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Oxford Literary Festival: Day Three

From Shakespeare groupies to birds eggs; an (at one point) isolated and scared Jeremy Smith attends the third day of Oxford Literary Festival
Editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

"I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like Professor Sam Smith"

Two things spring to mind today -

1. Yesterday, for the first and ONLY time, I tried to write this blog (any blog for that matter) during a talk. True, my keyboard was on mute and I sat right at the back of the auditorium where not not even MI5 could find me, but nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy the experience. It just seemed so disrespectful, both to the speaker and to the audience. This isn’t breaking news after all so from now on I’ll write about each event AFTERWARDS.

2. The audiences…They’re great. Of course, it depends on which talk you choose to attend, but on the whole those who turn up are eager, open and excited. It goes without saying of course that the best audiences, and the most enthusiastic, are those for the children’s events. Hell, even the parents are cute. But, take for instance, the talk last night by Sir Ian McKellan. Every single person there, and the Sheldonian was bursting, was simply willing it to be a memorable 60 minutes. And consequently it was.

Monday. Wet. Lunchtime

Imagine my surprise then when Shakespeare groupie after Shakespeare groupie started wandering into the Weston Lecture Theatre, until quite frankly it was almost full.

Interestingly - and this is ONLY an observation - the audience was predominantly women; there were one or two men but they looked isolated and scared.

I know I was.

And if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like our speaker, Professor Sam Smith of home-grown Hertford College, but after one of the most glowing introductions I think I’ve ever heard at the festival, I began to I warm to her

Here was a scholar who wasn’t going to drone on and about the purity and brilliance of Shakespeare’s prose (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt…) but someone instead who wanted to take a good, long hard look at how Shakespeare’s First Folio came to be printed.

And by that I mean, the commercial impulses behind printing what has quickly became one of the most important books ever published.

Remember, Shakespeare had been dead for a few years before this collection of his plays was printed, and had it not been, we would incredibly have lost Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra.

So thumbs up here for a talk that actually delivered far more than the Festival brochure promised.


It is a common truth that no matter how dull the subject matter, if somebody is truly passionate, excited and unable to suppress their enthusiasm for stamps or trains or birds (these are just examples, naturally), some of that ‘intensity’ will undoubtedly rub off on the not-particularly-fascinated-until-now bystander.

And so it was at Professor Tim Birkhead’s talk ‘The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg’ at Oxford Martin School this afternoon (which incidentally boasts the most extraordinary disabled entrance I have ever seen).

Perhaps naively, I had expected the audience to be made up of ‘Twitcher’ like individuals wearing army camouflage fatigues and bowed down by binoculars.
No such luck however.

Everyone looked respectable although over the age of 50.

As I intimated at the beginning, Professor Birkhead is one of those people that could make, for instance, dialling tones seem sexy.

Consequently, this talk on birds eggs came alive, literally in front of my eyes, and while I couldn’t quite match the enthusiasm everybody else showed for Guillemot eggs, I at least came away viewing them in a more… sympathetic light.

Now I’m not saying I’m going to go out and buy Profesor Birkhead’s latest book, but should I come across any of his fine tomes in Blackwell’s, I will at least now pause momentarily before hurtling on toward the TV and celebrity aisles…

A short, sharp change of direction

I thought a talk that dealt with sex, 19th-century Parisian social mores, sex, art, sex and Zola (in that order) might prove a valuable distraction from all the 'worthy' events I've so far attended.

And I wasn't wrong... for two reasons -

1. The subject matter of the event was factual, historical and deliciously delectable, concerning as it did the forgotten story of Valtesse de la Bigne, a Parisian courtesan who, from humble beginnings, went on to inspire a painting by Manet, a novel by Zola, and a family tree plucked entirely out her own imagination (complete with specially commissioned family portraits I might add).

2. It introduced first-time writer Catherine Hewitt who, based both on the book and her own self-assured presence at the event, is almost certain to become a familiar name.

Interviewed by the inimitably superb Paul Blezard, it made for a cracking end to the day, dealing as it did with a 19th-century self-made woman who turned herself into one of history's great cause celebres.

A story in fact - and this is meant in no derogatory way but quite the opposite - that would easily pass muster as a Richard and Judy beach read.

As it teases in the Festival's brochure: 'De la Bigne (Valtesse) was born into poverty and raised in the squalid backstreets of Paris. So, how did she rise to own a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages and art that was the envy of connoisseurs across Europe?'


But it would spoil your fun if I were to tell you anymore.

Suffice to say, it was a perfect event to set the stage for a few Proseccos afterwards...


- Jeremy Smith



Related Articles: Oxford Literary Festival: Day Two