Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2011

Nine days of Literary Festivities: all manner of events exploring books, authors and ideas.
Various Venues, Sat 2nd - Sun 10th April 2011

March 29, 2011
The Daffodils are out and you're wandering lonely as a cloud down Cornmarket now the students have gone to eat chocolate eggs elsewhere: it must be time for Oxford Literary Festival. This year the extravaganza runs from Sat 2nd to Sun 10th April. For that brief period, Christ Church College is transformed - as if by Harry Potter himself - with marquees springing up all over and erudite gatherings in the most unlikely places.

There'll be people rushing from one event to another, perusing the books or just soaking up literary genius (and possibly finishing their own literary works) - and some whisky - in the cafe. This year there are 500+ speakers, covering all sorts of different topics - some serious, some deeply comical - aimed at everyone from the age of 5 upwards.

Daily Info is sending a bevy of reporters, to catch some highlights of the festival. Their reviews appear below as fast as we can get them there. Want to add your own opinion? Please do, via the 'Submit Review' form, below right. Were you at an event covered here? Did you agree/disagree with an opinion on this page? Want to start a debate? Lend your voice to the cloud of words and ideas.

For full programme details and last minute changes - plus Podcasts - see the Literary Festival Website. Happy reading!

April 10, 2011

Oxford Literary Festival  751: Anne Cleeves: The Vera Stanhope Novels

A small but knowledgeable audience gathered in the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre on Friday evening to hear award-winning mystery writer Anne Cleeves talk about her latest creation, DI Vera Stanhope of Northumbria CID, who hits our TV screens at the beginning of May 2011.
When Cleeves started writing “The Crow Trap”, it was meant to be the “big psychological thriller” that her publishers had demanded. Vera Stanhope – single, middle aged, overweight and feisty, “blew into” the middle of the book “like Mary Poppins” and, three books later, she’s still here.
Cleeves was, and is, a great devourer of detective fiction. She began as a youngster; reading the crime classics supplied by her local library. These days, she is a fan of the many fictional detectives emerging from mainland Europe. Henning Mankell (Wallander) is an important influence and Cleeves has applied his approach of opening a novel with a visually arresting scene to powerful effect. More recent influences include the Spanish writer Domingo Villar, author of  "Water Blue Eyes".
Unlike many writers, Cleeves doesn’t plan her plots. Instead, she approaches books as a reader, writing the first chapter and asking herself, “What happens next?” As a writer, she is a self confessed voyeur who loves finding out about “other people’s working habits”, which she uses to add the detail that brings authenticity to her novels. She fascinated the audience with her account of getting to know a Humber pilot as part of the background for the Vera Stanhope novel: “Hidden Depths”. This tale involves Vera in the investigation of a possible miscarriage of justice by Humberside Police. Daily Information wondered whether DI Stanhope might find herself in the Thames Valley area in the near future. Cleeves confessed that Vera would probably not “venture that far south” - however, under further questioning, the author admitted that she is a regular visitor to the St Hilda’s Mystery Festival, which is held annually in August. Although Anne Cleeves dropped out of university, she always arrives in Oxford the week before the festival and stays in college, pretending to be a student. “It’s my writer’s retreat week – I’m usually about the middle of a book by the time I get to the summer and it’s my low period…my week in Oxford really gives me that boost that I need to kick-start the writing".

April 10, 2011

Oxford Literary Festival 825:  Agatha v Dorothy (PD James & Jill Paton Walsh)

“Who is the greatest: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers?” This was the question debated by PD James and Jill Paton Walsh on Saturday before a packed marquee of murder buffs, with James supporting Christie and Paton Walsh batting for Sayers.
As the debate unfolded, the arguments centred on the difference between a pure “Golden Age” detective story and a detective novel.
Both authors agreed with Sayers’ 1928 view that a detective story should be a “pure analytical exercise” with its own artistic integrity, in which a single problem is presented and solved. The story should focus solely on the solution of the problem and, in particular, the detective should not be distracted into “fooling about with young women”. 
James argued that Christie represented the best of this purist approach. She pointed out that Christie has always been popular in times of trouble and suggested that this was because the stories describe a moral universe in which good triumphs over evil. Christie’s books give readers pleasure and reassurance.
Paton Walsh, who completed Sayers’ last novel, “Thrones and Dominations”, acknowledged that Sayers had broken her own rules about good detective fiction. With the introduction of Harriet Vane in “Strong Poison”, Sayers started to explore the idea of detective writing as serious fiction which, like all good writing, could influence individual readers.
When the discussion was opened up to the audience, one person wondered whether the emergence of Scandinavian detective literature might herald a new “EU Golden Age”. Both authors agreed that this was an important trend in which the barrier between the classic Christie-style puzzle and the full blown novel set in the “real world” was breaking down.
Pursuing this theme, another questioner asked, “If Scandinavians are good at realism, are they as good at giving pleasure?” Paton Walsh, quoting Aristotle, observed that “horror does give pleasure”, although she agreed that realism gives less pleasure.
Summing up, the authors agreed that giving pleasure and influencing readers are different things. James argued that, on sales alone, Christie’s writing had given most pleasure, making her the more important writer. Paton Walsh thought that, by pushing the boundaries of the detective genre, Sayers had been more influential.
A show of hands at the beginning and end of the debate showed that the audience was split between the two camps. The one thing we all agreed on was the proposition that there is nothing quite like a really good murder.

April 7, 2011
687: Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation with Peter Kemp – Never Let Me Go
Thursday 7th April, Sheldonian Theatre
Kazuo Ishiguro is known for his novels exploring memory, humanity, and how we come to terms with the lives we lead. Much of the conversation consisted of Peter Kemp asking the author about his latest novel, Never Let Me Go, its recent transformation into a film, and all that this can mean for an author and a story. Ishiguro spoke quite a lot about the relationship between film and novel, calling it, in some ways a “natural alliance”, despite most people (himself included) feeling uneasy about films based on popular novels: “We demand fidelity to the source material that is often either naïve or inappropriate … [but] my book is safe, you know, inside the covers … I don’t worry too much about fidelity.”

The discussion progressed onto the tone of the film itself: Peter Kemp described the palette of the film as “very sub-fusc” and Ishiguro claimed this toned-down neutrality was intentional. The director was influenced by the Japanese concept wabisabi, which can mean “the beauty of worn-out things”.

The event presented an interesting insight into the mind of the author when writing a book that is, in many ways, quite bizarre, set as it is in a dystopian world, and the aspects of human nature he was trying to draw attention to. There was time for questions and book signing afterwards, and the presentation of the Oxford Literary Festival 2011 Honorary Fellowship to the author to reflect the appreciation of his work. If you haven’t read an Ishiguro novel before, I’d especially highly recommend Never Let Me Go; it’s a quick read and a highly accessible introduction to themes that repeat themselves throughout his other works.

April 6, 2011
584: Super Co-operators The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed)
Wednesday 5th April, Christ Church: Master's Garden Marquee
Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist at Harvard, and Roger Highfield, editor of the New Scientist, talked about their new book, Super Co-operators, in which they attempt to explain the logic of how co-operation between humans has evolved.

Nowak’s work is focussed on finding the precise mathematical equations to describe fully the evolutionary process. He said that evolution happens within populations of reproducing individuals, with three important drivers of the process: mutation, selection and co-operation. He described how he had used the maths of game theory to describe the five basic laws of co-operation: kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, network reciprocity and group selection. For example, kin selection is where you might risk your life in order to help those genetically related to you. So, Nowak said that you might jump into the river to save two of your brothers (or eight of your cousins).

There was some discussion about the Big Society, during which Nowak pointed out that to solve the problems caused by global warming we might have to reduce the quality of our lifestyles, which would in effect be co-operating with people who have not yet been born.

His work is not without controversy: one of Nowak’s biggest critics is Richard Dawkins, a revelation which immediately increased my desire to read Super Co-operators.

April 6, 2011
547: HRH Princess Royal
Wed 6th April, The Sheldonian
At the launch of the Festival’s new Africa programme, HRH Princess Anne talked about the work of her African charities. Ben Okri gave a poised and eloquent introduction to the talk, calling for us to rediscover Africa with eyes of love, rather than greed or oppression. ‘What you see in a people is what you create’, he said. As I looked around the beautiful, if rather formal, setting of the Sheldonian Theatre, and at the audience, it did all feel rather colonial.

HRH talked mostly about the charities Save the Children, Opportunity International and Transaid, citing interesting examples of projects and good practice, along with salient principles of international development, such as sustainability, understanding local cultures and cross-agency communication. She alluded to problems of poor governance and corruption but somewhat glossed over the issue of NGO accountability during the subsequent Q+A session chaired by former UN Under Secretary-General Sir John Holmes. Credit, though, for attempting to take questions from the floor and for her surprisingly down-to-earth approach.

My overall impression of the talk was mixed. Engaging and enjoyable? Yes. Enlightening? Not really. In particular, I must admit I wasn’t any clearer about the nature or contents of the Festival’s Africa programme or indeed, as HRH herself rather shrewdly pointed out, why one doesn’t exist already, given both Oxford universities’ established connections with the continent. It can be easy – especially at Literary festival gatherings - to descend into gushing enthusiasm bordering on sycophancy instead of asking difficult and controversial questions: in this case, about the legitimacy of aid agencies and the relationship between the West and Africa. I am hopeful that trying to understand the nuances of a continent through its cultures, art and narratives (I wait to see how oral traditions are incorporated into a literary festival) may add that missing element that international aid programmes sometimes lack – empathy. After all, as the Princess pointed out, we’re really not that different after all.

April 5, 2011
481: On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence
Tuesday 5th April, Christ Church: Blue Boar
Peter Atkins retired three years ago from his post as Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University. During his working life he published many successful books on science. His new work, On Being, which he introduced in this talk, purports to be “a scientist’s explanation of the great questions of being.”

He talked mostly about the benefits of the scientific method in the search for understanding and truth, asserting that if everything is physical then everything can be examined, and dismissing the spiritual as not being examinable. He assured the attentive audience that while “nothing” had no properties and was not subject to quantum fluctuations, the creation had somehow sprung from the separation of nothing into zero sum somethings. He was sure that science would eventually find out how this had happened and that there would turn out never to have been a creator. But he gave us no evidence. There was no audible reaction from the audience when he reminded us that there was also no evidence for an afterlife. He recommended the “joy of true understanding through scientific method” and that we should make the most of our all too brief time in the light of consciousness.

There were a few questions at the end, but nothing too challenging, for it appeared that our speaker had been preaching to the already converted.

April 3, 2011
265: God as Imperative
Sunday 3rd April, Sheldonian Theatre
Karen Armstrong is a TED Prize winner who has forged a post-convent career by studying the world's religions and writing very sensible things about them. Years of exploration have persuaded her that what one believes is nowhere near as important as what one does.

She consequently addressed the Sheldonian with a riveting lecture centring on two themes; action and ignorance. Socrates saw we are ready to philosophise only when we acknowledge how little we know. When thinking of such concepts as God, our words and thoughts are ultimately impotent. If one can't really know God, then what's the point of worrying about it all? Doing is the point, Armstrong argues. God as Imperative.

This 'doing' takes the form of compassionate action - empathy, dethroning the self and seeing the spark of divinity in each other. She notes we constantly surprise ourselves with our psychological complexity, yet write each other off with omniscient and simplistic disdain - "The trouble with her is..."

Armstrong is inspiring because she humbly encourages us to take action and aim high; to change the way we live our lives and live better ones. She issues a stirring call to action, one which I found immediately becomes more challenging in a world where people push in and a nearby audience member sits there making noises like a pigeon.

April 3, 2011
244: Science and the Future - The Future of Life
Sunday 3rd April, Corpus Christi College
Science writer Georgina Ferry chaired three different panels in succession through an interesting afternoon focussed on Synthetic Life, the Diversity of Life and Life in Space, respectively. The panels were made up not only of eminent scientists in the field but each had an artist to give a different dimension to the discussions. This feature was an undoubted strength of the event.

Georgina introduced each speaker, who then made an opening statement, before leading each panel in q & a. The audience asked interesting questions, too. The event was organised under the banner of the Oxford Martin School, which is “a unique, interdisciplinary research initiative addressing key global future challenges”, and Science Oxford.

No conclusions were reached, but the audience certainly experienced a thorough rehearsal of the issues and enjoyed a lively debate. The format was a success.

April 3, 2011
228: The Good Book: A Secular Bible
Sunday 3rd April, Sheldonian Theatre
We started with a spirited, “Happy birthday to you, dear Anthony,” for it was indeed AC Grayling’s birthday. He overcame any momentary embarrassment to lead quickly into a wonderful 40 minute note-less talk about the origins of and rationale for his new book, The Good Book, which is a secular Bible.

He has gathered together non-religious writings that give guidance on how we should live, taking these source texts and boiling them down to create “something with a purpose.” It took him many years of reading through the cornucopia of “what it means to be human” writings; one of his main problems was to keep the book down to a manageable size. He noted that these works are a testament to humanity, written by people who had lived in places “more like Benghazi than Oxford.” He stressed that his Good Book was not an anthology, but a worked book with a serious intention: Grayling’s Genesis starts with the apple falling in Newton’s Garden.

This was a captivating talk, so much so that, dear reader, along with many others I bought The Good Book. Perhaps sometime in the future Grayling’s might be put in hotel bedside drawers along with Gideon’s?

April 3, 2011
146: To a Mountain in Tibet
Saturday 2nd April, Christ Church: Master's Garden Marquee
Most of this session was an engaging interview between Dave Freeman and author Colin Thubron, who is reputed to be “one of this country’s most distinguished travel writers”. Dave’s questions and comments revealed his enthusiasm for Thubron’s latest book about his secular pilgrimage to a holy mountain, Mount Kailas in Tibet. Kailas and the accompanying lakes are revered by about a fifth of the Earth’s population, so it has never been climbed and they are not fished in.

Thubron talked about his walk up the mountain and told us amusing anecdotes about his companions and the people he met:
Sherpa: If you stay with that family you will die here.
Thubron: Why do you say that? Who will kill me?
Sherpa: No, no, you will diarrhoea.

The most moving part of the conversation came when Thubron, who is an agnostic, linked his spiritual experience of the climb to the death of his mother. His breathlessness from the altitude brought back memories of nursing her and giving her oxygen.

Thubron read several passages from his book, to the rapt attention of a very full tent, and it was no surprise to see a long queue at the book signing table afterwards

April 3, 2011
122: The Future of the Bodleian Libraries
Saturday 2nd April, Bodleian: Divinity School
Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley's 24th Librarian, spoke to us in the stunning Divinity School about her vision for the future of the Bodleian Libraries. She started with a quick historical summary before considering how library usage is changing, illustrating her points with some interesting photographs of libraries in American universities.

Most of the talk focussed on the renovation of the New Bodleian, the seventy-year-old Gilbert Scott building on Broad Street. This warehouse for the storage of items is no longer fit for purpose and so it is to be revamped in the current vogue: the frontage onto the Broad will have colonnaded glass, with access to a welcoming hall; there will be the “iconography of a floating book stack”; work spaces and seating will be more varied; a café will serve lattes and the like, and there will be two exhibition galleries and an area where you can chat (“no shushing”). It all sounds very exciting.

Dr Thomas has specific changes she wishes to see: one of her slides showed Yale Library packed out with eager students at midnight. She hopes that the new New Bodleian will be a similar beacon in the Broad Street night in years to come. However, one Bodleian tradition will not change: new readers will still have to sit in the chair and take the oath.

This was a fascinating session, given in a warm and engaging way by someone deservedly at the top of her profession. You can see the photographs used in her talk on the web, from the Bodleian website.

April 3, 2011
104: Creative Writing Fellows at Oxford Brookes University on Voice
Saturday 2nd April, Christ Church: Master's Garden Marquee
Acclaimed poets Kate Clanchy and Patience Agbabi and local hero Philip Pullman tackled 'voice', an ephemeral subject that shapeshifts when looked at too closely.

Agbabi, reworking The Canterbury Tales, was concerned with borrowing; what it means to incorporate the voice of other writers, the sanctity and price of such voices and how a writer's voice is influenced by the voices they read.

For Clanchy, finding the form of a poem was more pressing than finding the voice, and for Pullman, eliciting laughs with almost accidental dry humour, there were several voices to consider; the person writing, the author the reader thinks they know and the distinct voice of the narrator - not to mention the various manifestations and contexts of reader.

Space doesn't permit me to recall his many gems of wit and wisdom - all I can do is suggest you hear him talk and suggest you get to the festival to take in some panel debates. It takes a lot to stimulate me at 10 on a Saturday morning and having tried both pails of cold water and electro-shock therapy I can say this is one of the best yet.
The debate was chaired by a representative of Tablet magazine, a Catholic publication, and the two speakers were Professor Alastair McGrath who used to be an atheist but now had Christian beliefs and Dr Stephen Laws who was an atheist.

I found both points of view interesting although I found Dr Laws' more persuasive partly because of his eloquence and partly because I am more naturally inclined to that point of view. Both parties acknowledged that we can talk in probability and likelihood but not factually argue one way or another. This eternal debate was well-researched and challenged some of my own ideas.

The question and answer session was also interesting and some questions were very perceptive. Overall I found the debate fascinating and would recommend attendance to any other similar event in the future.
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