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Oxford Literary Festival blogger and OX editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

Oxford Literary Festival 2017 Blog

Jeremy Smith

25th March

First day jitters


So here it is...the first morning of the first day of nine whole days of the Oxford International Literary Festival (2017 to be precise in case you're reading this far into the future) and I as always feel a little anxious.

Naturally that's a good ‘anxious’ as opposed to the more common fretting, stomach-clenching type because I always wonder if I'll have the stamina to enjoy every highlight. And goodness knows there are enough of them this year, with my personal favourite being today at 12noon.

Lionel Shriver, THE Lionel Shriver that is who wrote 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' (subsequently made into a film starring Tilda Swinton).

Most of all I'm looking forward to see Lionel smile; in all her publicity shots she always look deadly grim and serious. So much so in fact that I googled her last night just to see if she really is human like the rest of us and...phew, she is.

I suppose the severe and austere look is more in keeping with her writing style but I like her happy face more. Regardless, bleak or ecstatic, Ms Shriver is my poster girl for the festival.

And talking of poster girls, Olympian gold medalist Jessica Ennis-Hill is appearing at the Sheldonian at the exact same time so Ms Shriver will sadly be short but sweet for me.

First however, it's Roger Penrose, also at the Sheldonian, debating 'Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe'.

As I've missed breakfast, it'll make a nice a literary substitute for eggs and bacon.

The womb


The Green Room at The Randolph Hotel, Oxfordshire's grand old dame of hospitality and the womb so to speak for the organisers and authors attending the festival.

Sadly, no champagne, vol-au-vents, or gift bags over-flowing with completely vacuous goodies, but there's nothing quite like a slice of shortbread and cup of heavily sugared coffee to boost your adrenaline...

Welcome to the quantum world of groupies


So Sir Roger Penrose is very highly spoken of...

Not only is he one of the world's leading theoretical physicists but, according to a woman I met while queueing to get in to the Sheldonian (and I'd estimate she was in her fifties), he's very charismatic too (I wouldn't have called her a 'groupie' but I'd swear I later saw her touching up her lippy in the front row).

Anyway, I was impressed by her obvious adoration, so looked forward to picking up a few tips. And with a talk whose title included in its first four words 'Fashion, Faith and Fantasy...' I saw plenty of opportunity to do so.

Suffice to say it was a packed house for a packed brain; a brain whose size if measured would stretch from outside Debenhams to the farthest known reaches of the universe.

And gratifyingly, the audience was not only made up of ageing groupies but an entire alphabet of of ages and backgrounds, from someone who looked four to someone who could easily have qualified as 'Father Time'.

As it happens I read a book Sir Roger wrote when I was a teenager all about Black Holes and what I didn't understand then I still don't understand now but who cares – it was, and is, fascinatingly beautiful and poetic.

"Quantum" this and “Quantum" that were bandied around with gay abandon but I did manage to understand a few of the 'in-science' jokes.

A brilliant, brilliant speaker and a perfect way to kick off the festival.

I loved it (thought I still can't understand Quantum gravity).

There is nothing like a dame


So once an Olympian, always an Olympian?

Oh yeah!!!

Especially to young girls. And especially so when you're a class act.

Gold is gold and Ennis-Hill certainly shines (nah, make that shimmers).

In the stunning Sheldonian theatre as the spring sunlight burst through the windows the rather serious surroundings were hugely lightened by the chatter of young voices anticipating the arrival of Heptathlete and recently turned children's author Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill.

Dame Jessica spoke with pride of how her upbringing had strongly influenced her sporting achievements and how in turn she wanted this to be reflected in her book.

Role models like Dame Jessica are rare in this world of celebrity but role models who also have charm and intellect are even rarer.

Top notch.

Cabbages are important


What do they say? You should never meet your heroes?

What tosh.

Lionel Shriver was EVEN more brilliant and articulate than I ever imagined she'd be. And perhaps more importantly, warm, funny and deliciously self-deprecating.

From the heart and mind of someone who's penned – among other novels – 'We Need to Talk About Kevin’, ‘So Much for That’ and her latest, ‘The Mandibles’, it was genuinely revelatory to see someone so relaxed, so comfortable and so...witty.

In Oxford to talk about ‘The Mandibles', a dystopian tale of near future economic collapse, she admitted, gleefully, that she had experienced "almost a festive quality in bringing the whole of the United States to its knees."

"After all," she added, the scale of catastrophe in my previous novels had been very small and intimate so this was a riot!"

She also let slip, as she warmed to her audience, that her working title for ‘Kevin’ was... wait for it...’Cradle to Grave’.

"If I'd stuck with that," she admitted, "I probably wouldn't be sitting her now."

With ‘Mandibles’ she says she strived for an "everyday apocalyptic feel" and admitted that cabbages – and their price – is integral part of its plot device.

For someone who prefers Kale, this came as something of a shock but I've bought the book all the same.

Beefcake Blues


Attended a talk about an hour ago entitled ‘Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire’.

I mean, who wouldn't?

But as Simon Cowell would say, "I don't mean to be rude but...".

Which means it was very Vicar of Dibley, pink marshmallowy, locker-room giggly (in an Enid Blyton sort of way) and about as hard-hitting as a Mills and Boon fling between a tortured Mill owner and his orphaned tea girl.

More whimsical than literary, it left me... perplexed.


26th March

Simply the best


In festival terms, this was something of a blockbuster; a David Lean type epic presented by the BBC World Service and starring, in no particular order, John Simpson, Anu Anand, Bek Okri, Maya Youssef, Sahar Zand and Luciano Floridi.

And its location was equally as grand – the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre in Worcester College .

Indeed, the last time I was as impressed by a venue as this was in Petra, Jordan (clearly the Shah Centre would fit into this particular World Heritage Site's toilets, but in terms of sheer aesthetic awe, trust me, it's hard to beat...).

And in keeping with the intimate grandeur of this brand new facility, the subject matter for this impressive meeting of minds was equally as inspiring – the origin of human nature.

And before I finally bludgeon you to death with superlatives, let me add one final jaw-dropping observation, prompted by John Simpson in his welcome to the audience, reminding us that those of us gathered there were but just a smidgin of the world wide audience of 66 million listening in live at that moment.

Anyway, as for the two-hour cocktail of conversation, debate and music (provided by Maya Youssef), it proved a milestone moment in the 21-year history of the festival.

Funny, daring, provoking, contentious, it currently ranks as my all-time favourite festival event.

And yup, I feel privileged to have been there.

Taste buds at boiling point


Sensual...that's probably the most accurate description of the woman in the dark velvet dress with flowing dark locks and an oh-so-husky purr.

Nigella Lawson is, pretty much to any man alive, the foie gras-cum-fillet-steak-cum-oysters-cum-KFC Zinger meal of culinary playfulness. And there she was, in the flesh, in front of me, on stage, gasping, cooing and radiating about as much electricity as the National Grid is forced to generate on Christmas Day.

Equally, there were moments when she spoke that were so razor sharp, so paper-cut stinging, that it might make you think twice about challenging her over a jus.

In conversation with Italian domestic goddess, Anna Del Conte, both delivered spades in style and va-va-voom to a love-struck audience.

And to finish? Ms Del Conte delivering a deliciously risqué put-down of everyone's favourite dinner table guest – Donald Trump.

What more could you ask for?


27th March

A dishy dreamboat for the over-50s


Roger Scruton...

Hell, I like him.

I reckon if I could have breakfast with him at least once a week I'd never have to seek counselling for the blues.

A writer and philosopher who's knocked out more than 40 books, he was delivering a talk on Human Nature for this year's Princeton University Press Lecture (remember, this was the subject of Sunday's BBC World Service broadcast from Worcester College).

A critic of Professor Richard Dawkins (so full marks there), he represents the 'thinking woman over 50's dreamboat'.

Quiet and almost whispery to the point of mental massage, he kicked off in a beautifully understated and brutally honest way: "My purpose here is to sell my book," he said "so I will tell a lot of lies about how good it is."

And having established that precedent he then went on to debate (without a single further reference to his book) whether we, as humans, are animals or maybe something more.

So was he any good?

Well, personally speaking I can honestly say that by the end of his talk, I've never felt prouder to be human.

Fascinating and funny in equal measure, he proved a –

1. real tonic

2. real crowd pleaser

Marquee moments


“It’s difficult being human..."

You don’t say?! But Professor of clinical psychology and consultant clinical psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Trust Susan Llewelyn is exactly that; real, relatable and down-right human.

Her bite-sized insight into the maze that is clinical psychology is a timely reminder that we are all delicate creatures that deal with trauma and challenges in different ways.

Was she able to provide a cure for mental health in 15 minutes?

No, nor did she promise to do so. However, her easy manner and honest approach, partnered with the bright backdrop of the Blackwell’s Marquee provided the perfect lunch-time sound bite.

Short and sweet, these micro-chats are a great way to fill time and, in this case, assessing your mental health.


"I'll be back..."


The future...

Difficult to predict?

Especially now?

Well yes, but frankly no different really to how the world responded to the invention of the telegraph, the radio or television (or going way back even further, the wheel).

At least that's what Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and – wait for it – ethics of information at the Oxford Internet Institute believes. And boy is he cool.

In conversation with Daniel Franklin, 'Economist' executive editor, the two debated the prospects of just where technology should take us by the year 2050. And it was fascinating.

To the point in fact where I could have happily sat there for the rest of the day (although with no disrespect to Mr Franklin, it was Floridi who actually held the audience captive).

Surprisingly a more elderly audience (one person only admitted to having been alive since email) it was far less doom and gloom than one might have been expected.

In fact, according to Floridi, a lot of our more popular concerns about the future (zombie apocalypse being, clearly, the most extreme) are unfounded and that, just like the birth of television, our current digital fast track to Artificial Intelligence and beyond will mould itself to our needs as much as its own.

Reassuring for those who take the 'Terminator' films so seriously.


Mind-boggling 'Bodleianalia'


Imagine selling Shakespeare’s First Folio after receiving his Third because it was mistaken for a repeat of the First or telling the King of England he does not have permission to remove a book from the library because those are the rules.

Claire Cock-Starkey, author of Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins (as recommended by TV's QI don't-you-know) has delved into the topsy-turvy history of the Bodleian libraries and brought forward some of its most intriguing tales in her newest book, 'Bodleianalia'.

Quirky, fun and informative, you don’t need to be a history buff or book lover to appreciate the comings and goings of those eccentric characters who have graced the Bodleian’s hallowed halls.


28th March

A shameless plug


So it's only Tuesday lunchtime and the festival still has six days to run...

This afternoon it's all science with a bit of self-interest thrown in; there's physicist Professor Al-Khalili, Marcus du Sautoy on maths and, from the self-interest point of view, Sir Muir Gray on how we can face midlife looking younger and better looking (the talk also includes a section on living longer but frankly if you can't look good, who cares?).

But until then, I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone just how accessible this festival is.

Usually I can't stand these kind of bashes – invariably they're nearly always smug, dull and limp. Having covered this event for almost eight years, I think the only time I have ever felt threatened by either or all of the above is when I had to attend a talk by Boris Johnson's sister Rachel Johnson on, if I remember correctly, ‘How to To Be A Lady’, and she didn't turn up.

That aside this festival ticks every box – it's fun, genuinely; it's utterly accessible, whether you're a follower of University Challenge or Catchphrase; it's brilliantly priced (most tickets are £12-£15 and for that you get to meet people like Jessica Ennis-Hill, Jeremy Paxman and Nigella Lawson) and there's gallons going on for children (and sometimes I swear these events are more fun for the parents...).

Plus, you get access to some of this country's most beautiful and jaw-dropping venues. Indeed, I'd pay £15 just to sit and do nothing for an hour in Worcester College's Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre which is spine-tingling in its beauty.

In short then, this is a festival that very deliberately celebrates everything that is joyous and wondrous about reading and books and life.

A matter of some gravity

I'll say this – Professor Jim Al-Khalili, who, if you listen to 'The Life Scientific" on Radio Four every Tuesday morning, you'll know is a masterful broadcaster. He is also an astonishingly patient man.

Certainly more than I am.

Heck, if I'd had to endure the technical hiccups he's just had to contend with at the start of his talk, I think I might have been tempted to use the kind of language you cannot use over the air with our public broadcaster.

Which is a shame because he really is one of the best of those breed of scientists able to make even the most inaccessible nuggets of the Cosmos and Quantum-God-Knows-What-Else come alive.

In Oxford to talk about his new BBC Four documentary ‘Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives’ which (fortuitously) starts tonight at 9pm, it was therefore unfortunate that his audio video presentation was the victim of multi-dimensional gremlins.

A showman to the core, he bravely carried on in the face of white noise, static, flickering images of Sir Isaac Newton and a two-minute clip of film that actually blinked, flashed and disappeared completely over almost 10 minutes to deliver what by anyone's standard could be called a bravura performance.

I salute him for refusing to let the very principles of his scientific discipline get in the way of presenting a great talk

What we cannot know (no matter how many omega 3 fish oil capsules we consume...)


Well, what a difference 90 minutes can make – back at 2.30pm everything that could go wrong in the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester College for Professor and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili...did.

This time, same venue, same overcast sky, same stiff breeze, but the world had changed dramatically because everything suddenly, and with no explanation...worked.

With a musical overture that could have been straight from the soundtrack of 'Alien', the audience of schoolchildren and more 'senior' individuals with long shaggy beards but clearly piercing intellects prepared for the arrival of Marcus du Sautoy. And they weren't disappointed.

Very much a t-shirt, baseball cap and blue-suede shoes type of guy (if he'd ridden in on a Harley it wouldn't have surprised me) he immediately established his 'street' credentials with the kind of energetic attitude you might see on the terraces at Emirates Stadium (and yes that's appropriate because he's an Arsenal fanatic).

Du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University (replacing Richard Dawkins) and frankly they couldn't have picked a better man.

He's fantastic, unravelling the mysteries of science so even Donald Trump can follow them.

Talking about his new book ‘What We Cannot Know’, which questions whether science can ever know it all, he proved a force majeure for lifting the lid on the simply unknowable.

Quite how mathematics can produce such a blisteringly good entertainer may in fact prove to be one of the great mysteries. But until anyone can unravel that conundrum, I was just happy to wallow in a brilliance I didn't understand but couldn't get enough of...

"Of a certain age"


The ole' dog.

My goodness, Sir Muir Gray, what a charmer. I've no idea how old he is, but I don't think he'd have any problems 'pulling' Faye Dunaway (approx. 75) or Raquel Welch (70s too).

Which is quite appropriate since his talk this evening was all about looking younger, living longer and looking better. And to be honest with you, I was quite dismissive about this event beforehand.

I just thought it'd be full of people of a 'certain age' being asked to participate in wincingly lame exercises. But it wasn't. In fact, it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of age and health and how the two cross.

Sir Muir is no New Age guru; quite the opposite actually with a track record that's quite rightly seen him knighted; he pioneered breast and cervical screening, is a director of Better Value Healthcare and is the author of the bestselling ‘Sod 60!’ And ‘Sod 70!’ books.

He also has a preference for bright, garish ties and could probably, with some dignity, launch a fitness DVD while wearing Lycra.

What he had to say though was refreshing and clear; forget all that 21st Century wellbeing mumbo jumbo and plug yourself back into the basics – walking, posture, careful but sensible diet (although the idea of standing at your work desk isn't something that especially inspires).

Inventive, playful, impish, he certainly managed to entertain this cynical old 55-year old and I certainly had a spring in my step when I walked out of his talk.


30th March

Infinitely more palatable than foreskins


Now this was more like it...

A talk on food that sounded – and was – irresistibly appetising.

Yesterday I had intended to attend a talk by Jeremiah Tower, an American celebrity chef whose talk was entitled ‘Eating Desire: Our Appetite for the Erotic and Other Desires’.

Now, with a title like that who wouldn't queue in a long, dirty raincoat with sweating palms and cotton-mouth and mumble about "fluids" and "soft, gooey textures"?

Except that is until you read the small print in the festival's brochure – “Tower looks at the aphrodisiac, from the well-known oyster to the lesser known experiences of Agnes Blannbekin (1244-1315), who was known for her visions of Christ and for the pleasure she gained from eating...foreskins."

No great surprise then that I ultimately declined.

Which is why today I had my fingers crossed about Charles Spence's talk, ‘Gastrophysics: The Science of Dining From Restaurant Music to Sonic Crisps’, which sounded, even via its small print, like an event unlikely to trigger my gag reflex.

And I was right.

In fact, more than right. Indeed, it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser of thrilling and mouth-watering proportions that was every bit as two-ring circus entertaining as it was educational.

Mr Spence is clearly a man who doesn't believe in breathing since in his first five minutes and 40,000-word oratory, I don't believe he inhaled once. Like a runaway train stuffed with delicious foodie treats.

In short, his presentation centred on his belief that the most important organ of the enthusiastic diner is their mind, not their tongue.

After all, as he pointed out: “When you eat it's your mind that's doing all the work, providing the senses, the mood, and everything else. And remember as well, 75 per cent of what you taste is provided by its smell.”

His anecdotes about why drinking plonk in some Mediterranean climates is always more enjoyable than bringing a bottle home and opening it on your patio were priceless. As was his machine fire enthusiasm.

A perfect amuse bouche before lunch...

Masturbation and breakfast


Well, I would have paid £200 to have heard Professor Terence Kealey's talk on breakfast. No, on second thoughts, make that £400.

You see every year there's always one talk, one speaker, one subject that grabs you by the throat, lifts you off your feet, shakes you over the room like a rag doll, and then tosses you limp and exhausted into the corridor outside the Bodleian Library. And this was that 2017 moment.

Joy, I tell you, doesn't come much better or weirder for anyone who's spent hours listening in on informed debates so profound their worthiness weighs you down.

This was liberating, exhilarating, ball-grabbing in its ferocity and I – and the audience too – loved it.
So what was the fuse that ignited this firestorm of controversy...?


Yes, that best meal of the day, that breakfast like a king ritual that all of us rarely have time to eat, let alone contemplate.

In fact, the title of the talk should perhaps have raised a few red flags but seriously, does "Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal" sound that dangerous?

No, but it was, and on a scale too I could never have imagined (I'm actually rubbing my hands with glee right now that such a literary jewel should have fallen so splendidly into my lap).

Delivered by Professor Kealey with the fervour of a 19th Century fire-and-brimstone sermon, the simple – you would think – theme of bacon, eggs, coffee, tea and cereal included these two fabulous revelations:

That Japanese schoolgirls who do eat breakfast tend to hold on to their virginity for two years longer than Japanese schoolgirls who don't, and...

Dr Kellogg, the man behind well pretty much everything from cornflakes to Rice Krispies, was so obsessed with the apparent sin of masturbation that he created the humble cornflake as a means of deflating the single working man's early morning 'urges'.

And that, trust me, this was just the beginning.

"Breakfast," he stated many times, "is all about the money" huge, multinational companies with vested interests in Cheerios and Weetabix can make.

Was it mad? I've no idea. This guy is as Blue-Chip as they come. But it was certainly wonderful fun and simply unforgettable.


31st March

David Pyle: eruption free


From someone whose job title is the stuff of late 19th Century Boy's Own adventures, I was I suppose expecting something... more.

After all, the brevity of the talk's title, ‘Volcanoes’, suggested a brusqueness, a bluntness that only a true adventurer obsessed with bubbling lava and deadly volcanic craters would exhibit, but sadly no...not on this occasion.

Volcanologist David Pyle, a self-confessed volcano freak since the age of seven, is clearly still obsessed with these magnificent, natural phenomenon, but all I could think as I sat there was that if I was a seven year old I'd have long ago lost interest in this whole volcanic shebang.

More a journey through artistic interpretation than a thrill of a planet vomiting forth, it was a presentation that was learned and gentle and pleasantly arty-farty but hardly Conan Doyle's ‘The Lost World’.

Fortunately, aged 55 and not seven, I had the courtesy to keep my eyes open, but boy did my mind wander elsewhere.

Out of this world


I didn't write a word. Not a single jotting. Nada. Nowt. Zilch.

Because it never once crossed my mind I should.

Professionally of course it was sloppy but Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse's talk at the Sheldonian was so spellbinding I couldn't do anything but listen in wonder.

The theme which formed this year's President's Lecture, was science's great unanswered questions and Nurse who won the Nobel for his work on cell duplication and division was simply...extraordinary. A scientific superstar every bit as engaging and charismatic as Professor Brian Cox and Sir David Attenborough.

In fact, the hairs are still standing up on my arm.

True, I only understood about ten per cent of what he said but who cares – I was mesmerised.


1st April


Just a perfect, perfect start to the day

And especially a Saturday – learning how to speak droid with R2-D2 and the proper way to draw a Wookie (they can after all get very, very touchy about their looks...).

So you won't be surprised to learn this was an event with a Star Wars theme, and as such, you won't be surprised to learn either that its audience were young, (about 5 to 12), outrageously enthusiastic and accompanied by doting dads and grandparents keen to score 'brownie' points.

Hosted by JAKe, a Star Wars illustrator and Tom Huddleston, an author for the 'Star Wars: Adventures in Wild Space' series, the excitement was palpable; in fact, made even more so when a few miniature Darth Vaders proudly walked in holding hands with their mums.

Staged at Oxford's wonderful Story Museum in Pembroke Street, it was a cracking event; laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely informative and buzzing with the kind of visceral vibe only children can provide.

I absolutely bloody loved it (great disabled facilities too).


Not unexpected really, but the Sheldonian suddenly swelled with wannabe Anne Hathaways ('The Devil Wears Prada’) for Alexandra Shulman.

Shulman, in case you didn't know, has been editor-in-chief of British Vogue for the last 25 years, so inevitably the composition of her audience was largely willowy young daughters accompanied by less willowy mothers keen to see their offspring aspire to similarly giddy heights.

And talking of giddy heights, even the Sheldonian's upper most tiers were packed with fashionistas.

Reassuring then that Shulman was able to admit that while not personally obsessed by scrubbing up to Anna Wintour standards every day (the doyenne of Vogue editors), “I can pull it out of the hat if I really need to...”

Incidentally, worthy of mention in dispatches is Sali Hughes, the beauty journalist and broadcaster whose task it was to interview Shulman – classy job.


Very nice…like "more tea, vicar?' nice. And Battenberg cake. And some of those Mr Kipling fingers.

Nicholas Lander's "On the Menu: The World's Favourite Piece of Paper" which considered the history, design and evolution of restaurant menus was just that. Strangely comforting in a strangely comforting way with a kind of BBC-on-a-Sunday-afternoon-just-before-Christmas feel to it.


- Jeremy Smith