Oxford Literary Festival 2022

Oxford's annual literary festival.
Oxford Literary Festival returns this spring for its 25th anniversary event with a line-up that features a host of names from literature, the arts, science and lifestyle, including actresses Joanna Lumley and Maureen Lipman, scientists Richard Dawkins and Martin Rees, novelists Zadie Smith and Donna Leon, and cookery legend Delia Smith.

March 29, 2022
A Celebration of Science - The Oxford Vaccine Team Tell Their Story

Race Against The Virus: The Oxford Vaccine Team - Professor Sir John Bell, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, Professor Catherine Green, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard & Professor Teresa Lambe.

Oxford Literary Festival, Monday 28th March, Sheldonian Theatre.

It’s not often you look across a room and think ‘without a doubt, those people saved my dad’s life’ – but at yesterday’s Oxford Literary Festival event it’s likely I was not the only audience member who felt a deep gratitude to the five leading figures behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid 19 vaccine. It was wonderful to hear their stories, and see their work celebrated in the city where so much of the work happened.

The story of this vaccine is one of quiet, unassuming, brilliant heroism, starting with early reports coming out of Wuhan, and a weekend spent designing a vaccine (whilst wearing pyjamas). The team spoke of the groundwork that enabled them to move forward with confidence – platform technology developed through decades of research. This was not the noisy ‘moonshot’ mentality we often think of when it comes to solving immediate and immense challenges, but a reminder that all those other (less publicly celebrated) advances were crucial. Something to think about when you consider the short term contracts most researchers are on, and the challenges of getting projects funded.

During the first lockdown much of Oxford felt like a ghost town – I remember cycling along main roads and not seeing a single car. But the vaccine team were working flat out, tucked away around the back of the Churchill Hospital, and over near Hollow Way. Other projects had to be put on hold – including an Ebola vaccine which was making good progress. Families were barely seen. PPE had to be wrangled via phone calls. Other departments helped step in with funding, so things could move fast – before the Government was able to provide assistance.

What struck me was how well the scientific community backed each other up – private and academic organisations stepping in to keep the momentum going, and to make it possible for the vaccine team to follow all the necessary stages and regulatory requirements, but without the delays usually experienced in ‘normal times’. I was also deeply moved by the team’s early insistence that this vaccine needed to be suitable for the whole world – not just those with great wealth, or sophisticated public health systems. To hear that AstraZeneca were the only company who were prepared to commit to that, and to scale operations accordingly, was also a poignant moment – particularly when the team mentioned that they had to teach AZ how to make the vaccine, and now that company has created billions of doses.

Sadly, challenges from distorted media coverage were also part of this story. The team talked about the effects of click-bait editorial policies and fake news – from a trial participant wrongly reported as dead (she was still very much alive) to the experience of seeing completely normal delays in vaccine development reported as stories of dramatic dangers. The nationalistic tones of vaccine reporting were also unhelpful, and the team acknowledged that hoping ‘the science will speak for itself’ is now an outdated notion, with an increasing need to explain uncertainly and complexity to the public.

This event was also Oxford Literary Festival’s inaugural Science and Innovation Awards Ceremony – with contemporary ceramic vessels presented to the core vaccine team members, and a wider team invited to stand and be applauded. It ended with a standing ovation for all involved, and encouragingly long queues for signed copies of Gilbert and Green’s book, Vaxxers.

We strongly recommend reading Vaxxers, to learn more about the full story of how the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine came about, and to celebrate an element of Oxford life which can often go rather unnoticed. Many local people work in innovative research, but rarely get the same kind of spotlight. It feels important to give thanks to everyone involved in projects of this nature – not only the scientists, but also the administrative staff, the cleaners, the volunteers, the IT support. We, as a city, can sometimes have a complicated relationship with our resident universities, but within them are people doing incredible work – for the good of all.

More info on the book: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Vaxxers-...

Volunteer for future projects at the Jenner Institute: https://www.jenner.ac.uk/volunteer

Original event listing: https://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/literature-even...

March 28, 2022
Intrigue & insight - Lucy Atkins on the writing of 'Magpie Lane'

Review of 'Oxford’s Literary Ghosts and Magpie Lane'

Oxford Literary Festival, Saturday 26th March 2022, Oxford Martin School

Being an author in Oxford might not sound like a particularly tough gig. It suggests a lifestyle based around heavily buttered crumpets, riverside strolls, and a deep affinity for the city’s specialist pen shops. All very lovely, easy-going and charming. But as author Lucy Atkins reminded us, the reality is not as straightforward – particularly if you have the nerve to not only set your novel in Oxford, but to situate the action in a college, and then – shocker - have the audacity to make it crime fiction. Take this path and you will encounter ghosts.

As Atkins put it: ‘why would you?’ – there are already so many Oxford stories, and so many great Oxford writers, it can be daunting to throw your hat in the ring with them. According to Atkins, writing an ‘Oxford book’ is setting yourself up for failure. But here we are, listening to her discuss her latest novel, Magpie Lane, which – as you might guess from the title – is set right in the heart of the city. Atkins explained that she really did try to make the action happen in Cambridge instead. But Oxford kept supplying excellent material – priest holes, cemeteries, college interiors...

Atkins often comes back to the idea of uncovering what is hidden, and the power of the secrets we carry. And as she points out, Oxford is full of layers and intrigue: the city, the colleges (designed, it would appear, to keep ‘gown’ well hidden from ‘town’), the Bodleian tunnels, St Aldate’s catacombs, and the underground Trill Mill Stream. And Magpie Lane itself has a long history as the site of murky behaviour: prostitution, boozing and brawls.

However, Atkins notes that Magpie Lane plays with our assumptions – making a nod to Inspector Morse and then sending us in a different direction. As she explained, we might expect a detective to lead the investigation, and to reach a neat point of resolution, but instead we find ourselves aligned to an outsider on the inside – a middle-aged, Scottish, live-in nanny. Dee is a ‘disruptive woman’ and the kind of character Atkins finds she always roots for.

The tensions involved in creating a different kind of ‘Oxford book’ also revealed a great deal about Atkins’ writing process. She talked about writing in sections, rather than following the chronology of a story – describing these sections as ‘mushrooms on a lawn’. First you have one or two, then more pop up, and you begin to see the shape of the whole arrangement. Some mushrooms grow bigger than others. And as an author she tries to remain open to moments of surprise and serendipity – “sometimes the universe just knocks on your door and says ‘here’s a character’”.

As with most Oxford Literary Festival events there was a great deal to learn and reflect on, whether you were already a fan of the book (the majority of the audience were) or simply intrigued by promise of unpicking Oxford’s literary ghosts. Atkins is a warm, witty speaker, and as a former journalist and a teacher on the Creative Writing MA programme at the University of Oxford she has a great deal of insight on what it takes to craft a compelling story.

Review this

Share this page

© Daily Information 2023. Printed from https://www.dailyinfo.co.uk/feature/17322/oxford-literary-festival-2022