Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2012

Bigger, better, more literary than ever: hundreds of writers tackle issues ranging from whether we need God to whether crime fiction is literature, via food, science, politics, history, Dickens, poetry and activities for all ages.
Christ Church College, Sat March 24th - Sun April 1st 2012

April 4, 2012

This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You | Corpus Christi College, Sunday 1 April 2012

Jon McGregor visited Corpus Christi College to read from his collection of short stories, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, but he looked like – and introduced himself as - a travelling salesman. Writers are typically sheepish about presenting their writing as a commodity, but Jon makes no bones about the fact that his public performances are a way to peddle his wares. 

Wearing a mac and opening a battered suitcase to reveal priced-up books, Jon explained to his bemused audience that he must sell his books in order to buy the time to write the next one. Plus, he added wryly, he has two children to feed.

All the short stories in Jon’s collection are linked by a common geographical thread – all started life in the flat, bleak landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens.  (If you visit Jon’s website, you’ll find a map where you can click on each story for extra background details).

The stories are billed as centring on the sort of events that readers would not imagine happening to them, but sometimes do. Indeed, the promo literature says that Jon’s book (which I have to admit I haven’t read) contains stories about a boy setting fire to a barn and a father who is arrested when he tries to watch his daughter’s nativity play.

Oddly though, barring the story about a woman who has a sugar beet crash through her windscreen, the stories that Jon chose to read at the Literary Festival were about fairly ordinary incidents in the lives of regular people; a car accident, a schoolboy’s discovery of his first pube, and a woman observing the changing colours of autumn.

In terms of what actually happens, Jon’s tales were less remarkable than I thought they would be. Nevertheless, the stories were sensitive, captivating and beautifully read. My favourite was ‘Looking up Vagina’ – a charming and poignant story about schoolboys’ fondness for looking up rude words in the dictionary.

As well as a common geographical thread, the stories shared a background hum of apocalypse. The tales were all charming and chatty, but each was underwritten by a deadly seriousness and a sense of pending catastrophe. This looming threat came to a head with Jon’s last reading, from the eerie narrative, ‘I remember there was a hill.’

The incidents that Jon selected for this reading were not overtly extraordinary. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which this remarkable writer has teased such absorbing stories out of the lacklustre landscape of the Lincolnshire fens, and woven a shiver of dread through the everyday. 

April 4, 2012

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Saturday 31 March 2012

Bettany Hughes appeared at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday as part of the St Hilda’s College Day to talk about her most recent book, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. She described the experience of writing the book as being like having a “spectral doughnut” hovering over one shoulder. The hole in the doughnut was Socrates, who, with a cavalier disregard for his future biographers, wrote nothing. 

So why write a biography? We know a lot about Socrates’ trial and death. We also know about his ideas from writers such as Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon, but how did he live? Hughes tried to answer this question by re-examining references to Socrates’ background and daily life in the light of the latest archaeology.

She concluded that the archaeology tends to support many of the early written sources, making it possible to build up an accurate picture of Socrates’ Athens and his place in it. Athens comes out of this rather badly: it was a tough, small-minded and superstitious place, vulnerable to attack by enemies and decimation by plague. It was also a very sensual place full of garishly painted statues and unpleasant smells and Socrates, Athenian to his core, experienced life in a very sensual way - a key factor in understanding the man.

The last 15 minutes of the event was given over to the usual question and answer session.

Q. Does the Socrates biography sell well in Greece?
A. Yes; and sales are rising. Socrates lived through boom and bust and he emphasised the importance of good relationships and the need for people to join together to survive.

Q. Socrates philosophised for some 50 years – how did he manage to live?
A. All Athenian citizens spent their days at the gymnasium and lounging around, because they had slaves to do all the work. Socrates wasn’t a materialist and, although he obviously needed to eat, he was often given food.

Q. Is there a parallel between the life of Socrates and the life of Jesus?
A. Yes. Neither of them wrote anything and both were concerned with the central idea of what it means to be good. (Hughes said that she planned to do some research into whether Jesus would have known about Socrates’ ideas.)

Q. Would Socrates’ philosophy have been different if he had not been living in the midst of Athenian chaos?
A. Good question.
Hughes thought that he probably wouldn’t have been different: Socrates had been a soldier and had experience at first hand battlefields strewn with rotting corpses and sieges which ended in cannibalism, but she promised to think about this question properly.

The question and answer session could have continued. Bettany Hughes is an able scholar who is passionate about her subject and capable of communicating both her subject and her enthusiasm to a non-specialist audience. 

April 4, 2012

Chocolate is the Word | Christ Church: Hall, Friday 30 March 2012

“What’s the recipe for success?” is the question on the mind, if not the lips of any aspiring writer who finds themselves in the middle of a literary festival. One local school may have found the answer.

Take 1 dozen talented 11-13 year olds from Oxford Academy and 4 Creative Writing students from Brookes University. Add chocolate. Work hard over 12 weeks, mentoring gently. Pour the resulting mixture into a book and serve in Christ Church Hall (aka Hogwarts Dining Hall) and … voila! You have Chocolate is the Word, a book of imaginative short stories inspired by chocolate.

Before joining the project, Anusha (Year 8) was already a keen writer. She told Daily Information that she gets her inspiration from the world around her. Anusha’s work includes love stories as well as stories and plays about life situations. Interestingly, she prefers to write by hand, taking a step-wise approach to writing, correcting and editing her work.

Ryan (Year 8) and James (Year 7), had thought about writing a mystery/ horror novel, but couldn’t fit it in with their schoolwork. For Chocolate is the Word Project, they had collaborated with another student, Rhyas, on a short story called 'A War of Two Nations'.

Brookes mentor Yvonne Lyon volunteered to help with the project to gain experience of working with young people. “It was”, she said, “a lot of fun – the students are really nice, very easy to work with and very receptive”.

The stories themselves ranged from 'Jealousy' (a tale of what can go wrong when your best mate starts to go out with girls) through the emotional roller coaster of 'The Three Great Mistakes' to the quirky humour of 'Free Gift'. Several stories had a moral: the Veggie Fruits and Smarties decide (eventually) that peace is better than war and in 'Nobody is Perfect', the assorted confectionery conclude that “It doesn’t matter if you’re a misshape or if you’re skinny, tall, chunky or fun size”. Meanwhile 'The Magic Sugar Rush', set in a far galaxy, has a minor character called “Oliver Twix” and a secret recipe for magic chocolate coins.

All the authors read their shorts stories clearly and confidently to a highly appreciative audience of fellow students and assorted “very proud” parents and grandparents. There were no magic chocolate coins in evidence on Friday, but, as Oxford City Poet Kate Clanchy said, there was some very magical writing.

Oxford Academy (especially Literacy Coordinator Tracey Fletcher) and Oxford Brookes are to be congratulated on this imaginative and successful collaboration, and the Festival organisers on giving these young writers this magical opportunity.

April 4, 2012

Religion for Atheists | Christ Church: Master's Garden, Sunday 1 April 2012

As you'd expect, the marquee was packed full of people eager to lap up Alain de Botton's latest thoughts, a man who at one point described himself quite seriously as an intellectual. No one seemed to mind, for there was no arguing with the fact, and in the rest of his talk he had shown himself to be humorous and self-deprecating, bringing many laugh-out-loud moments to the audience.

One particular source of amusement and sign of his gentleness were his mild criticisms of 'north Oxford' - the 'winds that blow from north Oxford' or the approach 'an atheist from north Oxford might take'.

Loath as I am to ruin the euphemism, Dawkins must be named as de Botton's view stands in such stark contrast to his. De Botton's career, he said, had been characterised by the pursuit of wisdom, which he defined as that branch of knowledge which is both true and helpful. He had looked through the arts and humanities for it and felt it was time to turn to religion.

Yes, he said, there is much to criticise about religion, and much that is bad and intolerant about it, but there is also much we can learn. He argued for a buffet-style approach for atheists, taking the good bits as each individual finds them.

Culture may be able to offer ethics, consolation, guidance, exultation and inspiration, he said, but isn't always central enough in our lives. In a specific example, he talked of a Jewish ritual of celebrating and giving thanks for the first blossom of spring. The atheist might say, "Well, that's what Wordsworth is for," but the problem, de Botton argues, is that we don't really read Wordsworth. We just mean to get round to it.

It's tempting to recap his entire argument, partly because I am in complete agreement with it, but that's what his new book is for and this is meant to be a review. In summary then, he's a great and fluent speaker, with interesting and wise ideas, and a great sense of humour. Despite the divisiveness of his subject matter, all the people around me left smiling and nodding their heads. A triumphant sermon.

April 4, 2012

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Friday 30 March 2012


I have to admit that if Jeremy Paxman presented the lottery show, I’d watch it. I love his impatient and abrasive style; that he gets away with being so rude to people, and yet maintains “national treasure” status, is no mean feat. He has always reminded me of Wallace, the irascible lion in the Marriott Edgar monologue The Lion and Albert. For anyone who is not familiar with that, all you need to know is that Wallace doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he eats the eponymous Albert; a small and annoying boy who insists on poking Wallace in the ear with his stick. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Jeremy did the same to one of his victims on Newsnight; and I’d cheer him on from my sofa.

So, after that confession, it will come as no surprise that I love Empire the TV series, and now that I also own the accompanying book (a signed version, naturally!) I expect I shall love that even more. I also loved the complimentary G&Ts that were handed around the festival tent courtesy of Hendricks; free gin is the way forward. 

Empire is Paxman’s gentle wander through Britain’s imperial past, and I expected his appearance at the festival to be a PR job for it, but it turned into something even more interesting. During the Q&A session, Paxman confessed that during his research for the book he turned from being a fairly committed republican into a monarchist. He admitted that whilst he agrees all logical and democratic argument leads to the republican way, he instinctively feels a hereditary monarch is the best thing for Britain.

The discourse was heavy with anecdotes, some of which he admitted still make him cringe with embarrassment. He revealed how he once rounded on a school friend for saying that his only ambition in life was to be happy; at the time, Paxman thought that ridiculous. Much later, he realised the friend was right, so he wrote and apologised to him. This gem revealed a sensitive side to the man that one would never see on Newsnight.

The session ended with questions from the floor, presented by Paul Blezard. One man asked whether there was any sex in the book; quick as a flash, Paxman replied that there was sex on every page! He also spoke of how, since the TV series was aired, young people have approached him in the street saying they never knew Britain had once had an Empire, which strikes me as both shocking and sad. We may not be proud of our nation’s past, but we should be aware of it, and that is the whole purpose of Empire.

March 31, 2012

Anne Tyler Interviewed by Peter Kemp | Sheldonian Theatre, Sunday 1st April 2012

Anne Tyler has, I think, more of a right than John Cheever to the title of the Chekhov of the American suburbs. She has subjected domestic America to a microscopic exploration in 19 novels over nearly half a century. Her last interview was 37 years ago, and perhaps it is the rarity of her public appearances that enables her to lavish a truly remarkable freshness and intelligence on the audience lucky enough to see her. She seems much younger than her 70 years. Tall and elegant, with smooth silver hair in a pioneer chignon, a straight back and the most endearing appearance of instant lively engagement, she could be Katherine Hepburn's quiet sister.

Peter Kemp, chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times, is obviously a keen Tyler fan, and has many interesting opinions on her work, but it was mildly annoying to have the first fifteen minutes of the interview go by before the author was allowed to utter a word. Her composure was remarkable during the rather difficult task of maintaining a suitable expression while her work was reviewed and admired, but the real fun didn't start until Mr Kemp began the interview proper. Anne Tyler talked like a charming guest at a good dinner party; answering with wit, grace and an apparently transparent honesty. Although after some of her revelations, I'm not sure what I should believe... "In writing a novel we are telling what we hope are convincing lies...[For my novel set in Baltimore in 1800] I didn't do a lot of research. I read one old man's memoir. He mentioned that the streets were paved with stones called Belgian blocks and these were 'always curiously warm to the touch'. Now, if I put that detail in my book, don't you believe I know a whole lot about that period?".

Given her well-known avoidance of public appearances, I was taken aback by the generosity with which she explained her working methods and her very private feelings about her characters. Her natural, effortless-sounding prose is in fact the result of a dazzling degree of perfectionism. Not only does each character have a page or so of biography that is not necessarily ever intended for print (how does he or she feel about food, work, sex etc), but each book is written longhand, edited, typed up, printed out, re-edited, re- written longhand, read into a tape recorder and retyped! No wonder her publisher's editor (she's only ever had the one) can afford to be hands-off.

She gives the impression of a remarkably methodical and regular working practice. "[When starting a new novel] I have to sit and look at a blank sheet of paper for a month. I always allow myself as much time as I want, and it always takes a month." She has a stash of index cards on which are recorded odd scraps of dialogue, and appearances of people seen in the street, the surmised relationship of a couple seen at a bus stop and so on. These can mature for as long as 30 years before she starts to patch a few of them into a new novel. She talks of characters' voices "coming through", of characters starting to speak to her and occasionally of having to face them directly when they won't do what she wants ("[They said ] 'But of course I can't live happily ever after.'" She laughs, immediately apologising "I know how fey that sounds." But there's nothing daft about this precise, articulate, elegant woman.

She thought her latest book, A Beginner's Goodbye, (winner of the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence), might be her last. But she loves being in the middle of a book ("When I get to heaven", she said, pausing for the laugh at her emphasis, "I will be in the middle of a novel, have an 11 year old daughter and a new puppy"), so her half-joking plan is to start a "big, sprawling family saga and work backwards a generation at a time. So that whenever I die my daughters can say 'Ah, it's a three-generation family saga' - but of course it could be a four-generation and so on". The audience of more than 850 people gladly suffering the Sheldonian's awful seats on a gloriously sunny Sunday gave her an ovation at the end of the talk, to concur with Mr Kemp's hope that it will be a saga of a hundred generations.

March 29, 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking |  Corpus Christi College, Friday 30 March 2012

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Which do you think is better? At a talk about Introverts what are your expectations of the audience, and of the speaker?

Susan Cain, introvert and proud, is the ambassador of an unlikely new movement: the rise of the introvert. American society doesn't seem to value the qualities of quiet, circumspection, bookishness and working alone. The UK is less extreme, but many people still feel a pressure to go out and be sociable rather than hide away. For me the distinction was a bit simplistic, and Cain does acknowledge this view, but says for her the distinction is as clear cut as gender. Personally I find that a good comparison only in that neither of them are black and white, so probably not in the way that Cain meant it.

Introvert is different from shy. Shyness is something people often outgrow, something related to confidence. Introversion is about brain chemistry - the wiring of reward centres seems to be different in these two traits. Introverts are perfectly able to stand up and talk in front of others, as evidenced by Cain herself, and also by the host of people in the audience who wanted to ask questions.

One questioner had the audience in stitches as he talked about assuming he was an extrovert for the last 50 years and the process of "coming out". Many people seem to feel this cathartic experience, and it makes me wonder whether extroverts really exist at all, or whether some introverts are just really, really good actors.

Cain talked beautifully - with care, precision and interest - about leaders of Fortune 500 companies, research studies, changing society as indicated by self help books, collaboration and open offices, schools and groupwork, the rise of the personality myth and how it came about - the history of introverts touches on a lot of other interesting topics.

I would have liked more science. Cain introduced a number of interesting studies showing for instance that extroverts have more car crashes, or that introverts can do maths problems more easily with lower background noise levels than extroverts. But there's an inherent problem in how you identify introverts and extroverts or whether they become self-selecting subjects.

There is clearly a lot of thought behind the book and it was lack of time not lack of scholarship that meant some of the technical detail was left out. I'll clearly have to read the book. And despite some of my reservations, this talk was a timely reminder of how a really good book can make you see things differently - not only the world around you but also the world inside your head.

March 29, 2012

A Life Fully Lived | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Friday 30 March 2012

Diana Athill and Joan Bakewell were well matched. Both are remarkable, cultured, witty women who have re-defined ageing. Put together, they fizz with vim and vigour, despite their combined age of 193 years. Both have the absolute confidence of a life lived very much on their own terms, and still maintain the capacity to startle, shock and amuse.

‘You’re a testimony to stamina and achievement – elegant and thriving’, Bakewell remarked to 94 year old Athill. ‘Pure luck’, Athill replied crisply. ‘If you keep your health, and that’s mainly due to genes, you’re OK with old age. Even though I’m aware that some people have a perfectly beastly time of it.  You’re really the same person you were as a child.’

Bakewell commented on the veracity of Athill’s work, describing it as: ‘candid, evidently honest – one can’t feel a moment of dissembling.’ Success in Athill’s day job as an editor at André Deutsch did not protect her from heartbreak in her private life. She first wrote ‘therapeutically’. Finding she enjoyed it, she credits writing with successfully ‘getting rid of all the sense of failure’. From that early disappointment in love, she went on to a series of love affairs, including ‘marriage of a detached sort’ with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, and increasing literary success.‘

It was only in her last book Somewhere Near the End that Athill began to make ‘real money’. It sold over 80,000 copies in Britain alone, and made her, at 91, a literary celebrity. ‘I’ve even got a tax problem’, she confided in Bakewell.  In this way, old age has been somewhat eased.  Her latest book, Letters to a Friend, a collection of letters written between 1981 and 2007 to the American poet Edward Field, is testament to her belief that old age brings the ability to ‘love a man without having the slightest wish to go to bed with them’.

Although Field and his partner were able to visit Athill for the book’s launch, she doubts if they will ever meet again. While letter-writing was once as natural and frequent as ‘talking’, communication is now by email: ‘much more scrappy’.

Moving from her flat which she shared for 40 years with Reckord, into a home for – Athill stressed –‘ the Active Elderly’ three years ago, was made bearable by a thoughtful, gallery-owning  nephew. ‘He went ahead, hung all my paintings, made my bed, and when I walked in, I was immediately at home and knew I should be happy there,’ Athill said. Most painful was choosing only 300 books to accompany her. ‘It was agony,’ she said. ‘But now, for the last three days, I have a Kindle!’

Regrets?  ‘Very few, but I would have loved a Gap year!’, Athill beamed. Otherwise, throwing away personal correspondence from the many authors she has edited has proved a missed opportunity. ‘When American universities come to me, and ask to buy my archive, I have to reply: “I haven’t got one"!’

March 29, 2012

God, Mammon and Biotechnology | Christ Church: Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, Thursday 29 March 2012

“Know your enemy” declared a headline in New Scientist’s recent “God” issue. The enemy in question is of course religion, which, as everyone knows, is at war with science. Or is it? This was the intriguing question posed by distinguished (secular) bioethicist Professor Donna Dickenson.

Professor Dickenson is concerned that anyone who criticises science is automatically dismissed as either a Luddite or a religious fundamentalist. However, as she pointed out, the Vatican doesn’t hold any patents on genes and Bible bashers don’t set the price of drugs. In reality, she said, the contemporary scientific research agenda is set largely by commercial organisations. The consequences can include restrictions on research, constraints on medical treatments and even the suppression of research results that may undermine the claims made for  the effectiveness of a new drug.

All scientific developments, she argued should be prepared to answer the questions “Is it good science?” and “Is it good ethics?”

Questions from the audience focussed mainly on the scope and impact of patents.

Q.  Is the human genome in the public domain?
A. Yes and no. The patenting of genes predates the Human Genome Project, so that by 2005 1 in 5 human genes were already covered by patents. The U.S. courts are currently considering a case involving the patented breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 in which women unable to afford access to tests for the gene are suing the patent holders for placing a constraint on clinical care – a prime example of a challenge to the role of mammon.

Q. Do patents prevent other people from carrying out research on a gene?
A. Yes. Other firms and researchers can be prevented from working on a patented gene or inventing around the gene. In the UK, the patent portfolio is the most valuable asset for biotech start-up companies and even Government-funded research in publicly funded universities can lead to private patents.

Q. Is a simplistic science v religion dichotomy encouraged by the press in the interest of a “good story” and how might it be possible to engage the public in a better informed and more nuanced debate?
A. It’s not just a matter of the press’s fondness for “black and white” stories: the dogma that anyone who questions or criticises science is religiously motivated is generally believed by the public and the press has adopted this dogma, although there are occasional exceptions. 

Professor Dickenson explores these issues in her forthcoming book Bioethics – All that Matters, which is aimed at a general readership. Her most recent book, Body Shopping, is a highly readable survey of the ethical questions posed by the commoditisation of the human body.

March 28, 2012

Believing Bullshit | Christ Church: Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, Thursday 29 March 2012


Do you do voodoo like I do? Are you psyched by psychics? Potty for prayer? Are you staying in bed today because you’re a Virgo and the odds of having things go your way are not looking good at all?

Discussing his naughtily titled book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law urged us to protect ourselves from what he calls ‘intellectual black holes’ in which our minds can become imprisoned by faux-logic. A black hole might be a devout Christian saying, “Well, you can’t prove God DOESN’T exist,” to accuse an atheist of having beliefs that are as faith-based as his own. Law also gave the example of a multi-million dollar experiment that had proved prayer to have no effect and the ‘intellectual black hole’ justification being, “well, God will not be tested!”

In such an instance, Law would most likely ask the believer whether they are willing to acknowledge that if it is possible for there to be a good God then it is equally possible for there to be a bad God. You can reason that there is too much good in the world for it to have been created by an all-bad God as much as you can reason that there is too much bad in the world for it to have been created by a good God.

I was expecting Law’s talk to be a rant against ‘the mystery’ but at no point did he tell the audience what to think; his objective was to demonstrate that the application of proper reason and logic can in fact afford you a freer mind. He adeptly demonstrated that many beliefs are dependent on the believer being narrow-minded. Nothing can be proven beyond reasonable doubt; but observation and reason enable us to confidently state that some things more likely to be true than others. Reason and observation enable us to go about our lives making certain assumptions (for example that putting our foot on the brake will stop the car) therefore to discard these ‘tools’ for a select few subjects – God, ghosts, psychics, the power of crystals – is akin to mental illness.

My one big problem with Law’s case is that although he did not tell us what to think, he does assert his belief that astrology, homeopathy, God, etc., are bullshit, and I think this is irrelevant to his argument. It is true that these are the subjects in which you are most likely to find yourself sucked into an intellectual black hole, but I’ve dealt with as many intellectual black holes in the boardroom as I have at my local magic mushroom tie-dye-lentil-eating-convention. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, the protection we need is not against the bullshit, but the bullshitting.

I have witnessed some extremely bizarre things in my life that I have tried, very hard, to ‘reason away’, and failed. I would therefore have to be mad to determine that, regardless of my observations, these things are bullshit. Law should have called his book Believing Bullshitters. Bullshit is in the eye of the beholder; bullshitting is not.

March 28, 2012

Bird Sense: What it's Like to be a Bird | Christ Church: Festival Room 2, Wednesday 28 March 2012

Tim Birkhead can charm the birds from the trees. No wonder his wonderfully illustrated talk was sold out. With the aid of video clips, photographs and a masterly ability to evoke the super-senses of the avian world, Birkhead held the audience entranced, and after a galloping romp, the room erupted with questions.

Both humans and birds share a common anatomical feature – the cochlea found in the inner ear. In humans it is coiled, in birds, banana-shaped, and the longer the better. Owls are particularly well endowed. Cells lining the cochlea are essential for hearing.  In humans, once these cells are damaged, they cannot be replaced. In birds, however, they can. ‘If we can find the gene which allows regrowth, we may have a possible cure for deafness,’ Birkhead said.

Birds hear best in the spring, and worst in the winter. This co-incides with breeding patterns.  Similarly, hearing acuity is affected by the human menstrual cycle. A woman’s hearing is most acute, after ovulation, when she is at her most fertile.

Bird sense is all about species. An Emperor Penguin diving 500m into the icy darkness of the Arctic Ocean senses the world differently from a swift, flying at 100 miles per hour over the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Turkey vultures circling over a gas pipeline in California proved a lucky sighting, and helped establish that birds have a sense of smell. Betsy Bang, an American medical illustrator had noticed a high degree of coiling in the nasal conchae of a turkey vulture museum specimen. The large surface area of the conchae  indicated a high density of  olfactory receptors to be present. The problem was that a century before, the great ornithologist and illustrator John James Audubon had ‘disproved’ the theory that smell attracted vultures to their prey, and wrote a flamboyantly titled paper on his findings.

Bang compared her observations with the nasal concha of another species - the black vulture. These conchae  were smaller and less folded. She concluded that Audubon had mistaken the black vulture for the turkey vulture. One had a highly developed sense of smell, the other did not.  And what of the pipeline?  A later researcher, Ken Stager, found that turkey vultures will only come to fresh carcasses – not rotting ones. A chemical – ethyl mercaptan – is given off by a fresh cadaver. Oil pipeline engineers told Stager that for 30 years, they had relied on the vultures circling to find gas leaks. The chemical attractant?  Ethyl mercaptan.

There was no end to Birkhead’s marvels. Flamingos breeding in Namibia’s coastal Walvis Bay could sense when rain fell inland 500km away at Etosha Pan. Not just rain – sufficient rain. How do they do it? Clouds? Thunder?  We don’t yet know. A zebra finch, nursed back to health at home, by one of  Birkhead’s twin girls, could recognise her footfall on the stairs, long before she was in sight. Immediately it began to sing, while it remained silent for the other twin.

‘Stop telling me what we don’t know. Tell me what we do?’, Birkhead’s editor instructed him. But Birkhead is constantly devising new scientific methods of enquiry, with his students.  What  is discovered will enrich – and may yet - humble our species.

March 28, 2012

The Language of Leaders and Talk Normal | Corpus Christi College, Wednesday 28th March 2012


Before writing this review solution I had to quickly fire off a memo to my colleagues at Business Solutions Solutions regarding diarizing a project agenda catch-up meeting that we had wanted to progress in order to do some blue-sky thinking regarding how our core values were impacting our deliverable schedule and address the issue of better harnessing our newly aligned sales pipeline.

Over the past 15 years the language we use to describe what we do and what is going on around us has transmorphmogogmarized into a system of communication that actually communicates very little. Discussing his book Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle author and journalist Tim Phillips illustrated some of his pet management-speak peeves and demonstrated, statistically, that prior to 2000 “low hanging fruit”, for example, were near non-existent. Business communication used to be more concerned with being understood than creating the impression of being important.

Tim also explained that it’s not just businesses who are hiding behind made-up words, indulging in idioms about being in and out of boxes or exaggerating the implications of fairly mundane circumstances: the media has developed a language style that I have decided to call EXTREME WORDSMITHING, which involves referring to ‘dramas’ as ‘crises’ and any kind of proactive campaigning as a ‘War On ’. (I am currently waging a War On Charity Shops Organising Items By Colour Not Garment Type.)

So, what’s the solution? (The ‘Solution Solution’?) Tim suggested that we each take responsibility for this problem (“language is not something inflicted upon us,” he said), and do what we can to gently and politely eliminate it when possible…

Joining Tim was Kevin Murray, Chairman of global PR firm Bell Pottinger, who interviewed 60 leading chief executives for his book The Language of Leaders. In a fascinating talk, in which Kevin used stories to engage our imaginations and therefore make us co-creators of the concepts he was elucidating, he shared those qualities and approaches that successful leaders had over those leaders who, despite being intelligent and ‘qualified’, failed. The recipe for success, it turned out, is to be clear about what you want, and share that vision clearly with your colleagues – and rather than devise complicated corporate messaging strategies (oops, slipped into management speak there) to do this, share ideas via normal everyday conversations using normal everyday language. In short, to be a successful leader you’ve got to be nice and keep it real!

Hurrah! This means that, because authenticity is the name of the game here, I can start my backlash against the sinister emergence of the use of Innocent Smoothies style hey-buddy-why-not-pop-by-for-a-muffin-and-a-chat-about-our-new-sustainable-coffin-solutions language. You’re not my friend, mate.


March 28, 2012

My Sister Rosalind Franklin | Christ Church: Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, Wednesday 28th March 2012

Famous women scientists are as rare as famous Belgians. Few have had a more curious rise to fame than Rosalind Franklin.

At the time of her death, aged 37, in 1958 Rosalind Franklin was unknown outside the scientific world and, as her sister Jenifer Glynn told a packed lecture theatre at the Oxford Literary Festival, her family had little idea about the importance of her work until she started to attend conferences in the USA towards the end of her life.

Glynn’s recently published book My Sister Rosalind Franklin, complements The Dark Lady of DNA (2002) by Barbara Maddox, who introduced today’s event. The genesis of Franklin’s posthumous fame, however, is found in another book; The Double Helix (1968) : James Watson’s famously laddish account of the discovery of the structure of DNA in which he caricatured Rosalind as a frumpish bluestocking who didn’t  understand her research results and should “do something with her hair”. The sister that Jenifer Glynn knew was neither Watson’s harridan nor the downtrodden victim of an all male establishment adopted by some later feminists.  

Drawing on personal memories, family letters and photographs Glynn painted a sympathetic picture of an intelligent, practical girl who taught her younger sister to swim on “little sister days” at St Paul’s Girls’ School. She was expected to be as academically successful as her brothers and had the full support of her parents when she decided to attend Newnham College Cambridge.

Glynn recalled Rosalind’s four happy years in Paris learning x-ray crystallography, her love of walking, climbing and cycling and her capacity to make warm and lasting friendships. She reminded the audience that, although she is best known for her work on DNA, Rosalind also carried out important work on the structure of viruses (she once stored a thermos of live polio in her parents’ fridge) and her papers on the structure of coals are still studied and cited.

Rosalind Franklin’s fame seems set to continue growing as buildings, laboratories and even a University are named after her, but how would Rosalind herself wish to be remembered? Glynn was sure that she would want to be known as a scientist rather than a “woman scientist” and that she would probably be pleased at the various Franklin prizes and scholarships aimed at encouraging more young women into science.

March 27, 2012

But Is It Literature? | Christ Church: Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, Tuesday 27th March 2012

This debate brought together Mark Billingham (crime) and Chris Priest (sci-fi), chaired by Christian House (critic) to discuss whether genre fiction is literature. It's a big question for an hour.

Billingham, as you'd expect from his novels, is forthright and earthy. He said a good book was a good book, and reading should be for pleasure. If a book doesn't grab him in the first 50 pages he'll bin it, and he'd expect anyone reading his books to do the same. He's proud to be described as a Crime Writer, while well aware that for some there's a stigma in that. He objects to many things, most particularly the term "Literary Crime Fiction". Doesn't it just mean "well-written"? The literary establishment can't just claim the good bits of a genre! In fact Literary Fiction is just a genre itself, and a pretty obscure one.

I hadn't encountered Priest before. He is a quieter man, refusing to be pinned down and a good counterfoil to Billingham's energetic opinions. Priest himself avoids the term science fiction and prefers speculative fiction, so as to distance his work from Star Trek and Doctor Who. The latter he described as "despicable", thereby immediately alienating a good number of the audience, and Billingham. You could almost hear the indrawn breath. Priest argued that genre labels are useful for readers and for publishers but not for authors. As a writer you set out to write a good story. The most interesting works for him are not from the genre heartlands, but where the boundaries are being pushed. I like this image - as if the genres are so many beehives. For Priest it would be better if there were no labels; if you went into a bookshop and chose completely at random. Just read the first 50 pages of everything. Oh if only I had time to do that!

You might think this is all a bit academic - what does it matter if fiction is assigned genres or considered literature? But of course it does affect how a book is marketed, whether it's reviewed, whether it's eligible for prizes. Priest told of a publisher friend who said he could sell 50,000 copies of anything, instantly, by giving it a cover featuring a diary with one date circled, a tarantula, and a rose. When Priest asked if he could have this treatment he was told it wasn't for good authors! Reviews in newspapers concentrate on Literary Fiction. Billingham compared this to a Movie reviewer focussing only on Lithuanian arthouse films and consigning everything else to a condensed 100-word roundup.

The audience questions revealed a tantalising glimpse of the ideas people had come armed with. One lady quoted her daughter's English teacher: "Literature is when you don't know how to feel about the characters". Somehow all the panel seemed to get the wrong end of the stick and deny this vehemently while giving examples in support of it. I asked the lady about it afterwards and she said the teacher was great and also the son of Diana Wynne Jones. So I'd believe anything he said!

The last questioner said she couldn't believe no-one had mentioned language. To her literature was not what a book was about but how it was written. There then followed a spirited discussion of John Banville's The Sea. Against: Mark Billingham who objected to having to look up words in the dictionary every few pages. Pro: the questioner who found the language beautiful. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 was also mentioned here but less controversially. It's a novel very largely about murder but definitely included in the canon of Literature.

Like many discussions in the festival this was a bit toothless, and I didn't feel the chair was as keen on or familiar with the works of his panel as I'd have liked. We had to stop just as it was getting really interesting, and the discussion was beginning to flow properly. I came away little the wiser about the definition or nature of Literature, and uncertain whether I agree with Billingham's view of books as a medium for entertainment on a par with film or TV. For me the written work will always have more mystique and gravitas. But it didn't matter - this year the weather is perfect for the Festival and my only firm conclusion was that on a sunny day there's no greater pleasure than messing about in books.

March 27, 2012

Jodie Picoult: Lone Wolf | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Wed 28th March 2012

What an entertaining and inspiring talk. It’s easy to see why Jodi’s so successful; she was full of passion and enthusiasm and completely enchanting to watch.
Lone Wolf, the new release, was the subject mostly discussed. Dealing with emotional matters of the heart and family is a theme Picoult knows well and explores in many of her novels, and this one is no exception. The idea came about 10 years ago whilst talking to a fellow passenger on a plane who happened to be a neurosurgeon.   Intrigued by the idea of the conflict of science and morality in ending a mentally injured person’s life, the idea of Lone Wolf was born. The latest novel looks at the ethical question of ending life, as siblings, Edward and Cara, battle against one another to decide the fate of their brain damaged father after an accident.  Luke, who lies in a coma, once ran with the wolves and son Edward questions what his quality of his life would be if he does awake from the coma.
The audience was treated to an extract from the novel. Straight into the thick of it, the excerpt began with the siblings arguing over the state of their father, with Cara begging her brother to bring a wolf into the hospital to try and communicate with their Dad to bring him back to them. After this fails they face the agonizing decision on whether to stop the life support machine. The writing is packed with raw emotion and was fully engaging.   

The thoroughness of Picoult's research into her subject matter was evident throughout the reading; this was an area which Picoult discussed in detail. It was clear that the author had done her homework as she reiterated the lives of the wolf pack - from their eating habits, the types of wolves in a pack and the three different wolf howls. There was audience participation as three people were brought up on stage to demonstrate the howls.
It was a pleasure to be a part of this event and to hear such exciting tales of the life of a writer. To meet such a vibrant character and be immersed in her world for an hour was a joy. I was so impressed that I had to buy her latest novel.

March 26, 2012

Chancellor's Lecture: 'The Rivered Earth'. Chris Patten talks to Vikram Seth | Sheldonian Theatre, Tue 27 March 2012

In the vaulted, baroque setting of the Sheldonian Theatre - Chris Patten’s ‘great Roman cinema’ - two highly accomplished men reflected on the nature of achievement.

Baron Patten, Chancellor of Oxford, current Chairman of the BBC Trust, last Governor of British Hong Kong and Conservative party Minister held up a tattered, well thumbed paperback copy of  Vikram Seth’s most famous book A Suitable Boy. Preferring it to his hardback edition, Patten said: ‘It’s the one I’ve turned down pages, and marked the margin where passages have particularly moved me’. ‘I like it’, Seth said, admiring its worn spine. They clearly liked each other: Patten an admiring  and sensitive reader, Seth a puckish, witty and self-deprecating respondent.

Born in Calcutta, Seth’s education at Tonbridge School, Oxford, Stanford and Nanjing University did not include literature – but like so much of Seth’s life, it is the curiosity of the ‘easily distracted’ which is so dazzling: an extraordinary facility for languages, great musicality, knowledge of history – in addition to his formal studies in politics and economics.  While researching An Equal Music, Seth even took a thirteen week course in lip-reading to better understand a character.

Seth’s series of four libretti  in The Rivered Earth include some Eighth Century Chinese poets who lived, like us, in ‘troubled times’, facing the challenges of ‘war, hunger and famine.’  It is part of Seth’s extraordinary versatility that - having adopted an ‘unrestrained’ approach with A Suitable Boy, the longest published work of English fiction - he can also write with such economy and elegance in his poetry. His admiration for the clarity and lucidity of George Herbert’s style is also explored. Seth now lives in Herbert’s house in Salisbury. ‘It’s like here,’ Seth said, looking up at the dome of the Sheldonian. ‘If you want to see the sky, its best pictured through plain glass, rather than stained glass windows.’

Asked by Patten to read the last paragraphs of Two Lives, the simplicity and authenticity of Seth’s description of Hendon Park – an area close to Patten’s childhood home – was clearly immensely moving to the Chancellor.
Meditating on the Hebrew word ‘Lezikaron’ (placed in the park as a memorial to Holocaust victims) with its imperative to look forward as well as back, Seth read: ‘If we cannot eschew hatred, at least let us eschew group hatred. May we see that we could have been born as each other. May we, in short, believe in humane logic and perhaps, in due course, love.’

March 26, 2012

Tim Harford: “Adapt and Iraq:  why success always starts with failure” | Corpus Christi College, 27th March 2012

Plugging the paperback version of his latest book, Adapt, Tim Harford gave a talk referring only to his chapter on Iraq to illustrate the idea in the title.  He started with one of the significant lows in the Iraq War - the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha by a group of US Marines - to point out that the military did not have a good strategy at that time.  He then showed how people at the top in the US administration, notably Donald Rumsfeld, refused to change the strategy they were using in Iraq. Amazingly, at that time Rumsfeld wouldn’t even acknowledge that there were insurgents at all, never mind address how to overcome them and win back the hearts and minds of the locals.  Harford explained that those surrounding Rumsfeld would not challenge his assertions, using telling parallels from the Vietnam War to ram home the point.

Harford then played some neat videos of people facing the wrong way in lifts, taken from Candid Camera, which showed the power of conformity, and talked about the interesting psychological conformity experiments made by Solomon Asch. These pivotal experiments gave the human behavioural basis for “not being prepared to stick your head over the parapet” in advising a more senior person of the folly of their decisions. Harford wryly reminded us of Thatcher’s “this lady is not for turning,” and Blair’s “I have no reverse gear.”

Well, change in Iraq eventually came from below.  Harford largely referred to a certain Colonel H.R. McMaster. This guy had been a successful tank commander in the first Gulf War and had written a book about the failures of communication between President Johnson and his senior staff in Vietnam.  McMaster initiated a whole new tactic in Iraq by leaving the bunker, engaging with the locals and eventually gaining their support, for the locals didn’t much want the insurgents either. Although dangerous at first, his methods grew from the bottom up and were consequently successful. It’s what Obama calls “change from mobilised grass-roots”.  So that was the success following the failure.

March 26, 2012

Ian Rankin | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Tue 27 March 2012

The award-winning Ian Rankin treated the audience to an impressive, inspirational and memorable account of his life as a crime writer, from the first beginnings of trying to get a publishing deal, to present day, having accomplished numerous selling novels, and TV adaptations of his work.  Despite all the success, Ian remains utterly charming and humorous, giving a truly insightful glimpse into his life.
From the early days Rankin found inspiration all around him. He reiterated real life stories garnered from newspapers and friends which sparked his interest. Black and Blue is based on the story of his Australian friends' brother, whose tale of a night ending in a mysterious way prompted the book’s beginning. Rankin is intrigued with closure, and after hearing of this night where the brother was tied up in a flat by strangers, he sees the perfect beginning of a crime story unfolding.
Many of the characters in his early books, such as The Flood, are based on people in the author’s hometown of Fife.  Even local pubs, such as the Oxford and Cambridge bar in Edinburgh, appear in the novels. However, this in itself has caused some controversy as people have complained about accuracy - even down to the tiny details of footrests not being in the correct places in the bars which they have been based on. This has encouraged attention to detail and advice from friends, who have provided facts for the novels. Sadly, this has resulted in Rankin’s most popular character, Inspector Rebus, being retired from the force after Rankin was informed by a friend in the police that Rebus’s character would now be of retirement age.
Not only did we get a true account and history of a commendable author this evening, but we also got to hear a reading. This was taken from something only in its first draft, so it was a real delight for the audience. I can’t wait to read the rest of Rankin's novels after hearing the stories behind them.

March 25, 2012

Food Writing: Matthew Fort, Claudia Roden, Tom Parker-Bowles | Christ Church: Blue Boar LT, 26 March 2012

Food writing in Britain in the Twentieth Century was dominated by the great Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden.  It is wonderful that Claudia is still with us and still delighting readers with her well-researched and engaging books.

The conversation this lunchtime, chaired with genial aplomb by Matthew Fort, centred around the current state of food writing and the influence of modern technologies on the future.

For me, one of the joys of the internet is the explosion in food blogs. I take the panel’s point that there is very little, if any, editorial control over the content or quality over such online publications but a canny reader will quickly know which to follow and which to ignore.

New talent in food writing is almost all going to come from food bloggers in the future and the democratisation of the closed circle of food writers is surely good for us consumers.

It is hard for people to follow in the footsteps of someone like Claudia Roden – who took 16 years to fully research and write her book on Jewish cuisine. You have to be a person of independent means to be able to afford that sort of lifestyle. However the increase in the number of contributors to the world of food writing is hopefully going to give us new and exciting voices for the future.

This was a pleasant hour of foodie chat with people who know and love their field. And, thankfully, not too much hard sell on the signed copies!

March 25, 2012

The Self Illusion | Christ Church: Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, Sunday 25th March 2012

Bruce Hood, with the relaxed fluency that comes from being a professor, took an hour from the days of a sold-out audience to tell us all that there is no 'you' inside our heads. The idea of an independent, coherent self is an illusion, he claims, though being clear to define 'illusion' as something which is not as it appears, rather than something that doesn't exist at all. He was also sure to say an illusion is subjectively very real to us.

This was a very dense lecture, packed to the brim with fascinating content and thoughtful multimedia. It was the first time he had delivered the talk and it didn't show. He covered two main areas; the idea that there isn't an 'I' making decisions on how to interact with the world, but rather a decentralised collection of systems and processes, and the idea that there isn't a 'me' with a particular story, but rather a constructive narrative made of distorted memories and a biased interpretation of the world that puts the self in a good light (for example, most people think they're above average in various positive traits).

He cited the fascinating case of Charles Whitman, the Texas Sniper, who killed sixteen people and left a suicide note asking for an autopsy as he couldn't understand his actions. The autopsy revealed a large brain tumour. He also showed us the more recent case of Cat Bin Lady, who stroked the unlucky cat every day while walking up the same road. She walked up that road so often because she was seeing her dying father, and Hood believes she may have surrendered to her strange impulse in a state of high stress.

This raises interesting questions about free will and culpability, though Hood is keen to suggest that we still need to punish those who commit crimes, regardless of the scientific ambiguities, for society would take a wrong turn if we didn't.

Every minute of this talk was fascinating and Hood took the highly engaged audience with him all the way. If you weren't there I suggest you could do worse than read his book.

March 24, 2012

Steve Jones: “Evolution versus Creationism” | Christ Church: Blue Boar LT, Sat 24th March 2012

Interesting throughout, Saturday’s lecture was a brilliant combination of erudition and anecdotes, delivered with characteristic Jonesian flair.  He dismissed creation stories in the first few minutes, by describing two well-known ones (Adam/Eve and Pangu) and pointing out that they couldn’t both be true. Then he asserted that the single narrative of evolution was true and no longer controversial. Evolution was nothing but a series of successful mistakes, he said.
Inevitably, here was some chat about Darwin, (he told us with glee that at one time he had worked in a room converted from Darwin’s coal hole), but he chose rather to emphasise the work of William Jones (no relation, one assumes), who was an eighteenth century linguist who plotted out the development of languages across the globe, showing how they were linked up and how they might have evolved. So, in this useful analogy, books are the fossils of languages.

Then Jones moved on to an explanation of the killer argument in evolution: natural selection. He started this section with a good example from his own brief early career in Port Sunlight, of the development of the design for the soap powder nozzle, which was steadily improved through 45 generations of nozzle by a natural selection process.

Finally, he told us that a study of the genetic evolution of man had largely replaced the biologists’ obsession with the fruit fly, before giving some interesting insights into human skin colour.  He told us that humans were the world’s most boring primates, because we are actually so similar across the globe, and that if we were to sit next to a Cro-Magnon man on the Tube, he would look physically identical to us. Evolution has shifted from body to mind.

There was interesting Q+A at the end, but sadly there were no creationists in the audience to stir up controversy, or if there were they remained tight-lipped.

March 24, 2012

David Lammy: Tottenham to Westminster - has the door closed on social mobility? | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, Sat 24 March 2012

Were the riots of summer 2011 just a spontaneous outbreak of lawlessness or a sign of underlying disaffection? Tottenham MP David Lammy, speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday afternoon, is in no doubt: this was a disaster waiting to happen. His recent book about the riots, Out of the Ashes, argues that a key factor is a loss of social mobility in British society.

Over the last half century, he said, there had been two great liberal revolutions. The first was in the 1960s, delivering social equality for women and ethnic minorities and, briefly, the promise of “the white heat of the technological revolution”. The second was the Thatcherite economic liberalisation, which Lammy characterised as “the right to make as much money as you want”.

So where did it all go wrong? The 1960s, he thought, had delivered a culture of rights without responsibilities whilst the 1980s had placed too much emphasis on the idea of economic success. Add to this the Blair government’s aspiration towards a knowledge economy where 50% of young people go to university and you risk the many of the remaining 50% being permanently workless or drifting in and out of poorly paid unskilled jobs.

And the solution? There isn’t a simple solution and no party has all the answers. Drawing on his own experience of growing up in a single parent family on the borders of the Broadwater Farm Estate, Lammy identified the keys to restoring aspiration as education, employment, parenting, community and aspiration. Parenting is critical and Lammy spoke passionately about the uphill struggle of workless or poorly paid parents trying to set boundaries for children who are exposed to the consumerist nagging of social media and the conformist pressure of street gangs. Amongst other things (and perhaps surprisingly for a Labour politician), he supports the idea of a “citizen service” for young people which could include a role for the armed forces.

This was a thought-provoking and challenging insight into the social realities behind the headlines and gave rise to a thoughtful question and answer session.

March 24, 2012

The 2011 English Riots: What Can We Learn? | Christ Church: Master’s Garden Marquee, 24 March 2012

Having evaded the HSBC salesman and found their way to Christ Church College, the mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged audience wafted the heat away with their Sunday Times supplements, waiting for the panel to sit by the Critchleys banner and their bottled water. This pleasant Oxford scene seemed very far away from burning buses in Tottenham and hooded marauders breaking in their stolen trainers, but there we have it.

Tony Benn, sharp as ever at 86, Mary Riddell, Telegraph columnist, and David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, offered their opinions in wide-ranging discussion chaired by journalist Harriet Sergeant, and, despite the political spread, a healthy consensus was quickly reached: that the riots were about more than opportunistic violence, and that the causes were related to injustice, not least lack of employment.

This absence of froth-mouthed condemnation of the rioters gave space for a more constructive dialogue, with good points made by all. Tony Benn, amusingly gratified by a recent death threat, wittily explored the nature of protest and emphasised the complexity of the situation. Mary Riddell described a confusion about the causes and a public riposte driven by incomprehension. She memorably described the riots as both arcane and modern - the Peasants' Revolt facilitated by BlackBerry Messenger. Lammy proved a captivating speaker and natural orator, with impassioned reminiscence about how it all kicked off, and a call-to-arms about our 'post-liberal times' of rights without responsibilities, pointing out the culture of entitlement that unite the rioters who stole televisions with the MP who bought a duck house on public money, the journalists who steal our conversations and the police who take backhanders from said journalists.

These thought-provoking speeches preceded a Q&A session which largely covered the question of what we can do about it all, which strayed from the topic of riots to the injustices of society at large. Unemployment, education and care for the elderly were among the lamentations, and while the discussions were stimulating, they reminded me of putting the world to rights in the pub. There are indeed things we can learn from the riots - but will the institutions that run the country listen?

Simon Callow was introduced to Dickens via the theatre, as a young child, being terrified by a stage production of A Christmas Carol. In his brilliant exploration of Dickens’ life and work, Callow explains how Dickens and the theatre are linked not just within his own life. With fascinating insights and a lifetime’s grounding in the great Victorian writer and perfomer, Callow gives us an all-too-brief talk. Callow has great wit, and an obvious love of the subject, which permeates his talk. He explores Dickens’ early love of the theatre, at one point going to the plays three times a day for three years, and shows us how this young obsession infused every part of Dickens’ work. From his novels, in which Dickens performs to the audience with such startling presence that at times he describes himself as the spirit at the elbow of the reader. Up to his exhausting performance tours, where Dickens engagement with his audience fired him up to continue performing even when paralysed and with his vocal chords ruined.

Dickens once put on a play that was so popular that the Prime Minister, the entire cabinet, every critic, and Queen Victoria attended. At one point Dickens performed in a play Wilkie Collins wrote for him. It was an arctic melodrama, and perfect drivel. Dickens acted so well the other actors wept, and hardened critics wrote in their private diaries that they had never seen such perfect acting. Dickens was a force of nature, never doing anything unless it was at a level of intensity that would terrify lesser men. He was the most famous person in the world during the 1860’s and was brilliant at everything he did - producing, directing, stage managing, and acting in plays that took the country by storm, at the same time as writing one after the other some of the greatest works of literature ever seen. But Dickens’ intensity of performance was to kill him - the strain of rehearsing for at least 25 hours before every performance, of forcing himself into tour after tour. Even when he was so sick he had to be carried onto the stage and continue only through pure adrenaline, he ignored the advice of doctors and all his friends.

I greatly enjoyed this talk. Simon Callow was very engaging, and knows his subject extremely well. He is a great speaker and knows how to captivate an audience with anecdotes, humour, interesting titbits, analysis, his own opinions on Dickens’ obsession, and how it led him inexorably to his death. At the end of Dickens’ life, in conversation with a friend, Dickens pointed to a theatre and declared that he wished that he had done that instead - run a great theatre, write all the plays, and direct them all himself. There is no doubt that he would have been brilliant at it. But we would have lost some of the greatest novels of the English language.

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