Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2008

250 authors, week-long creative writing course, dinners with authors, BBC Film Room, Festival bookshop and all things literary!
Christ Church College, Mon March 31st 2008 - Sun April 6th 2008

For full details of all events see the Festival website.

April 6, 2009
A Strange Eventful History
Michael Holdroyd
Sat 4th April
Michael Holdroyd, the celebrated biographer of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John, was at the Lit Fest to promote his new work, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families. This one is the story of the lives of those two Victorian theatrical talents and the intensity of their love and professional rivalry.

The book also includes stories about their children: Terry’s son and daughter and Irving’s two sons. Holdroyd spoke for about 20 minutes from an interesting script, which summarised the book and picked out some of the more fascinating anecdotes. He then read a passage about their tour of Canada and the USA, before answering many questions from a very interested audience. The most intriguing character in the book appears to be Edward Gordon Craig, the illegitimate son of Ellen Terry, who himself fathered 13 children by eight different women, including one with Isadora Duncan, and who was a brilliant, if controversial, stage designer.

I was particularly keen to see Holdroyd as I have recently read his autobiography, Basil Street Blues, and found it very illuminating. I was not disappointed by his witty and knowledgeable presentation, and look forward to reading this latest book, too.

April 7, 2008
Louis de Bernieres and Traveller's Tales
Oxford Literary Festival, Saturday 5th & Sunday 6th April 2008
The 12th Oxford Literary Festival brought some 250 writers to Oxford for a week of talks and debates.

On Saturday I went to hear Louis de Bernieres talking about his latest book. A gentle, funny man, he started by telling a long rambling story of his life in the 70s when he lived in Archway and, although this was an amusing thumbnail picture of that period in London, you wondered why he was telling us. But the point was that during that time he found himself listening to a fellow squatter in a semi-derelict house, a Serbian woman who claimed to have been a prostitute and club hostess and needed, like the Ancient Mariner, to tell her tale(s). It was a story he could have written 28 years ago as his first book, because he could not forget her voice, but he wasn’t ready for it then. Many years and several books later he revisited the story, looking for a hook to hang the stories together and came up with the idea of a love story. Rosa in the book, is very much based on the woman he knew, but Chris or Christian is fictional, not himself (he is the guitar-playing Bob Dylan wannabe). Rosa tells her stories and, in the end, you don’t know how true they really are – maybe it doesn’t matter. The book is the opposite of Captain Corelli, he says because the characters speak simply for themselves.

He spoke and then read for quite a short time, but his answers to questions were fascinating and showed the man as well as the story. Being a car mechanic and then a teacher, growing up in depressed and depressing Britain, his interests and ideas; it was all told with a light, funny yet always insightful touch.

He was interesting about his own work too, stating that, in his view, Birds Without Wings is a much better book than Captain Corelli (I agree) and talking about what he plans for the future. He has an idea for his own War and Peace and a couple of shorter books before he dies. Of the film version of Captain Corelli, he said that he gave it to Working Title because he wanted a European not a Hollywood version, but Working Title made it into a Hollywood film anyway. The naff part was the sex scene as the whole point of the book is that they don’t get together until they are old; the good part was the portrayal of shooting of the young Italian officers which was how it really happened.

He is a great raconteur and he made me want to go out and buy The Partisan’s Daughter straight away!


By Saturday I already knew that John Simpson was not going to come back from Zimbabwe specially to talk to me but I was delighted when I heard that Kate Adie was going to replace him.

I remember Kate Adie reporting from war zones and deserts and she always came across as objective, concerned, serious and lucid. In real life she is still concerned and lucid but she is also very amusing with an infectious laugh. She seems to have a genuine love of people in all their craziness, but she does not glamorise war or the work she did. She usually worked with one person (only one person to pull to safety if he or she got shot) often in terrible conditions, but she considered it a privilege to be the person who could tell that particular story. That story had to be meticulously crafted to an average of 1 minute 48 seconds, so pictures and words had to convey the message succinctly and clearly, showing the emotions of the people in the story, not of the reporter.

Kate Adie fell into journalism at a time when girls were educated to ‘do a bit of teaching’ before they became housewives. She became a television reporter because of a ‘BBC cock-up’ and had no idea that she would become a trailblazer for the next generation of female reporters. She is delighted that there are so many female reporters around now (half the population should be represented by half the journalists) but there are places where women are still treated like cattle and where it is still not safe to go alone. Now she presents From Our Own Correspondent and is fascinated by the lives of the ordinary people leading their lives all over the world. Everyone has a story to tell. She is equally fascinated by people who do really dangerous jobs (she classifies hers as risky not dangerous) and this is the theme of her next book, due to be published in September.


The cynics among us would say that most speakers were at the festival to promote their books and many of them have indeed just published a new book. But these speakers write books on every subject under the sun – fiction, science, history, the English language, biographies, autobiographies – and we the public have the chance to hear them talk in the beautiful setting of Christchurch. Nobody forces you to buy the book, but you may well want to after hearing them speak.

April 3, 2008
Roy Foster: The Strange Death of Romantic Ireland
Thursday 3rd April 2008
The lecture begins with a technical hitch: the microphone, we are told (though sitting at the back I can barely hear the explanation) has mysteriously been switched off, and switching it on again requires a five minute delay and the summoning of two brisk technicians. Roy Foster looks politely exasperated, which is encouraging: if his time is precious he hopefully has something interesting to say. And he does. Introducing his new book ‘Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970 – 2000’, Foster gives a wry and informative overview of the great social and economic changes that have transformed Ireland into a prosperous and modern European nation.

Women’s liberation, membership of the European Union and the decline of the power of the Catholic Church have all contributed to a climate of change and progression which has caused the country to defy gloomy forecasts for its economic future and emerge from the shadow of the United Kingdom. Crucially, the path to change was carved with the generational shift in the 1960s: the revolutionaries of the independence movement who had long dominated Irish politics finally gave way to a new wave of modernists.

Progress in the South has also has also had a galvanising effect on the peace process in the North. The prospect of a united Ireland is less attractive to a newly prosperous nation, understandably reluctant to take on the troubled region’s economic and social problem. This simultaneously restricts Republican options, while removing justification for Unionist criticism of the Catholic South.

Foster is a good speaker; measured, clear, humorous, and the lecture, though sometimes heavy going, was illuminating and very interesting.

April 2, 2008
It's festival season!
No, not mud, tents and music stages, but a sedate marquee amidst the cloisters of Christ Church College. But that's not to say it will all be calm and quiet inside, as this year's Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival is already producing fearsome debate and gales of laughter.

Over the course of the last 11 years the festival has grown into an internationally renowned literary event, as much a part of the calendar as Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh and Cheltenham's Literary offerings. It's reached that benchmark of size, grandeur and solidarity, of spawning its own fringe festival, Oxfringe. Over the years it's migrated around the city a little, moving its headquarters from the Oxford Union to the shadow of Tom Tower, with the bookshop, cafe and box office now firmly rooted in a marquee, sandwiched between Christ Church College and the cottage where W.H. Auden spent the winter of 1972.

Oxford, of course, has always had illustrious literary associations - JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Caroll, Evelyn Waugh, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Betjeman and so the list goes on! Fortunately not all its literary giants are consigned to history. There is still a lively scene for amateur and professional writers alike, producing fact, fiction and poetry. It's not suprising to see in the Festival lineup such stalwarts as Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins and Colin Dexter. And perhaps Justin Cartwright can explain why, when he talks about the allure of Oxford. More controversial is the Royal Society for Literature's debate on whether a University education teaches you to write or stifles your voice! The amateur critics take on the professionals in Blogging The Classics - proof if any were needed that Oxford is a more democratic place than sometimes portrayed! In fact, just down the road in Corpus Christi there's a DIY approach, with the Literary Festival's first creative writing course - a week of masterclasses from renowned fiction writers. It sounds pretty intense, though presumably the participants are allowed to sneak away and visit the main festival events from time to time!

Unlike some of the other festivals there is no particular theme to Oxford's eclectic mix of discussions. Instead there are strands - architecture, travel writing, and new for 2008 a definite cluster of food-related events. Perhaps this is influenced by this year's selection of sponsors: Cox & Kings travel company, Purcell Miller Tritton architects and Sacla, the italian food people! Another interesting category is the VSI series - Very Short Introductions to a range of topics, from Galaxies, via Geopolitics, to Nelson Mandela. These are 10 minute talks, free to attend, and taking place in the Festival Bookshop, usually in amongst a horde of patient fans waiting to have their books signed by their favourite author! But in amongst the themes, there's room for a debate on Mills and Boon, an award for Tom Stoppard, Pippi Longstocking's party, Sebastian Faulks on the difficulties of writing a new James Bond novel, Tom Paulin's Secret Life Of Poems and for those who are in search of something less frivolous there's A Curious History of Death, or discussions on Climate Change or the Fall of Iraq.

It will be a strangely intense time, the air positively crackling with words and ideas. There will be deep disagreement and joyous accord, laughter, scorn and possibly inspiration. There'll be more than 250 authors, an army of volunteers and a lot of riffled pages. And maybe, somewhere in the midst of all this, there's a seat with your name on it...

The festival runs from Monday 31st March to Sunday 6th April 2008. For full listings see the Festival website. You can see details of Oxfringe events on the Oxfringe website.
The 2008 Oxford Literary Festival and its Fringe have been a Plathophile’s delight, with John Farmanesh-Bocca and Elisabeth Gray’s darkly funny Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath followed by last night’s Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual, which saw Diana Quick and Elisabeth Gray reading from and discussing Plath’s work with Eye Rhymes co-author, Sally Bayley. Not a Plathophile myself, I was surprised at how much I was gripped by the event, and how much it shifted my thinking about a writer I’d always dismissed as talented but excruciatingly self-absorbed.

It focused on Plath’s little known but serious engagement with the visual arts as a child and teenager, showing how ideas and motifs that first appeared in visual form later re-emerged in some of her greatest poetry. A selection of Plath's art, including self-portraits, childhood sketches, illustrated diaries, and modernist and expressionist paintings, were projected onto a screen and interwoven with readings of poems and diary entries, illustrating how Plath, in her early life, considered a piece of writing incomplete unless accompanied by a picture (in fact it wasn’t until age 20 she chose writing over the visual arts as her vocation). We also see some excellent animation and a short, black and white film which parodies the legendary meeting of Plath and Ted Hughes at a party in Cambridge in the spring of 1956, described by Diane Middlebrook in Eye Rhymes as “The famous party that set up the kiss that caused the bite that prompted the tryst that led to the sex that became the passion that fueled the marriage that led to the poems of Plath and Hughes".

This juxtaposition of the visual with Diana Quick and Elisabeth Gray’s superbly nuanced readings opened up a rich seam of discussion about Plath’s formative creative energy, which ranged from constructions of female identity and representations of womanhood in commercial culture, to recurring classical themes in her poetry – altogether an illuminating tribute to one of the 20th century’s most contentious and fascinating writers on the 75th anniversary of her birth.
Oxford is the kind of place where you often meet people with great ideas. It is also the kind of place where you often meet people with influence. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, is one of those rare people who have both. He talks to think-tanks. All the Jewish faith schools in this country fall under his aegis. His delivery is such that – actually – it would have been better without the microphone. He asks rhetorical questions and takes an interest when the audience comes up with a response. And he can think. In fact, although on his own admission, he ‘can do three feet above the level of intelligibility’, this is a man who is passionately committed to everyone being able to engage in thinking through the situation in which we find ourselves.

His latest – and important – literary contribution to this process is ‘The Home we Build Together’ in which he addresses the fundamental questions of hospitality and identity. How, the central question goes, do we move on from multi-culturalism without moving back to a single dominant culture in which it is all too easy to be ‘not one of us’. The solution, Sacks, suggests, is a covenantal model – one where we look together at our needs and our resources, and agree how they can best be used for the good of everyone.

Why, he asked us, when all the great American monuments to politicians have words, sayings and stories inscribed on them reminding us who they were and what they said, do British monuments have only names and dates? This being Oxford, the answer was swift to come: ‘Because we don’t need more than that – people know’. In Britain, Sacks’ point is, this is (or was until recently) precisely the case: if you need to ask what Churchill was about, you do not belong. Whereas the United States, being made up of immigrants, needs to include everyone in the story.

For too long, he reminded us, we have thought only about two elements – the State and the individual – but this leaves out society: families, communities, voluntary organisations – entities that are based on giving, not on market forces. To build society, we need to share stories of our origins, set out our values, create a covenant (or social contract) to meet the needs of all the diverse people in our country.

Sacks’s model works very well on the basis of Exodus: the flight from oppression to a new land – and establishing a relationship of reciprocity with the host country. A number of points arose in the discussion which pushed him to admit that this is not always the case. In particular, what if the arrivals in the new country have not really left home? Via the internet, they take in only their own country’s media, they are in close contact with their friends, they go back when they like. This is a far cry, Sacks admitted, from his own father fleeing Poland knowing he was saying goodbye for good. Modern technology, he agreed, is destroying any sense of loyalty to the place where you are: to whom do you pay your taxes when your manufacturing is in China, your admin in India, and your holiday home in the Seychelles? The destructive pressures on localised society are vast, and possibly will prove overwhelming.

In his response to the questions, however, Sacks modelled what he is trying to say to us: that to build society does not involve deconstructing our faith or identity. If we are strong in those, we can accommodate those of others, and this is what he insists should be taught in the faith schools for which he is responsible: ‘be true to your faith and a blessing to others regardless of their path’.
In today’s climate of religious and political tension, the work of writers, commentators and in particular humorists, has become fraught with new difficulties and dangers. Extremist threats, well-intended gestures of appeasement by the authorities and new legislation such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act have serious implications for free speech. In a panel discussion hosted by writer and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, author Philip Pullman, whose ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy has been accused of promoting atheism, political commentator and Oxford Fellow Timothy Garton-Ash, scientist and part-time imam Usama Hasan, and Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson debated the challenges faced by writers and comedians bound by new dictates of delicacy and self-preservation.

Humour, described by Rowson as a tool for self-preservation, is one of the most important weapons in any civilised struggle, and one that the liberal, educated panel, and their liberal, educated audience were keen to protect. Self-censorship in the interests of good taste was praised, but the general consensus was that it was for the individual to decide where they wanted to draw the line of acceptable humour, and that no one should be made to suffer for overstepping it.

So far so much to be expected, but some interesting points were made about the context of humour. Shocking and even cruel jokes about tragedies and disasters are often used to dispel tension in the aftermath of the event, but, it was concluded, only in private situations, not on the public stage. A debate about humour, religion and free speech proved to be an appropriate context for the panel to tell various 9/11 jokes, but they remained mainly serious about the infamous Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Usama Hassan spoke poignantly of his own decision not to look at the cartoons because of his own love for the prophet, and was also, whilst emphatically championing free speech, an earnest voice of caution against ‘hate speech’, whereby a writer’s words might provoke violence. Timothy Garton-Ash was in favour of the lightest possible controls, citing, and clarifying, current laws which protect living individuals from defamation. Philip Pullman took a more abstract view of the question, speaking of the nature of authorship and the reader’s responsibility of interpretation, while Martin Rowson brought a satirical but serious note to the discussion.

At the start of the evening, Pullman made the important point (often reiterated by the panel) that this is a nebulous topic subject to constant changes in the social and political climate; what is offensive to the majority today may not be so in ten years, and vice versa (witness the gradual slide of smoking into unacceptability). It did seem a rather sad sign of our current proclivities that Garton-Ash’s slightly daring tongue-in-cheek reference to 17th century Catholics, as ‘bloody papists’, didn’t raise a single giggle. Liberal as we like to think ourselves, we are very much bound by the conventions of our time, and like it or not, that involves at the moment a certain amount of treading on eggshells.
“Now, to get everyone into the wrist-slashing mood”, Oliver James announced at the opening of his talk on his book The Selfish Capitalist, follow-up to last year’s best-selling Affluenza, “I’m going to play Tears for Fears’ ‘Mad World’”. Depressingly, perhaps, after a couple of minutes fiddling with his iPod the plan had to be aborted. The fact that this most beloved consumer icon had let him down, let us all down, echoes James’ central premise that money and things don’t buy us happiness, and an economic system that prioritises money and things over human concerns and convinces us that markets can meet all human needs is one that will, inevitably, fail us.

Uplifting it was not, but James described convincingly and with a certain grim zeal an English-speaking world in which social and political trends since the 1970s have led to mental illness and dysfunctionality – the proliferation of ‘affluenza’. As part of his research, James travelled the world examining levels of anxiety, personality disorder, depression and substance abuse and discovered a direct correlation between this and ‘Selfish Capitalism’ the system in most English-speaking countries, including Australia and New Zealand as well as the US and UK. Drawing on the work of psychologist Tim Kasser, James argued that the recent explosion in wealth has been of little benefit to all but a privileged elite and, worse, been detrimental to the emotional well-being of the population as a whole.

He supports his argument with World Health Organization statistics which show, for example, the prevalence of mental illness in the UK as more than twice that of Central and Western Europe. The answer, then: emigration? Denmark in James’ model, though capitalist, has certainly been managed on more benign principles than Blatcherite Britain, resulting in superior health and child care, better gender equality, and a smaller gap between rich and poor.
If this evening’s launch party was anything to go by, there’ll be a great variety and huge lot of fun in the new, expanded Oxford Fringe this year. Starting in just a few weeks, this year’s Fringe will see a great deal more events and shows being held across the city from 29 March to 6 April. This year’s is a “taster fringe” which its organisers hope will grow and evolve over the years.

The launch party showcased acts who’ll be taking part. The night’s performers ranged from a vibrant street band to performance poetry and comedy improvisation. There was good energy to all performances, with some really interesting and quirky acts to look out for.

The evening started and ended with The Horns of Plenty - a street band formed at last year’s Cowley Road Carnival. Their infectiously upbeat mixture of funky reggae, Eastern Europe and South African music made them as much fun as the carnival itself. Their procession into the café was accompanied by a fire eater performing in the background, a touch which really added to the festival feel.

Performance poet George Chopping, a self-proclaimed shelf replenishment technician, performed funny and quick-fire verse about shopping and cats. His poetry was a great jumble of modern jargon and drollery, and made the audience laugh a great deal.

F x P2 were three very young comedians who performed slick, silly sketches which worked well, with natural timing and affability. Their showcase confirmed Oxfringe’s interest in supporting young performers. Oxford Impro performed improvised theatre sketches on the theme of academia which were a bit hit and miss, but done speedily, energetically and in good humour.

The final performer was Jenyth Worsley, a local poet who performed a great variety of material - from a poem from the perspective of a rat to a piece about Cassandra before the fall of Troy. Her work was humorous but also inquisitive, on occasion angry, and eloquent.

All in all the Oxfringe launch gave a great taste of what promises to be an exciting addition to Oxford’s cultural scene. The Fringe will run at the same time as Oxford’s Literary Festival, and hopefully will be the first of many new festivals to emerge at this time of year. The organisers’ enthusiasm and dedication, bringing an exciting number of events taking place across the city, is really something to be proud of.

The Oxfringe will run from 29 March to 6 April. A printed brochure will be distributed across the city soon, in the meantime a full programme of events is available at www.oxfringe.com.
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