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Oxford Festival of the Arts 2016

July 18, 2016
Proust, Plosives and the Power of the Poetic

Ben Okri, novelist, poet and now interviewer of Jeremy Corbyn certainly divides opinion with his work, but tonight young and old unite in front of him as part of Oxford Festival of the Arts. This Man Booker Prize-winner is distinctly unstarry, here sharing stage-time and conversation with unknown poets, yet his use of language, and articulation of its power, are truly stellar.

On this warm evening, Okri greeted audience members outside the glorious church of St John the Evangelist, as sweeping arches and ornate inscriptions greeted us within. The first half of the programme boasted readings by young Oxfordshire poets, competition-winners from the ages of 8 to 21. From Caitlyn Wright's imaginings of Rome's Colosseum and Archie Street's illustration of a just-discovered earthly paradise, to harder-hitting vignettes on homelessness and paralysing self-doubt, these poets produced work as absorbing to read as they were to hear. Meredith Graham approached the competition's theme of 'place' novelly by setting up her internal world as the poem's location, and personifying the inimical fear as a sly persecutor.

Coral Dalitz's 00.10 - London - December 5th most successfully plonked us listeners into its chosen location with observational humour, the bustle of that scene mirrored in its flurry of images and layout on the page. By contrast, the place I'd most like to inhabit was Heather Burke's languid exploration Where I Choose to Rest with its natural and metaphysical reminiscences of Whitman and The Prelude. In evoking the impact of place and memory on a poet, Thomas Thanassoulis and Samuel Usayd Ilyas had marvellous impact. The former contrasted impressionistic diary entries with exploration of the unknown, and the latter's Proust's Samosa masterfully showed the persistence of memory and how sense can unlock those temps perdu. Several of these themes were picked up by Okri post-interval.

Our most garlanded poet of the evening is one whose conversation is inescapably poetic and whose poetry has the fluency of conversation. Thus it is a blessing to have an interviewer whom Okri considers a friend, enabling him to move from autobiography to philosophy to poem without fearing his train of thought might leave our host at the station. He appears marvellously idealistic about what communication can achieve - indeed, far from seeing it as a written thing, Okri widens poetry's definition to encompass the sung lyric and the public oration: resonance makes communication into poetry. If ever there was an edifice suitable for such talk of 'word become flesh', it is this reverberant place, the very writing on whose ceiling exhorts all creation to lift up praise.

Touching on the poet's job and challenges imposed by the education system, Okri suggests a method of 'long-looking', of considering one's subject for enough time that rote-learnt evaluations and other people's connotations can be erased. As he speaks about the value of a unique view, I realise the thick crop of spectators in front of me has been obscuring the poet's face. Fortunately, Okri's hands are great communicators: through my small window of visibility, I see that his left hand cradles the book as he reads, and his right dances, points and suggests.

One suggestion is that poetry is sadly distinct from current political discourse, because one opens the mind to possibilities and the other aims to win listeners to a particular viewpoint. Okri has heard the two combine, though not since the early days of Obama - he remains hopeful that the twain shall meet again. Appropriately, the opinions of the poet were not the only ones on offer - Okri requested questions, thoughts and examples from the audience throughout, genuinely inspired by the shouted extracts from Keats and Bob Marley, and eager to hear again from the prize-winning young poets. Beyond discussing the power of the plosive, of rhythm and education, it is the inclusivity of his vision and his sense of poetry's ubiquity that makes the evening so truly inspiring.

July 1, 2016
John Simpson - Oxford Festival of the Arts

John Simpson is a towering figure among BBC journalists, in more ways than one. Born in 1944, he joined the BBC in September 1966 and has been working for that organisation ever since, often sending reports from the most troubled places in the world. I remember seeing him in Zimbabwe when the BBC was not supposed to be reporting there – and a more distinctive figure I could not imagine!

However, he chose to start with this troubled place, the UK, on the day that Boris Johnson told the world he was not standing as a candidate for Prime Minister. John said that he had done a stint in Westminster in the 1980s and had felt 'imprisoned' but just today he wished he could have been there. He was in Brussels when the UK signed the first treaty so he has been involved from the start. He was open about his views – Theresa May the most successful Home Secretary ever so the best candidate; Boris Johnson just a reporter and chaotic; Michael Gove also formerly a reporter, so also not a good candidate.

He did then move on to his foreign assignments, which he obviously still enjoys. The BBC has more or less told him that he can go on for as long as he likes. He feels that ISIS are running out of steam: they are no longer landowners (they have lost Fallujah, which was key to their operations), so they are relying on creating a climate of fear. However, they have also killed several journalists to make examples of them and by so doing they have changed all the rules for journalists. The Taliban were easier to work among: John never felt in real physical danger there.

He likes to go somewhere about once a month and write a report if he can. The restrictions are mostly about money although safety does also come into it. He was asked which places he liked and he said that Palmyra is beautiful (and most of the ruins are thousands of years old, not recent!). He also advocated Iran as a wonderful place to go for a holiday – safe, with friendly people.

He came back in the end (through a question) to the UK: he said he hoped the government would behave as a rich government should, but he was adamant that the prestige and standing of the UK worldwide had been dealt a body blow from which it would take a long time to recover.

Oxford Festival of the Arts is in its 8th year and aims 'to offer creative and cultural experiences for Oxford's diverse communities . . . . with a colourful mix of music, literature, theatre, art, speaker events, workshops and much more'. As I left the marquee, John was signing copies of his latest book and I did wonder how this differed from the Oxford Literary Festival. I am sure, though, there is room for both in Oxford.

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