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The Sheldonian Theatre

Oxford Literary Festival: Day Four

Jeremy Smith reports from the Bodleian’s Divinity School and the Sheldonian Theatre during day four of Oxford Literary Festival
Editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

"I liked the speaker, and really, really wanted to get immersed in the subject of his talk, but it just proved too scholarly."

Brilliant location, dreamy atmosphere and the perils of a rather full stomach…Charles Williams - controversial member of Oxford's The Inklings


I know I shouldn’t admit this…

And I promise it’s no reflection on the speaker or event - rather more I think it’s location and what I ate for breakfast (full English).

Oh, and the weather too.

But it was beautifully sunny, the talk was held in the Bodleian’s Divinity School and thanks to the bacon-and-eggs I scoffed earlier, I was filled with a general sense of well-being.

Consequently - and none of the above are any excuse - I dropped off for a few minutes during Professor Grevel Lindop’s talk on the life and works of Charles Williams, an apparently ‘controversial’ member of the Inkling group of Oxford writers which of course included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

It was a fascinating talk about a man who frankly seemed a bit too ‘tightly wound’ - he was in fact a secret occultist who practised erotically tinged rituals…

A complicated individual then.

Professor Lindop however was animated and clearly passionate about his subject matter, setting the scene brilliantly by asking us all to travel back to February 5th, 1940, when Williams first addressed his students in - yes, you’ve guessed it - the Divinity School.

Sadly however he was playing to a very small audience (and a git at the back whose eyes I fear were rolling).

Fascinating nonetheless.

Back to the Divinity School and... it's obviously an unlucky charm for today.

The title of this afternoon's talk Battling the Gods: Atheism in The Ancient World proved irresistible, while the speaker's pedigree was 24-carat.

And as icing on the cake, the event was also packed, so there was a great sense of... anticipation.

But for some reason, it just didn't 'click'.

The talk was given by Professor Tim Whitmarsh, who chose to explain why atheism is far from a modern manifestation; and how the intelligentsia of this era were in fact openly doubtful about the existence of the Gods.

And boy-oh-boy did it look promising.

Sadly however, it just didn't deliver the goods (and even it did, it all got lost a bit in the hugely academic way it was presented).

I liked the speaker, and really, really wanted to get immersed in the subject of his talk, but it just proved too scholarly.

If the audience had been made up of Classics or Greek History undergraduates it would have made sense, but to the layman - and I recognise how stupid a criticism this will sound about a literary festival - his vocabulary was stuffed full of words that were just... too long.

So I sat there and strained to try and keep up - like I do when I watch University Challenge - but on this occasion, I don't think I scored a single point.

Mary Beard. Mary Beard. Mary Beard.

I’ve written it three times because I liked her so much.


You betcha.


Of course.


Is the Pope you-know-what?

And boy did the rest of the audience love her too.

Indeed, I think even the Bodleian’s librarian Richard Ovenden was rather taken (his introduction of her achievements was so i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y long and glowing, it began to sound like a eulogy…).

Probably best known for her documentary on Pompeii, Ms Beard chatted as if talking across a pub table, which perfectly complemented the Sheldonian’s majestic airs.

And at the end she received a medal for her efforts - the Bodley Medal in fact, which is awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution to literature, art, science and communication.

Not bad for an hour’s work.

So all in all, an up-lifting conclusion to a rather flat day.


- Jeremy Smith


Related Articles: Oxford Literary Festival: Day Three