FT Weekend: Oxford Literary Festival

Once again 500 speakers will be giving insight into their latest works. Speakers include five Booker Prize Winners.
Various, Sat 22 March - Sun 30 March 2014

April 1, 2014
Donna Dickenson - Me Medicine Vs. We Medicine - Fri 28th March

I first came across medical ethicist Professor Donna Dickenson at the 2012 Literary Festival and quickly added her to my list of favourite science communicators. I was delighted, therefore, to be part of an unusually large (for a science talk) audience at the Martin School on Friday afternoon to hear her discuss some of the topics covered in her latest book, Me Medicine Vs. We Medicine.

Professor Dickinson opened with a picture of Prince Albert:  a striking reminder that, until the mid 20th century, the big killers were infectious diseases such as TB, influenza and typhoid (which did for the Prince in 1861) and that they were no respecters of wealth or class. These infectious diseases were seen very much as communal problems and so the public health measures and medical developments that made them rare and treatable benefitted everyone. This is what Professor Dickenson calls "we medicine".

These days, the biggest, and most feared, killers in the West are individual diseases such as cancers and heart disease. The solution, according to some, is "me medicine" -  personalised medicine (pharmagenetics) which takes account of a patient's genetic type or even the genetic profile of an individual cancer. Potential benefits of pharmagenetics might include lighter doses, quicker responses to treatment and reduced side effects. However, Professor Dickenson was quick to remind the audience of the need for caution. Whilst pharmagenetics undoubtedly had a place in the future of medicine, it may not be the "magic bullets" of press hype: for example, cancer may give rise to different genetic mutations at different sites in the same tumour.

And even if pharmagenetics is all it’s cracked up to be, will it give rise to new ethical questions? Is the drive to promote genetically tailored drugs being driven by drug companies as part of a new business strategy, or the narcissistic cult of the individual? Is the development of treatments that benefit the few and not the many a fair use of limited resources? How do you choose between the competing claims of different groups of patients?

Me Medicine Vs. We Medicine was a clearly presented introduction to a whole raft of issues that may soon face us all, both as individuals and as members of society. The venue, a well-equipped modern seminar room in the Martin School (the former Indian Institute) was ideal for both the presentation and the thoughtful question and answer session that followed.


April 1, 2014
Nigel Newton, Richard Ovenden, Anthony Cheetham and Tim Waterstone. Chaired by Angus Phillips - The Future of Publishing - Sat 29th March
Angus Phillips, director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes, chaired a team of publishing great and goods (and a librarian) to ask what was happening to publishing, in the context of ebooks, self-publishing, Amazon, non-linear narratives and all the usual yada yada.

First up was Anthony Cheetham who has founded and run many publishers, including Orion, Futura and Century. A charismatic gentleman of the industry, he said that publishing is now approaching a situation analogous to supermarkets, with four big players, and that their duties to their shareholders mean that they can't focus on the smaller things like new writers, having instead to keep their eye on the bestsellers and franchises. As writers will always find a way, he believes there is a place for independent publishers with a sense of vocation and partnership with authors, and that they have a future, but a 'dodgy one'. Meanwhile those 'soloists' self-publishing are great for the authors and the public, but no threat to publishers, as authors will always want them. This theme continued across the panel - nobody was scared of the self-publishers and therefore wished them luck. He observed the cold war between Amazon and the Big Four publishers and foresaw Amazon making it hot and trying to kick them out.

Tim Waterstone spoke next, who founded Waterstones, though you wouldn't know it, since the apostrophe was controversially ripped from the store's name. He sounded a note of optimism, saying he had heard prophets of doom for the industry since time immemorial. He said the print book is in growth and probably had the strongest compound growth rate of any consumer product since World War II (he used the word 'product' a lot). He was a little sniffy about people's love for independent bookshops, saying there were not as many excellent ones as people think (though I for one would rather a sub-optimal independent bookshop than the same range of books in every Waterstones in the country). He noted they were in decline, as were independent publishers. He didn't speak of his role in these events.

Nigel Newton, founder of Bloomsbury Publishing went next, who projected a number of slides outlining the functions of a publisher (i.e. what writers lack if they go it alone). He also left the last (irrelevant) slide up on the projector throughout the rest of the debate; a book cover announcing an upcoming Bloomsbury release. This slightly jarring note of self-promotion set a tone in which each speaker took plenty of opportunities to plug their business, though no others through such obnoxious means as this.

Richard Ovenden, librarian at the Bodleian went last, spending ten minutes reciting statistics about the library, telling us a lot of facts about the present of publishing, but little about the future, besides the commitment of the institution to digitising archives for future generations and giving literature a life beyond 'the ephemera of the present'.

Then there were questions. Are things harder for authors now? Yes, Anthony Cheetham said, who has founded a new indie style publisher to work closely with them. Nobody else bothered to answer, Waterstone seeming particularly dismissive. There were questions about ebooks, blogs and social media, and a couple more questions on the finer points of libraries and digitisation. The answers lacked revelation, the panel seeming confident that traditional publishing and the print book will last. The future of publishing for all its challenges seemed in some ways to be the same as it ever was, and these recurring 'future of publishing' debates seem to have changed little since the first Kindle was shipped.


April 1, 2014
Andrew Taylor Interviewed by Nicolette Jones. St Hilda's Mystery and Crime Weekend Showcase - Sat 29th March

A fascinating discussion about inspiration, character development, themes and genres between Andrew Taylor, crime writer and historical novelist, and Nicolette Jones (critic and chair of the St Hilda’s College Media Network).

Taylor was booked at the Oxford Literary Festival to talk about his latest crime thriller The Scent of Death, set in New York during the American War of Independence. However, as an author of more than 30 crime novels, including a favourite of mine (Bleeding Heart Square) and also a reviewer of crime fiction, the conversation was wide ranging. Jones was an incisive inquisitor and Taylor dealt with all her questions adroitly.

A keen audience were ready with their many questions too, ranging from the ever practical ‘how important is to have a title early on?’ (as early in the process as possible according to Taylor)  to the more reflective comment about why an author would inflict on their readers a central protagonist so unpleasant (Arabella Wintour from The Scent of Death). Taylor reminded us that human beings are complex, and the more so are very satisfying to create and write about. He and Jones continued to explore the concept of ‘messiness’ in fiction’ that real people and real life are not straightforward, neither wholly evil nor wholly good, and Taylor enjoys exploring that in his fiction. Jones wanted to know why so many crime writers, himself included, had detectives with unhappy marriages and relationships. Taylor reminded us that from a practical perspective, it is easier to write fiction (books, TV films) when the characters face challenges – they rise off the page – and desire and love are big challenges.

Other tips for the aspiring writer that Taylor passed on were that ‘writers write’; in other words just sit down at your desk and get on with it – a lesson he confessed took him a while to learn. He has a weekly word target and pointed out that promoting books rather got in the way of that. When it comes to research, he prefers primary sources such as letters and diaries, and his ear for 18th and 19th century dialogue comes from reading the plays of the time.

Oxford Literary Festival is an opportunity for learning in so many ways. A titbit from this talk was a new verb to join ‘medalled’ and ‘to podium’; according to Jones, her tongue firmly in her cheek,Taylor’s novel The American Boy was ‘Richardandjudied’ in 2003. Taylor is also Winner of the Cartier Diamond Dagger and of the 2013 Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger Award. He is a regular speaker at St Hilda’s College’s annual Mystery and Crime Weekend, about which avid readers and inspiring writers of detective fiction can find more by following the clues on Facebook and St Hilda’s website.


April 1, 2014
The Folio Prize: The Art of Storytelling - Andrew Kidd, Mark Haddon and Molly McGrann. Chaired by Alex Clark - Sun 30th March

In a cosy room at Corpus Christi College, journalist Alex Clark chaired a panel discussion on storytelling, inspired by the launch of the Folio Prize. Agent Andrew Kidd joined her, as founder of the prize, alongside authors (and creative writing lecturers) Mark Haddon and Molly McGann. The conversation wasn't tightly bound to any topic; the Prize and title being jumping-off points. It doesn't seem possible to have a tightly-structured conversation with Haddon at any rate, as his ebullience and flair for digression wouldn't have allowed it.

The discussion began and kept coming back to the notion of 'difficulty' in fiction. Kidd founded his prize because he was aware of the other major prizes contending with calls for 'accessibility' and an increasing taboo around writing that is more difficult that he finds patronising to readers. He prefers 'blowing things apart' to ease, and this was a view shared by all of the panel.

Reading is easier now prose is less challenging, said Haddon, and there is a big need for chewy, challenging books that are worth the effort (which is why he is reading Proust every day with a French dictionary to hand). The panel agreed that people read for comfort and prefer sympathetic characters to interesting ones, yet these limitations don't cross over into other media, as Walter White demonstrates. These comparisons between film and TV and literature were a recurring theme, and Breaking Bad kept being invoked as the flag bearer.

Kidd and McGann pointed out that one of the main functions of books now seems to be to aid sleep, while Haddon noticed an appetite for toughness in other spheres of life (such as exercise) but found people prissy around reading. Clark remarked upon the air of intellectual success or failure bound up in finishing books that didn't seem to apply to other media, and there was agreement that the reader should feel at liberty to put down a book that is boring them.

This was a stimulating discussion. I could have listened to it longer, except for the fact that I had an increasing urge to go away and read.


April 1, 2014
Sally Potter - Naked Cinema: Working with Actors - Fri 28th March

Since starting to work with film at the age of 14, Sally Potter has built an impressive award-winning career as a film maker, and garnered an OBE for services to cinema. As writer/director she is credited with The Goldiggers, Orlando, The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried, Yes, Rage, and Ginger and Rosa. She is also recognised for her personal approach to working with actors including such luminaries as Judi Dench, Tilda Swinton, Quentin Crisp, Jude Law and Jonny Depp, as well as with unknowns.

Her well-structured presentation comprised of Potter talking about her book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, supported by fine film clips from her process from auditioning, to rehearsal development, and final cut. She aims to provide a practical toolkit of how she works from casting, rehearsal, look, script, active communication and framing. The first part of Naked Cinema: Working with Actors entails Ms Potter openly discussing her methods and the second half features interviews with 14 actors with whom she has worked. Actors, she says, feel naked in front of the camera and the book aims to validate this theory. The interviewees, including Julie Christie, Timothy Spall and Annette Bening, share their personal perspectives on and experiences of acting.

The title of the book stems from Sally Potter’s belief that, inevitably, it is the human in the frame. She looks at how and why we think we know a character intimately and the powerful relationship between the actor and the audience. Because the actor is the most noticed feature in a film, casting is the single most important decision for Ms Potter: ‘On screen whatever else is going on, it is the human being who will always dominate the field of vision’ [quoted from the book] and nothing can compete with the ‘magnetic appeal of the human face’. 

We had glimpses into Potter’s back catalogue, her challenges and her innovation. The process of adapting and filming Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992) took seven years, as funding proved difficult. As Woolf believed femininity is a construction and her Orlando was androgynous, Potter was keen to reflect this in her casting and characterisation. We were shown clips of Quentin Crisp, who played Elizabeth I, in auditions, and in the final cut quoting ‘Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old’. We also saw beautifully filmed footage of Tilda Swinton as Orlando running through a maze in one era and costume and finishing in another. Potter’s most recent film, Ginger and Rosa (2012), blazes into the twenty first century. Two young women were cast via Facebook auditions; teenagers submitted home-made videos, using a prescribed script. Set in 1962 the film blends a coming-of-age story with the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In terms of casting, Potter thinks outside the box. Rage (2009), the first film made for mobile phones, focuses on the fashion industry using a series of eye-catching monologues, including Jude Law in drag and Judi Dench with bleach-blonde hair and vibrant red lipstick.

Once casting is complete, Potter’s preparation involves foundation work including bonding with actors and testing the boundaries, creating a zone of confidence, ‘attentive looking’ and ‘active intelligence’. To demonstrate the rehearsal process, we were shown several takes from Yes (2004), a post 9/11 reverse East versus West love story. These revealed the intensity with which the director and actors rehearse, and the emotions distilled before the final cut. 

Sally Potter is not sure you can really train to be a director. She learned her craft through acting, working in the industry, listening, learning about people, filming herself and, most importantly, learning about ‘the art of making mistakes’. To try to understand the actor’s experience, Potter, a trained dancer and choreographer, decided to put herself on the other side of the camera for The Tango Lesson, performing ‘a parallel version of herself’. The excerpt from this film was dark, tense, and classy.

In the Q&A session, we heard that obstacles, difficulty and disaster are an inevitable part of the film-making process, but how you cope is what is important; problems should be viewed as a spur to opportunity. With regard to working out of sequence, Ms Potter said it is not always possible to work chronologically, so ‘preparation is gold dust’ to get the ‘arrow of time’ through to the finished film. Time’s arrow flew through this excellent one-hour presentation which was verbally and visually packed full of fascinating insights into the world of the director and actor, and was an excellent taster for Sally Potter’s new book.


April 1, 2014
Melvyn Bragg - Grace and Mary - Fri 28th March

I must ‘fess up’; I am a huge fan of Lord Melvyn Bragg, but had not read any of his novels up until now. However, I have been in awe of his cultural cachet and expansive intellect from the early days of the South Bank Show through In Our Time, so the prospect of hearing him talk about his latest novel Grace and Mary at the Oxford Literary Festival was most appealing. Bragg, a former Wadham College Modern History student, was speaking at the Sheldonian Theatre, the venue of his erstwhile graduation.

Lord Bragg admits he was unable to write any more fiction after finishing Remember Me (2008), a novel echoing his first wife’s suicide. It was a tormenting book to write and, he says, for some people to read. He was left with an ‘empty reservoir’, as if there had been ‘a wipe-out’ at the back of his mind. So, for this man who has been writing fiction since the age of nineteen, ‘misremembering’ proved most helpful for writing autobiographical fiction. Grace and Mary (2013) is of this genre, and begins in a way Bragg never wrote before. He woke up one morning and ‘saw’, very clearly, a vision of a small dumpy woman dressed in Victorian costume and figured that she was the grandmother he had never knowingly met. At eighteen, Melvyn’s mother revealed to him that the woman he had met twice when he was ten or twelve, in the room above the family bar, was her real mother and his grandmother. She didn’t speak of her again. Until then, he thought he knew everything about his mother. The grandmother, who had lived on a farm with three siblings, had had an illegitimate child and was banished from the family home and sent into service.  

More recently, when Bragg’s mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and living in a seaside residential home, she started to ask the nurse for her mother. Our speaker wondered ‘which one?’, prompting him to contemplate a three-generational book. The Mary and Grace characters are semi-fictionalised versions of his mother and grandmother and John must partly embody the writer himself.

An only child, Melvyn Bragg lived in a one-up-one-down house with his mother, who never once paid him a compliment but ‘was his whole world’; his father was away for seven years as a soldier. At the age of eleven or twelve she ‘lost herself’ when she discovered she was illegitimate. However, she ‘adopted the town in place of parents she didn’t know’. She was involved with everything, obsessed with day-to-day updates on the town and its folk. Because of the importance of a loved place, Bragg decided to bring the characters together in that particular town.

His mother was the most complete and coherent person he ever knew but she disintegrated with Alzheimer’s and broke up into different people. This woman who had been a unified, reliable individual became angry and forgetful. Yet, he found a way of bringing her back to her former self by taking her on mystery tours, where everyone sang on the bus. Music restored to his mother a perfect memory for words; as she perfectly recalled songs such as ‘Daisy, Daisy..’. Rather than seeing an Alzheimer’s patient as a lesser person, Bragg sees him/her as just a human being represented in different ways.

In the book, Mary is in a home and is forgetful, and is visited by her son John. She ‘is and she isn’t’ Bragg’s mother; she is ‘the same but different’. This is where the writer employs imagination to make things work. When it comes to writing, Melvyn Bragg contends there is no universal  approach. He does it ‘my way’ and, in the case of his autobiographical fiction, uses a ‘compass’ method: North is Autobiography; South is Autobiographical Fiction (this, he says is where it gets interesting); East is Memory; and West is Imagination. Memory, he says, seems to be infinite and plays tricks with you, but it serves the interest of the moment if you can allow yourself to float in that moment. For the grandmother, Bragg uses some of his own memories, so it becomes a mixture.

Through the Q&A session we learned that: Melvyn Bragg’s mother was ‘not particularly’ pleased with his writing but his father read his books very intelligently and intensively; as a novelist all you have is what you have lived, but Bragg has lived other people’s lives through reading others; he grew up surrounded by things that were not true but he did not suffer from his mother’s illegitimacy; work is a good way through depression; he does not see the point in taking weekends off or lying on a beach; he has had a privileged life because of a succession of flukes; he was brought up with people who worked very hard all the time; and that he has started working on his next novel.

This was an entertaining talk and although Melvyn Bragg appeared to digress, all the strands somehow cohered in the end. Having subsequently looked at Grace and Mary, I see that the toing and froing emulates the form and content, the multiple narratives of the book. Yes, he is a very clever man!


March 31, 2014
Chancellor’s Lecture: Orhan Pamuk – Nobel Winner - Sat 29th March
Turkishness, Twitter and the art of the novel: an entertaining and informative conversation between Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman.

Even before Mr Pamuk appeared, I could sense the evening was going to highbrow. The Sheldonian, bathed in a golden afternoon light, was at its most beautiful. The names of Pamuk’s novels, along with discussions about their relative merits, rippled through the audience in whispers: My Name is Red, Silent House, Istanbul and Snow, to name but a few. The Chancellor of the University, Lord Patten, suggested to us that switching off mobiles to ‘disconnect from the world’ might be a somewhat ironic gesture here in Oxford. The academic stage was set.

Orhan Pamuk’s writing, for the unfamiliar, is a combination of fiction, politics and essay. Recurring themes in his novels include cultural identity, the relationship between Westernism and Islam, and tradition versus modernity/secularism, all set in Turkey and imbued with a desire to capture the essence of ‘Turkishness’.

These ‘tensions’, on which he has built his literary career, are not unique; they resonate to many individuals and societies caught in a ‘culture clash’ (to put it crudely). But his style, setting and characters are quite distinctive. Where does it all come from?

Pamuk’s ‘upper middle class secularist’ background grounded him in the likes of Borges, Calvino and Kundera. He is also highly influenced by Sufi literature which, during a three-year stint in the U.S. during his thirties, he says he appropriated ‘in a postmodernist way’. He says he writes about the people he knows, but given his background, it is surprising that he seems to do a reasonable job at characterising the underclass of Turkey.

He favours highlighting ‘contradictions in the human heart’ over dividing his characters into ‘good guys and bad guys’, because, he says, a novelist’s ethical duty (if there is one) is to identify with all characters with ‘equal measure’. Jokingly, he says he would rather label the reader, than any of his characters, as ‘pathological’.

Pamuk pontificates, ruminates and gesticulates in equal measure, which leads us to what I find most interesting – the man himself. He is a professor at Columbia University. He checks all the English translations of his books himself. He uses the word ‘melancholy’ a fair bit – in fact, he even has a theory of it – and he says he is angry, angry, angry. He actually comes across as warm and humorous.

His anger, amongst other things, fuels his work. He delighted us tonight with a reading from his Nobel acceptance speech, published in Other Colours, where he answers the question “why do you write?” A poignant insight into the person behind the persona comes from this response: “I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy”.

Alongside his role as writer and academic, he engages in advocacy. He talked tonight about the Twitter situation in Turkey, and about free speech; while on the one hand anger seems to drive his passion for writing, he admits that seeing ‘shocking’ political events unfold in his own country makes it hard to continue to write.

He said that his forty years of ‘devotion to the art of the novel’ has left him ‘dignified’, ethically justified, like an ascetic. Is he claiming to have reached some sort of literary Nirvana? I can’t tell whether he really believes this or whether, as with other things, it’s just rhetoric.

Seeing a novelist in person can either enlighten or disappoint. For me, a late entrant to Pamuk’s work, tonight was both an intellectually stimulating standalone discussion, and a useful adjunct to uncovering hidden depths in future reads.

March 31, 2014
Eleanor Catton in conversation with Natalie Haynes - Sun 30th March

It’s hard to know what to write about Q&A sessions with Booker Prize winners. Do you write about the book, or the interview? I imagine it’s hard for them, too, to talk about their books as though they were nothing less than universally loved – the epitome of successful fiction – when, in reality, Booker judges and popular opinion may be at odds with each other.

I was curious, then, to know what Eleanor Catton, the youngest Booker winner to date, would have to say to Natalie Haynes, writer, broadcaster and Booker judge, about her novel The Luminaries.

Firstly, just to clarify the genre, it’s an ‘astrological murder mystery’. Set during the gold rush in 1866 New Zealand, it is accurate in some historical details but not to the extent of being historical fiction, though it was not intended to be. Catton had always wanted to write a murder mystery, and it seems the idea was conceived on a tandem bike ride at the tender age of 14.

Classically, murder mysteries don’t do well in the Booker Prize because they have to be read at least three times over, at which point it would take a very extraordinary one to have the judge still in its grasp. This one made the cut, even though it doesn’t actually start with a murder.

So where does the astrology come in? Well, the word ‘luminaries’ means the sun and moon (or celestial body). The word is used to reflect a cosmic bond between two of the characters (not wanting to give the plot away for those who haven’t read it), but the heart of the story is about love. In particular, about ‘transactional’ versus ‘gift’ relationships, and the value of love over money (in this case, gold). This theme arose when Catton read I and Thou by Martin Buber. It is explored in an insanely clever spirally way, using a mathematical entity known as the ‘Golden Ratio’, drawn from Douglas R Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, Bach.

Mathematics also structures the book. Each chapter is half as long as the preceding one, and the reason that this resembles more a scientific half-life than a Golden Ratio is that it would otherwise have been longer than War and Peace, and would probably have broken the spine.

Catton made it a point to mention that, for a novel with such high structural complexity, the structure was meant to serve the story, and not the other way round. Structure was not meant to be the thing that readers cared about, so if you missed it totally, like many readers, not an issue.

Symbolism is plentiful. For example, the characters are based on signs of the Zodiac, with a Jungian ‘archetypal astrological temperament’ that is then built on – for example, Sagittarius is the sign of journeys, and so the character becomes a shipping merchant. The town where this is set, Hokitika, means ‘rightful place of return’ in Maori, a linguistic complement to the mathematically derived circularity.

There were questions from the floor, and also a book selling/signing afterwards. Catton came across as intelligent, measured,and articulate. I wonder if I sensed a heart/head dialectic that mirrors the polarised opinion on her novel: it’s meant to be about human-human or human-material relationships. Trying to explore a content that, for most people, is simply experienced or felt, using a complex, calculated methodology to achieve a highly crafted, intellectual end product that still contains a good yarn - and a murder, to boot - will probably speak to some and not to others.

Regardless, as one audience member aptly put it, this event was a great introduction for those who hadn’t yet read the novel, and a source of new and interesting information for those who had. Additionally, the convivial nature of the ‘conversation’ between the two women made it a pleasure to be there.


March 28, 2014
Jill Dawson talks to Jem Poster - The Tell-Tale Heart - Thu 27 March

An engaging hour; Jill Dawson, novelist and creative writing teacher, was interviewed by the festival’s academic director, Professor Jem Poster, about her new work, The Tell-Tale Heart.

It is no coincidence, Dawson told us, that her latest novel shares a title with the Edgar Allan Poe short story which tells of a murderer racked by guilt as he hears from the grave the beating heart of his victim. Dawson’s tale is about hearts literal and metaphorical, of what the heart remembers and wants to tell us. Through the story of 50-year-old professor, Patrick, who receives a new heart from a teenager killed in a motorcycle accident, the book looks to explore fundamental questions about identity, the symbolic meaning of the heart and the possibility of change. Patrick, a drinker and womaniser, recovers well from his transplant but has a feeling that his ‘old life won’t have him’. He becomes intensely intrigued about the heart donor Drew, a teenager living near Ely, and what shaped him. A third protagonist, Willie, an ancestor of Drew’s caught up in the 19th century Fen riots, is also woven into the story as his life resonates on modern day events.

Dawson’s previous novel Watch Me Disappear was also set in the Fens, she admitted to us that they had got under skin once she had moved their as an adult, and Poster asked Dawson about how important time and place was in her novels. One of the audience commented on how she felt the Fens were as much a character in the novel as the human protagonists. Dawson gave us insight into how she researches as she writes ‘roaming around in a landscape’ as well as in her head, and gave a vivid description of the landscape she sees day to day, populated by wind buffeted kestrels and owls at dusk.

Dawson is an articulate and intelligent conversationalist (perhaps slightly cramped by Poster’s dry academic style) and her two short readings from The Tell-Tale Heart demonstrated her skill as writer; first as a man witnessing the final hours of his father from a prison cell, and then an anguished teenage boy railing against the march of progress in a farming community.
The Tell-Tale Heart is Dawson’s eighth novel. A previous work, Fred & Edie, was shortlisted for the Whitbread and Orange awards.


March 28, 2014
The 2014 Bodley Lecture and Award of Bodley Medal to Ian McEwan - Thu 27th March

The Bodley Medal, an award first created in 1646, is presented by the Bodleian Libraries to ‘individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the worlds of culture, learning, science and communication’. Booker-winning novelist Ian McEwan is the latest recipient of the honour; his name joins a list of former beneficiaries including Alan Bennett, Tim Berners-Lee, Peter Carey, P. D. James and Seamus Heaney. Before the conferring, Richard Ovendon, the 25th holder of the title of Bodleian Librarian, facilitated a Q&A session with the author of numerous novels including Amsterdam, Enduring Love, Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday and Sweet Tooth.

On the process of writing, we heard that McEwan was quick to embrace the Word Processor; he appreciates the provisional nature of the text on the screen, finding it works well with writing in longhand. His wife (Annalena McAfee), also a writer, introduced him to a piece of time-sparing software that blocks internet access so he cannot be diverted. She works upstairs and he downstairs (‘Heaven and Hell’); they see each other at mealtimes. We were told that some novels require research while others do not. McEwan spent two years shadowing a neuro surgeon for his most researched book, Saturday. He proffered an anecdote about answering a question posed by medical students on clipping an artery to treat an aneurysm. The students were of the opinion McEwan was a real doctor; he subsequently wondered how they got on in their exams! The research process for Saturday made him envious of the tightly-knit surgical team (or ‘firm’ as they call themselves) of people working together where an incoherent murmur can instigate an incredibly complicated procedure. Until today, I had never considered writing preparation as akin to method acting.

McEwan read English at Sussex University where he also studied French, and took a wide range of short courses in subjects such as International Relations. He was excited when he came across Kafka and Bruno Schulz as they were unlike anything he read in the English canon, enabling him to see literature as a conversation anyone can join in. 
Ovendon revealed that, besides writing novels, Ian McEwan has collaborated on screenwriting and music projects. For McEwan, screenplays are like writing novellas as it is necessary to establish characters quickly, but he divulged that screenwriting can also be a lonely experience. In the literary life, he finds, you do not really experience bad behaviour, whereas as a screenwriter, you must accept that you can very quickly get betrayed and sacked. Nonetheless, it seems Hollywood can be exhilarating in its ruthlessness! On the overlap between text and screen, McEwan says Joe Wright’s casting of Saoirse Ronan in Atonement was a stroke of genius and he can no longer read Briony without seeing Ronan. 
We were privileged to be given a first public reading of an excerpt from our speaker’s forthcoming novel, entitled The Children’s Act. Fiona, a High Court judge in the family division, has to make judgements on other people’s lives while her own marriage is disintegrating. Besides the messy business of ‘greedy husbands versus greedy wives’, concealing funds in foreign accounts, etc., Fiona must also adjudicate on complex cases such as whether to separate a set of conjoined twins, where the procedure would result in the death of one. The Children’s Act should make thought-provoking reading as it appears to tease out the contested territory between what is legal and what is moral. Appetites of McEwan fans are now whetted for this autumn’s literary harvest. 

In the final audience Q&A session, we heard that McEwan has a strong interest and belief in characters. Aware of what a ‘faulty machine memory is’, he likes to put the heat on characters to see how they remember and how characters use memory differently. We also learned that he reads his work aloud, as ears can check for rhythm and pick up unwanted rhyme. 

Finally, when bestowing the Bodley Medal, made from recycled copper from the Bodleian roof and bearing the inscription (translated from Latin) ‘The Eternity of the Republic of Letters’, on Ian McEwan, Richard Ovendon listed the many reasons for honouring our guest. They include his ability to shock, amuse and stimulate, his versatility, and his willingness to take risks. The resounding applause from the audience would have left Mr McEwan in no doubt that this award was richly deserved. 


March 27, 2014
Ben Crystal - The Once and Future Shakespeare - Thu 27th March

As someone who directs Shakespeare, acts Shakespeare, reviews Shakespeare and loves Shakespeare, it is always wonderful to encounter someone who lives and breathes Shakespeare with an absolute passion. Ben Crystal is one such person.

Working as a scholar and performer of the Bard, he has developed a formidable reputation for bringing a fresh approach to Shakespeare - not least in the field of Original Pronunciation (OP) which he has worked on extensively at the Globe and around the world, often in collaboration with his father, David.

I was excited to see his name appear on the list of events at the Literary Festival as it is great to see a practitioner working up close in an area that is very close to my own areas of work.

Sadly the event was only a partial success.

Firstly the acoustics in the Divinity School are dreadful. Ben, as the main speaker, was using a microphone - which meant we could hear most of what he said. However, the two actors he had brought with him to demonstrate a certain technique were not, and with the best will in the world (and a lot of straining) I was lucky to catch about 40% of what they said.

This is not the first time that the Divinity School has proven to be a difficult venue. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that it should no longer be used for speaker events - unless they put a lot more effort into the sound systems. It is deeply frustrating to go to a talk about language and performance and not to be able to hear it.
The other problem I had with the event is with the structure and format of the talk. Ben is a wonderful performer and a great advocate for his work of combining original performance techniques in a modern setting to help bring the language and drama of Shakespeare to life in a fresh way. However, he really does not feel at home in a presentation format. When he breaks out into demonstration, the room comes alive but he does appear to be a little uncomfortable when merely imparting his views.

I love the Crystal's approach to working with Shakespeare, and would love to be part of workshop or observe his work in the rehearsal room. Does it translate to a speaker event? Sadly not quite.


March 27, 2014
Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi talks to David Gilmour - A Biography Through Images - Tue 25th March

Don’t expect eruditeness from a Sicilian aristocrat, that’s the message of the evening. However, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s vignettes were sometimes amusing, sometimes waffle, sometimes incoherent. David Gilmour did his best to interject along the way, asking pertinent questions and steering the conversation like a British naval vessel in choppy Mediterranean waters. ‘The (Sicilian) aristocracy thrives on gossip' he tells us. Of how much interest Palermitan socialite chit-chat is to us several decades later at a literary festival in Oxford is debatable.

Given the fact that we are here to hear about his cousin and adopted father figure, that giant of Italian literature (his notoriety dependant on the one great opus he left us, The Leopard, first published in 1958) there is remarkably little about the man to report. A depressive, solitary figure in post-war bombed-out Palermo, a lover of literature, anglophile, living penniless in decaying ancestral palaces is the image presented to us. I would like to have known more about the person as well as the author, especially his views regarding the subject matter of The Leopard i.e. the end of the ‘belle epoque’ and the risorgimento in Italy. Lampedusa senior seems to have foreseen the coming of the Machiavellian Italian politician surmised in the Don Calogero Sedara character in the book. But what were his own political leanings given that he came of age in the time of Mussolini and the formation of post-war Christian Democracy?

Lampedusa Junior’s book, being sold at the princely sum of £23 on a table in the lecture hall, is given as a biography in images. Notably therefore, there seemed a distinct absence of any photographic evidence or images during this hour of talk. However charming his ramblings on ancestral figures and relatives, this lack of visual spectacle seemed a grave sin of omission. Overall, a little strangely given the combined knowledge of both Lampedusa and Gilmour, I left knowing little more about the author of The Leopard than I did on arrival.


March 27, 2014
Sebastian Barry talks to Dame Joan Bakewell - The Temporary Gentleman - Wed 26th March
In the Corpus Christi auditorium, multi-award-winning Irish novelist Sebastian Barry was interviewed by journalist and television presenter Dame Joan Bakewell about his latest book, The Temporary Gentleman. Barry is a much garlanded writer - two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture, were shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize – and also a popular one judging by the appreciative murmurs following his readings in the sell-out auditorium.
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I suspect Bakewell was as much of a draw as Barry. She is well known as the presenter of many BBC programmes, and for a being a fierce advocate for older women in the media and professional life. An experienced interviewer, she was a perfect foil (precise, unsentimental) for Barry (loquacious and Celtic). To paraphrase Barry there is talking, Irish talking and West Irish talking. He was beautiful to listen to as he explains the origins of his novels, largely drawn from his experiences growing up in a chaotic, disbanded family who loved and fought in equal measure. As he talked, it was difficult to distinguish between what were his childhood reminiscences and what was the plot of the book (and previous works) but his novels are not biography or autobiography, as became clear as he performed a couple of extracts.

The Temporary Gentleman follows the life of Jack McNulty, brother of Eneas and Tom (protagonists of previous Barry novels and his 12 plays), who finds himself washed up in Accra (now in Ghana) at the end of the Second World War. The title refers to Jack’s ambition to be a part of the officer class and remove himself from the prejudice accorded Irish people. Barry draws on the life and experiences of his grandfather, with whom he shared a bedroom when he was a lad. He described the book as though ‘written by his grandfather as a survival tactic’ and much of the story had to be imagined as the older man found it difficult to talk about his life to his family. Bakewell described it as a love story, but with two lovers determined to torture each other. Barry reminded us that Western Irish love is love experienced by people whose lives are lived in the rain. 

One of the fun things about the Festival is rubbing shoulders with the great and the good from the world of literature. Before I went into the talk I was standing in Corpus Christi’s walled garden full of sweet-smelling springtime flowers at the end of the entrance queue. Dame Joan urged me to go in front of her, as she was ‘part of the caberet’. I am pretty sure Philip Pulman was on the table next to me in the Jacobs and Field temporary café in the Bodleian quad (reached by negotiating the equipment from filming the latest episode of Lewis).

March 27, 2014
Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss - Magical Tales: Wolves and Volumes - Wed 26th March

Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss are both Oxford academics; Larrington is a fellow and tutor in Medieval English at St John’s College; Purkiss a fellow and English tutor at Keble College. Their joint talk was drawn from their research for Magical Tales, their book which accompanied last summer’s Bodleian exhibition, 'Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth'. Both are lively and well-informed speakers and the historic surroundings of Convocation House suited their subject matter.

As many people know from reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the medieval literature they studied in Oxford inspired the magical landscapes and mythic beings in their fiction. Larrington concentrated her contributions on the appearance of wolves as evil entities in The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Norse origins of a never-ending winter in these books and also the works of Alan Garner (specifically The Wierdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath). She explained how wolves and the Great Winter are powerful protagonists in Old Norse mythology and can be found in many guises in children's and adult books, films and popular TV series. Readers familiar with this genre will particularly enjoy spotting references in their favourite works and added insight to the quests undertaken by a long line of reluctant heroes starting with Bilbo, through David (in Eight Days of Luke) and coming up to the present day in works by Philip Pullman and George R. R. Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire, inspiration for Game of Thrones).

Purkiss gave us glimpse into Tolkien, Garner, Lewis and Pullman as craftsmen, asking how one gets from a blank page to a published novel. Heavy and extensive rewriting seems to be the answer and some of her knowledge is gained from handwritten original manuscripts (although Lewis’ habbit of destroying his first drafts once his brother had typed them up must make academics grind their teeth). It was delightful to learn that Strider (Aragorn) was Trotter, a hobbit with wooden clogs, in an early draft, and that Tolkien recalled meeting Strider at the Inn at the same time as Frodo. She explored the premise that we all have a library inside from which we can draw; our library can be built up from childhood reading or further academic study, but either way it is there as an internal reference service to be used consciously or unconsciously when writing stories. Lewis et al, she thinks, are all examples of ‘discovery’ writers, authors who put pen to a blank sheet of paper/new word document/blank tablet screen and set off on a journey as mysterious as the myths themselves. Not for them the formal outline, plot points and character biogs advocated by some creative writing courses.

As a post-war school child I am less familiar with the names of Norse heroes and villains. Larrington explained that stories of Loki and Odin would have been familiar to early 20th century school children, but the Nazi love of this mythology meant it fell out of favour in mainstream education. It would have been nice to record some specific references from Norse mythology, but unfortunately the acoustics in the Convocation House (a wonderfully atmospheric hall in the Bodleian complex) are not great for lectures – a bit fuzzy.


March 27, 2014
Jamie Davies - Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself - 26th March 2014

Have you ever wondered why your left leg is the same length as your right leg? This was just one of the intriguing questions posed by Jamie Davies, Professor of Experimental Anatomy at Edinburgh University who was in Oxford to talk about his new book, Life Unfolding.

The book, which is aimed firmly at a popular science audience, looks at how something as simple as a newly fertilised egg develops into the complexity of a newborn baby.

Professor Davies began by explaining that the concept of a “genetic blueprint” containing a grand plan of the “finished product” was misleading and unhelpful. Instead, he invited us to consider the world of “molecular machines”. In this scenario, individual proteins send random chemical messages which generate feedback, change and growth – changes in the biochemical environment eventually bring the process to a halt or trigger a new process. Rather than our bodies developing through one large continuous process, they develop through lots of small discrete ones.

Understanding the ability of cells to organise themselves is already providing important information that may make it possible to grow new organs to replace damaged ones and we learnt that Professor Davies’ team has already done some basic work on growing kidney cells. Exciting stuff.

Life Unfolding was a reminder that there is much more to the Literary Festival than wine tasting and people discussing their latest novel. The opportunity to come face-to-face with leading experts, to hear about their work at first hand and to ask questions is one of the real joys of the week.


March 24, 2014
John Carey talks to Peter Kemp - The Unexpected Professor - Sat 22nd March

Emeritus Professor John Carey entertained a packed audience at the Blue Boar Theatre at the first of this year’s Oxford Literary Festival events. He certainly does not come across as a stuffy academic, rather more as a congenial, witty, engaging man – one you would love to have as a dinner party guest. Peter Kemp introduced his colleague by documenting the many books penned, from monographs on Milton, Dickens, Thackeray, Donne and Golding; edited anthologies; to literary criticism and appreciation, including the popular Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. As well as having had a successful academic career, becoming the Merton Professor of English at only 40; been Man Booker Prize judge; Carey is chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times; and is an avid beekeeper.

Today we gathered to hear about his latest publication, a memoir titled The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life. The first question posed by Kemp was ‘why write an autobiography?’ Carey felt that as he had read ‘quite a lot of important books’, that writing about his life through books would be more relevant than a suggestion by publishers that he write a narrative on having ‘met quite a lot of important people’ or a book on the history of English literature. 

He described the great emptiness when there’s ‘just me’ to write about as there are no quotations to draw on as when writing biographies. He surprised and amused the audience by telling us that a lot of biography is ‘made up’. Equally, he admitted that a lot of autobiography is fiction because he discovered from discussions with his sister that we have different memories of the same event. The Unexpected Professor developed from looking at his life through old photographs, conversing with his sister and searching for parts where he and books interrelated. He was interested in why he liked certain things and how he, as a particular reader, had been produced. Having a severely disabled brother had a strong limitation on his life and may also be reflected in his book choices; he has a visceral hatred of Don Quixote, a supposedly amusing book about a person who has gone mad. He recommended that we do not read it!

We heard anecdotes about living through the blitz as a child in Barnes, a move to rural Nottinghamshire, possibly because of young Carey asking his father ‘Are we dead yet?’, his first hopeless-student experience at grammar school when he was put on ‘daily report’, and his ‘rescue’ by Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, a book recommended by a teacher. A move back to London was transformative in many ways, changing the former boy who used to pray for his stuffed animals at night to one who lost his faith, though he remained a choir boy - because he was paid! Carey thrived at his new grammar school, learning Latin, French and English, and was encouraged to apply for an open scholarship to Oxford. He bemoans the destruction of the grammar school system where, unlike public schools, pupils were selected on merit rather than on wealthy background. Carey wryly commented on the contrast between the austere atmosphere at his own Oxford entrance exams to today’s students being welcomed with placards, balloons and paramedics! The professor also regaled us with stories about his military service, from the initial medical test that presumed his testicles ‘were A1’, his mishandling of armaments, to being referred to by a major as a ‘vicious little bastard’ for his overenthusiastic, if under-skilled performance in a fencing match.

Carey confirmed that he sees a similarity between authoring books and reviewing for newspapers. He was keen to write books that people would like to read as so much literary criticism was, in his opinion, unreadable. He believes that English scholars could learn a lot by doing newspaper reviews.

In the Q & A session afterwards, Carey refused to be drawn on scandal and gossip in Oxford academia. However, he did admit that Oxford is ‘a strange place’, the independent collegiate system makes it difficult when trying to run a faculty, and trying to convince academics to lecture on the syllabus rather than on their own interests proves challenging. 

This festival event was really enjoyable; Peter Kemp is a cogent yet unobtrusive interviewer and John Carey a wonderful raconteur. The audience could have listened for hours and the queue for the new book suggests many looked forward to further revelations. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the professor’s desert-island book choice would be The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell.

March 24, 2014
Peter Snow - When Britain Burned the White House - Sat 22nd March 

I was fortunate enough to be given my ticket to this event at the last-minute, and since it wasn’t a talk I would necessarily have chosen to go to, history not being a strong subject of mine, I’m very glad I decided to broaden my horizons, and go along anyway.

From start to finish, Peter was animated, enthusiastic and very humorous about the subject of his most recent book, When Britain Burned The White House. It was clear that he had enjoyed researching and writing the book, and indeed he confirmed that it was tremendous fun when asked about it in the Q&A session. I was completely enthralled for the entire hour; in fact, an hour wasn’t long enough – I could have listened to him talk about the entire history of the British military.  Not a subject I would choose to study, but if Peter Snow had been my History teacher at school, I’d have certainly learnt a lot more than I did.

As well as his entertaining talk, we were treated to a slideshow of maps and portraits and artists impressions of the main players and scenes involved in the little-known events of the 1814 battle between Britain and America, combined with diary entries and first-hand accounts, which further brought the encounter to life.

The story is an interesting one – I mean, seriously – British troops managed to just walk on in and burn the White House (not before sitting down and scoffing the dinner the First Lady had requested be prepared in the optimistic belief that America would win). Even if you aren’t lucky enough to see Peter Snow talk about it at future literary events, I’d definitely recommend buying the book – I’m excited about reading my copy, and that’s something I’d never thought I’d say about a fact-based history book!


March 24, 2014
Amanda Jane-Doran and Andrew McCarthy - Beauty, Duty and Trench Coats: Advertisements from the Great War - Sun 23rd March

Isn’t the Oxford Literary Festival wonderful? I arrived this morning to find that my Ghanaian author was, very sadly, indisposed but would I like to go to something else? What I was offered as a substitute was a talk about advertising in the Great War. Why not? And it was fascinating. The co-authors of The Huns have got my Gramophone, Amanda-Jane Doran and Andrew McCarthy, took us through the advertising that appeared in magazines such as Punch and the Illustrated London News during the war. Some of the illustrators were also illustrators for the magazine itself so advertisements could be mistaken for illustrated news. These advertisements ranged from items aimed at the families at home (buy a trench coat, a periscope, a fountain pen, tobacco for your man at the front) to undergarments for women who were, by 1915, actively being encouraged to join the war effort in a variety of ways. Did you know that both Aquascutum and Burberry made heavy duty coats at this time (though the word trench coat was first coined by Threshers) and that Burberry’s gabardine coats were used by Shackleton and other polar explorers? However Burberry himself, a fervent Christian, was so horrified that his coats were being used in the war that he gave all the money he made during the war to charity. Excellent speakers: very enthusiastic and willing to chat afterwards, but they stuck to their timings and answered questions concisely and precisely.


March 24, 2014
John Campbell - Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life - Sun 23rd March
An overview by John Campbell of the life of Roy Jenkins (Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life) and his significance on the political scene of the second half of the twentieth century. Mr Campbell knows his subject well and likes him too, warts and all. He is not actually sure whether Jenkins really was the best prime minister we never had but he believes Jenkins was a hugely important figure whose life illuminates the way politics changed during that period. For instance, in his first brief spell as Labour Home Secretary, Jenkins legalised both homosexuality between consenting adults and abortion; he brought in the first race relations act and the first sex discrimination act; and he modernised and changed the police forces around the country. Campbell believes that Jenkins’ spell outside British politics as President of the European Commission, frustrating though that job was, gave him a chance to step back and see things differently. When he came back, he was instrumental in setting up the new SDP (Scottish Democratic Party). He had an active parliamentary career for 55 years and was Chancellor of Oxford University from 1987 until his death. On top of this, he read voraciously and wrote tirelessly – two major biographies, articles, book reviews etc.

March 24, 2014
Jesmyn Ward talks to Jewell Parker Rhodes - Men We Reaped - Sun 23rd March
An emotionally charged conversation between Jesmyn Ward and Jewell Parker Rhodes, both African American women from the American deep south.  Ms Rhodes took Ms Ward through some of the defining moments of her childhood: her strong mother struggling to feed her children; her time at school (what it was like to be the only black child in an all-white school); the death of her brother. Jesmyn Ward’s new book is a memoir called The Men We Reaped, written after her brother died in a car accident (the drunk white driver in the other car was never prosecuted); it is about being black in America and what it was and is like growing up in Mississippi which, in her words, is always ‘dead last’ in everything. 23% of black Mississippians live below the poverty line is one statistic she quoted. Yet she has moved back to Mississippi, partly because it is a beautiful place but partly too because she wants to show that being black and being a woman does not stop you from making something of yourself. When she read the piece from her memoir about when her brother died, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the house.

March 24, 2014
Anita Shreve talks to Paul Blezard - The Lives of Stella Bain - Sun 23rd March

Having read a few of Anita Shreve’s novels over the last few years, I was looking forward to her talk with Paul Blezard. Plus it gave me an excuse to go and buy her latest book The Lives of Stella Bain which I devoured within a couple of days, and then was inevitably disappointed that I hadn’t stretched it out to last a bit longer.

During the interview Shreve admitted to being terrified of such events, and stated that she much preferred the solitary occupation of writing, but Blezard’s interview technique was perfect in finding a way of making her feel comfortable while also getting her to open up, not only about her writing, but about her life. He was humorous and occasionally self-deprecating, but always interested and engaging.

I would never have known Shreve was nervous, had she not mentioned it. She was eloquent in her responses, and always candid. Even when talking about her personal life. We heard how a previous husband had responded when she said, as a young journalist, that she wanted to write a novel (something along the lines of ‘don’t you need to be intelligent to write a novel?’), how she first met her current husband when she was 13, but they were unable to stay in touch, and when he did contact her, it was the day after she got married. We also heard how she became so absorbed in her writing one day, that after hours passing she suddenly remembered ‘I have a baby!’ and dashed off to make sure she was ok (fortunately, she was!).

Of course, she also talked about her novels. Blezard did a quick survey of how many people had read her most recent novel, and since not everyone had, she didn’t want to go into too much detail, for fear of spoiling it. We were treated to a reading of the first few pages, and some interesting discussion on how her research into the subject of shell-shock victims involved in World War I provided no information on women who may also have suffered from it.

There was a lot of discussion around one of her most famous novels The Pilot’s Wife which has sold over 4 million copies alone. She animatedly described the day she got the phone call from Oprah Winfrey telling her she was adding it to her book club list. She can remember even the smallest details of that day, up until the point that Oprah said ‘Its Oprah here. I love your book’; after that it was all a bit of a hectic blur, and understandably so.

The way she described her writing was with a quiet, but obvious passion; how she comes up with characters and plot (or how they come to her), how a house she has seen can be transplanted into several of her novels, in different eras, different incarnations, but always that particular house. I left the event inspired not only to read all of her novels, but also to try and get on with writing one of my own.


March 24, 2014
Graham Robb - The Ancient Paths - Sat 22nd March

“This is the type of book usually written by a lunatic” admits Graham Robb to the literary festival audience. His latest work, The Ancient Paths, chronicles an unorthodox journey across Europe. Robb, a noted biographer of Hugo and Balzac, has previously written about his bicycle travels off the beaten track (2007’s The Discovery of France). Yet this new attempt to trace the routes of the ancients Celts sees him making claims for tracks which many doubt ever existed.

Robb’s project, it become clear through his talk, is about more than just locating the Celtic ‘Heraclean Way’. He is determined to rescue Celtic peoples from the stereotype of half-naked illiterate barbarians, swigging undiluted wines. This, Rob argues, was Roman propaganda. Rather, the Celts were skilled surveyors, with a complex civilization – and road-building expertise.

The literary festival audience do not wholly accept these claims. Their questions probe Robb further (is this project not akin to the craze for ley-line hunting?) and he is careful to stress the importance of coincidence. Writing the book taught him that the crazed can find patterns where none exist. Nevertheless, though Robb ultimately could not prove that all the roads existed, nor could he disprove the theory that the Celts had mapped and travelled large swathes of the continent.

The strengths of Robb’s talk are the same as those of his written prose: evocative description, overlooked stories, evidence of extensive research. He clarifies a number of complex points in the book and laughs when an American member of the audience holds up her US edition, titled The Discovery of Middle Earth. If he is a lunatic, he is one with a wry sense of humour – and a superb eye for detail. 

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