Oxford Literary Festival review blog

Philip Pullman talks to Peter Kemp: His Dark Materials trilogy, Wednesday 20th March 2013


His Dark Materials were three of the best books I read as a teenager. They were original, imaginative and powerful, and what better place to see the writer of such grand work than the Sheldonian?

It was pleasing to see the event open with Pullman being awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the festival, along with a Folio edition of Paradise Lost. The last I saw him, he was in class reading from his recent retelling of Grimm’s Fairy tales. He impressed me with his enthusiasm and eccentricity, and I listened engrossed as he responded to questions from the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer Peter Kemp.

Pullman was still a pleasure to listen to. He talked of his school days, excelling at story writing and discovering Milton; his days as a teacher, learning storytelling skills by retelling Greek myths to children; introducing Lyra’s daemon to make the opening of Northern Lights work, the most exciting moment in his career, and discovering he could give up teaching to become a full time writer when it was published. He talked of film and theatre adaptations; the dangers of religious control; the importance of starting with a story over an idea; his love for the Victorians and their literature, and his enjoyment of writing about Oxford, a ‘beautiful, strange city’, where streets change overnight.

The same could be said of Pullman’s work and mind, and this event was a pleasant tribute to such things, along with the audience’s intelligent questions and their applause.

Meg Rosoff. Voice: How to figure out what you should be writing about.

On a snowy Saturday morning Meg Rosoff came to Oxford at the invitation of MA Creative writing students from Oxford Brookes University. Meg has had six books published and her seventh, Picture Me Gone is due out this year. Her books are about young people, normally in their teens and have won awards such as the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Carnegie Medal. Her talk was held in the Blue Boar lecture room of Christ Church College, a magnificent set of buildings used for, amongst other things, the filming of Harry Potter.
Myself and Helen Newdick (who deserves the credit for organising the event) are both students on the MA course and it was a thrill to be sitting with Meg, asking her questions in front of over 100 people.

Entitled’ Voice: How to figure out what you should be writing about’, Meg talked at length about how connecting the subconscious to the conscious enables a true writing voice to be expressed. She is a very funny person and her anecdotes and tips on writing were well received by the audience. She explained that although her books are marketed as Young Adult, she considers them to be for adults old or young and in-between. She enjoys writing about adolescents because they are experiencing so many new things and there is a wealth of topics to write about, from love to careers.

Personally, I learnt a tremendous amount from her. She sucks up information about her surroundings and the people around her: a very useful skill for an author. She says she doesn’t do much research for her books, just writes about what interests her, from horse-riding to fishing. The Oxford Literary Festival was her 17th appearance in the last month, but she was warm, engaging and honest.

It was a great experience for Helen and I and completely engrossing to be on the other side of the table, participating rather than watching.

Rachel Norman, Oxford Brookes University.

D J Taylor, John Crace ‘Parody’ 6.00pm Friday 22 March 2013

It was a joy to sit, late in the day, and listen to such a sizzlingly witty discussion on the merits and demerits of publishing parody. The Bodleian Divinity School was a potentially austere setting with its carved stone roof and walls but proved perfect for amplifying the speakers’ (both celebrated writers of parody) and the audience’s ready laughter.

Taylor gave a reading of his parody of Melvyn Bragg’s novel ‘A Son of War’ prefaced by an assurance to the audience that he is a great fan of Lord Bragg’s. Indeed Taylor and Crace were at pains to explain that only established writers who have reached a certain level were fair game for their comedic talents. They have perversely both been approached by writers who actively want their work to be parodied. Crace observed that being asked by an author to write a parody of his work tends to make him less likely to do it so this could be a tactical ploy!

Crace argued that looking at texts through a parodic prism which demands a close interrogation of a piece of writing is as valid a way as any of analysing and critiquing an author’s work.

Crace who writes the ‘digested read’ column for The Guardian pandered to the audience vote and read out his parody of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ with a few ‘bleep bleep’ moments and finished with an excoriating parody of a book entitled ‘French Children Don’t Throw Their Food’ – highly recommended – the parody that is.

Helen Newdick, Oxford Brookes University


Alison MacLeod, Joanna Trollope, Lionel Shriver and Andrew Holgate, ‘How to write a successful short story’ 4.00pm Friday 22 March 2013

This packed session led by the judges of The Sunday Times and EFG Private Bank short story award was a master-class in writing in the shorter form, a form which when working should, as Chekov said, feel like ‘a good stiff shot of vodka’.

Alison Macleod who is a self-confessed addict of short-stories (which she writes as well as reads) talked passionately about the features that fascinate her. To have Chekov’s vodka intensity she says they need an inner charge and to be compressed and precise. The charge comes from creating pivotal moments in the story from which lives are transformed. Beginnings have to be strong with the story travelling forward like a moving tram which you, the reader, hop on to. She looks for revelation too and an ending that doesn’t lose the story’s mystery by wrapping things up too neatly. In between we need to see the characters vividly and often the story will hinge on some sort of longing that the characters reveal. Macleod feels that plot will almost take care of itself if one can write from the point of view or innermost needs of the characters. She likes contradictions too, and plucked out of the air the character of a banker dressed in a sharp suit but with calloused hands, an idea which immediately sets up intrigue and keeps the character in his body and not just a talking head.

Andrew Holgate who is a regular judge for this award said that there were many ‘genre-styles’ within the short-list including magic realism, social realism and science-fiction (illustrating how plastic the form could be).

Joanna Trollope drew attention to the visceral immediacy of the short story which makes it similar in form to poetry in that both create intimacy between reader and writer.

Lionel Shriver, as well as talking with her fellow judges about this year’s short story finalists, gave tips about where to get ideas from. Newspapers can be great at reporting stories with ‘snaggy details’ to get your imagination steaming.

An e-book entitled ‘Six Shorts’ featuring the finalists’ stories is available for £1.95.

Helen Newdick

Oxford Brookes University


Kate Clanchy: Poets of the City

BBC Radio Oxford presenter and writer Bill Heine, hosted Oxford City Poet and Brookes Fellow Kate Clanchy’s ‘Poets of the City’ session at the Oxford Literary Festival on Wednesday 20 March.

Kate read from her new novel, Meeting the English, and then introduced three young poets she has been working with at the Oxford Spires Academy, supported by the charity First Story. Oxford Spires poets Azfa Ali, Esme Partridge and Asiya Mahdi read work which ranged from the humorous, to the touching, to the traumatic. As Bill Heine said himself, the overall effect of their work was spellbinding.

Kate Clanchy was enthralled by these three poets. ‘I’ve used Oxford Spires Academy as a base for my City Poet post, and have worked with dozens of City children, in primaries and secondaries across the last two years’ she said. ‘Being in the school so much has meant that I have been able to work with students over several years, until they became independent self-motivated writers – which was what we heard at the festival.’

‘It’s been a privilege to work with these students and see them develop as people and as writers. I was amazed and delighted by their reading and so proud.’
Head of English and Modern Languages at Brookes, Simon Kövesi, gave credit to Kate Clanchy: ‘The incredibly powerful and mature poetry on show at this session is a rich testament to the hard and inspiring work Kate has done across Oxford in her Brookes-sponsored role as the City’s poet. To be present as Kate saw for the first time a fresh copy of her new novel – her very first novel – and to then hear the first reading of it – was an unexpected privilege.’

In September 2013 Kate Clanchy will join the Creative Writing team and the Poetry Centre at Oxford Brookes as a Senior Research Fellow.

Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project with Iain Sinclair



Iain Sinclair appeared in an Oxford Brookes session at the Oxford Literary Festival on Tuesday 19 March 2013.

Sinclair is one the most significant, influential and consistently original writers of the past 40 years. Since the early 1970s, he has published and produced works of such genre-busting diversity, ranging across so many of the creative arts, on his own, and in collaboration with such a wide range of artists, that he now stands as someone who is impossible to define in anything other than in his own terms.

Poet, novelist, film-maker, documentarist, pedallo-pilot, flaneur, essayist, trailblazing psychogeographer, London-lover and literary critic, polemicist, and cultural historian, Sinclair is a writer who ranges from a global sense of cultural diversities across time and space, to a commitment to localism and the intimate soundings of the detail of story, history and place.

His many publications include Downriver (1991), Radon Daughters (1994), The Ebbing of the Kraft (1997), Lights out for the Territory (1997), Landor’s Tower (2001), London Orbital (2002), Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey Out Of Essex’ (2005), Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), and the subject of much of his talk in Oxford, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (2012) – a graphic illustration of the power and dangers of totalising and insensitive architectural and town planning projects – in this case, the Olympic park in the East End of London. His most recent film project is Swandown (2012, pictured above), with film-maker Andrew Kötting.

The session was supported by the School of Architecture and the Department of English and Modern Languages at Oxford Brookes University, and chaired by Simon Kövesi.

Joanne Harris talks to Paul Blezard: Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé

By Kyte Photography (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spending an hour in the company of bestselling author Joanne Harris at the Sheldonian Theatre was, in a word, enchanting.

Harris, author of 13 books, including bestselling novel Chocolat, discussed her third part of the food trilogy, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, with author and broadcaster Paul Blezard.

With an audience of around 50 people, all seated close to her, the event took on an intimate feel; helped by Harris with her welcoming smile and unassuming nature.

She began her talk by taking the audience back to the beginning; back 13 years ago to her invention of the characters in Chocolat which captured so many reader’s hearts. Yet Harris revealed that early on in her tale of Vianne Rocher, in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, she was advised by those in the know, that her novel would never appeal to a mass market. How wrong they were.

After 10 bestsellers, including the Lollipop Shoes, the second in the food trilogy, Harris said she felt Vianne insisting on another story, bringing her character back to the village she said she would never return to.

A former teacher, Harris knows how to talk; eye contact, hand gestures, and an obvious passion for her characters, allowed the audience a glimpse into her wonderful and varied imagination.

Blezard ended asking Harris if she was, first and foremost, a storyteller, to which Harris readily agreed; pointing out that storytelling was a way to change perceptions and push boundaries. Harris, known for her semi-magical theme in the trilogy, said storytelling in itself was also a form of magic—in that her words, scrawled on paper, could affect a reader—make them laugh, make them cry, without ever having met them.

Harris was overall an intelligent, witty, and extremely funny orator. The only downside, that one hour in her company is just not enough.


Carly Schabowski, Oxford Brookes University





Antony Horder, Patricia Kessler and Martin Vaughan Lewis: Lewis Carroll meets Edward Lear, Wednesday 20th March 2013

lewis carroll meets edward lear

Its incredible to think that the two kings of nonsense, Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland and Edward Lear, fellow nonsense poet, almost impossible to think of separately, had never enjoyed each other’s company. The idea of staging a production based on them meeting sounds like a dream concocted between two literary Oxfordians on a wine-soaked evening.

In fact, the idea came from Antony Horder, one of the event’s performers, and was presented by the English-speaking Parisian theatre of Dear Conjunction. Still, the event felt  like an Oxford dream. For one, it was staged in the Convocation House of the Bodleian, complete with carved ceiling and wooden benches. The two male performers, Horder and Lewis, were suited up and speaking in finest eccentric English, while Kessler was just as energetic, especially when she played the part of the sister who Carroll wanted to put in an Irish stew.

I thought the event would be a literal conversation between the two writers, but it was more the two characters performing together, complete with biographical details and mild mocking. The actors read from a script, but they had clearly practised. They were flawless and enthusiastic with character voices, and reading either back and forth or together, as they sang reams of wacky poems, some well known like my favourite Jabberwocky and many less known. The clever bit was relating these poems to the author’s lives.

An all round pleasant tribute to two imaginative, original writers that had the audience in frequent smiles.

John Gray: The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths, Tuesday 19th March 2013

john gray

This lecture sounded promising. Professor John Gray was once professor of politics at Oxford, and has taught at Harvard, Yale and the London School of Economics. He is now a full time writer, and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, the prequel to his latest book The Silence of Animals, challenged the ideal upheld even in recent philosophies, that humans are the centre of the universe and above other creatures. This book received praise from such renowned writers as Ballard and Will Self.

Tuesday’s lecture was meant to continue this idea, that we create myths to avoid acknowledging that we are the same as animals. More excitedly, Gray was going to discuss why writers such as Ballard, Freud and Conrad have been drawn to writing about extreme conditions, and what tips these writer’s imaginations into places beyond the reach of our experiences. This is ideal intellectual territory for me, and clearly this man had a lot to say.

Unfortunately, the fact that I was late trying to find the venue (I’m glad I did. Corpus Christi is beautiful); the fact that I was placed in the middle row of a large, packed lecture theatre, and that Gray had a quick, airy voice meant that I missed his argument. My impaired hearing caught the word ‘torture’ a few times (which probably related to his discussion of how we behave under extreme circumstances) and he frequently criticised religion. But I didn’t get the wealth of subjects the lecture promised.

Fifty Shades of Feminism. Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes,Helena Kennedy,Timberlake Wertenbaker.

In November 2012, Republican politicians in the US decided there was such a thing as ‘legitimate rape’. This and the discovery of sex rings, where young British girls were routinely abused, infuriated Lisa Appignanesi, Suzie Orbach and Rachel Holmes. They decided to compile an anthology of essays written by fifty prominent women, about what feminism means to them today.
Women such as Helena Kennedy QC, Juliet Stevenson and Timberlake Wertenbaker contributed to the book ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’ (published by Virago, 28.03.13. £12.99).
On a cold March evening Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Timberlake Wertenbaker discussed the book in the beautiful Divinity School of the Bodleian Library. (Helena Kennedy QC could not make it as she was participating in a vote at the House of Lords.)
It was a sell-out event, with woman old and young present. The smattering of men were assured by Lisa Appignanesi that they were not men haters in any way. Timberlake Wertenbaker, a celebrated playwright, kicked off the discussion with the question of whether women were subject to gender violence because of their perceived lack of ‘Rhetorical Voice’. Her own definition of rhetorical voice being: ‘the use of language to persuade, with elegance’.
There followed a debate between the women on the stage as to whether the difference in voice and language of women, leads to a male-dominated society where abuse of women is permissible. There was some disagreement as to whether the collapse of the radical feminist movement in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had held back women. Timberlake Wertenbaker was hopeful that the fragmented feminism movement of today was a more realistic mirror of the way most societies operate now.
The first woman to ask a question queried the prohibitive cost of childcare and the affect this has on women’s careers. She held strong views on the drinking culture of Britain and how women ‘getting blind drunk could lead to rape’. This didn’t go down well with the rest of the audience and gender violence came to the fore again.
The debate highlighted the differences between women’s views of what makes a feminist, which feeds into the book itself. It was a thought-provoking session, which could have easily lasted for longer than an hour.
The final word from Lisa Appignanesi was for us to remember that ‘women are just people, the same as men’.

Rachel Norman, Oxford Brookes University.

Jonathan Meades: Museum Without Walls

In a session at the Oxford Literary Festival, jointly hosted by the Department of English and Modern Languages and the School of Architecture, Jonathan Meades read from his work and talked about his varied and prolific writing life.

Meades is a critic of huge significance across varying arenas of contemporary critique. Matthew Fort recently described Jonathan as ‘the most authoritative, most respected [restaurant and food] critic in the land’ of the 1990s and 2000s. In the London Review of Books, Owen Hatherley described Jonathan as ‘Britain’s most consistently surprising and informative writer on the built environment’.

Meades is also a vocal humanist, Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.

Short-story writer, novelist, and unique television broadcaster – Meades has written and presented more than fifty BBC programmes on international culture, architecture, food, history, space and place – the most recent being the unironically entitled The Joy of Essex (January 2013).

Meades read from his collection of architectural writing, Museum Without Walls (Unbound, 2012), and a novel he is working on which is partly set in 1962, towards the end of the Algerian war of independence.

Drawing on Meades’ forthcoming memoir of his childhood in post-war England, Head of English and Modern Languages Simon Kövesi asked questions of his work and chaired a range of audience questions across subjects such as the Blairs, the BBC and the Millennium Dome. Meades’ memoir with be published by Fourth Estate later this year.

David Constantine, Joanne Harris and Jem Poster: Beacons: Writing in Defence of the Planet, Tuesday 19th March 2013.


Environmental concerns in art have become an issue. People have problems with writers claiming they’re fixing the problem by shoving messages in their faces . If I’m honest, I think people have had enough warnings of the damage done to the planet. But are we listening? What crime are writers committing when they write reminders of what could happen should we let the planet carry on its merry way to hell? This is what the anthology Beacons: Stories for our not so distant future is about.

The three stories read out in the awe-inspiring Divinity School of the Bodleian were visions of what could be. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, opened in her pleasant, well spoken tones that perfectly captured the motherly voice of a woman telling a child in the future what bees and honey and flowers used to be like, in a world where ‘outside’ no longer exists, thanks to acid rain and ‘Health and Safety’.

Poet David Constantine’s story didn’t  make much sense to me, since it got lost in his slow, monotonous voice that went over my head. However, I purchased the book at the end, so I can find out for myself.

Jem Poster read his tense story with such menace that he couldn’t fail to grab your attention, as soldiers searched a widow’s farm in Wales.

The stories were effective for not focusing on great environmental abstracts, but the concrete everyday. As the contributors explained, writers should never talk in abstractions. That’s what politicians do.


Margaret Evison talks to Caroline Wyatt: Death of a Solider: A Mother’s Story, Tuesday 19th March 2013

Death of a soldier

I was apprehensive about attending this event. It wasn’t going to be a light discussion of literature. It was a mother opening up her grief.

Lieutenant Mark Evison of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, at the age of 26. His mother, Margaret Evison, a psychologist, said that she started writing about what had happened as something to do.

Evison read a few extracts, which were very direct and powerful. The most moving moments were the graphic descriptions of her son on the hospital bed, when she wanted to take him home, and her comparisons of mourning to ‘madness’.

Despite all this, she was always smiling and steady throughout the event, as if the worst storm of her grief had passed. Sometimes her voice choked up, but I expected her to break down every time her son’s death was mentioned. This woman, however, was fearless.

Various issues were discussed by her and the audience: the brave but pointless death of her son, how it happened, how it could have been prevented; the lack of equipment his comrades had to deal with the problem and the difficulty of getting information from the military, and the naive mentality of young men wanting to go to war. Evison believed that recruits and the military should think more about what they’re getting into.

It was a very open, emotional event, especially when a fellow soldier’s mother in the audience shared empathy. Above all, Evison said that although it only takes pen and paper, writing is a powerful process. Amen.

Philippe Aigrain, Ivy Alvarez and Alexander Smith, chaired by Suzanne Aigrain: Writing and Publishing Online: A New Age for Fiction and Poetry? Tuesday 19th March 2013

Online publishing

The internet has shaken up the worlds of writing and publishing, as its rapidly rising power grapples with the tradition of the printed word. One audience member of this event stated that while the internet offers writers many freedoms, they still have to earn a living and that the carefree nature of internet publishing worsens the situation. Someone else was worried about literature floating in cyberspace. In response, the event’s three speakers suggested an overall positive view of online writing.

Ivy Alvarez, award winning poet, declared that the internet was essential to her career, that it was easier for marketing and that 75% of her audience find her there. Alexander Smith, co-editor of the student run poetry blog Dead Beats, was not as good a speaker as Alvarez but stood up strongly for online writing, which he stated gave immediacy and empowerment to writers.

Philippe Aigrain, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net and co-author with chair Suzanne Aigrain of Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age, apologised for his French accent at the start, which admittedly I found hard to follow. However, he offered useful advice to me when I admitted my fears of being plagiarized on the internet, and to someone asking how to get published online, to which even audience members chipped in with instruction.

The session felt quite interactive, even if there were problems with the microphones, so the speakers had to pass around a tiny mic. The event closed with a powerful reading from Alvarez, reminding us that its not the format but the quality of writing that matters.

Alysoun Owen: How to get published, Monday 18th March 2013


Getting published is a big hurdle for an aspiring writer. All you hear about is how difficult it is, how tough the competition. So far, I’ve only submitted to contests, blogs and free publications. It’s a way to get started, but I’m frankly terrified of contacting publishing houses. I need reminding that yes, it is tricky. But there is a lot out there for you.

In the hundred years it’s been published , the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook has been doing exactly that for budding writers. Alysoun Owen is the current editor, and has been for two years. She stated that she was not there to lecture and gave a very practical session, encouraging audience interaction and, rather than instructing, suggested ideas.

She gave a clear delivery as she stressed that publishing was very much a personal, instinctive business and that book selling, although facing dramatic changes due to the web, was on the rise. She weighed up the pros and cons between conventional and self publishing, described the roles of editors and agents, and her background slide show listed helpful details that I, among others in the packed room, eagerly scribbled down.

Above all, she stressed the importance of being involved, doing your research and that it could be any one of us who gets published. The session was an overall confidence booster. I even bought the book at the end, which is a hefty catalogue of articles and publishing addresses, although I may have done so because writers have said its a physical reminder to get on with it.

Stephen Armstrong and Jem Poster: The last word- or is it? Monday 18th March 2013

The last word

One of the most fascinating aspects of endings is the possibility of alternative versions. The beloved ending of your favourite book could have been the author’s lesser choice. The question debated at this event was whether it mattered if you knew there were other endings to your book. Does it affect your enjoyment?
Awkwardly, no one had much to say on this matter, especially when journalist Stephen Armstrong, author of the Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, asked if anyone had strong feelings regarding the 47 other endings to Farewell to Arms. This did not deter his enthusiasm. In fact, his energy could have been curbed a tad, since he was hard to follow. Novelist Jem Poster was calmer, but tended to go on, especially on the process of writing his own novel, Courting Shadows.
Nevertheless, both speakers were fascinating to listen to. Armstrong spoke of other book endings, such as Clockwork Orange, in which a sentimental final chapter was chopped by editors, and the Harry Potter franchise, for which one of the endings admitted by a tipsy Rowling involved Harry becoming the Dark Lord!
Poster read the original ending of Courting Shadows, which editors thought was too indeterminate. He ended up writing something he never imagined.
The conclusion of this discussion? Variant endings are natural for the writing process. Besides this, the writers covered a range of topics, including the value of fan fiction, and whether the sentimental ending of Great Expectations is actually any less negative than Dickens’s rejected original.

Sue Townsend : Celebrating The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. (Int:Peter Kemp)

Today at the Sheldonian Theatre, Sue Townsend talked about some of her books and her writing life. She only learned how to read at the age of eight whilst convalescing at home after a bout of the mumps. Her mother gave her a stack of Just William books and she devoured them, becoming a voracious reader thereafter.
Since then she has written eight books in the Adrian Mole series and 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the book ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13and ¾.’ (Paperback 30th Anniversary Edition, published by Penguin, Jan. 2012. £7.99). She has also written several other books, her most recent, ‘The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year’, was published last year (Penguin Books Mar. 2012, Paperback £7.99).
Peter Kemp, the chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times, acted as her interviewer and was sensitive to her obvious physical frailty. She suffers from diabetes and was registered blind a few years ago. With great dignity, she explained that she had suffered from a stroke at last Christmas and this had affected her speech and memory. She recalled the first time her memory therapist had arranged to visit her – she forgot and went out, missing the appointment.
Rather like her stories, she used comedy to talk about a potentially upsetting experience. She made no apologies for writing about distressing subjects such as cancer, or Tony Blair and the Iraq war, with humour.
It was a poignant moment when asked how many more Mole books she thought there would be. She replied that with all her medical issues she didn’t believe ‘she’d make old bones’, so there would probably only be two at most.
Let’s hope she’s being pessimistic because in Adrian Mole she has created a series of very funny, intelligent books, held in great affection by many people. Judging from the audience reaction, which consisted of all types of people: older, younger and quite a few the same age as Adrian Mole, the same could be said of her.

Rachel Norman, Oxford Brookes University.

Michael Trimble, ‘Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution and the Brain’ Monday 18th March 2013


There is a good chance that Professor Michael Trimble will be crying soon, not because of anything he suffered at the hands of the festival audience, but because he loves opera, and music amongst the arts is the number one culprit in making us cry (novels, poetry and reading score highly too).

Trimble is a behavioural neurologist and a psychiatrist as well as having a lifelong interest in neuro-anatomy. He was able to draw on his inter-disciplinary expertise to show how human crying has evolved and to explain how advantageous crying is to us highly social beings.

It all began, he thinks, with primitive societies camped around a fire. There they would have shared stories and songs and remembered events and evoked fellow-feelings. The smoke from the fire might have caused a few tears too, but these don’t count as they would be similar to the tearing seen in animals in response to an irritant and not a proper ‘cipher for suffering’. Crying as an emotional response is singular to humans.

Artistic representation is central to the development of crying and the Greeks brought us on greatly in our ability to emote tearfully. The festivals of Dionysus were the driving force behind the development of Greek theatre depicting bereavement, loss and death and provoking the affective in the audiences.

Most people report feeling happier once they have had a good wail, so crying does seem to be a means of purging bad feelings – and we are peculiarly equipped for crying too – the limbic system of structures within the brain which is responsible for our emotional life is extremely large.

Trimble counts crying as an important and valued human attribute. It correlates highly with empathy. People suffering from Asperger syndrome or autism are disproportionately represented among the small population of non-criers. Andy Murray ‘the great Scottish stalwart’ as Trimble described him, famously cried after his 2012 Wimbledon defeat and successfully moved a nation. This session was an enjoyable overview from a man who not only admits to crying but positively celebrates it.

Trimble’s book, published by OUP late last year is entitled ‘Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain: The Evolutionary Origins of Tragedy’.

Helen Newdick, Oxford Brookes University


Roger McGough, ‘As far as I know’, Saturday 16th March 2013

380x380.fitandcropCarol Ann Duffy’s quote on the front of McGough’s collected poems states that’s he’s ‘the patron saint of poetry’. It is even more criminal then, that I’ve not heard of him before this event, where he promoted poems from his latest collection, ‘As far as I know’.
The first night of the literary festival was my first venture into the Sheldonian, which didn’t give a great first impression as a poetry reading venue. The echo in such a loud space was not good for partially deaf people such as myself, but I fixed this problem by cocking my ear to the amp next to me. Thus I could enjoy the poems read out in Roger’s pleasant, clipped Liverpudlian accent, and such poems.

Most of his poems reflected his age: fear of death, fear of dementia ‘the slow macabre dance’ and praying to the Lord to be a burden on his children. Poems such as the latter regularly had the audience in stitches. Other touching poems on family left emotionally charged silences: the absent father who was always ‘just passing’; Roger’s fears of his daughter growing up; and a grandmother who used the angels to explain the weather.

Some poems were more random, involving Enid Blyton, Dali, chasing women by accident and pretending to be a corpse on the bank of the Thames until the seagulls bothered you.
Overall, a nice mix, and McGough’s voice was one of the wisest, warmest and wittiest I’ve ever heard. He left the venue quickly, modestly to an explosion of applause. Needless to say, I bought two of his books.