The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival: a rainy week in the middle of March where the great, the good, and Peter Hitchens graced Christ Church with their presences – trying very hard to please their audiences while subtly flogging their books.
Firstly, where were you? The student turn-out was shockingly low: I could count the under-fifties on one hand at most events. Granted, I was treated to a handful of tickets courtesy of Cherwell’s charming editors and luckily avoided forking out the slightly pricey £10-per-event.
But really, £10 to see Martin Amis? You pay more than that in library fees.
I know, I know, it was the holiday, and perhaps you didn’t know – the advertising in and around Oxford was apparently non-existent, so unless you read The Sunday Times during term time, you probably had no idea a veritable selection box of literary giants was about to be unwrapped on your very doorstep.
Fortunately for you, Cherwell’s team of tireless bookworms were there to fill you in, and now you can plan ahead for next year.
The range of authors, journos and poets was very impressive, with something for every reader: the equally excellent Ian McEwan and Phillip Pullman didn’t disappoint lovers of fiction; science fans flocked to see Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, and keen politicos had Shirley Williams, Andrew Rawnsley and Will Hutton to keep them busy. The organisers also packed in a strong core of big names to fill the Sheldonian for the special events: Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel and John le Carré all drew in the crowds.
On a general – and possibly pedantic – note, I think more thought could have gone into the choice of interviewers: unless the author could be trusted to handle the whole event on their own (Will Hutton did a fabulous job, for example) they tended to rely on a couple of stock interviewers, who, while friendly, were often under-prepared. One notable exception to this trend was the well-researched and fast-paced interview between Sunday Times deputy editor Martin Ivens and Andrew Rawnsley, author of The End of the Party. Questions were both accessible to those who had yet to read the book, while pitched so as to draw the most interesting angle and details from the author.
The difference between a good and bad interview can be captured by the difference between playing tennis with a ball and a soggy flannel: questions flop rather than bounce.
The high points (and there were many) included the entirely lovable David Dimbleby reducing a room of middle-aged women to giggles with his comments about Tracey Emin’s masturbation sketches and finding myself five feet away from the terrifying and fabulous Martin Amis oh-so-coolly puffing on a cigarette in front of a herd of braying paparazzi.
The one unmissable spectacle of the week was certainly David Mitchell ‘utterly wiping the floor’ with Shadow Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey, as my companion aptly described it. The politician avoided the same question four times, much to the amusement of the audience, and proceeded to dismiss Mitchell’s argument that spending less on the BBC’s website would make it worse as ‘left wing’. This, again, elicited roars of laughter from the Mitchell-loving crowd. There were points during the ‘debate’ when I actually felt sorry for Vaizey – against Mitchell he barely stood a chance. These moments were brief and, alas, fleeting.
The entire festival ran incredibly smoothly – events started and finished on the hour, and aside from a couple of microphone difficulties which were swiftly remedied I actually can’t recall anything going wrong. It certainly helped that the events were staffed by an army of friendly and helpful stewards. I don’t doubt that next year will be as thoughtfully prepared and as smoothly executed.