Oxford Literary Festival 2015

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

Various venues, Sat 21 March - Sun 29 March 2015


March 25, 2015

Bitcoin: The Future of Money? - Dominic Frisby - Oxford Martin School. Tue 24 March

Remember those oft-quoted figures of how much you could have made if you'd bought Apple stock instead of an iPod Original? Your $399 2001 investment would now be worth about $40,000. Not bad. Now imagine that you'd put just $1 into bitcoin in 2009. In four years you could have made $2m, and many made much more.

These are the kinds of stories that first brought bitcoin to the headlines in 2013, introduced us to new vocabulary like cryptocurrency and fresh applications of older terms, like mining. There were strange tales of hyperinflation of a digital peer-to-peer currency, the protocol for which was created by an unidentified enigma known only as Satoshi Nakamoto, with the currency trading for tens of millions of dollars every day on an exchange first set up to swap Magic the Gathering fantasy game cards. This was the column inch-worthy breakout of a then four year old financial protocol that was taking the online Wild West by storm. But this is not what Dominic Frisby is interested in as he gives his talk at the Oxford Martin School. Certainly Bitcoin has a weird and interesting short history and genesis - technically, politically and socially - but what's really exciting are the every-day applications of a technologically intricate but essentially simple system of digital cash, and the potentially middle man-free financial future to which we can all look forward.

Frisby offers in his new book and his talk at the Martin School, an accessible Bitcoin 101 and an intriguing whodunit in his search for the fabled Bitcoin founder. He starts by reassuring us that you don't need to understand something in order to be able to use it; much like cars, the internet, and the banking system, you don't need to be a Bitcoin expert to trade in digital currency. Terms like blockchain and online wallets are as baffling to most of us now as www. or @ were in the early 90s, but will be similarly familiar in years to come.

Frisby clarifies the important differences between Bitcoin with a capital B - a protocol or means of transfer, in this case of pieces of now-valuable digital code - and bitcoin with a little b - the name of the unit of the digital currency. He explains how the invention of Bitcoin has solved the problem of double spending without the requirement of a middle man. It means that we can make digital payments to anywhere in the world with total control of privacy of the transaction, with no fee. It's like being able to hand someone 10,000 miles away a tenner. It has been estimated that if bitcoin had been used in place of traditional currencies for means of international sales and transfers in 2013, users would have saved $200bn in fees.

All bitcoin transactions are secured on the blockchain, a permanent public ledger showing which bitcoins go where, and when. The rules for the creation of new currency are written into the open source code of the protocol, so that no individual or central body can ever choose to 'print' more money and devalue the currency. In an age of widespread quantitative easing policy, this kind of trust is a powerful asset of the young currency. There will (almost certainly) never be more than 21 million bitcoins in existence. This disintermediation of governments and banks from the process of creating money is the reason why the idea of bitcoin and other alt-coins has so many fans, from Marxists to Libertarians.

Frisby goes on to suggest some of the potential areas of valuable exploitation of the Bitcoin protocol. With a permanent and open record of every transaction recorded on the public ledger of the blockchain, areas of auditing, accounting and insurance will become dramatically easier and more transparent. The basis of the Bitcoin protocol is also now being developed to be used as a platform for private and un-tappable communication and messaging. In the same way that bitcoin gives you the freedom and privacy of cash in your transactions, communications could once again become as secure as pen and paper. Digital currency could have a fiercely catalytic effect on the economies of developing nations. 50% of the world's population currently have no access to financial services, creating a barrier to progress. But with digital currency, the world's 6.3bn mobile users need only an internet connection in order to spend, lend, borrow and grow.

The fun bit of the Bitcoin saga that Frisby focuses on towards the end of his talk, is the story of his claimed unveiling of Satoshi Nakamoto's true identity. He explains one of the first clues that he followed on Satoshi's trail, a supposed Easter egg relating to a date of birth on website user account. On the P2P foundation website sign up, Satoshi gave 'his' birth date as 5th April 1975. This, Frisby claims, is not an insignificant date. 5th April 1933 was the date on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102. This was a presidential order banning the hoarding of gold as currency by American citizens and required the trade of gold back to the government for which dollars would be received in return. With the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 the US Treasury then changed the value of gold from $20.67 per ounce to $35 per ounce, in so doing devaluing the population's cash dollars by 40%, and reducing the Depression-plundered national debt by 40% as well. This was seen by some as a colossal unconstitutional theft from the workers' pocket of hundreds of billions of dollars. A few years after Nixon abandoned the gold standard in the US, Americans were once again finally allowed to legally own and trade gold, from 1975. Dominic Frisby says that the significance of choosing to associate with this date was key in his eventual tracking down of Nakamoto, and this story sets up what promises to be a thrilling man hunt in Bitcoin: The Future of Money?

It might be a few years yet until we're all using cryptocurrencies to buy our groceries, and it may not be Bitcoin that ultimately dominates, but with over 100,000 retailers now accepting digital currencies, including multi-billion dollar internationals like Dell, Expedia and Microsoft, things are moving too far and too fast to be ignored. Now that Virgin Galactic are accepting bookings in bitcoin, the sky's not even the limit anymore. As Dominic Frisby puts it, "the revolution will not be televised, it will be cryptographically secured on the blockchain".


March 30, 2015

Peter Conrad talks to Peter Aspden: How the World was Won: the Americanization of Everywhere

Peter Conrad talking to the FT’s Peter Aspden covered everything from Elvis to envy – how we loved and hated America in equal measure.

Seeing two of the greatest contemporary cultural commentators together was like opening a giant Easter cracker: all kinds of fun tumbled out. Tales we could tell, jokes we could recount – the crumpled paper hat was forgotten in the glittering cascade of wit and earthiness.

The flow never faltered, and if one paused for breath, the other reignited the fuse – and bang! The Divinity School exploded in a blaze of pyrotechnics, which shed light on our lives and times.

The flow never faltered, and if one paused for breath, the other reignited the fuse – and bang!

Conrad’s book How the World was Won: the Americanization of Everywhere tests his long American love affair through an outsider’s eyes. Australian by birth, Conrad’s first experience of American power was the Headmaster’s use of the school tannoy to announce that Russia was withdrawing its missiles from Cuba. Later announcements included the assassination of Kennedy – although the regular use was to broadcast the winner of the Melbourne Cup, on whom the staff had a sweepstake.

Arriving in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, the occasion was marked by a group photograph with his peers. Conrad stood next to a tall American who laconically suggested Conrad visit him at home in Little Rock, Arkansas. ‘And I don’t mean it as a French invitation’, the American added, enigmatically. 20 year later Conrad thought he ‘vaguely recognised’ a Presidential Primary candidate. It was Bill Clinton - the same. When the Sunday Times Insight team approached Conrad for dirt, he was able to state that not only had they both inhaled, but also kicked a police horse in the shins in London at an anti-Vietnam march.

On a road trip to America soon afterwards, Conrad and his ‘long haired friends’ had their car towed away in Chicago by Native Americans running an extortion scam. When Conrad protested and threatened to call the police, one of the gang hailed a passing police car. ‘They took ours last week’, the policeman replied. On the road again, the group reached Richmond, St Croix County, Wisconsin, only to run out of town by a posse including the sheriff and preacherman. In San Francisco, the group bivouacked in the Tenderloin district, in an hotel with rooms for $1 a day. When Conrad protested the rooms were unlocked, the hotelier observed that residents of this establishment had nothing to steal. Colliding with an inebriated Janis Joplin in NYC’s Chelsea hotel – where merely stepping into the lift could give you a pot high – this trip left Conrad exhilarated.

‘It was the same excitement which might have taken me to Syria, to join Isis’, Conrad said.

Contrasting the French disdain for all things American – despite the country’s liberation by American and British soldiers after WW2 – Conrad described the absurd lengths French intellectuals and artists would go to denigrate American popular culture. Jean Paul Sartre refused to eat a sandwich, Jean Cocteau recoiled against water flowing from a tap, preferring the old method of well drawing, and Simone de Beauvoir had nothing but contempt for the vacuum cleaner, contrasting it to a broom which ‘allowed people to feel they existed organically’ although Conrad added it was only the maid who deserved to experience this distinction.

Darker was France’s resentment against America’s cultural and political supremacy – which signalled the waning of French influence. Luckily for Europe, it was not all one way. When the Beatles arrived in America, Elvis was both admiring and resentful. Aspden noted that in ’68, when Elvis was trammelled by the treadmill of established stardom, the Beatles still had the relative freedom of the newcomer. At an exhibition at the O2 in East London, Aspden had seen Elvis’ personal copy of ‘Hey Jude’. He’d ringed the time - 7 minutes 9 seconds – with an envious Look!!! Elvis had also written to President Richard Nixon to express his concerns about the Beatles deleterious impact on youth morality, for which he was rewarded with the title ‘Special Agent’ and permitted to carry arms.

Although America remained ‘incorrigibly optimistic – the country of happy endings’, a darker note was sounding. The blue notes of American jazz – flattened or ‘worried’ which ‘dips below the major scale to vouch for the intensity of an emotion’, the unflinching vision of great American playwrights and the realisation that post the optimism of the Marshall Plan, ‘foreign policy is a tragic art’, gave the lie to the European taunt that America could not understand tragedy.

The events of September 11 shocked America to the core – not least because it showed how much they and their society was hated in some quarters. That staggering of self confidence is seen in subsequent American blockbuster movies. White House Down depicts the nightmarish assassination of the President. Another film, whose trailer involved an action hero battling North Koreans, was skilfully edited and used by the North Korean Government as propaganda.

That, Conrad concluded, would be the real tragedy. If America fell, would its successor be half so concerned to include us in its warm embrace, offer up its diverse cultural gifts and find so many ways to make us happy?


March 30, 2015

John Dickie talks to Fred Plotkin: Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and their Food

Prosciutto! Ciabatta! Cappuccino! Pesto! Tortellini! It’s not often you hear such words ricocheting off the ceilings of one of the most revered buildings in Oxford, but then today was no ordinary day. Today was Italian day at the Oxford Literary Festival. And today we were trying to deconstruct stuff, namely Italian food and its perceived gentrification.

If you ever saw Mel Giedroyc on Room 101 denounce English people who over-pronounce Italian words in restaurants, this talk probably wasn’t for you. Historian and Professor of Italian studies at University College London, John Dickie, discussed his new book, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and their Food, with Fred Plotkin, one of America’s foremost experts on Italian culture.

Dickie’s main argument, in a (Piedmont hazel) nutshell, is this: Italian food is city food. Not national, not regional, but urban. His book is based on this premise. The notion that Italian cuisine originates from peasant country, we are told, is rose-tinted nonsense. It is an idea born from 1970s nostalgia for the old days. The peasantry were, in fact, malnourished. When they weren’t being forcibly starved by laws requiring them to divert food to the cities (as was the case in Naples), they often lacked the knowledge to prepare good food - to the extent that government programmes were introduced to teach them. Well, this certainly challenges a myth.

So, where does Italian food come from? The cities, says Dickie. Italy only became a unified nation in the nineteenth century. Many ingredients are named after cities: Parmigiano cheese, or pesto Genovese, for example. Cities had what was needed to ‘own’ food: expertise, civic pride and branding knowhow, along with power and money. Cities were theatres for the enactment of political, cultural and gastronomic life, and it is via this stage that Dickie’s book promises to showcase the history of Italian cuisine, and Italy itself, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Unlike many interviews, or Q+A sessions, here there was a considerable degree of back and forth between Dickie and Plotkin, and not without disagreement. What about the Italian countryside, for example, where ingredients are actually grown? What role does it play? How does rule-bound Italian dinner table conservatism sit with Dickie’s idea of a dynamic, evolving cuisine constructed in the cities?

This event felt like two knowledgeable men each presenting their own views on the topic, just falling within the definition of a conversation. I enjoyed the balance, which led to some more interesting facts and myth debunking. For example, by being able to control the precious commodity of water, the mafia rose from wealth, not poverty (the links between food and organised crime could fill another book altogether). People needing to travel for commerce led to food preservation. EU policy and consumers’ penchant for certain foods over others' is affecting biodiversity.

A lot of it boils down to what you consider to be Italian cuisine in the first place. Plotkin rightly points out that many European food items originally came from abroad during voyages of ‘discovery’ by the likes of Columbus. We learned that Italy is good at rebranding the relatively modern as traditional. For example, the soul of ciabatta apparently belongs to a 1980s urban entrepreneur, and the ‘Mediterranean diet’ to an American scientist.

This talk was about food, but not in the sense of recipes, ingredients or techniques. We are talking about the origins and identities of a food culture. We are saying that food is political. While I haven’t read it, I expect John Dickie’s book makes a better case than his talk for the urban provenance of Italian cuisine. Today was simply an introduction, and I came away with fun facts, de-romanticised ideas, and a yearning to learn more. But, best of all, I left feeling absolutely vindicated in my dislike of ‘foodies’, as the term - allegedly coined right here in Oxford – is actually a pejorative of the highest order. Delizia, indeed.


March 30, 2015

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression – 75 years of the Finest in Jazz

The 75th anniversary of the founding of the jazz label Blue Note in 2015 sparked a spate of celebratory events including special concerts at the London Jazz Festival. Richard Havers' lavishly produced book can be regarded as part of the celebration.

Over the 75 year time span there have been several major changes in technology, in the label's business model and perhaps more importantly in the coming of Rock n’ Roll and The Beatles and pop music generally. Jazz has been pushed out from being a mainstream popular music to a place on the margins of current popular culture. Blue Note though, is still with us.

Richard Havers explained that the phrase ‘Uncompromising Expression’ comes from Blue Note’s original 1939 ‘manifesto’. However, the extent to which the Blue Note of today, no longer an independent but since 1965 owned by a corporate (currently Universal), still lives up to this aspiration, was not answered directly by Havers in his talk. This points towards what some might consider a drawback to the enthusiastic and amiable journey through the label’s history that Havers' conversation with David Freeman took us on, a lack of a framework to enable Blue Note’s achievements to be evaluated.

Nonetheless, there was much that was fascinating in what Havers had to say. He took us back further than 1939 to when Alfred Lion, the German Jewish refugee who founded Blue Note, first heard jazz in the pre-Nazi Berlin of his birth. Lion, as presented by Havers, came over as the hero of the Blue Note story, though interestingly he did not write the label’s manifesto and in 1965 sold the label to Liberty, which in retrospect might be seen as the beginning of a period of decline in the labels fortunes. He retired himself two years later.

The recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, often regarded as one of the most important in any form of music, was most associated with Blue Note and is very important to the label's story. Havers said that when he and Lion first met, Van Gelder was working as an optometrist but had set up a recording studio in his parents' front room.

What possibly made the biggest difference to jazz musicians and made Blue Note recordings polished was that Lion paid for 2 days rehearsal time before the recording. Havers said he liked the musicians to have it pretty well worked out by the time they went into the studio, which sounds like a system of rehearsed improvisation.

This, Havers explained, is why Blue Note records have more original compositions on their albums than albums made for labels that did not pay for rehearsals, a practice which led instead to musicians recording the tunes from the Great American Songbook they all knew. Rehearsal time, he suggested, was also an important factor in the one album John Coltrane recorded on Blue Note as leader, Blue Train, which is often regarded as the finest of that jazz legend’s early recordings.

Havers pointed out the label appears to have been a little behind the curve as regards the cutting edge of jazz. It missed out on the earliest wave of the Bebop revolution and it was the late 40’s after Lion was introduced to pianist Thelonious Monk that Blue Note started to catch up.

It is arguably the relatively short period from the mid 50’s to the mid 60’s which is usually regarded as the label’s heyday. The label became associated with Bebop’s successor, Hard-bop, which incorporated influences from R n’ B, gospel and Blues. Coltrane’s album was released in 1957, but it was Horrace Silver, Art Blake and trumpeter Lee Morgan who are probably most associated with the combination of Blue Note and Hard-Bop. Interestingly, Havers did not mention that in the year which is often regarded as the most creative ever in jazz,1959, none of what are usually regarded as the signature four or five albums which make that year such an annus marvellous for jazz fans are Blue Note recordings.

In this period the label also recorded some of the emerging avant–garde, including the pianists Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor. While the records did not sell well - a contributor to the Q & A regarded them as impossible to listen too - Lion thought it important to document these new developments in jazz.

Havers explained that the Blue Note legend is not only about the music but about the album covers which enhanced the label’s reputation. They had striking lettering, a restricted palate (often black and white) showed the influence of Bauhaus design in their use of solid rectangles of white and colour, and often featured session photographs of the musicians. In the Q&A an audience member suggested CDs do not do them justice, you need to get the vinyl.

The covers were designed by Reed Miles who Havers said did not like jazz, and the photographs were taken by Francis Wolff, another refugee from Nazi Germany who was Lion’s business partner. They weren’t the only people involved though and one of the images of album covers Havers showed carried Andy Warhol’s signature.

While Havers spent most of his time on the story up until the mid 60’s, he did do a quick scoot through the label’s decline to virtual extinction and its subsequent revival, which brought the narrative up to date with the Blue Note now owned by Universal. He left one with the impression that the label is pretty healthy, with recordings being sampled by hip hop artists sparking interest in the originals, its re-issues with Van Gelder re-mastering some of his own recordings (often selling more than when first issued), some big commercial successes (though not necessarily with pure jazz artists with Bobby McFerrin) from the eighties onwards, Norah Jones’ massive selling debut album in 2002, and more recently, Gregory Porter’s first album for the label.

There was only time for quick name checks for the relatively new generation of highly regarded artists on the Blue Note roster, like pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, players whom I think might just be ushering in another era which might come to be regarded as legendary for the label.

For his book Havers had access to Wolff’s archive of photographs, which are likely to be exceptional. From a quick glance, the design is up to the standard set by those famous album covers. If the text is anything like the talk, it will be an enthusiastic account with some fascinating detail, such as Havers being told by the current boss of Blue Note he has a hand written copy of the original manifesto in his desk drawer. But if you are looking for a rigorous assessment of whether he and the label are living up to Blue Note’s original aspiration, the style of the talk suggests you might be in for a disappointment.


March 30, 2015

Zoe Williams: Get it Together: We Deserve Better Politics

After swooping in late to the Divinity School, having apparently just exclaimed 'where the hell is the Bodleian?!', Zoe Williams sat down to deliver her talk on why we all need to be left-wing and how it's really rather silly that we're not.

Williams has a knack of being able to present radical ideas in a way that doesn't scare people off. This makes sense when you remember that she is a Guardian columnist and so that is probably a large part of her job. During the talk, and presumably also in her new book, Get It Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics, Williams argued that in order to achieve social democracy, we must all be activists resisting the main political parties who are corrupt due to being in the jaws of corporate interest. There is no left and right anymore, only people versus business, she said, as the audience nodded along in agreement with her firm and reasonable tone.

Williams went on to outline three kinds of 'left'. There's the Occupy movement, and similar activist groups who use direct action and try to influence the social order one occupied council estate at a time. Then there's the intellectual left, the economists who are coming out of the woodwork and saying, there's another way our society could be. And finally, there's the environmental movement, who have had more success with their campaigns (the divestment campaign for example), but who lack an ideological long game. When a major movement victory is the world plummeting ever so slightly less quickly into complete environmental destruction, it's hard to feel optimistic about environmental campaigning.

This rather gloomy environmental outlook also reflects Williams' view on the Green Party. 'Dr Death' was her exact wording, as she briefly summarised the Green's views during the Q&A as 'trying to get everyone to self-euthanise'. The Q&A also provided Williams with an opportunity to cover some of her ideas about the left in Europe. Europe is reluctant to let Syriza win but if Portugal, Spain and others go left, then there may be hope ahead.

Hope is really what Williams attempts to give in her book and indeed her talk. Ultimately, she sees herself as an optimist, and despite flatly stating that the outcome of the next election is going to be terrible, she also made clear that something would simply have to come out of it. Although the talk couldn't delve into any arguments in real depth, I left feeling encouraged that if I delved in myself I would be convinced. Williams' new book seems as good a place as any to start!


March 30, 2015

Gerard Russell: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the disappearing religions of the Middle East

Peter Hennessy: Establishment and Meritocracy and Reflections on Election 2015

With friends on Friday, we wanted to finish off the day with a 6pm talk before going out to dinner so we picked a topic none of us knew anything about: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the disappearing religions of the Middle East by Gerard Russell. And what a talk it was. This is a highly intelligent man with a well-ordered brain: he knew (I wish all authors realised this) that he could not cover his whole book in an hour, so he gave a taste of what was in the book, which was informative and succinct. He talked clearly, without notes, and with gentle humour and answered questions clearly. The perfect talk in fact.

Another such speaker was Peter Hennessy (Establishment, Meritocracy and Reflections on the Election 2015). Although, unlike Gerard Russell, he had notes which he used extensively, they did not diminish the power of his delivery and he had some very funny anecdotes to tell. Meritocracy = IQ + effort, he says, and he should know – a grammar school boy who gained a place at The Other University and is now both an academic and a member of the House of Lords (where, at 68, he considers himself one of the youngsters). His talk covered not only defining The Establishment and Meritocracy but also the thorny question of Europe (which splits both the left and the right wing parties). His fear is that if the UK leaves Europe, Scotland will shortly leave the UK, both of which he thinks would be a mistake. He worries that the balance of liberal capitalism and social democracy we have in this country would then be lost. As for the upcoming Rubiks Cube election as he calls it, he says it is too difficult to call, but coalition negotiations will be much more protracted. A highly informative and entertaining talk.


March 30, 2015

John Crace: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

John Crace (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) is a parliamentary sketch writer and his talk was also full of anecdotes as well as witty impressions. However, there was no coherent pattern to his talk – it was pure (though very amusing) stream of consciousness - and the questions asked by members of the audience were not properly answered. I still don’t know why the book was so named, although I assume it is a reference to the rose garden at no. 10 where Cameron and Clegg gave their first joint press conference. His real and imagined conversations from the book were certainly very funny, particularly an imagined conversation with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but I came away with no clear idea of what the book was about, although I had been right royally entertained for an hour.

The range of topics and speakers is always outstanding at the Oxford Literary Festival; from world-famous authors (the wonderfully warm Amitav Ghosh gave the Chancellor’s Lecture) to people with unusual niche areas of knowledge. Always interesting and there are always surprises.


March 27, 2015

Stanley Wells – Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, Thurs 26 March 2015, Bodleian: Divinity School, Oxford Literary Festival

Stanley Wells demonstrated a far-reaching knowledge of Shakespeare and Shakespearean actors during his presentation of his new book Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh. His talk was not a simple précis of the book but his thoughts on the qualities required to be a great Shakespearean actor. He referenced a number of these: Garrick, Kemp, Siddons, the Terry family, Gielgud and ultimately Olivier with whom Prof. Wells explained he agreed on his view of acting Shakespeare on stage. Unlike in film, where the actors' skill is suborned to the film’s director or in television where it is subject to the writer’s whim, on the stage Shakespearean actors control their own performance and are most able to bring their imagination to bear in their interpretation of the role. He acknowledged in the foreword of his book he had apologised to the many great actors he had not been able to cover in this work and, tongue in cheek, recognised that Mark Rylance should be top of this list.

Professor Wells referenced a number of actors’ memoirs, critics’ essays and biographical work in his attempt to pinpoint the necessary skills and qualities needed to be a great Shakespeare actor. He acknowledged that there were few gender limitations in Shakespeare’s work – originally the parts may have been played by men and boys but there have been notable all female companies e.g. at the Globe, and outstanding interpretations of heroic roles by women such as Maxine Peake’s recent performance as Hamlet. Gender and more importantly the confusing of gender are also central themes in several of Shakespeare’s plays. The actor’s age was similarly unrestrictive – he had seen remarkable performances by Dame Judi Dench as Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream originally in the 1960s at the RSC and almost fifty years later as part of Peter Hall’s production. Nor was language a barrier and he referenced a celebrated Italian actor who portrayed all his roles in his native language regardless of the language spoken by the rest of the company, and he was by no means alone in this practice. Although race or sexuality shouldn't limit an actor’s ability to portray a heroic role, he did acknowledged that until quite recently the public’s image of the great actor was predominately white, straight and male.

This led Prof. Wells to deliberate on the audience’s contribution to the success of great Shakespeare actors and he remarked that when he was researching his book he had been surprised how much more participatory and vocal audiences had been historically. He noted that a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience is central to the success of any performance of Shakespeare and felt great actors have a special ability to engage with an audience, to stretch their credulity and imaginations and to engage their emotions. In this he felt, to some extent, audiences felt the charisma of great actors, to the point of subliminal sexual attraction.

He spoke also of the many performances he had witnessed personally and recognised that the theatre and staging of a play can have great effect on its perceived success. He had seen McKellan and Dench’s much hailed production of Macbeth in 1976 at the Other Place in Stratford and again when, due to its success, it was moved to the main theatre; it became an uncomfortable, pale shadow of its former self.

Ultimately Prof. Well’s breadth of knowledge, experience and humour was engaging and informative. He simply spoke to the wide-ranging audience in the pleasant setting of Divinity Hall with only a mic for technical support. Unfortunately, there was only limited time to hear his thoughts on what makes a great Shakespeare actor and the presentation wrapped up with a brief Q&A session. Prof. Wells was asked whether there would ever again be a blacked-up white man playing the blackamoor Othello. This he thought was highly likely once social mores have moved on and informed the audience that intriguingly Iago was shortly to be played by Lucian Msamati in this season’s presentation of Othello at the RSC. The idea of race and culture are central themes Shakespeare addresses in Othello so ultimately the text itself encourages actors and directors to explore these ideas physically in the interpretation of the play. He was also asked whether the depiction of stage on film i.e. current RSC live films was a good thing. Prof. Wells acknowledged that he enjoyed some of these films and also watched Royal Opera House productions at the cinema, but he recognised that this could present some problems for actors and divulged to the audience that Patrick Stewart had recently refused permission for his performance to be transmitted live to cinemas as he felt, as an actor, it would be impossible to effectively engage both audiences through radically different media in one performance.

This exposé was typical of the Professor’s humour, wit and charm throughout the lecture and reminded me of a story Ian McKellan told during his one man show in the 1980s. He had been asked to perform King Lear, perhaps the ultimate challenge for an actor in Shakespeare as Prof. Wells referred to the role. Sir Ian was particularly worried about the wail called for at the beginning of the scene when grief stricken King Lear carries dead Cordelia onto the stage. He had heard that Gielgud’s moan had been particularly impressive and decided to ask the great actor how he had achieved this. “Get a light Cordelia” Gielgud quipped. This humour and insight typified Prof. Wells’ presentation and I am greatly looking forward to reading his book when released at the end of April. If this insight and humour are the norm during lectures at the Literary Festival I certainly intend to attend more.


March 23, 2015

Women Working In Dangerous Environments - Divinity School, OLF

‘It doesn’t seem dangerous at the time. It’s what we do,’ journalist Jill Leovy and award winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario agreed.

Leovy’s latest book, Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic, was written during her time as a staff writer on the Los Angeles Times. After completing her day job, she would start the evening’s research with members of the Los Angeles Police Department, sitting in the back of a patrol car as it responded to emergency calls.

‘Grief was worse than bodies or violence,’ Leovy said. ‘Returning to a family years after they had lost their only child to gang warfare was really hard to take.’ Disadvantaged black and Hispanic communities were riven with internal divisions, even if they had been forced together initially by deprivation. Maintaining a consistent judicial code which swiftly punished offenders was a vital first step to prevent homicide escalating further. If emotional burn-out threatened, Leovy returned to breaking news, until she felt strong enough to take on the horrors of ghetto violence.

Raised in Connecticut, the daughter of two hairdressers, Lynsey Addario admitted that she seemed an unlikely veteran of some of the most vicious conflicts of recent times. Chronicling wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur and the Congo, Addario has won the Pulitzer Prize for her powerful photojournalism, of which we saw far too little during the Literary Festival talk. We saw only one photograph – that of a fleeing figure in a burka in a deserted, wasted city demonstrated her eloquence with a camera.

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War includes Addario’s account of being kidnapped twice, of standing next to a broadcast journalist who was blown up seconds later by a car bomb, and of the loss of ‘many, many friends.’ Her insights were harrowing and moving. An extract – an email summarising her difficulties in specifying and obtaining protective kit in a war zone – was darkly humorous.

Both women agreed that their sex gave them the advantage of ‘not being noticed.’

‘Women were thought to count for so little I was able to move around, almost unnoticed. I could talk to men and women,’ Addario said. Leovy maintained that age also helped when reporting on the most heartfelt grief. ‘If I had been younger, there might not have been that understanding that experience and years counted for something,’ Leovy said.

As Addario’s young son sat in the audience, his mother looked across to him, smiling reassuringly. One of the most challenging decisions any journalist can take is to leave behind their own loved ones and - at great personal risk - to bear testament to the sufferings of others.

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