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Laura Dillon, aged 23, one of the subjects of Liz Hodgkinson's and Diana Cowell's The First Sex Changes: How Laura Became Michael and Robert Became Roberta

Oxford Literary Festival: Day Five

Star Trek and Sex Change: Jeremy Smith is on his fifth day at the Financial Times Weekend Oxford Literary Festival
Editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

"Unexpected dangers"

Now today at Oxford Lit Fest is what I'd call a Quality Street day - you know, plenty of diverse events, all sure to constitute stories in their own right.

The first should be great, whether or not you're a fan of science fiction, TV, myriad spin-offs and pointy-eared icons. Indeed, I'm feverishly hoping at least one member of the audience will self-consciously turn up in costume speaking in Klingon.

Yes, you've guessed it, the super geek wet dream known as Star Trek, presented as Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek at Weston Lecture Theatre at 10am.

Next up at midday at the Oxford Martin School is Finding Your Own Detective at which crime writers Sophie Hannah, David Mark and Sarah Hilary join forces to discuss how they created their own sleuthing characters. Perfect for Morse county.

Then at 2.00pm Suzannah Lipscomb considers the Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home back at Weston Lecture Theatre.

This bright new era encompassed a host of social changes and improved technologies, but as Lipscomb discovers, there were also unexpected dangers lurking throughout the changing home.

And finally at 5.00pm, Liz Hodgkinson and Diana Cowell present The First Sex Changes: How Laura Became Michael and Robert Became Roberta, discussing the interlinked stories and impact of sex change on friends and families.

In short, a bumper harvest!

Professor Plum, in the dining room, with an iron bar...

"If you don't mind me saying...you look rather I like a sleuth yourself," I said, as I waited for the lift to take myself and fellow passenger up to the first floor of the Oxford Martin School.

Our destination, a talk by three successful thriller authors on 'How to Find Your Own Detective'.

With crime writers Sophie Hannah, David Mark and Sarah Hilary joining forces to discuss how they created their own best-selling sleuthing characters, the woman beside me looked the perfect fit.

In the few short seconds it took for our lift to rise from the ground to first floor, I imagined her as an elegant Parisian retired teacher who, through sheer charm and guile, manages to expose murderers whose vile crimes have left Paris's finest investigators flummoxed.

And her answer to my admittedly cheeky enquiry suggests I was pretty close to the mark.

"Actually I was a prosecutor," she replied, with a strong NY accent. "Oh, and an investigator...".

Which meant at least one member of the audience would be able to see through the writers’ flimflam.

Thanks to presenter and interviewer Paul Blezard, the debate crackled as he quite rightly introduced his guests as “a helluva panel”.

And neither did they disappoint.

It was a fascinating hour and I noticed the ex-prosecutor – who probably once trod the crime-riddled streets of New York – nodded constantly and benignly.

Do I now know how to create my own fictional detective?


But I do at least appreciate the huge amount of creative effort it requires.

The 2pm talk by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb on Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home promised so much but thanks to its chairing fell short.

The speaker herself was terrific - smart, sassy and clearly passionate about her subject and clearly the topic itself was fascinating, but sadly it all seemed a bit disjointed.

And often if felt like nothing more than an advert for the launch of the new BBC Four series than a stand-alone talk on the subject itself.

Plus, her interviewer seem determined to go off on tangents entirely unrelated to the theme of the talk than focusing on the title advertised (for instance, she insisted on commenting, cringingly, on Dr Lipscomb's cosmetic appeal for reasons entirely superfluous and unconnected).

It should have been a stand-out talk at this year's festival - quirky, intriguing and wry - but instead felt like a huge billboard promotion for Dr Lipscomb's looks rather than her obvious knowledge and insight.

This is not a slight on Dr Lipscomb; just the manner in which the talk was directed.

The 4pm debate entitled 'The First Sex Changes: How Laura Became Michael and Robert Became Roberta' was hugely moving, impossible in fact to give justice to in a short review.

Like anything truly worthwhile and satisfying, it needs few words to frame it. But Diana Cowell's testimony as the daughter of the first man in the world to undergo a male-to-female sex change was heart-breaking and astonishingly courageous.

A brilliant and forever haunting story of the human condition. Unmissable.


- Jeremy Smith


Related Articles: Oxford Literary Festival: Day Four