Oxford Literary Festival 2016

The festival is back in Oxford with hundreds of distinguished speakers and special events for children.

Various venues, Sat 2nd April - Sun 10th April 2016

April 19, 2016
James Mayhew and Alexander Ardakov on Tchaikovsky: border-line magical, on point and imaginative

James Mayhew and Alexander Ardakov

Tchaikovsky's Piano Suite The Seasons: Live Storytelling, Art and Music

Sunday 3rd April

This family-friendly event of the Oxford Literary Festival aimed to bring to life an incidental composition by Tchaikovsky through artworks being created in 'concert' with (boom boom) a solo piano performance. Award-winning illustrator and children's book-writer Mayhew is great at this, immune to pressure and sensitive to the tone of the source material. Further events are planned for later in the year around the country, featuring his visual fantasias on music by Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and others.

Mayhew's tactic of adding lines to the epigrams that opened each piece added clarity to and fleshed out their original forms

The music came courtesy of Alexander Ardakov, experienced recording artist & Moscow Philharmonia graduate, who gave the audience the impression his work was effortless, as the best musicians do. The chapel already had a borderline magical atmosphere. After hearing concerts in the Holywell, though, its acoustic seemed somehow harsh and the sound, a little diffuse. But Ardakov was on point, and the focus was on the art - all of us in Exeter College chapel's pews saw the scenes take shape via projector.

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons is a series of twelve short pieces for solo piano written by commission. Its episodic nature makes it ideal for children's attention spans, and you can see how the conceit of characterising each month (month, not season, Pyotr) in an epigrammed piece recommended itself for Mayhew's purposes. His imaginative responses to the originals seemed to be rounding-out/completing them rather than providing distraction. January was represented by a fireplace: the shapes inside it begin as flames, but soon become cupolas. In February's 'Teatro', Petrushka turned up! St Petersberg featured a couple of times too, and the figures depicted had a doll-like, pathetic quality - characterful and akin to Russian folk art.

Mayhew's tactic of adding lines to the epigrams that opened each piece added clarity to and fleshed out their original forms - but these still didn't have maximum impact with the (especially younger) children. Many sat mesmerised by his artworks taking shape, but more could've been enthralled by a different approach to their verbal introductions.

The concert ended with a surprising free raffle of the paintings! I in my child-free state was relieved not to have been embarrassed by winning, but parents and children were delighted to have these mementos of a thoroughly charming afternoon.

April 7, 2016
Sophie Hannah, David Mark and Sarah Hilary talk about the origins of their detectives

Finding your own Detective
Sophie Hannah, David Mark and Sarah Hilary speak to Paul Blezard
Wednesday 6th April 2016

Panel talks work well for genre fiction: I'd be willing to bet there were people who came into the talk today as Sophie Hannah fans, but came out as Sarah Hilary and David Mark fans too. All three authors came across as thoughtful and interested, as well as interesting. It's almost worrying how balanced and irreverent most crime writers seem, as if writing the dark stuff is very cathartic and good for you. And, as evidenced by brave souls responding to chair Paul Blezard's question, there were writers in the audience too. Blezard was a good chair, even-handed and well-researched, checking that the audience were engaged and happy for him to follow his line of questioning and to hear the authors read their own work.

The questions weren't especially controversial, starting with how the characters came to the authors, and how they behave. Hilary said Marnie Rome began as a bit-part in another story, and began to do her own thing, rebelling against what Hilary had planned for her. Mark described Aector McAvoy as the difference between success and failure - having a heroic hero meant there was a ray of light in his novels, and meant that his McAvoy series has been popular from the first. Sophie Hannah wanted a genius detective who knows he's right, in the style of Sherlock Holmes, but transplanted into modern crime fiction, hence Simon Waterhouse who is annoyingly right, but too obstinate to rise above the rank of DC. But her stories are narrated by a female character whose life is being affected by the crime, rather than the recurring police characters.

One of the most interesting strands of the talk was about sexism. It began with a question about whether any crimes were off limits to write about. Mark pointed out whatever he could think up there would be something worse in the news (and as a former crime reporter he knows something about this). But he felt he wouldn't personally write the lone-female-in-jeopardy novel, partly because he felt as a male writer he wouldn't be welcome in that territory. The group then got to talking about readers' backlash about so many of the victims of crime in fiction being female. Hannah's latest book The Narrow Bed is about the feminist claiming of misogynist motives, in this case obscuring the police investigation. She feels that with the internet allowing so many opinions to be heard it's a race to define a crime now. Should the murder of a number of sex-workers be described as that, or as a number of women? If they were chiropodists we would certainly feel their profession as well as their sex had marked them out.

I've seen Sophie Hannah at a number of talks over the years, and she's risen through the ranks from a lively outsider to a doyenne of the genre, as exemplified by her taking on Christie's mantle and increasing the Poirot canon. I have a sneaking suspicion that outsider suited her maverick nature better, but with the passing of PD James and Ruth Rendell I guess we need someone to take over, and if it's an articulate, intelligent, true believer in the genre who is generous about promoting other writers too, then so much the better.

Personally, I am really getting into David Mark's novels about gentle Scottish giant of a detective, Aector. His stories are unusually written in the present tense, giving you a sense of immediacy, a feeling of riding shotgun round the mean streets of Hull. For how to pronounce Aector's name, and plenty of insights into his characters, his stories and his dislike of faffing about do listen to our Oxcast Extra interview with David Mark.

April 5, 2016
Winter is Coming: Garry Kasparov on Vladimir Putin

Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped
Garry Kasparov introduced by John Thornhill
Sunday 3rd
April 2016

Russia's been on my radar lately, what with the marvellous TV adaptation of War and Peace earlier this year, lots of Tchaikovsky performances, and darker things like the Litvinenko ruling, a BBC Panorama documentary about Vladimir Putin's secret riches, and a terribly written but gripping new Russian spy thriller by a former CIA officer. So when I heard that former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an ardent opponent of the Russian president, was to speak at the Oxford Literary Festival, I was curious to know what he might add to this heady mix.

I do enjoy the OxLitFest, and after a while of reviewing talks at the Sheldonian I have noticed some recurring themes, including the somewhat haphazard queuing and seating arrangements, and those dastardly, lumbago-inducing benches suitable only for tall people. However, all tends to be forgotten when the speaker comes on.

Dressed in a dark grey jacket with light grey trousers, and sporting a red tie, Garry Kasparov stepped onto the stage somewhat hesitantly, but after a while came into his own, standing straighter and using his hands to gesticulate, sometimes wildly. Kasparov has a gravelly, sibilant voice, which does not amplify clearly over a microphone; as a result, I found it difficult to hear some of what he was saying, which will affect what I have to say next.

The title of his book, Winter is Coming, comes from the Game of Thrones novels, of which he's a huge fan. It refers to seasonal shifts in world history and is essentially a criticism of the failure of the Free World (not just the West, he emphasises – although the two are frequently interchanged) to curtail Vladimir Putin, whom he posits is the greatest threat both to the Free World and his own people.

According to Kasparov the Free World, which in his mind includes political pundits as well as state leaders, made a succession of errors when dealing with Putin. Some of these were exposed nicely today through anecdotes and humorous quips. Weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Kasparov, the West was talking about "a new era of US-Soviet relations". The end of the Cold War therefore knocked them for six, and they had no plan for what to do next. The next source of his disgust is the G8 meeting in 2006, where Russian inclusion was "a masterpiece for Russian propaganda", as Putin could now bolster his credibility back home by being surrounded by the leaders of the Free World. Finally, Kasparov recounts a time when George Bush met Putin, looked into his eyes, and apparently saw his soul. "You're not a psychiatrist!" he cries, with a mixture of passion and exasperation, "Don't look at his eyes, look at his record!".

Make no mistake, Kasparov is also scathing about the Russian dictator, likening him to the kind of creature that can survive in a dry desert – the dry desert being an analogy for a country devoid of political systems because they have been deliberately hacked away by an autocrat desperate to hold onto power. When asked whether politics is like chess, he quips that chess is about fixed moves and unpredictable results, and that Putin's Russia is exactly the reverse. He says that corruption is no longer a problem in Russia because it has become part of the system, and even goes as far as to say that he "can't criticise any action that has led to the demise of a dictatorship." I wonder how he has managed to protect himself and his family from incarceration, or worse. Although he is currently living in exile in the US, being out of Russia doesn't always help, as the London polonium trail will attest to. As John Thornhill (who, sadly, didn't say much today) pointed out, being a critic of Putin is "not an occupation for the fainthearted".

Kasparov's perspective is as black-and-white as a chessboard: of course Russia was going to invade Ukraine, of course the economy was going to collapse, of course Putin is behind any conflict that helps to divide Europe. I can't tell how much of this prescience was formed at the time, and how much developed with hindsight; if the former, then his current I told you so vibe seems appropriate, and he must be very frustrated that no one listened.

However, Kasparov didn't expand much on Putin's motivations, including his penchant for a lavish lifestyle and his connections with oligarchs, or give details about what's going wrong domestically and how exactly Putin is linked with strife abroad. Putin's heinousness is assumed, rather than explained. In response to an audience question we learned that Russia is allegedly fuelling ISIS and Putin is benefitting from the terrorist attacks and migration crisis in Europe. But we didn't hear any specific solutions about what the Free World can do to stop this (or about the Free World's own complex interests and struggles), nor were we given a glimpse of promising alternatives to Putin's leadership.

Talks like this usually serve to whet the appetite and encourage the listener to read or engage further. I enjoyed the personal elements and narrative in today's talk but – unusually - I wanted clearer exposition and analysis of the issues. I think the whole thing could have worked better as a fireside chat, both in terms of acoustics and because it raised more questions than answers, warranting a proper conversation.That said, it was a privilege to hear an important voice of the Russian zeitgeist, who shared with us his hopes, frustrations, and love for his country in a profoundly human way.

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