Oxford Literary Festival 2019

Oxford's annual literary festival.
Various locations around Oxford, Sat 30 March - Sun 7 April 2019

Oxford's most famous literary event returns with a timely range of talks and events. Listen to environmentalists and political writers talk about the natural world and the future of humanity, or look to the past with talks on dinosaurs, Stuart kings and Tudor intrigue. Young (and young-at-heart) readers can choose from the many events featuring local children's authors, while future writers can get their start at one of the festival's creative writing workshops. Between talks, you can browse the books in the Blackwell's marquee, and keep your energy levels up with some coffee and cake.

April 11, 2019
Alex Reeve and Marlene Hauser talk to Suzi Feay, Sun 7th April

Interviewed by brilliant literary journalist Suzi Feay, Alex Reeve and Marlene Hauser are both debut novelists, but, on the surface at least, appear to have little else in common.Despite this, Feay got right into how their very different novels have at least one point of contact; the controversial and intricate subject of abortion. While Hauser’s story is based around the emotional isolation of the decision to have an abortion, Reeve touches on the more gristly ‘back-street’ side of the subject.

Reeve’s debut novel is the first in a series of crime novels set in Victorian era London (specifically, and importantly 1880). The House on Half Moon Street introduces the reader to protagonist Leo Stanhope, a young medical assistant who helps with the processing of post-mortems at Westminster Hospital. When asked why he chose to set his novel in 1880 Reeve explained that it was because it provided such a rich and interesting time in history. The capital was on the cusp of becoming the “London” we know today, even though various districts did not yet exist.Detectives were a new part of policing and there were fewer rules and regulations, making it easier, perhaps for a member of the general public (enter Leo) to do some sleuthing of his own, in his desperation to track down his true love’s killer. With an added twist (and this is not a spoiler, as it’s mentioned on the back cover), Leo has his own secret to hide.He was born Charlotte, 'daughter of a respectable reverend' who left his family home at 15 to live as the man he was meant to be. Transgenderism in Victorian London? I can quite imagine what a fascinating subject that would have been to research, if quite difficult.

Another connection between the books is the evocation of a sense of time and place. While Reeve delves uncensored into the stench-ridden underworld of brothels and murder, Hauser moves her spirited main character, Krista Bourne, from the city (New York) to the haven of a summer home at Martha’s Vineyard, escaping everything in order to try and process the huge decision she must make.

The authors openly discussed how their respective novels came into being from research (detailed, painstakingly accurate research by Reeve’s own admission), to finding an agent, right through to the complex world of publishing.Both have had very different experiences; with Reeve’s wife being an author he had access to contacts within the industry (alas, her agent didn’t want a husband/wife on her books but was generous enough to recommend some other agents he might get in touch with). Hauser wrote Off-Island upon graduating from Colombia University, back in the early 1980s. She received various rejection letters, unfortunately, but it was one from St. Martin’s Press that ultimately made her re-think her future as an author and made her consider alternate career options. So, it is only now, with self-publishing providing a more cost-effective, realistic alternative to approaching behemoth publishers, Hauser has finally got her book out there, with help from various copy-editors (over the intervening years), a cover design team and a social media expert, showing that writing a novel isn’t as lonely a sport as one might imagine.

While Reeve stated that he had a much simpler journey to publication, with star editor Alison Hennessy (Bloomsbury) providing suggestions (“I love this paragraph, but do you really need it?”), he also blithely wondered whether this might have been quite different had he not been so laid-back and agreeable to such suggestions.

Thomas Bollyky: Plagues of Progress on 7th April

What could be worrisome about the world population getting healthier? Thomas Bollyky, who is well-placed, working across global health, economics, and development, tackles this question in his new book Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways.

Bollyky commenced with the good news: since 1950, mortality for children under the age of five has decreased; and then the bad news: in many countries, we do not have the infrastructure and job opportunities to support all the children who become young adults. Essentially, improved health outcomes don't always lead to broader social benefits.

He described how there are many paths to bettering health, effectively intertwining history and more recent events in his talk, making references to migration, the Irish potato famine, a UNICEF immunization initiative, and the PEPFAR programme for AIDS.

The event felt like an undergraduate lecture, which I am not sure was a fitting format for a Sunday morning Literary Festival event, with an audience that included those well-versed in the topics covered as well as non-experts. Bollyky is evidently comfortable with the material and has done extensive research, but having a large portion of his talk consist of graphs, acronyms and statistics made it seem like an academic talk more suited to a departmental seminar than a literary festival. I did enjoy thinking back to the undergraduate courses I took in global health, but not everyone in the audience was coming from this background.

Given that this was included in the Oxford Literary Festival, Bollyky could have given a more story-like presentation, perhaps discussing the behind-the-scenes narratives of his travels to do research in foreign countries and his writing process, rather than focusing on summarizing the main points of his book. He did use effective pictures, for example the pristinely green Royal Nairobi Golf Club juxtaposed with slums, and a photo with traffic illustrating how people are losing out on work due to congestion in Dhaka. I would have enjoyed seeing more photos from Bollyky’s travels and a discussion of his personal experience as an author.

The author’s message was clear: the ways we pursue health interventions are more important than people realize, and we should invest more in global health to improve opportunities for the increasing number of children who become adults. Bollyky is clearly an expert across several fields covered in his book, and this showed in his deft fielding of audience questions at the end.

For those interested in learning more about global health through the lenses of history, demography, economics, and policy, Bollyky's latest book is available from The MIT Press.

April 5, 2019
Michael Rosen: Socialist Tales, 4th April

Rosen entertained a sold-out audience at the Oxford Martin School with a selection of readings from, and anecdotes about, two of his latest anthologies. Worker’s Tales is a collection of more than forty of the best and most enduring examples of political fables from the latter half of the 19th to the early 20th Century. Rosen draws from publications including Clarion, Labour Leader, and Social Democrat, presenting tales for all ages which are influenced by and build on the allegorical tradition of works such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and more commonly told fairytales. Reading and Rebellion, edited alongside Kimberly Reynolds and Jane Rosen, covers left-wing fables from 1900 – 1960, and contains a wide selection of the kind of stories that progressive parents would have wanted their children to read as part of their initiation to a politically radical class.

Over the hour, Rosen took us through the different types of stories and fables in both books, reading choice snippets to us and sometimes interjecting to give context to or gently mock the tales. He spoke with wit and warmth throughout, especially when recounting stories from his own childhood about his relationship with his parents and their relationship with the Communist Party. There was, of course, discussion of the current political situation and Rosen’s matter-of-factness and sense of humour about issues that have otherwise become quite bleak gave me, and I hope the rest of the audience, a glimmer of hope for a more tolerant and progressive politics in the future.

April 3, 2019
Robin Ince: I'm A Joke And So Are You, 2nd April

I’m A Joke And So Are You draws equally from the worlds of comedy and psychology and is billed as a comedian’s take on what makes us human – in short, it’s about how we become who we become. Ince has interviewed some of the world’s top neuroscientists, comedians and psychologists to create a book that asks his readers to embrace the full breadth of our inner experience, and recognise comedy’s importance to this process.

He spent most of the hour rambling (endearingly and interestingly!) about the book’s various starting points – of which there were many. One was his position of ‘near madness’ – it hadn’t descended upon him yet but was very much within reach; he spoke candidly about the competing voices ever-present in his mind, in addition to his experience with both Freudian and Avatar therapies. Another more defined stimulus for the book’s birth happened at a late-night show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014. He’d been performing as part of ‘Cheaper Than Therapy’ and had posited the idea that if anyone (comedians and audience alike) wanted to stick about after the main show to continue talking about mental health, they should. In the break between the end of the first show and the start of this salon, he noticed a weird silence spread through the punters as everyone began looking at their phones – it was the night that Robin Williams had committed suicide. Out of the trite stories that were trotted out by the mainstream media in the following days – the sad-clown angle instantly overplayed – Ince thought that a more nuanced position than ‘all comedians are comedians because they’re depressed’ needed to be explored.

The talk evolved away from starting points and moved into a stream of anecdotes, some directly about his writing process, but many more about the experiences that shaped the book into being. Every time Ince started a new story, he reminded himself of about 3 others which he then dutifully recounted, flitting effortlessly between various narratives and managing to keep everyone on board. You can see how he ended up having to cut his 250,000-word script down to (a still not inconsiderable) 140,000! Over the hour we were treated to what was more of a stand up set than a talk, whose themes were simultaneously funny and serious, personal and universal; a tone that I’m sure transfers to the book.

April 3, 2019
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, In Defence of Political Correctness, on 2nd April

Alibhai-Brown spent the hour discussing what motivated her to write In Defence of Political Correctness, the overriding theme of both talk and text being that (and how) language matters. She focused on the idea that much public discourseplaces dangerous and volatile rhetoric,that she thought had been all but banished after the second world war, front and centre on a 24-hour rolling news basis. Alibhai-Brown is directly concerned with the weaponisation of free speech and the developments in the language and mechanics of the public sphere that have allowed people to think they have a right to hurt others with language and a licence, or perhaps even the duty, to provoke offence.

There were asides about how politicians and the media tend to accept the right’s terms of debate, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, and the importance of expanding the traditionally narrow confines of curricula at all levels of education. Questions were then invited from the audience, the first raising ideas about language and obligation surrounding the right to choose your own name and pronouns. At mention of this contentious issue, there was a sense that the room tensed up – for instance, I know that my immediate thought was very negative towards the question-asker – but she dealt with the question incredibly well, using it as a springboard to talk about cancel-culture and respectful exchanges of ideas.

Alibhai-Brown has deliberately never written on the topic of transphobia and the language around gender-identity, though she isn't someone to shy away from potentially controversial subjects having just penned an article on homophobia within Muslim communities. She speculated that we should all be allowed to take time grapple with ideas that affront and confuse us, especially if we suspect that we have more to learn. Though she had been cautious not to write or speak about this issue in the public sphere, she went on to defend some who speak ‘out of turn’, arguing that if they apologise and show a genuine desire to learn and grow, via both actions and language, from their mistake, then they shouldn’t be shunned or shamed as is currently the trend on social media. In a nutshell, that is the thrust of Alibhai-Brown’s book - that we, the politically-correct, must take on a role not of hysterical and righteous warriors intent on shutting down conversations, but of diligent, considerate people who are working towards equality for all.

April 2, 2019
Eliat Negev and Yehuda Koren: Flaming Dene on 1st April

Writers Eliat Negev and Yehuda Koren (previous works include The First Lady of Fleet Street and Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz) have a fascinating focal point for their new book, the life of Dorothy Dene (born Ada Alice Pullen). A figure that many will be unaware of, Dene was the model and muse of Frederic Leighton, with their most famous collaboration being the painting Flaming June. Negev took the Literary Festival audience through a whistle-stop tour of Dene's life as well as the relationship that she built with Leighton.

The talk began with an insight into the journey the painting had taken, buffeted by changes in artistic tastes. First exhibited in 1895, it sold over half a million prints, before being loaned to the Ashmolean. However, the painting, as did much Victorian art, fell out of favour and disappeared into a private collection for three decades until it re-emerged in 1962. It was soon purchased by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, where it gained a second wave of popularity, becoming dubbed 'the Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere'. This part of the talk felt particularly interesting, highlighting the great shifts in cultural tastes that have taken place in the 125 years since the painting was first produced.

It was born out of a moment of exhaustion in Leighton's studio, with the artist sketching a sleeping Dene. This intimacy was a mark of their relationship, one that, it becomes apparent across our hour with Negev and Koren, is hard to define. It is one notable for the mystery of intent, with Leighton serving something closer to a paternal role, than any romantic one. Dene was not the Eliza Dolittle-like figure she was portrayed as being, with a childhood not marked by poverty. Her father was a chief engineer of steam engines and she lived a comfortable childhood. That is, until dual tragedies struck her family when she was eighteen, with her mother paralysed due to complications with the birth of her tenth child and her father fleeing having lost his job. These circumstances led her to the life of a model. It gives Dene a more complicated background than one might expect.

Her and Leighton's relationship was a fruitful one, with the artist and director of the RA producing between 70 and 80 works featuring the model. But Negev and Koren portray Dene as an ambitious figure with her success as the only Victorian nude model and actress leading her to her status as a cultural commodity. She was the subject of a music hall song, the 'Dorothy Dene Waltz', had a racehorse named after her and was the most photographed woman in England in 1886. And yet, for all the fame and recognition she achieved, she was never able to untether from Leighton. There is a tragedy in her fortune being so tied to the artist whose muse she became. Her death shortly after his, despite a 30 year age gap, is a fascinating detail. As is the £10,000 the artist left to her, the same sum as he left the RA. Our speakers would not be drawn on anything more sinister with regards to the relationship between the two, seeking to elevate their subjects beyond the gossip of the era.

Negev and Koren have produced an interesting introduction into a forgotten figure of the Victorian era. Dene feels a figure whose work with Leighton enabled her own agency and at the same time also curtailed the life she could lead. This talk presented an intriguing story that I'd be excited to dig further into.

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