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Culture, Literature

Literary Oxford

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The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, this year celebrating its 25th Anniversary, is an annual source of pride to the city. Bringing together a consistently impressive, interesting range of speakers is ultimately the challenge of Festival Director, Sally Dunsmore. OX was eager to learn more.

Sally Dunsmore


Can you tell us about this year’s instalment of the festival and what we can expect?  

  We had to cancel the 2020 Oxford Literary Festival two weeks before it started – to be staging the ten-day festival again in 2022 is very exciting. Festivalgoers can expect to see major novelists – Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Howard Jacobson, Donna Leon; world-renowned scientists – Sarah Gilbert, Andrew Pollard, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili; actors Joanna Lumley and Maureen Lipman; politicians David Owen, Ed Miliband, Jess Philips and Tom Tugendhat – and a grand finale jazz and poetry concert in the Sheldonian on the last night.  

How long does it take to plan?  

  It takes a year of planning.  We have a wonderful small team of people who work with us to stage the festival. All stayed with us during Covid. We refer to ourselves as a festival family – team, writers and festival sponsors and partners. 

How would you describe the Festival’s ‘identity’ in three words?  

  Lucy Worsley described it as ‘intellectual Viagra’ – I would also add ‘welcoming’. 

Which event are you personally most excited for?   

  It has not been easy resurrecting the festival due to Covid, to have 300 writers coming to speak about their work and ideas is a celebration and exciting. 

Which do you feel is your biggest coup?  

  The event telling the story of the creation of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca Vaccine with Sarah Gilbert, Andrew Pollard, John Bell, Cath Green and Teresa Lambe, to whom we owe our lives. 

What themes have you woven into the 2022 programme?  

  We have launched two new themes this year, our Christian Tradition Strand – building on our faith events; and the launch of our Science and Innovation Award – to be awarded to the Oxford/Astra Zeneca Vaccine team. 

Oxford is a city steeped in literary culture – does this backdrop have an influence over the events/speakers which are planned for The Oxford Literary Festival?  

  Yes, it does. We are so lucky to have Oxford, an international city, and its University as a magnificent backdrop of history, beautiful buildings, creativity of thought, innovation – a place that has seen the greatest thinkers of all time pass through. The festival, in its small way, aims to reflect this very special atmosphere. 

Equally, Oxford is increasingly being forced to re-examine its past associations and question its inclusivity and diversity, as is the book industry. How do you ensure a breadth of representation? 

  The pursuit of truth is important – the festival is a place where intellectual curiosity is nurtured. It is conceived as a platform for dialogue, where the big ideas of the world can be freely debated in an intellectual but congenial and inclusive atmosphere which values both evidence and excellence. In a world where there is an increasing desire to shut down free speech, the festival is a platform for diversity and free expression. 

Finally, which book - Are you currently reading?

 Bandersnatch: C S Lewis, J R R Tolkein and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. 

Do you want to read next?

 Colm Toibin’s The Magician 

Would you take on a desert island?

 A complete set of Barbara Pym novels. Her characters lead seemingly small ordinary lives but yet reveal so much about human nature – and its quirks.  And her books make me laugh. 

Do you feel you should have read?

The work of Thomas Hardy, a big gap in my reading life. 

Have you struggled to finish?

James Joyce’s Ulysses.   

The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival takes place between 21 March and 3 April at various venues throughout the city. Further details including a complete programme of talks and events, plus booking information can be found at oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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