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Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2010

Hundreds of events on a literary theme!
Christ Church College and environs, Sat March 20th - Sun March 28th 2010.
See reviews of last year's festival!

March 28, 2010
Science of the Weird, with Richard Wiseman
Christ Church: Sunday 28th March
Professor Richard Wiseman is now a psychologist, but was once a professional magician, so he introduced this excellent lecture/performance with a disappearing hanky trick, using that as a way into considerations of human perception and the paranormal. Like Ben Goldacre (Bad Science), he wants to distinguish between good and bad science and to expose quacks and charlatans. In the latter aim, Wiseman is something like a poacher turned gamekeeper.

His talk was a succession of entertaining examples drawn from his work: we all stared at a spiralling pattern on the screen and then looked at our hands only to see our flesh appear to creep (spooky); he showed us an equally creepy picture of Maggie Thatcher, altered to fool us into seeing her normally, but normal it was not; and he gave us alternative and amusing words when listening to part of Carmina Burana that are just not there, really.

Wiseman debunked some examples of the paranormal: a photo of spiritual energy in Edinburgh turned out to be a picture of someone’s tortoiseshell glasses; fire walking has a perfectly rational explanation, and he proved it with a delightful clip from the old Tomorrow’s World show; and JT the Psychic Dog just wasn’t psychic at all.

He gave us a section on luck, who had it and who didn’t, showing that it might be something to do with giving attention and that lucky people probably take up more opportunities because they see them more readily.

Then he showed the “amazing colour changing card trick”, which you should check out on YouTube, and some other tricks and illusions from his website, one which I will certainly be storing in Favourites (

There was a Q + A, during which Wiseman wouldn’t be drawn on Uri Geller’s abilities, saying only that “Geller has powerful lawyers” and that there are ways of faking what Geller does.

He received warm and well-deserved applause from the packed lecture theatre for his superb talk.

March 28, 2010
Philip Pullman
Sheldonian Theatre: Sunday 28th March
There was a smattering of photographers and a film crew at the Sheldonian for Philip Pullman’s session on his new book, the controversial The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The theatre wasn’t quite full but those attending appeared to be Pullman fans and very largely receptive to his ideas.

The session took the form of a conversation between Pullman and Peter Kemp, the fiction editor of the Sunday Times. Kemp started by saying that Pullman needed no introduction, and then proceeded to introduce him, commenting on the author’s creation of fictional universes, where he portrayed human vitality on one side and the forces of repression on the other. Pullman explained that he wrote the new work following a conversation with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the stage of the National Theatre, when Williams asked why there was never any mention of Jesus in any of Pullman’s books.

Pullman prepared for this new book by reading several translations of the Gospels, some of the Gnostic gospels that didn’t get in the New Testament, and some commentary on the Gospels. He “found his voice” and has written a novel about twin brothers: the Jesus of the Gospels; and the Christ from Paul’s Epistles. Jesus is the charismatic healer and teacher, whilst Christ is the more reflective and self-aware twin. He said that his research had confirmed for him that Jesus had been a real man, but that Christ was a fiction, and he did admit that the title chosen was something of a simplification.

There were many interesting questions from the floor. All of the questions were sympathetic and there was no hint of the controversy the cameras had come to witness, until the final question, when a gentleman in the Gallery said that he thought "the title was offensive, an awful thing to say”. Pullman launched into what seemed to be a prepared soundbite answer, agreeing that it was a shocking thing to say, but that nobody had a right to live their life without being shocked. He told the gentleman that he didn’t have to buy or read the book, or to like it if he did read it. He said that he could read it and object to it, by writing to the author or the papers. But, he said, nobody had the right to stop it being published or bought or read. There was rapturous and spontaneous applause from the audience, who seemingly agreed with Pullman’s sentiments, and I was not at all surprised to see that this exchange featured later in the day on the BBC TV News..

March 28, 2010
David Kessler, interviewed by John Krebs
Christ Church: Sunday 28th March
These two eminent scientists, both highly experienced in the public regulation of food, gave us a fascinating double-act on the latest research on obesity. Kessler was promoting his new book, The End of Over-Eating, at the Festival.

Starting with the depressing facts on obesity, Kessler then showed some fascinating slides of recent research that linked eating patterns to changes in brain chemistry, suggesting that there is indeed a biological basis for the increase in obesity in the population. He showed that combinations of fat, sugar and salt in the food given to rats increased the level of dopamine in the rats’ brains. Dopamine increases attention. This was then linked to people, saying that increased dopamine led to a lack of control over eating, a lack of satiation, and obsessive thoughts about food. Our brains are bombarded with information about food as we walk through town, and that triggers the dopamine response. He found that activity in the amygdala, deep in the brain, declines in lean people when they have eaten, but that it remains elevated in overweight people. He said, somewhat contradictorily, that obesity was not a disease, but that we were dealing with a public health epidemic. We have taken down the boundaries and it’s now socially acceptable to eat at any time of the day.

There was an interesting series of questions from the small but well-informed audience. Kessler and Krebs were asked what could be done about the problem. On an individual basis, Kessler advised changing our neural activity by getting rid of the cues (don’t buy it); recognising how the cues work on the brain (you’re not really hungry; it’s your brain’s response to dopamine); have rules (e.g. only eat at mealtimes); and change how we look at food (e.g. change portion sizes). Krebs then added that we should start the process with young children. He added that the reduction in adult smoking from 75% to 25% in the past 25 years provides us with a three-fold model to follow: education, by repeated messages; taxation, by making cigarettes expensive; and legislation, such as the ban on smoking in restaurants etc, had together made that difference. He implied that we could institute a similar national programme over fat, salt and sugar.

Sadly, I really fancied a Cornish Pasty after this talk, but went in search of carrots instead.

March 28, 2010
Bad Science
Christ Church: Garden Marquee, Saturday 27th March
Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, broadcaster, and medical doctor who writes the weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian, entertained a sell-out Garden Marquee crowd at the Festival. He spoke for about an hour without notes and with lots of humour about “quacks, the media and Big Pharma, who conspire to present us with reductionist explanations for conditions which can be explained otherwise.” So it was pretty much on the themes of his book, really.

He said that doctors had been “useless” until the 1930’s, but that the period between the 30’s and the 70’s had been a golden age of medical improvements, such as antibiotics. Since then, there have been less spectacular gains marking steady improvements in health care. He talked about novel molecular compounds, i.e. drugs, noting that genuine novelty was limited to about 20 new compounds per year, so companies were reissuing drugs or using small reworkings of existing drugs to maintain their markets. In addition, they are inventing new illnesses, such as female sexual dysfunction, to provide a market for existing drugs. Our hearts went out to the Sheffield University couple in Goldacre’s anecdote in this section.

The midsection was about food supplements and the studies devised to show how effective they might be. He dissected the Durham County Fish Oil trials, where children were given fish oil capsules (85p’s worth per day, when that County’s school meals spend was 65p per day), and showed how the positive claims made at the time were effectively bunk. The placebo effect was picked up at this juncture and we learned that two sugar pills will cure gastric ulcers twice as fast as one!

He turned then to alternative therapists, whom he called quacks, and rounded yet again on Gillian McKeith, wryly introducing her into the talk with her full medical title: Gillian McKeith. Concentrating on antioxidants, he said that large randomised double-blind controlled trials showed that there was no difference to be accrued from their consumption. He didn’t object to anyone who chose to consume food supplements, however, seeing it rather “as a voluntary self-administered tax on scientific ignorance.” He finished by saying that the single biggest factor in health issues, such as male longevity, now appears to be social inequality.

This was a brilliantly scathing and amusing talk, and it was no surprise to see a massive queue for the book signing afterwards.

March 22, 2010

Belle de Jour
Sun 21st March

Today I had my first appointment with a call girl. I wasn't alone. Belle de Jour, Dr Brooke Magnanti, bravely faced a packed auditorium of curious onlookers. Perhaps the high attendance results from a Victorian freak-show mentality; her stories attract a wide audience - from the Oxford cognoscenti to ITV2 fans, with their pink mobile phones. It seems that all sorts of people are interested in sex and the tales of those who do it for a living. Me included. Who'd have thought it?

She also has the interest of India Knight, the Sunday Times columnist who published her story when Magnanti outed herself - her hand forced by the Mail (boo!) threatening to do it anyway. Knight interviewed Magnanti for the event and their personal history was evident in a warm and interesting conversation that could have gone on for more than the alloted hour without drawing many complaints.

The conversation focused on how her life was now she is known. Talking and taking questions from an audience was a new experience for her, and one she dealt with with honesty if a little nervousness, offset with an irreverent and disarming sense of humour that had Knight in stitches, among others.

She fielded these questions with thoughtful answers, for example responding to suggestions of complicity in encouraging women to become prostitutes by describing herself as a resource for the many young women that wrote to her, because society lacks figures that these women can approach to get their questions answered.

She talked of the influence her scientific training had on her straight-forward writing and her ability to compartmentalise her life and separate her prostitute/blogger/PhD personas. She also made pains to emphasise the diversity of experiences in sex work and that she could only speak for her own (largely positive) experiences, comparing the situation to taking a summer job in McDonald's and fielding questions as a spokesperson for the beef industry.

Some love was exchanged at this event; entertaining as Magnanti was, she was also clearly touched and relieved by the warm reception she got here - a credit to liberal Oxford and the festival's ethos of respectful exchange.

March 22, 2010

Couples: The Truth
Sat 20th March

Kate Phiges has written books about the realities of having children and specifically teenagers, and has now turned her hand to uncovering the truth behind marriage and long-term relationships. This gamut of terrifying subjects sounds like it could qualify her to be a horror writer, but her findings are actually rather sweet and life-affirming. Surveying academic research and interviewing 100 couples, Couples: The Truth is a book for the general reader that aims to explode myths and present some frank morsels of truth. For example: despite the prevalent view that relationships don't succeed very often, ordinary people tend to commit and often work it out.

Married people think singles have more fun - singles are often focused on sex, yes, but to the point of distraction, whereas - sorry, what was I saying? - ah yes, whereas married people enjoy sex in a variety of ways as a part of life's rich tapestry, and enjoy it without the insecurity of more casual endeavours.

1 in 3 marriages end in divorce? Well, that is a pat and simplified figure, and one skewed by young couples and divorcees remarrying. Things aren't so hopeless for most other demographics, and after 10-15 years of togetherness the chances are greatly lowered.

It seems the truth isn't so ugly after all. These observations seem rather general, and perhaps the book has the scope to drill into these a bit deeper, but the prognosis is hopeful. I suspect the pleasure in reading it may come from hearing the anecdotes of those that she interviewed more than the wider conclusions drawn.

Plenty of wisdom seems to have emerged - for example; a happy wife makes for a happy marriage, the 'battle of the sexes' mentality is unhelpful, as is an imbalance in the sharing of incomes, duties and responsibilities. Romance has a place but the fairy-tale representation of it is misleading. Conflict can be instructive and healthy - but beware childhood events resurfacing as you create a new family home that may be reminiscent of your first.

This is all interesting stuff to consider, with perhaps the one criticism that much of it seems a little obvious - I didn't leave with a sense of revelation. But, it is in the service of truth and stability and happiness, and the better equipped we all are for that the better. Only the most argumentative lover would quibble at that.

March 22, 2010

Sat 20th March

Adam Zamoyski is a fantastic speaker. After a slightly farcical start where he was interrupted after a few words so the steward could give us a tour of the fire exits, he quickly engrossed the audience with a fluent lecture, unassisted by notes, yet structured and fascinating. I think he may have done this kind of thing before.

His attention-grabbing opener talked about the man who looks after Chopin's grave finding fresh letters every week from the composer's ardent fans. They were always love letters, often along the theme of how the writer would have made him happy if they had been around at the same time. One Japanese woman bought a neighbouring grave so they could rest together for all eternity.

From this he segued on to the letters he had received since writing about Chopin, invariably offering information, such as the American woman who claimed to be the reincarnation of Liszt and the girlfriend of the reincarnation of Georges Sands - and therefore able to offer insider knowledge.

These amusing anecdotes were no mere asides, but outlined a wider theme - that people shape Chopin in the image they choose. He spent the next hour debunking prevalent views about the composer; most of which were formed by a particular contextual concern - the Romantic notion of the Artist.

Questionable stories arose, such as that of a six-month old Frederic playing heavenly tunes on the piano, but most of the theories about Chopin had solid grounding in truth - but a particular interpretation of it that was recycled through generations of biographers.

Was he really an exile from his homeland? Was Sands a cruel and stifling lover? Did TB blight his every step and cause an untimely death? Zamoyski is sceptical about these claims and applies a historian's attention to detail. For example, Chopin was often ill and was said to have died young, yet people in his time were often ill for all sorts of reasons, and the age of his death wasn't uncharacteristic of the times. What is regarded as an attack by the Angel of Death in Majorca was quite possibly the result of swapping a simple diet for a more colourful one for a couple of months - in those times before Chinese takeaways a shift in diet could be quite a jolt.

Zamoyski's talk about Chopin told us more about other people's perception of him than of the man himself, but was no less interesting for that. What does emerge of Chopin is a sense that he was a straightforward, unpretentious and likeable man who worked hard and loved his job. I am confident that the book will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the character behind the music.

March 22, 2010
Neil MacGregor: A History of the World in 100 Objects
Sheldonian Theatre, Sat 20 March
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, talked about the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, which looks at the whole world through its things. He started with the observation that it was indeed odd to produce a radio programme about objects that would be unseen by the listeners, and then pointed out that he was giving his talk in the only auditorium in Oxford where you couldn’t show slides. So he got round the problem by giving every member of the audience a sheet of eight photographs of the objects he was to talk about. His idea was to link them in a continuous narrative of what it means to be human, and he did that most skilfully in his spellbinding lecture.

His objects, which are all in the British Museum, were as follows: a beautiful 13000 year old carved mammoth tusk depicting two swimming reindeer; a cuneiform tablet of the flood legend from northern Iraq; a Roman mosaic from Dorset as the first known attempt to depict Jesus; gold coins from Jerusalem; a French reliquary containing a thorn from the crown of thorns; a Javanese shadow puppet; a stone Buddha head, also from Java; and finally an Islamic HSBC credit card. He described each object’s individual significance and linked them all together with themes of power, religion and society. He particularly referred to the contrast between different religious approaches to the use of images.

This was a brilliant talk, most interestingly put together with erudition and a touch of delightful humour, and it was warmly appreciated by the large audience in the Sheldonian (itself an object that fits into the speaker’s theme). He has made me want to catch up with the original programme through the BBC i-Player.

March 22, 2010
Science, Certainty and the Royal Society: Looking Back and to the Future
Sheldonian Theatre, Sat 20th March
Unfortunately, Richard Dawkins did not join us as billed for this part of the celebrations for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society. A few punters mumbled about getting a refund, but the majority stayed and were treated to an excellent conversation between Dawkins’ replacement, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and cell biologist who is President of Rockefeller University New York, and Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at London University and an expert on snails. The conversation was chaired by the gifted science writer Georgina Ferry, who asked a series of prepared questions to stimulate comments.

The speakers started by praising the work of the Royal Society and telling how as students they had both received modest subsistence grants for specific projects. Nurse had been in Switzerland for his and had run out of cash halfway through. He wrote to the Society and received an equal amount of cash again by return, no questions asked. They both acknowledged that the Society’s accounting procedures have been tightened up in the intervening years.

They spoke at length about the certainty in science and contrasted this with religion, saying that in science ideas are constantly refined and through argument and experiment, whist in religion there is more certainty and agreement. They illustrated the former with examples on acquired characteristics from the effects of a famine on generations of Swedish children, and on the way certain bacteria acquire immunity from viruses by incorporating some virus DNA into themselves.

Further comments and stories clustered around the status of biology and the public understanding of science. Nurse described how when scientists asked the public just why they did not like GM foods they were astounded by the lack of understanding. Many people responded that they did not trust GM foods because, “they did not want to eat food with genes in it.”

Both speakers readily acknowledged that whilst the public and politicians wanted certainty, scientists are always going to be more cautious and happier to deal in probabilities. More education is required, so that we can all understand what scientists attest without thinking that their lack of certainty implies a lack of value for investment in their work.

They were both asked to look ahead. Nurse went first and hoped that we would soon solve the mystery of dark matter, that other life forms might be found on other planets or indeed within this one, and that we would finally really understand how a cell works. Jones said that he would find out even more about snails!
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