Oxford Literary Festival 2018

Ten days of talks and lectures from writers and distinguished guests.
Various venues in Oxford, Sat 17 March - Sun 25 March 2018

March 27, 2018
Beetle Mania: MG Leonard. Sunday 25th March.

MG Leonard - or Maya, as she introduced herself - has a dark secret. Despite having written three books where beetles are the heroes, she spent most of her life being utterly terrified of anything with six or more legs. This was the confession she made at the start of her Oxford Literary Festival talk about her children's book trilogy, the Beetle Boy series.

The Beetle Boy trilogy has become very popular with young readers, something that was apparent by the size of the crowd that squeezed into the seminar room at the Oxford Martin School. Despite the numbers, and the young age of many people in the audience, Leonard kept our attention focused and the energy buzzing, drawing on her background at the National Theatre to put on a performance that was somewhere between a one-woman show, a stand-up routine, and the best kind of lessons at school. She was a bubbly and engaging speaker, mixing facts about beetles with advice about writing and revelations about the process behind her books.

Listening to the talk, I realised just how little I knew about beetles, and how much there was to find out. We learned about the rhinoceros beetle, and how it can lift up to 850 times its own weight; about the frog-leg leaf beetle, which shocks predators with static electricity; and about the importance of dung-beetles (during the 19th century, English dung-beetles had to be exported to Australia, as the manure that the recently-introduced cows were producing was piling up so high that farmers were getting sick and dying).

Leonard also gave us a lot of useful advice about writing - in particular, the importance of establishing a good antagonist. We heard more about Beetle Boy's nefarious villain, Lucretia Cutter, than we did about the heroes; she's clearly a character that Leonard loves to hate as much as her readers do. Speaking as an aspiring children's writer, it was a relief to hear that Leonard's first book took her ten years to write, mostly because of the enormous amount of research about beetles that she had to do before she could write about them (Leonard stressed that she never wanted to exaggerate or fabricate anything that her beetle characters could do, because beetles were already amazing enough).

The talk rounded off with some questions, all of which came from the children in the audience, who had been completely engaged throughout the session. Thanks to their curiosity about beetles, we learned a few more entymological facts (the smallest beetle is the featherwing, which is less than a millimetre long - if you do see one in a museum, it'll probably be mounted on the head of a pin). We all left with heads full of information, and the overall message of MG Leonard's talk received loud and clear - that if you're frightened of something, you can change that, and change your life along with it.

March 26, 2018
Robert Peston. WTF: What have we done? Why did it happen? How do we take back control? Thursday 22nd March.

Robert Peston is a journalist and television presenter who needs very little introduction. I remember him as the BBC’s economic presenter before he moved to ITV: famously he predicted the financial crisis before anyone else noticed we had any problems at all and commented on the crisis all the way through the worst times. However, I knew very little about his background, which came up in the course of his conversation with Matthew Stadlen. That is to say, Stadlen threw him some questions and he answered in his usual explosive way.

I didn’t know before the talk that Peston is from a poor Jewish background, his father rising to become a member of the House of Lords. Peston himself is very aware that he is lucky, privileged if you like; one of his main concerns in the Britain of today is the widening gap between rich and poor. He is passionate, like his parents before him, about education and has founded a pro-bono venture called Speakers for Schools, where eminent people from all walks of life give free talks to state schools. I used the word explosive when referring to his speech delivery - hands flailing, hair flying, words thrown out – and the title of his book and his answers showed that he no longer feels he has to be too reverent about language and his audience. However, what also emerged during the hour was someone who cares very much about the state of the nation and where we are going. On Brexit, he stated quite categorically that Britain will be poorer out of the EU but he mainly wanted to talk about why the referendum delivered the result it did and why the people who are going to suffer most voted to leave; the disconnect between Whitehall and much of the general public.

I had heard that his wife had died a few years ago and this he touched on briefly at the end – the process of mourning and how he dealt with it. Through everything shines a man who seems irreverent but cares deeply and reacts thoughtfully.

Anyone who can keep his audience so engaged for an hour in the that most uncomfortable of spaces, the Sheldonian Theatre, deserves a medal!

March 26, 2018
John Kiszely: the British Fiasco in Norway, 1940. The Anatomy of a Campaign. Tuesday 20th March.

Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s talk was delivered to perfection. He spoke clearly without notes but not too fast, imparting information without overloading his audience with facts. He did not have many visuals, just enough to tell his story and he went back time and time again to the map of Norway to show where the events took place.

The fiasco, according to Kiszely, was down to poor leadership at the very top and to the unsuitability of those just below the cabinet. The war cabinet at the end of 1939 consisted of several people, including of course, the Prime Minister himself, Neville Chamberlain, who still thought peace could be negotiated with Hitler. Below the cabinet were the three men in charge of the three services and Kiszely went through them one by one, pointing out how ill-equipped and unsuitable they were to take command at that particular time: the men also had no rapport with each other. Consequently, the British campaign in Norway was disorganised (troops supplied with skis but no bindings for instance) and the dithering in the top ranks, together with inter-service rivalry, meant that the Germans were given the advantage so that they were able to sweep through the country. British troops left rather ignominiously and quietly. The main reason that this campaign is not better known is that other events, such as the retreat from Dunkirk, took over and overshadowed the failure in Norway. Sadly, Kiszely noted that lessons have not been learned from this campaign - in particular timely decision-making, clear objectives and attention to equipment - to our cost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, Kiszely argues that the campaign, a failure in itself, had significant consequences. Firstly, it forced Chamberlain to resign, leaving the post open for Churchill to step into. Secondly, the German decision to move into Norway was one taken by Hitler in spite of advice from his generals to the contrary: the fact that it seemed to have a good outcome for the Germans gave Hitler the confidence to think that all his decisions were correct and this had disastrous consequences for the Germans later in the war. Thirdly, although the campaign was considered a German success, equal numbers of ships were destroyed by either side – this, however, was a bigger proportion of the German navy than the British navy, so it hit Germany harder.

What is not clear, still not clear, is why Norway still seems so grateful to the British for this campaign? We went in without so much as a by your leave; we achieved nothing much and left quietly without giving the Norwegians advance notice that we were withdrawing – and yet we still receive a magnificent Christmas tree from Norway every year. Thank you Norway.

Sir John Kiszely’s talk was engaging, at times funny, and always interesting; he answered questions well and very cleverly sidestepped an invitation to comment on the present situation. A fascinating insight into a little-known historical event.

March 25, 2018
Never say you’ll marry someone when you’re ovulating - Ruby Wax, Saturday 24th March.

When I told my partner that I was going to listen to Ruby Wax talk about her new book How to Be Human – The Manual he kindly informed me that I’d made it this far without a manual, and done pretty well. With that in mind, I can only imagine how much more of a well-rounded, chilled and wonderful person I could have been if only Ruby Wax had co-written this book sooner.

The book was written in collaboration with a neuroscientist (Ash Ranpura) and a monk (Gelong Thubten). Thubten joined Ruby for this event, in conversation with the lovely Lucy Atkins, herself a British author. Coupled with Wax’s acerbic wit and her own academic achievements in the world of psychotherapy and mindfulness (having graduated from Oxford with a Masters for the latter), the trio have produced a handbook that proclaims to help ‘upgrade your mind as much as you’ve upgraded your iPhone’.

The talk itself was fascinating, informative and thought-provoking, all while being laugh-out-loud funny. It was the first show of the day, and there were initially some technical issues with microphones which disrupted the beginning of the discussion, but even this was turned into an amusing sideshow due to Wax’s quick, sometimes scathing commentary (scathing, but always with a quirked eyebrow and a wicked glint in her eye).

Once the sound system was sorted out, the packed Sheldonian Theatre was treated to an absorbing discussion about the human brain, the mind and how humans may have come a long way evolutionarily but there is still a lot of catching up to do when it comes to emotional intelligence. It was clear that there was a strong bond between Wax and Thubten and both speakers clearly know their subject inside out. Wax openly discussed her own battle with depression as well as her desire to understand more about the human brain, while Thubten discussed how the human mind works in a way that seemed both revelatory and obvious. The book puts the three authors’ expertise into layman’s terms to discuss everything from relationships, emotions, addictions and the future to compassion and forgiveness. While I haven’t read the book, after spending an hour with two of its authors, I know that I need it in my life.

March 25, 2018
Half toff and half Sheffield Steel - Tim Bentinck, Saturday 24th March.

Tim Bentinck is best known for his role on long-running radio serial The Archers as David Archer. But you would never believe what else he’s been up to since he was born on a sheep station in Tasmania.

An hour wasn’t long enough to learn all about Tim Bentinck, who was in conversation with Stephen Dunk at the Oxford Literary Festival this Saturday. Dunk’s introduction only scratched the surface of Bentinck’s biography: musician, inventor, truck driver and the Earl of Portland, no less, to name but a few titles held by the man I have known most of my life, vocally at least, as David Archer.

The avid Archers fans who filed into the Sheldonian Theatre were treated to a potted history of Bentinck’s rather interesting life. Dunk, clearly a fan of the Radio 4 show himself, seemed as excited as the audience to be there, and this came through in the ensuing interview/chat with the very charming and charismatic Bentinck.

While there was a lot of discussion surrounding Bentinck’s role as David Archer, and some of the inner workings of how a radio serial is put together, it is clear that Bentinck is so much more than his most famous ongoing role. I could have listened to him speak for hours, telling tales of how his father came to gain the title of Earl (but, alas, no monetary gain), sharing a flat with Daniel Day-Lewis while studying at Bristol, and the tiny thought that he ought to go to an interview that led him to meet his wife. But the best tale by far was of his sudden thrust to West End fame, when he was not first but second understudy for the main role in Pirates of Penzance and the lead actor had fallen ill, but the first understudy was in court (traffic offence, apparently) so with very little rehearsal, no costume that actually fit him and a sub-average singing voice, he found himself taking the lead, when he was expecting to be one of the pirates in the background. Bentinck’s charm is that he genuinely seems to love telling these stories, while they may not show him in the best light, he is happy to share his escapades in acting and in life.

He was in Oxford promoting his autobiography Being David Archer and other unusual ways of earning a living and I just had to buy it as soon as the talk had finished. I started reading it on the bus back home and can safely say it is written with the same exuberance that came across during this talk. I just need the audiobook now, so that Bentinck can provide all of the voices as he did while reading excerpts, and bringing a whole other dimension to the text.

March 26, 2018
Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe: The Origins of the Laws of Nature. OLF at the Oxford Martin School, Friday 23rd March 2018.

With wit and wisdom Professor Atkins expounded, amongst many scientific theories, the importance of ignorance and nothingness at the centre of our understanding of our universe.

Big questions do not intimidate Professor Peter Atkins if Friday night’s talk at the Oxford Martin School was anything to go by. In fact, the aim of his new book is to expose the beautiful simplicity at the heart of the processes of our complicated universe and to consider the profound question of the origin of the laws that structure our universe. At the opening of the talk, Professor Atkins acknowledged it had been a struggle to reduce the contents of his book to a mere hour’s presentation but recognised that hewing simplicity from complexity is a central tenet of the scientific paradigm so gave it his best shot. And indeed he proved correct in that it was impossible to cover this enormous topic in an hour. However, with wit and wisdom, Professor Atkins gave sufficient thought-provoking insight in this brief time to encourage the audience to read his book.

He explained during the course of his talk that the laws of nature e.g. Newton’s laws are a series of rationalisations science has imposed to help achieve an understanding of our universe. Of course, this involved Professor Atkins referencing many great, good and not so good scientists: Newton, Dirak, Feynman, Einstein, and Professor Atkins personal favourite, Boltzmann – to name but a few – who were responsible for defining and explaining many of the fundamental laws of nature.

Professor Atkins went on to expound his theory that these laws have their origins in three basic methods: indolence – doing nothing but observe; anarchy – not imposing laws but allowing order to emerge from chaos, and ignorance – a position Professor Atkins felt could comfortingly get a student a long way. He then went on to explain how these approaches could be used in distilling evidence to understand the origins of the universe.

There was then some lengthy discussion of the value and importance of nothing (the start point of the universe) and zero (e.g. the balancing of opposites reaching a value of 0 in gauge theory). As well as extensively name dropping many of the leading scientists of the twentieth century, Professor Atkins also bandied around several well-known laws and theories from Newton’s laws, through my favourite Hooke’s Law to Feynman’s theories of quantum mechanics, and Boltzmann’s work on thermodynamics and the origin of fundamental constants such as Boltzmann's constant, the speed of light and Planck’s constant.

After this whirlwind tour of modern scientific theory I gained some insight into our understanding of the fundamental laws which govern our universe but was left with many more questions than answers. Consequently, I will be starting my reading with the chapter in Professor Atkins book referencing the benefits of ignorance.

March 26, 2018
Just a Minute, Sheldonian Theatre, Sunday 25th March

Is it possible to type a review of the acclaimed Radio 4 panel game Just A Minute in sixty seconds without hesitation repetition or deviation and also make it funny I do not know but I’ll give it a go because.... argh: hesitation! This is really, really hard — argh: repetition! But it is the aim of the game.

I have been listening to Just A Minute on the radio for years, so I was delighted to be able to see it performed live for the first time. Four loquacious contestants (this time, comedian and actor Miles Jupp, comedian Tony Hawks, poet Pam Ayres and thriller writer Felix Francis), spoke on topics that included The River Cherwell, Hannibal, and Giovanni Versace. Gently but firmly herding their sixty-or-less second monologues, colourful interruptions, challenges, and banter into the right side of the rules was the inimitable and eternally youthful Nicholas Parsons. Now 94 and walking with a stick, he nonetheless displayed as much verbal dexterity and quick wit as ever, hosting not one, but two episodes.

Having attended events at the Sheldonian for years, I am beginning to wonder how long it can continue to justify to paying customers its disorganized and uncomfortable seating as just part of a ‘historic’ setup. When you’re visiting the theatre — and writing a review of it — you want to be comfortable; so if you arrive to be told to perch on a wooden bench in the balcony for over an hour, with muffled sound and someone’s foot half jammed into your backside, looking at empty seats down below, frankly anything positive you feel or write is a testament to the production itself. And (rant over) so it was with this ever-delightful show that has been running since 1967.

“Nowhere to go, and nothing to say, and a lot of people looking at me,” quipped veteran player Tony Hawks, as he was rescued from a grinding halt by a “correct within the rules of the game” challenge. The beauty of Just A Minute, as with many successful entertainment shows, lies in its simplicity. No gimmicks, snazzy sets, or complicated gadgets (well, OK, there are buzzers); just people, talking.

Yet, while the concept is simple, the level of skill required to execute it well is high. When you have to speak coherently on a single topic, without repeating yourself, going off on a tangent, or saying ‘um’, a minute seems interminable. When you can do all this and manage to make your audience fall about with laughter, you know you’re the right candidate for the show. Long may Just a Minute at the Oxford Literary Festival continue! (But next time, ditch the venue.)

March 26, 2018
Julia Hobsbawm, Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload. Friday 23rd March.

Julia Hobsbawm was introduced as a writer and speaker, a visiting professor at the Cass Business School and the University of Suffolk, and the founder of the Knowledge Networking Company. A busy woman you would say. However, she told us that 6pm on a Friday is her Technoshabbat, by which she meant her time to disconnect from the overload.

We have moved from the first copper telegraph cables being laid from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1857 to mobiles that connect us 24/7 to hundreds or thousands of people. We have now become used to huge numbers (6000 tweets are being sent every second) but for her, an important number is 168 – the number of hours in a week. This is not something we can change so we have to make the best of every waking hour. She had six suggestions to make and she says they are only suggestions – they are the ingredients for a more socially healthy life not the recipes themselves.

Her suggestions are: a) be aware of scale and speed, bearing in mind that 150 is considered the maximum number of relationships human beings can successfully manage; b) be aware of the hierarchy of communication modes, with face-to-face still being the best; c) bridge the generation gap, introduce diversity, make sure you connect with people from other age groups; d) well-being – diet, exercise and sleep are essential for good mental health; e) jazz ensembles versus orchestras (jazz ensembles being very flexible and able to move with the times); and f) tying the K.N.O.T. which represents knowledge, networks and time – aspects which we need to integrate to keep us socially healthy.

Hobsbawm is not dogmatic – her main thrust is that we should be aware of how much technology we use and we should make it work for us rather than us being slaves to it. She did not really tell us anything rivetingly original, but what she did do was present her research and thinking into the problem of social health and our over-connectivity and give us ideas about how we can change our lives. She is also a very engaging speaker, knowledgeable and personable with a couple of insights into her own life. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable hour.

March 23, 2018
Dr Miranda Kaufmann: Black Tudors in History

Having recently read a historical novel set in Elizabethan Tudor England, which touched on slaves who had been freed, I was curious to hear what really happened around that time.

In fact, Dr. Kaufmann said, these black Tudors were not freed slaves because at that time England was not so involved in the slave trade, apart from Captain Hawkins. The Spanish largely ran the slave trade at that time and guarded it jealously – it was only later, when the British had their own colonies, that this nation became so prominent in the slave trade. Another significant point was that slavery was not permitted in England, so the black Tudors were servants but not slaves. They were also allowed to give evidence in court, which meant they had some status, unlike, for instance, serfs.

The book deals with ten black Tudors, and Dr. Kaufmann talked about three of them. The first was a diver called Jacques Francis: divers were very useful in those days because Englishmen did not swim. In fact, it was considered unwholesome, so even sailors could not swim, which is why so many drowned when ships went down. The second was a woman from Morocco called Mary Fillis: Britain had trade deals with Morocco at the time – the records show her becoming a Christian.The third was a man called Edward Swarthy, who possibly came back from Africa with Drake. He was named Edward after his master and Swarthy after the colour of his skin, but he was a servant, not a slave, as the records show him giving evidence.

Dr. Kaufmann says that researching these lives is painstakingly difficult at the moment as it means trawling through parish records, court records and so on, though digitalisation of records should make this easier. Dr. Kaufmann found records of about 200 black people living in England at that time.

Dr. Kaufmann’s research appeared to be thorough and she showed us pictures of the people involved to keep our attention; unfortunately, however, she read her lecture and this detracted considerably from our enjoyment. She also gave us far too much information to absorb in this short space of time.

March 23, 2018
Burn the Witch? More like hang them - Ronald Hutton talks to Diarmaid MacCulloch, British Academy Lecture, The Witch: A History of Fear, Thursday 22nd March.

As someone who has the typical marks of a witch (dark eyes, birth mark, an affinity with animals) I've always been intrigued by the history of witches. In his latest book, The Witch historian Ronald Hutton seeks to expose the damaging effect that belief in magic manipulators can have, both in the past and present day.

Speaking to fellow early modern historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, Hutton outlined the evolution of the definition of the term 'witch', the ebbs and flows of persecution from ancient times to the modern day and the toxic effect it has on the people living in a fear-based society.

As MacCulloch said, 'you can tell what the book's really about from the subtitle', and in this instance 'A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present' is the crux of the work. Fear, Hutton says, causes people to see problems not as 'uncanny misfortunes', instead as deliberate acts, resulting in people turning against their own, seeking to find the 'witch' hidden within their community. Sadly, fear of witchcraft isn't a thing of the past; in twentieth-century Limpopo province of South Africa 43 people were burned alive after being accused of witchcraft, and Hutton estimates that over 5,000 people in Tanzania have met a similar fate. This is not a problem of the past; the fear of witchcraft is growing.

Hutton and MacCulloch seemed very at ease with each other, seamlessly discussing Hutton's work without awkward pauses or interruptions, giving the audience a very slick and informative presentation. What was particularly fascinating was hearing myths about early modern witch trials being debunked. You know that supposed essential text for witch hunting Malleus Maleficarum? Hutton says that it's only famous because it's a massive text, and describes its author Heinrich Kramer as a 'misogynist who was rubbish at hunting witches in Austria, who failed to make a huge impact on witch hunting methods'! Another myth which was firmly extinguished was that witches in Europe were burned alive at the stake. Typically, those accused of magical misdeeds weren't treated as heretics and so witches in England were typically hanged, not burned alive; in Europe they were usually beheaded/strangled then their bodies were burnt.

Something that really stood out was the importance of centralised government in the processing of accusations. If you were accused of being a witch in England, you would be removed from the community and tried before a jury in another county whereas in decentralised countries such as Scotland, you were tried by your peers within the community. In England, there was a 1 in 5 chance that you would be found guilty of witchcraft, meaning only 400-500 people were executed over a 200 year period; despite being about a fifth of the size of England, in Scotland they executed between 2,000-3,000 people in the same time span.

It was fascinating to hear how issues in the early modern European period - a mini ice age, Black Death, the weakening of the Christian frontier against the Ottomans - created an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and how similar factors have the same effect in modern day Africa, South America and South East Asia where hard times, a return to old pre-Empire traditions and the ideology of the witch hunter reign supreme.

There are plenty more nuances and fascinating points one could draw out from Hutton's talk - I haven't even touched upon the impact Christian theology had on the witch hunts, nor called out 'historian' Margaret Murray for basically inventing western ideas of Wicca - but I'll leave it to The Witch to expand on this. Grab yourself a copy, and don't let fear get the best of you!

March 21, 2018
Blowfish’s Oceanopedia, Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird. Wednesday 21st March.

It was fitting that this talk was hosted in the Oxford Martin School, a centre that addresses global challenges. Biodiversity conservation is something that affects us all so it was a shame that this was so poorly attended. Undeterred, 'Blowfish' launched into his talk which featured a presentation complete with slides about some of the wonders under the sea on what he's affectionately dubbed 'Planet Wet'.

The style of the talk was aimed at kids - there was much talk of snot, poo and farts. Even though I was by far the youngest in the audience of 7, I'd say our collective ages amounted to over 400. That said, we learned interesting facts about jellyfish - some are so poisonous that in the six minutes you have left to live if stung, there is absolutely no point on weeing on yourself. [Good to know, Ed.]

My personal highlight was about clownfish and the stark reality version he gave us that is very much at odds with the Disney/Pixar version. In real life, if a male clownfish woke up to find his female mate eaten/gone, he wouldn't have become a single dad, he would simply change sex and eat his offspring. Then, hilariously, when I googled Finding Nemo to fact-check this, one of the first questions that came up was 'Is Finding Nemo based on a true story?' We also learnt some interesting trivia about octopus but I don't want to give away all the book's secrets.

To find out more about the treasures in our seas and how to do your bit to help stop the plastic invasion ruining our oceans, Oceanopedia is available in all good bookshops now.

March 21, 2018
Miranda Kaufmann: Black Tudors, Tuesday 20th March

It is safe to say that the Tudors is one of the most studied periods of our history. As historian Miranda Kaufmann pointed out, she had studied the era at primary, secondary and university level. And yet the presence of black Tudors has been noticeably absent in the discourse. Kaufmann seeks to address this with her first text, and has meticulously researched the records of the period, including tax returns, court records, and diaries, to offer a chronicle on ten individuals who resided in England.

Of those ten who feature in Black Tudors, out of over 200 Africans that records show lived here, the talk focused on three of them: Jacque Francis, Edward Swathye and Mary Fillis of Morisco. They each lived rich lives in England, taking on roles as diverse as a deep sea salvager, a seamstress' servant, and a porter. Each profile began with a dramatic telling of a key event in their life, and with each profile marked by a considerable event of the period. Francis, for example, worked on the excavation of the sunken Mary Rose. Fillis' presence in England was born out of the contest between England and Spain, and the blossoming trade relationship this caused between England and Morocco.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this talk was how much Kaufmann seeked to push back on the slave narrative that has surround the history of black people in this period. There were no slaves in England at this time, and it was only later on that we became a domineering presence in the slave trade. Two of the case studies were dominated by the central individual's witness statements in court cases. Slaves were unable to give evidence, so each was considered to be a free person. The tale of Black Tudors is one of free men and women. This felt a refreshing take on the period and pulled the talk down an interesting avenue, away from what was expected. This is a story about people finding a life in England, about those who were married and bore children (66 known baptisms of African people at the time), individuals who participated in day-to-day life.

So why is the telling of this story only happening now? Kaufmann saw this as two-fold. Firstly is the shift towards social histories in recent years, away from a history of big events that has so defined the practise beforehand. And the other is that this is a story that requires a myriad of sources pieced together. The figures in her book are individuals with single lines in texts that can often be seen as a mistake when seen in isolation.

This was a fascinating talk by an accomplished historian who has found an angle on a topic that I thought was exhausted. Her talk flew by and the audience could have certainly continued to listen to these fascinating tales she has unearthed through her work.

March 21, 2018
An Afternoon with Brian Aldiss: Science Fiction as Literature. Tuesday 20th March

Brian Aldiss wasn't only a towering figure in the world of science fiction, he was an Oxford local. Because of this, it was unsurprising to find that the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, where the Literary Festival's discussion on Aldiss' work was being held, was packed full of sci-fi and literature fans, young and old.

The panel was made up of self-confessed non-experts in sci-fi: Claire Armitstead, associate editor on culture for the Guardian; Philip Pullman, children's and fantasy author; and chair Professor Sophie Ratcliffe, who specialises in nineteenth-century literature. What brought these three together was their keen interest in Aldiss' work, across the boundaries of genre, or, in Ratcliffe's case, her friendship with Aldiss himself.

The talk, which could easily have lasted for well over the allotted hour, explored science fiction and the nature of writing to an extent that would have made Aldiss proud. The panellists talked about where we could draw the line between sci-fi and fantasy, or sci-fi and literary fiction, as well as discussing what made a book sci-fi in the first place (is it the inclusion of possible future technology? Impossible future technology? Does sci-fi have to be plausible to stop it becoming fantasy? Does it need to include a spaceship? Does the cover feature a giant insect carrying a woman in a silver bikini while people shoot laser beams, and if so, why isn't that scene anywhere in the book?)

As a fan of sci-fi, I was particularly interested to hear the panellists thoughts on the genre's historical significance - the fact that sci-fi was invented around the time of the Industrial Revolution and had a resurgence in the 1950s, both times when humanity realised that it might have good reason to fear the new technology it had created. I was also happy to hear the panellists' - and later, audience members' - focus on Aldiss' centring of female sci-fi writers, and the importance of women to sci-fi across the centuries, from Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman.

While the discussion covered a great deal about sci-fi itself, it always returned to Aldiss and the impact of his enormous body of work (80 novels and over 300 short stories). Armitstead talked about his 'Durrell-like' descriptions of invented plants and animals, while Pullman praised the energy of his narratives. The audience questions that followed the main body of the talk showed just how engaged people were in the conversation around sci-fi - a clear indication that it is just as important to readers today as it was in the Fifties and Sixties. I left the talk still mulling over exactly what makes something science fiction in the first place, and determined to read more of Aldiss' work to see his unique take on the genre.

March 19, 2018
Zing Tsjeng: Forgotten Women, Saturday 17th March

Since it was established in 1901, 892 individuals have won a Nobel Prize. Of that number, 52 have hailed from the University of Oxford, and a total of 48 winners have been women. The Forgotten Women series takes this painful statistic and traces 48 non-Nobel prize-winning women per volume who have been forgotten by history, their achievements etched out, their significance nulled by the more publicised achievements of their male counterparts. The first two books were published this year on International Women's Day, and cover The Leaders and The Scientists, respectively. There are plans to continue the series this autumn with a pair of additional volumes, The Writers and The Artists.

Zing Tsjeng's (editor of Broadly) talk, the first she has given on this project, was structured around the questions she has been asked whilst promoting her book: where this book had come from, why this book, why this book now, all spliced with examples taken from the fascinating figures she has covered. These ranged from Sylvia Revera, a transgender rights activist and key figure in the Stonewall Riots (and self-described 'bitch-on-wheels') to Hertha Ayrton, who revolutionised street lighting in Victorian London but was deemed ineligible to join the Royal Society as married women were not legally considered people at the time.

Tsjeng proved an effortlessly charismatic, good-humoured host for the evening, perfectly teasing out the stories she has covered. The necessity of this work was not lost on her and Tsjeng was wittily opinionated. One suspects the writer could continue with this project for decades but she did sound an optimistic note. She hoped that the work she has undertaken will soon become obsolete and will one day cause confusion when it is seen on a bookshelf. She hopes that the work we are undertaking as a society to re-evaluate our history will lead to the successfully rehabilitation of these forgotten historical figures.

There is a wealth of discussion and information needed around this topic and Tsjeng touched on these but, due to time restraints, did not dig too deeply into the sociocultural issues her work engages with. There is so much to say on the sexist doctrines that have governed institutions for centuries. We could talk for hours about the figures who have not been able to achieve their potential because they could not go to a prestigious university or were excluded from societies that pushed their male competitors further. The lasting advice felt from the talk was to look further in the stories history presents to us and when a woman is defined in a man's story as a minor figure, dig into who she is and see how she could have been wrongly defined.

On a final note, with the cultural eruption caused by #MeToo, there was the hope that we would see an expansion of these stories being told. Take Ching Shih, a bit-part in the second Pirates of the Caribbean. Her story would make a rollicking TV series to binge: a prostitute who married a pirate king, she took over the pirate federation on his death and was so successful that the Chinese government had to pay her to retire. I would watch that show in a flash.

March 19, 2018
Ben Arogundade: Obama: 101 Best Covers: Power, Portraiture and Propaganda, Sunday 18th March.

Ben Arogundade is an English-born journalist, author, and publisher who happened to be in Times Square when it was announced that Obama had been elected the first African American president. From that time on, he started collecting cover pictures of Obama from the world press, a considerable number of which he showed us during the course of the hour.

For him, the high point was the front cover of Time Magazine when Obama took office in 2009: it was impossible for this man to get any higher. It was inevitable that Obama would not be able to achieve all that he wanted to achieve – his opponents would make sure of that – but what he did do was show the world that, 220 years after slavery had been abolished, a black man could be President of the United States. As such he was and continues to be an inspiration to young black people. A very interesting double page spread in an Indian newspaper showed 43 anonymous white silhouettes (the only slight variation a white silhouette in a wheelchair) and at the end, in colour, number 44, Obama. Arogundade quipped that Obama then went on to win a second term just so that he, Arogundade, had to keep collecting for another four years before he could bring out his book.

He showed us images that illustrated different aspects of Obama’s time in office, often showing contrasting images: he repeatedly pointed out that the press and its illustrators show us what they want us to see and, of course, he did the same himself, often juxtaposing images to illustrate his point. For instance, he showed us a drawing of the loneliness of office - a stooped figure walking a lonely path between Republicans and Democrats - and then he showed us the opposite – Obama and Michelle walking hand in hand and laughing. Which is closer to the truth? Towards the end of the hour, Arogundade went on to show some images he had collected of Trump for his next book – again, he pointed out that he was choosing the images he wanted to make a point, but the contrast between the two presidents was startling.

Arogundade could have said more about the propaganda side of the images but chose to let the pictures speak for themselves. However, he was engaging and amusing and much more came out in question time which was part-question and part-discussion and as such fascinating. A very interesting hour.

March 19, 2018
Richard Dawkins talks to Nick Higham at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford Sunday 18th March.

I’m going to just come out and say it. I hate the Sheldonian Theatre. Yeah, the first few times I was in there I was blown away but now I see it for what it is. A fire hazard with bits of narrow planks posing as seats, seats which have no backs I might add, and flanked by aisles designed for the malnourished. As if the seats weren’t bad enough in existence by themselves, they bring out the worst in humanity as people clamour for subpar comfort. Anyway, whinge over.

How cool is it to see Richard Dawkins in Oxford? Yes, yes I know he lives here but this is what it’s all about, really, especially if you’re not a student anymore and the once-firm hold you had on academia is ever-slipping away. The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the few ways for us prodigal sons to make our way back in without investing in another full-time degree with all those pesky kids. There were lots of intellectual couples on 'date night' in the audience and quite a few religious folks too. The couples reminded me of how a guy once tried to chat me up with the line, 'by all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.'

Richard Dawkins was supposed to be selling his new book Science in the Soul but he didn’t do a hard sell at all - in fact, the whole hour was treated more as a snapshot into one of Oxford’s great minds. I suppose his back catalogue speaks for itself. As Steven Pinker put it (on the cover of my recently purchased Brief Candle in the Dark): 'It was an opportunity to eavesdrop on the workings of an extraordinary mind.'

Within the first few minutes we’d covered moral absolutism versus consequentialist morality and slippery slope arguments. This was enough time to see that Dawkins is not the kind of person who is interested in using his mind for one-upmanship. He is genuinely interested in the process of thinking things through and using heuristic techniques to get there. Nick Higham pressed and pressed: 'But you’re so provocative and polemic. Say it. You love a good row.'

Dawkins was adamant that he isn’t and doesn’t. It’s never his intention to court controversy. His main priority is to get discussion going. It’s all about the tutorial. Interesting aside: Nobel-prize winner Tinbergen (who the Zoology building was named after and subsequently suddenly evacuated in an asbestos-shaped scandal) was Dawkins’ tutor.

He spoke about the serviceable distance between us and chimps (bear in mind that he was a lecturer in animal behaviour in the Zoology Dept at Oxford) and how can we call ourselves more evolved than other animals when, from an evolutionary biologist perspective, what is the point of suffering? What is the point of us being able to suffer? I didn’t know but would love to. He didn’t tell us other than to explain that pain is supposed to act as a warning to prevent us from doing stupid things. I thought we glossed over animal sentience rather quickly but that was possibly in keeping with Dawkins’ promise to actively steer clear of drama and focus on rationale and logic.

In fact, at this point, I was somewhat struck by the similarities and differences between him and Ricky Gervais. In Ricky Gervais’ most recent show he speaks about how close we are to chimps and how he wants to morph into one. They explore similar themes, Ricky and Richard, but whereas one is all satire, the other is all logical expository scientific thinking. Both have their value.

It’s hard though, isn’t it? Higham pressed again, 'because scientists don’t communicate with non-scientists very well.' Dawkins agreed. 'Yes, we shouldn’t call certain things theories, such as evolution, when they are facts and calling them theories just confuses people and aids and comforts our creationist enemies.' This drew a delighted giggle from the audience. It was a sell-out, by the way, so that was one huge giggle.

Then we had questions from the audience. I was surprised that no one mentioned Stephen Hawking, who died recently (on Einstein’s birthday) because I knew from previous literary festivals that Dawkins had been asked, 'but where’s your wheelchair?' One audience member asked for tips on changing the minds of religious freaks and Dawkins had to admit he never managed to change any of their minds. We talked about survival value (genetic advantage) and memes vs genes. I suppose he had to shoehorn it in for the diehard The Selfish Gene fans in the audience who knew that this is where the term originated.

Throughout it all, you get the impression Dawkins is happier talking about science than religion but people are so hung up on The God Delusion, his blockbuster atheist book, that he will never escape it. After the talk I wandered into Blackwells to escape the crowds in the marquee where he was doing a book signing and there was a full-on jihad because they’d run out of copies of this book.

Science in the Soul and all of Dawkins’ millions of other books are available from pretty much everywhere. The Oxford Literary Festival is running throughout March and you should go see at least one literary event while it is on.

March 14, 2018
An interview with historian Miranda Kaufmann

Miranda Kaufmann, an Oxford University History alumna, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has worked for organisations from English Heritage and the National Trust to The Sunday Times and the BBC, and she has also established a series of workshops called 'What's Happening in Black British History?'. Her latest book, Black Tudors, uncovers the important roles that black Britons played during the Tudor era.

Which of the stories about black Tudors that you discovered during your research was your favourite, and why?

I loved uncovering the story of Diego, a slave who escaped from Panama, because of the excitement of his adventures with Sir Francis Drake, attacking the Spaniards and circumnavigating the globe. He also led me to the story of the Cimarrons, free Africans who had escaped their Spanish masters in the Caribbean and set up their own settlements in the hinterland, becoming a military and political force to be reckoned with.

Have there been and unexpected or surprising responses to your book?

I was just surprised by how widely and positively it has been reviewed and responded to.

Historical and historical-inspired media that includes black people and other people of colour are often criticised as 'pandering' or are dismissed as unrealistic. Why do you think this is, and what do you feel are the best ways to combat this attitude?

Some of these responses are sadly motivated by racist views, but I think most people are just largely ignorant of the black presence in British History. The way to combat this is to educate the public. Efforts to do so are already underway. Black History Month has been held every October in Britain for over 30 years. Scholarship in the area is growing- I co-organise a series of workshops for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, “What’s Happening in Black British History?”, which showcases the latest research and public history initiatives. David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, a TV series with accompanying book that aired on BBC2 in 2016 was a landmark in terms of communicating to a wider public that Africans have lived in Britain since at least the Roman era.

Your website mentions your school visits. What attitudes towards history do you find during school visits, and how do you go about getting young people to engage with history?

I have found students to be engaged and eager to learn. With the Black Tudors I think the stories are something they’ve never heard before so that intrigues them. I also try to mention references to Africans in their local area- such as someone baptised or buried in a local church, which brings the story closer to home.

On your website, you also talk about your involvement in rugby. Is there any crossover between your work as a historian and your life as a rugby player?

I always thought that the rugby experience gave me a better idea of what it might be like to go to war! Things like what makes a good leader, and the way you feel about your teammates. But I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount of crossover- unless perhaps I was to write a history of women’s rugby, which would be a feminist history in microcosm.

What are you working on at the moment? Is Black Stuarts a potential future project?

Well, I actually covered a few Black Stuarts in the later chapters of Black Tudors (though I only go up to about 1626 so we can argue that they were at least born in the Tudor period)! I’ve just got involved with a project called Colonial Countryside which will use creative writing by schoolchildren and adult writers to explore links between British country houses, Caribbean slavery and the East India Company.

Miranda Kaufmann will be speaking on Black Tudors: The Untold Story at Oxford Literary Festival on Tuesday 20th March, 12pm, in the Oxford Martin School seminar room.

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