Review: Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

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As usual, I was late. Cruel fate had decided to put many interesting events on at 10am which is, as everyone knows, four hours before internationally accepted vacation waking time.

But the sleep deprivation was worth it. I’d been expecting a bunch of writers to read their work and then wait to sign hopefully newly-purchased books, and to be fair, there were plenty such events, some better than others – but was floored by the sheer variety of what else was on offer.

‘Literary’ wasn’t just a codeword for schmoozing over classics, or the writings of an old boy network, but embraced pretty much anything and everything in writing. There were books and discussions about science, politics, food, art, architecture, even a malt whisky tasting.

Some of the higher-profile events included the first annual lecture on ‘Englishness’, delivered by the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, and the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence ceremony, in which Ian McEwan was duly honoured.

I was more interested in the national final for Off by Heart, which is the BBC’s new poetry reciting competition for 7-11 year olds. Not just because I’m a fan of poetry, but also because you’re allowed to laugh at kids more than authors and archbishops.

Talented and often funny performances were put on by all, especially the 10 year old winner Yazdan Qafouri Isfahani, whose exuberant charm was buoyed up by a snazzy outfit that made him look like Michael Jackson out of Thriller (minus the creepiness).

The adults did provide some entertainment too. A debate on who was the greater writer, Orwell or Dickens, saw a lively and light-hearted exchange between the four speakers, including the hilariously deadpan comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli. It didn’t make much difference to people’s opinions in the end, but was definitely enjoyable.

I also took the chance to attend events to satisfy my inner self-help junkie. One of the most engaging talks was given by Abbot Christopher Jamison, best known from the reality TV show The Monastery, who discussed some of the ideas from his new book Finding Happiness.

Obviously he considered religion as fundamental to happiness, although when asked what to do if one didn’t believe in gods, his response was disarmingly direct: ‘Become a Buddhist.’

More worryingly at one point, the abbot stated that a key to appreciating religion was to wake early enough to watch the sun rise, but my faith in him was restored when he hastily added, ‘Except for teenagers.’ Apparently it’s enough for the hormonally advantaged to pray at night, with candles as solar substitutes.

While a lot of these events often put forward familiar viewpoints, some managed to venture further. At the Oxford Poets & Refugee Writers event, for example, refugees who’d had the chance to work with local poets read aloud their life stories turned into poetry.

True, it wasn’t great poetry with all the bells and whistles of the English tradition, but the poems’ rawness often added to their force. It’s difficult to deny the empowering and cathartic effect literature can sometimes have when you listen to someone read about their experience of being raped, beaten, or losing their children, and most people in the room were visibly moved.
Similarly enlightening was a discussion on how disabled characters were portrayed in contemporary literature. The key issue was that disabled characters’ lives were often portrayed as revolving almost solely around their disability, although a lot more about disability in general was said by the three speakers.

The panel itself was diverse, comprising of the very witty former Head of Comedy Development at Carlton TV, Nigel Smith, and the Canadian playwright and literary manager Alex Bulmer, both of whom talked frankly about the experience of dealing with their own disabilities.

The third member, the able-bodied writer Adam Mars-Jones, also read a scene from his work in which two adolescent boys in a school for disabled children play at being secret agents. Skilfully interwoven with the homoerotic elements were meticulous descriptions of, for example, how one of the boys handles the supports he uses to assist his polio-crippled legs.

Ultimately, it’s these little unexpected glimpses which drew me in and stayed with me afterwards. And I was glad that the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival had embraced a definition of literature that celebrated as many voices as possible, both expected and unexpected.

Of course, that’s just what appealed to me. The beauty of such variety is that there really is something for everybody.

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