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Jacqueline Wilson (© James Jordan)

Oxford Literary Festival: Day One

Jeremy Smith on the first day at Oxford Lit Fest, watching the entertaining Simon Horobin, the charming Dana Arnold and the warm, charismatic Jacqueline Wilson
Editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

"I've always held a grudge against Ms Rowling since watching her at the Royal Albert Hall"

As any movie trailer worth its salt will tell you (with gravelly voice): "it's been a year in the making". But damn if it hasn't been worth the wait.

Marking yet another milestone by kicking off its 20th year, the Oxford Literary Festival stormed out of its starting gate this fine April morning with a typically eclectic harvest of Jewell Parker Rhodes discussing her 'Louisiana Girls' trilogy, Humphrey Burton celebrating Yehudi Menuhin, David Baddiel introducing his latest children's book and Lauren Child discussing her inspiration for Charlie and Lola.

Hemming and hawing then between a Titan of music and goddess of picture books, I plumped instead for some local talent, courtesy of Simon Horobin, a professor of English at Oxford University, who attempted to explain 'How English Became English'. And very succinctly he did it too.

Although, in truth, at first I couldn't stop thinking - it's actor Charlie Sheen (try it: Google Mr Sheen and you'll have an exact duplicate of Professor Horobin).

That aside, what could have been a ferociously dry subject was refreshingly brought to life, using real-life examples of...um...British supermarkets.

In particular Waitrose and its sign "10 items or less/fewer" and Tesco's "up to 10 items' notification which triggered much nodding among the clearly pro Waitrose audience.

Trust me, you had to be there to appreciate his lightness of touch, but it WAS entertaining.

And especially so his story about the mother of the British man who had his 'selfie' taken with the EgyptAir hijacker this week.

Apparently when the world's press contacted his mum, instead of first professing her relief at his safe release, she instead seemed more concerned about correcting a frankly trivial point - "The picture is clearly not a selfie as everyone has been describing it," she apparently said. "He's in it but not taking it..."

Good then to see that some people still have standards over how newspapers twist and play with language.

Indeed, even Barack Obama came in for a little good-natured ribbing because of his much repeated phrase - 'the enormity of the task ahead' - which marked the start of his presidency.

In all, good fun, entertaining and worth the ticket price. And nice to know too that Professor Horobin can always moonlight as a tv lookalike...

Halfway through the beginning 

At midday, and frankly in need of a shot of glamour, I popped into Dana Arnold's intriguingly entitled talk 'A Short Book About Art', and indeed it was about a short book about art.

So no disappointment there.

I have to say not only was I impressed by Ms Arnold, who despite what it says in the Festival brochure IS NOT a professor at the University of Southampton but in fact a 'prof' at the University of Middlesex.

But as impressed as I was by Ms Arnold, I was more impressed by the woman introducing her who insisted that, at the end of the talk, we should all stream out and BUY HER BOOK, immediately, in the foyer.

She was that insistent (and I just hope she was on commission).

In truth, I didn't understand much of Ms Arnold's presentation, but she was charm and wit personified so it really didn't matter much.

Instead I just sat there and wallowed in the 'glow' of it all.

Towards the end of the beginning

Jacqueline Wilson.

Enough said really.

Two words...goodness knows how many books.

And next to JK Rowling, probably one of Britain's most successful children's authors, though unlike Harry Potter's creator, considerably warmer (Legal Disclaimer: I've always held a grudge against Ms Rowling since watching her at the Royal Albert Hall; she answered a question from a child as to whether she herself believed in magic with 'no').

Anyway, Ms Wilson was...electric. Alive. And unbelievably charismatic, sitting in a Sheldonian Hall that, for added dramatic effect, was packed to the rafters with girls aged between four and 13.

Yet without any need for a microphone - at least none I could see - spoke effortlessly and engagingly about topics I know nothing about (Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather among them). However, such was her enthusiasm, I couldn't help but think I might sneak a look at one of these characters in Blackwell's one day.

Frail arms bedecked in bracelets galore - a nod to Edith Nesbit, the 'Railway Children' author she claims has been her life-long inspiration - she was open, friendly, and clearly the apple of everyone's eye (even some parents looked like rabbits caught in headlights).

Without notes, and almost entirely 'um' and 'er' free, she weaved some wonderful tales about her own, modest beginnings.

Admitting most memorably that occasionally, when starting out as an author and finding herself introduced to strangers at parties who clearly had no idea who she was, she felt tempted instead to introduce herself as Enid Blyton. Just for a reaction.

But, as you might expect, the real stars of this talk were the audience.

I don't know if children and young teenagers today are any more intelligent than say...10 years ago, but boy were some of their questions smart, savvy and on the money. So, courtesy of five or six young fans of Ms Wilson, here are a few revelations you might find interesting -

When she was younger and writing for magazines, she was appointed one publication's astrologer, without knowing a single thing about the subject.

The teenage girls' magazine 'Jackie' was named after her.

Of all the characters she's created, she'd most like to meet Hetty Feather.

Of all the characters she's created, she believes she herself is most like Rosalind from her book 'Four Children and It'.

Her favourite time to write is early in the morning, after she's been woken by either her cat, dog or both.

And, she doesn't really know why the parents in so many of her stories...split.

For a novice to her world, it was, if nothing else, a tour-de force of personality and style.


- Jeremy Smith


Top Image - Jacqueline Wilson © James Jordan


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