There’s a glittering line-up at this year’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, with comedians, politicians, broadcasters and academics taking the stage alongside ghost writers, novelists, biographers and thriller writers. The eight-day extravaganza celebrates all things literary and is based in Christ Church and Corpus Christi College, as well as The Sheldonian Theatre. The event has become a favourite with seasoned festival-goers as anyone staying at the colleges gets to rub shoulders with authors, playwrights and other speakers.
Critic, journalist and author DJ Taylor, a 2003 Man Booker Prize judge and winner of the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize for “Orwell: A Life,” has been a regular speaker at the festival over the years and has watched it evolve. Some festivals have been spoiled by the cult of celebrity taking precedence over the literary aspect of the gathering, he says, remembering a festival where former US President Bill Clinton was paid thousands of pounds to attend while the writers turned up for free, much to their irritation.
David and his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, who last year gave a talk together, and their three sons, rank Oxford among their favourite festivals.
“The children enjoy it because there’s so much variety,” says Rachel. “Last year they went to the poetry reading competition and loved taking part in a quiz on the Sunday evening in the ‘Hogwarts’ dining hall upstairs in Christ Church. The ambience is part of the festival’s success – swanning around Christ Church has got to beat the marquees of the Edinburgh Literature Festival!”
David and Rachel both studied at the University of Oxford, although they didn’t meet until several years after they had graduated and David doesn’t have the fondest memories of his student days in the city. Rachel says she likes the friendliness and democratic feel of the Oxford Literary Festival.
“I hope visitors feel this as well as the participants,” she says. “I enjoy browsing in the book tent and not knowing who you might bump into next.”
David appreciates the dedication of those who attend, recalling one year a heavy snowfall threatened to limit the numbers attending his talk “Bright Young People,” based on his book exploring the lives of the 1920s glitterati, many of whom were at Oxford.
“I was sure there would be nobody there but the place was absolutely packed out. I was really touched by this,” says David. Another memorable event, last year, involved Richard Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, talking publicly for the first time about his father.
“We did a kind of tete-a-tete and 400 people turned up. It was a fantastic event,” says David.
This year, as part of The Orwell Prize series of events, DJ Taylor and Evelyn Waugh’s biographer Paula Byrne are comparing the lives and works of Orwell and Waugh, who were both born in 1903. The event takes place at Christ Church on Saturday March 26, at 8pm.
Rachel says she and David attend other people’s talks, besides supporting each others.
“Anything by Philip Pullman appeals to me,” says Rachel.
Philip Pullman himself plans to see all the science events he can manage.
“One of the great strengths of the Oxford Literary Festival is that it can draw on the talents of many brilliant thinkers right on the doorstep, and a week at the festival must be equivalent to a good basic education in any one of a dozen disciplines,” says the teacher turned author, who is also one of the festival’s patrons. “As science is a big interest of mine, I shall be pursuing that this year.”
Bodley’s Librarian, Dr Sarah Thomas – who is in charge one of the world’s oldest, largest and best collection of books, held by the Bodleian Library – is thrilled to have such an interesting festival on her doorstep, though the quality of the sessions makes it hard to choose which to attend.
“The festival creates such excitement around authors and books and reading,” says Sarah, who was the first female, first non-British national, to be appointed Bodley’s Librarian in its 400-year history.
“In fact, I am going to have to decide between Lyndall Gordon’s ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns’ talk on Emily Dickinson and Philip Pullman’s discussion of his new book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,’ both of which take place on Sunday March 28 at noon. “Emily Dickinson lived a few miles from the town in Massachusetts where I grew up, and she’s a fascinating woman. But now, having lived in Oxford for three years and gotten to know Philip Pullman, I’m also eager to hear him speak on his new work.”
Her other “must see” choices are John le Carré’s talk on March 24 and Hilary Mantel who discusses her 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall on Sunday March 28 at 2pm.
“There’s an incredible array from which to select,” continues Sarah. “Balcor’s Second Nature on the inner lives of animals; David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Arts & the Great War, and John Harris on gin tasting. What a range!”
Events to look out for include a discussion between award-winning playwright and author Simon Rae, who wrote a definitive biography of legendary cricketer WG Grace, and the book “Unplayable” and one of the world’s top women cricketers, Charlotte Edwards, who is an ambassador for the Chance to Shine cricket and education foundation; the incomparable Malorie Blackman, quirky Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman discussing fantasy fiction with children’s books reviewer Nicolette Jones and screenwriter and children’s author Anthony Horowitz interviewed by Paul Blezard. Other top-of-the-list discussions include acclaimed crime writer Ruth Rendell interviewed by David Grylls about Penguin’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes, as well as her own creation Chief Inspector Wexford; eminent scientists Richard Dawkins, Georgina Ferry and Steve Jones talking about science, certainty and the Royal Society with Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Oxford-based author, film-maker and artist Roma Tearne talking about her latest novel, The Swimmer.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.
Author images courtesy Oxford Literary Festival.