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Every day we take a sneak preview at the highlights of Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature. Film & Music.

Blenheim Lit Fest: daily blog

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith, editor-at-large for OX Magazine, is Blenheim Lit Fest’s official blogger

"Dressed immaculately, as if challenging the ingredients in front of her to dare stain or blemish her perfectly coiffured look, she animated both her talk and demonstration with wit, style and unabashed warmth."

Every day we take a look at the highlights of Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature. Film & Music. Jeremy Smith, editor-at-large for OX Magazine, is Blenheim Lit Fest’s official blogger, so remember to follow him here every day – and probably every hour – as he casts his gimlet eye over its biggest names and surprises...


Boutique, boutique, boutique...

... and doesn’t that just nail it? Because let’s face it , this is rather a natty, chic, vogueing kind of ‘do’, and on a classic autumnal morning like this (please note I didn’t use the word sunny) it all feels a bit, well, Brideshead Revisited cum Antiques Roadshow with just a dash of Great British Bake Off about it.

Personally speaking, it’s a privilege to be here, covering this three-day celebration of all things tasty, witty, and most importantly of all, unputdownable.

Right, introductions over, I thought I’d start on a high by paying rapt attention during Aljos Farjon’s talk on ‘Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape’ – a choice I’m sure Oxford’s JRR Tolkien would have approved of…


Tree porn (no seriously)

Tolkien’s Ents (walking, talking trees for the uninitiated) were queuing outside but the entrance to Blenheim’s Marlborough Room is very low so despite a lot of unnecessary pushing and shoving, they were eventually turned away. Yes, life is tough, especially if you’re a conifer, but for those of us mere humans, Dutch botanist Aljos Farjon’s talk on England’s ancient oaks was fascinating.

Indeed, this is precisely the kind of event that typifies this festival slightly quirky, unexpected but totally, totally engrossing. And Farjon proved the perfect guide too – dry, urbane and deliciously Dutch.

So much so, what I and the rest of his audience don’t now know about England’s ancient oaks frankly isn’t worth knowing.

Yet despite his wonderful delivery and fact-packed narrative, it was his pictorial slide show that held me most in awe. Hell, Oaks really are beautiful, aren’t they? Old and wise and limb-twisted supermodels of the hardwood kind, I just sat and drank in their beauty.

Ludicrous to say I know, but I was genuinely moved by this talk.

Well, that settles it...

.. I’m off to work for John Lewis!

I don’t know know if Mark Price’s talk was intended as a kind of American pastor revivalist meeting to recruit new John Lewis employees (after all, they are opening in Oxford in a few weeks’ time), but hell, by the end of it, I was all ready to stand and be counted.

Because dammit, he really was that convincing, that charismatic, fully armed with folksy tales about how he learnt the true value of people.

If truth be told, I actually went to see Kamal Ahmed of the BBC (and huge business brain), but he, and how cool is this “had to go to Washington on short notice”.

Still, I wasn’t disappointed. Price was a brilliant speaker and very, very ‘normal’ (remember, he was Trade and Investment Minister).

So all in all, this was a talk about employee recognition and its obvious benefits to the employer that actually didn’t feel like an A-level in economics.



Eleonora Galasso

Let’s face it, it was a good start.

Wandering into Blenheim’s exquisitely decorated Indian Room, my nostrils flared to the smells and scents of Italia. And just to top off this sensation of effortless European adventure, Ms Galasso herself, Italy’s best kept gastronomic secret (who thankfully at last is becoming much better known over here too).

Classier than Nigella and certainly more fun, Ms Galasso could easily do for Italy what gelato, gnocchi and blaring car horns already have.

Dressed immaculately, as if challenging the ingredients in front of her to dare stain or blemish her perfectly coiffured look, she animated both her talk and demonstration with wit, style and unabashed warmth.

“I don’t really trust myself as a chef,” she confessed, while demurely slicing her way through an artichoke, “I trust tradition instead”.

And between mouthfuls of tiramisu and a distinctly amusing amuse-bouche, she advanced her theories on how women, and their intimate relationship to food, have challenged whole empires.

Fascinating. Funny. Feel-good.

And a perfect Saturday brunch.

Peter Snow and Ann Macmillan

You know that age-old game about who you’d most like to have dinner with?

Well, I’d like to nominate the following couple (I think the rules allow that): BBC broadcaster Peter Snow (yes, he of the Swingometer) and his wife, Ann Macmillan, who for a number of years was managing editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

They were at Blenheim to talk about their new book: ‘War Stories: Gripping Tales of Courage, Cunning and Compassion’. And not only was the subject matter fascinating, but so too were they.

If Newsnight or Panorama could ever host a weekly stand-up double act, these two would be perfect. Natural communicators (obviously) they took a topic that could have wallowed in its own self-importance and instead elevated it to a terribly British Indiana Jones-style celebration.

MacMillan was savvy and chirpy while Snow... well, you’d know his voice anywhere – something akin to a pastoral vicar at the turn of the 20th century, his oration peppered with such affectionate illuminations as “wonderful bloke”, “swashbuckling fellow” and “damn fine chap”.

God they were a sexy couple; they laughed at each other’s asides, burst with pride as the other spoke, and could hardly contain their mutual excitement.

Exhausting and euphoric in equal measure.

Philip Mould

Art dealer, star of the internationally popular BBC Fake or Fortune? series and neck scarf aficionado, Philip Mould is a hugely likeable cocktail of TV’s Lovejoy (as played by Ian McShane) and, believe it or not, The A-Team’s Face (as played by Dirk Benedict, older but uncannily identical).

Precisely as you hoped he’d be – urbane, wry and devilishly rakish – he was value for money in every sense, delivering whodunnit after whodunit about his extraordinary finds, discoveries and losses.

With a rapt audience and genuinely savvy interviewer, Steven Parissien (director of The Compton Verney Art Gallery) this was a star vehicle with plenty of va-va-voom quality.



Much Ado About Nothing (Split End Productions)

Much ado about nothing?... nah.

In this instance, nothing could be further from the truth.

But first let me nail my colours to the mast.

I don’t now and never have really understood the appeal of Shakespeare. And no that’s not some boast – quite the opposite, in fact. But when I see it performed with irrepressible enthusiasm and boundless buoyancy, such as I just have, I can’t help but get carried along by it all.

And who wouldn’t? ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ set during World War II, with all the dashing, romantic style of that era? Inspired.

One of the Bard’s greatest and most charming comedies (I’m told), I found myself laughing out loud after just three minutes and 37 seconds. But did I understand precisely why? Yes and no.

Not exactly the specifics maybe, but the gist, yes, and that revelation is solely thanks to the sheer, joyous bravura of the actors who engaged everyone from the word go.

Split Second Productions have appeared at the festival for the last six years and frankly, here’s to their next half dozen because, staged in the Palace’s Orangery, this wasn’t just a performance (at least not for me) but an emancipating event.

Marvellous Mona (Martin Kemp)

You might easily be forgiven for assuming that the world’s most famous – and thus valuable – painting must at least be the size of a wall (or at least big enough to dominate a dining room). But you know what? The Mona Lisa is like a small flat screen TV set on its side (30 in x 21 in).

Astonishing then that something so... un-Sistine Chapel by comparison, is in fact the world’s greatest cultural icon (I once bought a poster of it and having hung it in my hallway, frankly found it something of a ‘downer’).

Still, while art is only ever subjective, what I do find fascinating is its myth and Professor Martin Kemp certainly proved the perfect guide to adding to – rather than peeling away – the appeal of its enduring glamour.

And boy is there plenty of that; indeed, Professor Kemp admitted he’s hounded by ‘Leonardo Loonies’ all the time, each boasting their own extraordinary theory. And if that weren’t intriguing in itself, he added that even from a purely academic stance, differences of opinion could almost descend into physical confrontation. “Who’d have thought,” he said, “that renaissance documentation could ever become a contact sport?”

An orator who did quite simply what it said on the literary circuit tin, he was value for money and then some. And as for who the Mona Lisa really was... I’ve already phoned author Dan Brown.

- Jeremy Smith


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