The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2007
Back for 2007 with another impressive line-up, the 10th Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival offers six days of erudition, entertainment and whimsy, with household names including Will Self, Antonia Fraser, Claire Tomalin and Tony Benn offering their thoughts on life, the universe and their latest books. Well-orchestrated with a friendly vibe, the festival has a surprisingly cosy base in Christ Church, with Blackwell’s festival café and bite-size bookshop offering physical and intellectual sustenance between lectures. Many people can be seen settled with a (signed?) book and a cup of coffee, soaking up the atmosphere and perhaps hoping to spot one of the many authors putting in an appearance. From children’s writers to influential historians there is definitely an event for everyone. And it’s even an excuse to venture into some of the most inaccessible nooks and crannies of Christ Church like its Upper Library, which doesn’t usually allow visits from the public.
For details of who’s speaking see the Festival website; but to sample the atmosphere you’ll have to visit for yourself!
Ruth Rendell: A Life in Crime
Fri 23th March
I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d expected Ruth Rendell to look like, but certainly not like the perfectly ordinary, rather stern woman seated I front of me. I am well aware that authors cannot be expected to look like their characters; and even if that was what I expected, which would be most likely? Inspector Wexford, perhaps? Or one of her criminals? As a woman renowned for both her keen psychological insight and her vivid imagination, as well as for being a prolific writer, I could hardly have expected her to bear a resemblance to her characters, any more than they resemble one another. I don’t know what I was looking for; some shadow in her face, perhaps, some indication that this was a woman with a greater than usual insight into the murky psychological underworld. I was reminded of the scene in the recently released ‘Becoming Jane’, where Jane Austen meets gothic writer Ann Radcliffe, and finds her shockingly ordinary. But that, I suppose, is the purpose of a writer’s imagination; to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary…
Anyway, despite the rather disappointing first impression, this talk was extremely enjoyable; open a window onto Ruth Rendell’s soul it did not, but it was perfectly adequate in revealing her writing habits. She researches assiduously for every book, and the review that has pleased her the most is one praising her knowledge of electrics, which she learnt from a ‘How to…’ book. She writes in the mornings usually, and in the afternoons rarely. She types, but thinks it makes no difference whether one types or writes longhand. She could not, however, dictate. By the time she finishes one book she always has an idea for the next, and it would seriously worry her if she didn’t. Out of such tit-bits of information it is possible to construct a pretty accurate picture of Ruth Rendell the writer, even if Ruth Rendell the person remains unclear.
Perhaps knowledge of the writer is never quite enough to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. In the queue to the book signings, two women behind me discussed intently whether she might be married:
- She has a daughter, you know.
- That means nothing nowadays, my dear.
So for those of you seeking further illumination of her character, I will tell you one thing: Ruth Rendell has the patience of a saint. Not only did she remain calm whilst answering an increasingly bizarre range of questions – my personal favourite being ‘What are your likes and dislikes?’, which she, with impressive politeness, answered – she also worked her way through the mountain of books (twenty, at least) which the man in front of me presented to be signed. Even I forgave her for looking a little stern, and after being kept up at night reading her new novel ‘The Water’s Lovely’, her staid appearance in person bothers me not at all, so long as she continues to produce her gripping, achingly good books.
Emma Whipday , 02/04/07
Godfrey Howard and Karin Fernald: A Meeting with Virginia Woolf
Fri 23th March
This event is comprised of a combination of readings and anecdotes; the biographical information is interesting enough, but the choice of readings is an uneasy mixture of the well-known and the bizarre.
The highlight of the talk is an abridged version of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Woolf’s hugely famous feminist polemic, and a personal favourite of mine, read with spirit and passion by Karin Fernald. There was something intensely moving about sitting in the Christ Church Upper Library, surrounded predominantly by women, and hearing of how Virginia Woolf was turned away from the Bodleian for being female, and chased from the grass. As an Oxford student myself at what has historically been a male college, there is a sense of triumph in hearing her words whilst sitting in a room in which she aspired for her sex to one day be able to sit in. Whatever the Upper Library lacked in acoustics, it more than made up for in appropriateness, as well as in atmosphere and in beauty. Hearing her defence for the lack of great female writers in the past, as well as her hopes for those of the future, is inspiring, especially when the sentiments are couched in the elegant, lively, imaginative prose that marks her as arguably the greatest female writer of her generation.
That reading, then, more than made up for the weaker points of the event. However, these low points certainly existed; whilst I can commend the desire to juxtapose a famous work with an obscure one, revealing a little-known side to a well-known author whilst pleasing avid fans and newcomers alike, I feel that one of the pieces chosen is at fault. Whilst ‘Am I a Snob?’ gives a real insight (albeit a wry one) not only into Woolf’s thought processes, but also into the class structures of her time, ‘Flush’ – the imagined tale of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lap dog – fails to convince. It may be lyrical, satirical and deliciously whimsical, but it lacks the solidity to command the attention of an audience aurally, especially considering that a portion of that audience may have been unfamiliar with the literary history which assigned it its charm.
That said, one badly chosen piece fails to detract from the pleasures of the event as a whole, which cleverly combines the words of an expert and words of her own to give a lingering impression of Virginia Woolf.
Emma Whipday , 02/04/07
Tony Benn - Diaries
Saturday 24th March
What can I say? This guy rocks!
82 and as sharp as a whip, with a voice that could slice cake and the third generation of a family of teetotallers, Tony B regaled us with amusing and insightful tales of his political life, his childhood and his influences, including his doughtily impressive-sounding parents.
One particular incident that stands out was how he received 2d pocket money each week as a child, culminating in 3d if he kept a journal for his father accounting for how he spent the other 2d! A keen modelmaker as a teenager, he went into Woolworths one Saturday and treated himself to a nice new vice (in the days when Woolies sold such items). He then had to explain away the entry in his diary marked 'Vice - 6d'...
Another anecdote concerned his obssession with discovering the history of everything he became involved in as an adult, so that when he became Postmaster General, he researched the history of the Royal Mail and was less than impressed to find out that Charles II had founded it not as a noble and inexpensive way for the nation to keep in touch with one another, but as a means to spy on his subjects and read all their letters!
Tony Benn has not always been the most popular of politicians, and perhaps it is a sad comment on today's crop that he can almost shine like a beacon of truth and all that is decent and fair now, compared to his fellow politicians, even though he must have had his failings too. Apparently Tony received his first death threat for a long time the other day. A member of the audience sympathised and commented that must have been very distressing for him. 'Oh no' quipped Tony 'I used to get them on a regular basis and had missed them - they proved I was doing something'
Which may or may not have been a joke.
However everything Tony opined about foreign policy, crime and his views on religion forged (admittedly) over a long lifetime was so eminently sensible, you came away thinking *this* Tony B ought to be in charge of the country, not the other one, and wanted to vote him in by some extraordinary powers there and then!
Tony also had a touchingly soft side when speaking of his adored late wife whom he co-incidentally met in Oxford as a student. The bench where he proposed to her now stands by her graveside (having been purchased by Tony from Oxford City Council some years ago). Hence he'd been delighted to be asked to come and talk in Oxford with its happy memories.
The marquee was pretty well full for Tony B and he nearly got a standing ovation at the end. Catch this Renaissance man while he's still around is my advice. If you want to know how to be funky and happy in your own skin at 82, this is the role model for you!
I would certainly go and see him again if he comes to Oxford Lit Festival next year.
The Poet Laura-eate (DI User), 29/03/07
WILLIAM HORWOOD and HELEN RAPPAPORT: Dark Hearts of Chicago
Thursday 22nd March
A fascinating and searingly honest presentation by two writers - one a reputed historian - Rappaport, one a notable novelist - Horwood. They got together through internet dating and the sparks continued flying as they decided to pool their respective talents to write a high calibre novel together.
Lightheartedly, but pulling no punches about the agony of the research and toughness of todays' publishing process and prejudices, they guided us through their personal and professional journey (replete with a powerpoint presentation showing how they ruled various historic and plot elements in and out) through their novel set in Chicago and centering on the 1893 Chicago World Fair, a heinous crime and an early rookie female journalist anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery.
A backstage pass to the very (dark) heart of the creative process made all the more interesting by learning how two writers co-operate to that extent and still remain loving to one another in the evenings, having had to kill (aka edit) each other's 'darlings' so cruelly in the daytime. As if this wasn't stressful enough Rappaport was simultaneously writing No Place for Ladies - re the role of women in the Crimean War.
It goes without saying I had to get myself a copy of the Dark Hearts tome forged by so much blood, sweat and tears at the end. I can honestly say that I haven't been disappointed, though some passages are not for the faint-hearted, it's true.
The Poet Laura-eate (DI User), 28/03/07
Sarah Waters: The Night Watch
Sun 25th March
Sarah Waters spoke with lucidity, interest and candour at one of The Times Literary Festival’s final events. Her conversation with chair Peter Kemp covered her PhD thesis, her four novels Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), Fingersmith (2000), and The Night Watch (2006), the novel she is currently writing, questions of influence, her approach and ambitions.
Waters seemed incredibly at ease, answering all questions with much enthusiasm and detail. Most interesting was her description of the research she undertakes for her historical fiction: beyond the expected reading of history and the studying of maps, Waters immerses herself in the fiction of her selected period: she does not consider herself part of a contemporary literary ‘scene’ or movement, but endeavours to engage with the authors writing at the time she sets her novels.
She also talked at length about the ‘stages’ and arena – the music hall, prison, WWII London – she uses to explore historically illicit behaviours, such as homosexuality and marital affairs. For Waters, her fictions are seen as a mixture of the real and the fantastic or ideal: creativity, she says, allows her to portray a more fertile and promising history of lesbianism, for example, than is historically accurate.
Refreshingly open, with no display of common authorial egotism or arrogance, this event was very informing and enjoyable, a good insight into the working habits, styles and approaches of one of Britain’s most popular contemporary novelists.
Ben (DI Reviewer), 26/03/07
Glyn Maxwell and Jo Shapcott: In Celebration of Auden and MacNeice
Sun 25th March
Poetry has an undeservedly difficult reputation. It was a cosy and intimate reading on Sunday night and this was very nice for us but a great shame for everyone who didn't hear it. What poetry often does need is a handle, a way in. Faced with a dense mass of words and ideas we baulk. I don't know why audiobooks of poetry aren't more popular, because the rhythm is so vital. I don't mean a formal structure, just the way the words bound. It's like a foreign language - if you stop every time you're stuck or delighted the sense is lost, and so meeting a new poem is best done at its own pace.
Jo Shapcott and Glyn Maxwell read (beautifully) their own work alongside that of Auden and MacNeice. Maxwell makes explicit his link to Auden, and it would be interesting to know whether Shapcott and Maxwell could partake in a similar reading on any poet you care to mention, or whether they are genuinely drawn to Auden and MacNeice and influenced by them. Though they both say that often the influences are unknown.
Jo Shapcott began with Auden's Hymn For Saint Cecilia's Day. She then read her sequence of Rose poems, the link being that they too have been set to music. She then talked about memory, first evoked by a sensual experience in MacNeice's Soapsuds, then confused and out of time in his After The Crash. Her own poem Spaghetti Junction is also about a crash, and involved raiding all the car magazines in Smith's for technical language. She finished with her poems Hairless, Piss Flower and Letter To Dennis. Her work is always bold, like the golden tigers on her dress, and she takes on any part of language or topic. It's handsome rather than beautiful; funny, provocative and substantial.
Glyn Maxwell looked disarmingly like a used car salesman, with a crumpled suit and spiky blond hair. With no introduction he launched straight into Audens The Two. If you don't know it, find it now! It's subversive and gleaming. He came to Auden late, having managed to get through an English degree (Worcester College) without reading any at all. He is often now compared with Auden. He admires Auden's enormous intellectual curiosity and knowledge, and explains how Auden divided the whole world into Alices, who know everything and Mabels who know nothing. He feels Auden would have counted MacNeice as a Mabel, because while Auden flies high and looks down, MacNeice is always in the moment. He illustrates this with MacNeice's The Brandy Glass which is an all-encompassing poem about getting drunk in a room. Mabels have come through the academic knowledge to the state of Unknowing and this is a great thing. Maxwell then reads Snow and House On A Cliff. The latter contains a line so lovely and so balanced that Maxwell has to stop and read it again:
"Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind."
(I later discover a poem of Maxwell's with a similarly poised line:
"Not too late to not go in." from My Grandfather At The Pool)
We get through the line the third time, and Maxwell says "a line of poetry should be the sound of someone existing in the world". I suddenly realised I've missed the following sentences. Maxwell finishes with two of his own poems: The Old Lad and an extract from Thinking Earth which he wrote for the world service. The Old Lad is breathtaking and has fire in its belly and I'm quite glad we're nearing the end - like a lovely meal I don't want to replace the taste of it.
Peter McDonald, the chair of the meeting, finishes with snippets of Auden and MacNeice. They are gentle by comparison and I am glad. From The Cave Of Making this is Auden on poetry:
"After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background-noise for study
or hung as status-trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored."
Jen Pawsey (DI Staff), 25/03/07
Gillian Baverstock: Enid Blyton
Sun 25th March
I left this talk feeling very disturbed and unsure why. Perhaps it's the feeling that Gillian Baverstock has been subsumed by her mother. She followed in her footsteps as a Montessori teacher, she is telling us how much her mother would have loved to be there talking about her life, she will sign books about her. She is too close to her mother to be critical or even rational about works which were not written with the current world in mind.
I do not wish to vilify Enid Blyton. Much of my pocket money was spent on her books. 20p doesn't go far and new books had to wait for book tokens. So weekly sustenance came from dog-eared yellow books in miscellany shops, and there's a lot of Enid Blyton there. The first time I read a whole book in one sitting it was a Secret Seven. Now of course I know how short they were, but I still remember the heady sense of power: the world of reading was my oyster! And if I'm now horrified by the casual superiority with which Julian slaps an annoying gypsy kid I can only say it didn't bother me then. I don't believe such descriptions have influenced my own prejudices. We shed so much in our teenage years, after all.
In many ways I'm not surprised by the continuing popularity (80,000 sales per year and that's not counting those dog-eared copies) of Enid Blyton. Her stories don't improve your vocabulary and her morals are blunt but they're vivid and easy to read. Gillian says being an observer in a story is one thing but taking part in the action is much better. The Famous Five are fun because the reader lives it vicariously, and I suspect this is made easier by the descriptions. Julian is "tall and strong", Ann "a bit shy", Dick "pulls Ann's hair". Essentially they're blank canvases. She wrote by sitting at her typewriter and emptying her mind. In would dance the characters, one by one. I'd love to know what she would make of modern children's fiction. I have my guesses but I can't say, and sadly neither can Gillian. She is here because people still want answers, want to meet, want to thank her mother. But she is impotent to fulfil these wishes.
Years after I'd grown out of Enid Blyton's stories I continued to read them when I was ill. It was comforting escapism, a word which doesn't necessarily deserve its negative connotations. Escaping is fine if you know that's what you're doing. It disturbs me that the author never acknowledged that she wrote to escape. As a child she didn't get on with her mother, and her beloved father left when she was 13. Years later she wrote about this in a story, but she never spoke about it. Having won a poetry prize in her teens she turned to writing for adults knowing nothing of the adult world. Not surprisingly it was rejected. She then trained as a teacher. Here she discovered how much her writing was appreciated by her pupils and she submitted short stories to a teachers' magazine. She did not realise her name was becoming widely known as teachers everywhere read her stories to their classes. Later she wrote longer stories for her own daughter. It seems she always had an immediate and voracious audience and perhaps this is part of the appeal - the books feel personal.
Throughout the talk Gillian addresses the children. She is terrifyingly concrete, offering no insight into herself or her mother. I think this is what disturbs me most - she is like an experiment into the effects of an unadulterated diet of Enid Blyton and it is difficult to imagine her functioning in the real world. The streets of Oxford seem complex and colourless after the lecture. More harmful and insidious than any suspected prejudice is the legacy of expectation that we have a right to a simple world where good dogs beat bad men, where the yellow sun shines on the green grass. How soon should we learn it's more complicated than that?
Jen Pawsey (DI Staff), 25/03/07
Jeremy Paxman. Royalty
What exactly is royalty and how does it work? Can it be a suitable component of modern government and if not, what should replace it? In spite of being overheard saying to a friend in the audience ‘I’m not intending to talk about anything remotely interesting, I’d leave if I were you,’ immediately before taking the platform, Jeremy Paxman tackled this thorny issue with style and humour. From the colourful idiosyncrasies of the King of Albania to healthy expressions of disrespect for Prince Charles, via discussions of Trooping the Colour, the State Opening of Parliament and just how weird it is to be in the presence of the Queen, he explored theories of kingship, duty and political expediency, entertaining, and more importantly flattering, the audience. Apparently a higher than average representation of republican sympathies in the room shows that we’re all terribly intelligent here in Oxford, yet Paxman’s own take on monarchy was not what he himself would call 'intelligent': he initially described the idea of as ‘indefensible’, then proceeded to defend it with a depressing lack of conviction. His argument seemed to be that just as ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those others’, so is monarchy its unsatisfactory complement; that is, the worst (apart from the rest) form of dealing with the tricky Head of State question. I’m not convinced, myself – while I can see the problems with election in this instance, I take to take the view that indefensible means just that, and also agreed with much of the audience that it’s a fairly cruel life to inflict on someone. It was a shame, though perhaps inevitable, that Paxman seemed to set so little store by his own argument. Lovely man though, and such an accomplished speaker.
Susie Cogan (DI Staff), 24/03/07
With Adrian Hodges and Mark Lawson: Ruby In The Smoke
The Golden Compass - From Book to Film
Fri 23rd and Sat 24th March
In these two unconnected lectures Philip Pullman talked about his work being adapted for TV and film. It is obvious these are very different disciplines on very different scales.
The TV adaptation of Ruby In The Smoke was shown at Christmas. It starred Billie Piper as Sally Lockhart, the courageous and emancipated Victorian heroine. Philip Pullman began with an explanation of Sally's origins - a girl in a sepia photo. She has an outlandish hat and an expression which is both pretty and defiant. She doesn't look much like Billie Piper! He also showed a photo accompanied by sentimental verses showing a father and daughter remembering mother who is now in heaven. It was these which gave him the basis for the Garlands' photographer's studio. We then heard from Adrian Hodges, who wrote the screenplay, about the sort of compromises which have to be made in adaptations. Time constraints are critical and to cut a story down it is often better to sacrifice minor characters than set pieces. The BBC allowed an unprecedented 4 extra minutes, mostly on the grounds that it was Christmas and everyone would be too drunk or asleep to notice! With clips from the film sparking comments about costume (no hats!) and weather (too sunny!) the discussion also touched on difficulties of period drama. Much of Britain is too crowded to be able to film Victorian scenes, and they shot the city scenes in Liverpool rather than London. It was generally agreed that Mrs Coulter was great and they wished they hadn't killed her off! Knowing how viewers love a good baddy, don't be surprised if she returns in one of the sequels!
Film is altogether bigger. Deborah Forte, the producer of The Golden Compass, described the contrast - Philip Pullman wrote the book by himself. When she came to Oxford to film it she brought 600 people. The lecture followed the sequence of events as a book becomes a film. Forte bought the film rights when the novel was first published, in 1995. She waited until the whole trilogy was published before beginning work on the film and this has meant fortuitous advances in CG animation. Michael Fink showed the audience how the concept art was developed into computer animation. He demonstrated how they would develop an animated animal for Pantalaimon, Lyra's daemon, who of course must change shape. His ferret was stunningly lifelike but it was Stelmaria, Lord Asriel's snow leopard daemon, which drew admiring gasps.
The team seem to agree that this is Lyra's story, and the film will centre on her. A risk, then, to cast a Lyra unknown to the acting world. In four casting sessions around Britain 10.000 hopeful girls were auditioned. Forte explains that the best actresses were at the first session, which makes sense, she says, as the most dedicated would travel to the ends of the earth to get in first! After that session Philip Pullman was sent a DVD of the most promising, and he narrowed it down to one of two. Thousands of girls later it was indeed one of those two. Dakota Blue Richards (12) then had the daunting task of working with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. On her first day Daniel Craig set her at ease by grinning at her and jumping up and down. She mimicked him, and apparently did not stop bouncing for most of the shoot!
Of course there is a lot of excitement and speculation about the film and some questions were left frustratingly unanswered. Forte seemed guarded and there was a lot of mutual back-slapping from the panel. But it did give an insight into the enormous machinery that is film, and the reason the credits contain so many names. It sounds as if this film is being made by people who genuinely enjoyed the book, and there is more to the project than the glint of dollars. After all the rights were secured before the successes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had established a market for children's fantasy series. So far Philip Pullman seems pleased, and all bodes well. I have no doubt the excitement will increase between now and the film's release!
Jen Pawsey (DI Staff), 23/03/07
Salley Vickers: The Other Side Of You
Fri 23rd March
It had never struck me before that authors cannot read their own books; that if they do they are editing, that phrases they would like to change leap out at them, that they see in their minds eye not a picture conjured up but the picture they were describing, that they know what happens. And that an author may not know what they write about and the themes that draw their work together.
Ostensibly there to talk about her latest novel, in fact the elegant, eloquent Salley Vickers talked about all her work and the themes therein. She was asked by an interviewer in the States about her preoccupation with death - more than one of her novels begins with a death, and to answer she quoted Miss Garnet's Angel, that death "leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair". In many ways this theme is summed up in The Other Side Of You, the story of a failed suicide. For the background Vickers draws on her own past as a trained psychoanalyst, and her central tenet is that there is no cure for life. It is not nearly as depressing as it sounds! It's more that everyone who has ever lived has had to find an answer to the problem of living.
Fittingly another strand running through her work is the inclusion of older stories and paintings. She says, smiling, there is nothing new under the sun. Despite the similarity of her characters' situations, the characters themselves are so different and detailed it doesn't feel like cheating and one story doesn't spoil another. Instead it is that we're connected in our universal quest. And she retells in such lucid and transparent prose - simple words that say a lot.
People always ask Vickers if she believes in ghosts and angels. She replies frustratingly that it doesn't matter what she believes, and more satisfyingly that we all know about angels and ghosts: that everyone who has died and lives on in our memories is a ghost. They still touch our lives after death, and we change them over time too. And anyone whom we encounter by chance and who influences our course is an angel. These are descriptions of things we can't describe. I find it fascinating too that we as readers give a different quality to the living fictional character, the dead fictional character, not to mention our personal legion of ghosts. It's a subtle distinction.
She writes a book sequentially, not knowing what happens. It is obvious she is fantastic at creating charactes, and they do the work for her. She doesn't plan. She loves writing. She quotes Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." I suspect she knows perfectly well, and just isn't telling! She says also that amateurs think you'll be happy to finish a book. It isn't like that - you've lived with these characters in your head for a long time. They are more intimate than your family. It's a bereavement. No, she corrects herself, more like sending your progeny to boarding school before they're ready. Finishing the story is a wrench.
In this instance at least the reader knows just what author means.
Jen Pawsey (DI Staff), 23/03/07
Jung Chang. Mao: The Unknown Story
Jung Chang became famous in the early 90s for writing Wild Swans, the extraordinary story of three generations of Chinese women; her mother, her grandmother and herself. The success of Wild Swans provided Chang and her historian husband Jon Halliday with the platform and contacts they needed to write a new and ground-breaking biography of Mao Tse-tung. It took more than a decade and involved interviewing former world leaders, members of Mao’s immediate circle, and ordinary Chinese citizens. The portrait that emerges is of a uniquely single-minded dictator who would stop at nothing to achieve his aims and who considered his people entirely dispensable. The lecture began with an explanation of Mao’s point of view and of how his rule and legacy had affected Chang and her family, and moved effortlessly from harrowing accounts of the Cultural Revolution, the disastrous agricultural policy which resulted in mass starvation, and stories of Mao’s indifference to his own relations, to light-hearted anecdotes about Chang’s own naivety and surprise at the Western world when she finally left China. Politically informative, startling and often moving, this was well- measured and well delivered talk.
Susie Cogan (DI Staff), 22/03/07
Anthony Horowitz: Nightrise
Wed 21st March
Anthony Horowitz talks just like his books - a mile a minute. ("There are so many things for children to do these days if I don't make every paragraph gripping I worry they'll go away and do something else.") He started with a tale about hearing his favourite author speak at school and after listening for an hour he was so bored not only did he never read the books again, he set fire to them. In his classroom.
To avoid boring us and having his books burnt he spoke for about 20 minutes and then took questions from his audience (mostly children and minders). He was kindly, encouraging, funny, and very mindful of entertaining everyone in the room. The questions covered a great range - about characters, names, adapting for film, writing screenplays and all the different series. We heard about composite characters (so you don't get sued) plus the truth about who they are based on, trademark titles (2 strong words - Storm + breaker, Night + rise, Snake + heads), issues surrounding violence in children's fiction (not nearly enough of it!) and a lot of other irreverant ideas and opinions. One lad asked how to pronounce Point Blanc to settle an argument at school. The diplomatic answer was that though it should be French, Horowitz himself pronounces it the English way, "so in a sense it's a draw". The prize for the best question went to a girl who asked if Horowitz would have the courage to do what Alex Rider does. (No - he writes from the perspective of admiring Alex, not boasting that Alex is really himself. And no, he never meant to kill off Alex. It was meant to be a cliff-hanger but he would never actually harm him - Alex has been too much of a friend.) And the secret of the pace and energy of his writing? He finds writing great fun and writes the book in order - with the reader not against them. At school, telling stories was the only thing he was good at or enjoyed doing and he says the secret of success is to find what you're good at and do it. You'll get rejected but you just have to remember that publishers are idiots!
What do all the children in the audience make of him? While his secret of success may not sound revolutionary to me, maybe it does to those hearing it for the first time from someone they admire. Maybe it's enough to see that authors are real live people, who want to encourage others to write, and who find books more exciting than films. Horowitz talked about the response to the film of Stormbreaker. Lots of people told him it was a bit disappointing, but he seemed quite pleased about that: "If the books are working, imagination is the best cinema you can have. No film will live up to it. Films are projected onto screens like this." (He pats the Oxford Literary Festival placard behind him.) "It's like a wall, nothing can get through it." (As if hearing its criticism the placard falls down, to gales of laughter.) "But a book is like a door. You can go anywhere through it!"
Judging by the queue to get books signed afterwards there was no danger anyone was going home to burn them.
Jen Pawsey (DI Staff), 22/03/07
Robert Lacey. Great Tales: The Battle of the Boyne to DNA
Robert Lacey makes a good first impression: sort of politely exuberant and very much at ease with his audience. This being the first lecture I’d attended, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was rather hoping to get some diverting, digestible history, amusingly delivered and easily retained for wheeling out at dinner parties (I know, it doesn't bear thinking about). What Lacey offered instead was a charming, slightly rambling overview of History, beginning with a short, irreverent discussion as to what the subject actually covers, taking in the story of his own early fascination with the past, and covering diverse examples of historical writing from the Venerable Bede to 1066 And All That. The questions, slightly disappointingly, concentrated on Lacey’s ties to the royal family: he has written biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana, and was recently a consultant on The Queen, but the titbits of gossip he supplied and his kindly scorn for conspiracy theorists made for hugely interesting listening – I would have enjoyed it much more fully if I hadn’t anticipated something a little weightier.
Susie Cogan (DI Staff), 21/03/07
Pauline Kiernan. Filthy Shakespeare
In contrast to Robert Lacey’s lecture earlier in the day, the subject matter of Pauline Kiernan’s book – the smutty subtext running through Shakespeare’s work – had led me to expect a fairly light-hearted event, and sitting behind little desks in a Christ Church lecture theatre only enhanced the expectation of classroom-style sniggering. But while Kiernan displayed a keen appreciation of the humour of her subject, her discourse was also scholarly, serious and illuminating. Like a lot of people, I’ve always found parts of the comedy in Shakespeare faintly bewildering, and have looked with some suspicion on people who actually claim to be amused by them. The stage versions which have worked best for me have tended toward slapstick, which seems a sadly blunt instrument in this particular context. Kiernan’s premise is that these scenes, and countless others, are informed by another layer of meaning, usually in the form of sexual puns, the significance of which has been lost over the years as the relevant slang terms have fallen out of use. Kiernan herself became interested in the subject after coming across a bilingual dictionary from the 16th century, which included ‘alternative’ usages, in her (convent) school library. She gave examples of otherwise oblique repartee which becomes suddenly comprehensible, and even - dare I say it – funny, when the language was explained, and of famous speeches (Puck’s ‘I am that merry wanderer of the night’) with eye-watering alternative interpretations.
The lecture was conducted as a question-and-answer session, where the member of ‘Writers in Oxford’ who had introduced Kiernan asked the first few questions and then opened the proceedings up to the audience. While this seemed slightly contrived at first, it did actually allow the important points to be worked through and warmed up when the audience started chipping in. Cosy and informative, this was an unexpected treat of a lecture, and should be a treat of a book.
Susie Cogan (DI Staff), 21/03/07
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