazz and the twinkling lights of the emirate's skyline. But the real pleasures were more cerebral than sensory – a talk from eminent British philosopher AC Grayling. "Somebody pointed out we're going around in circles," he said of the cruise trajectory. "Rather apt for a professor of philosophy."
It’s called a first draft for a reason
Anthony Horowitz was very forthcoming on Friday in describing his experience writing the new James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. From boardroom meetings with the Ian Fleming estate to finding that balance between Bond's old school appeal and the inherent misogyny in his character, it all made for a fascinating discussion. According to the best-selling British author, the first draft was far from the finished product. "Like most of my work the first person to ever read it was my wife," he said. "She didn't like it at all and said if she wasn't my wife she wouldn't have finished it."
Harry Baker steals the show
The festival's annual poetry event headed to a new venue on Thursday night at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. As with every edition, there was always one performer that was a clear standout. This time around it was the young British spoken-word poet Harry Baker, whose piece A Love Poem for Lonely Prime Numbers was both touching and hilarious: "While 59 admired 60's perfectly round figure, 60 thought 59 was odd. One of his favourite films was 101 Dalmatians." She preferred the sequel.
Jonathan Meres, the festival’s resident comic
Friday night’s Time Travel Dinner was a way for writers to relax and unwind after a heavy day of panel discussions, press interviews and book signings. It was also a chance for some to show their funny side. In the case of children’s writer and former stand-up comic Jonathan Meres, it came rather naturally. He began his address on the concept of time with the joke of the night: “They say you come to Dubai twice in your career, once on your way up and the other on your way down. It’s good to be back.”