Sheldonian Events on the first Saturday of the Oxford Literary Festival

1395596340473The Sheldonian Theatre is one of the most iconic buildings in Oxford. Undoubtedly a feature of the Festival is the buildings that are used to host authors.

Our man in the Sheldonian on the first Saturday was Victor – here are his thoughts on a varied and interesting group of speakers

It was a curious feeling hearing a voice one is so familiar with emanating from a body that one is not. In addition as it was only a couple of hours since hearing him interview Simon Cowell on the Today programme that it added to the surreality. Apparently he had received hundreds of tweets after the programme complaining about the fact that he had inflicted “that appalling man” onto Radio 4’s genteel audience.
It was a classic Radio 4 junkie audience. Well attended in glorious spring sunshine. The interviewer had a sound grasp of the new book. The Madness of July is a very clever thriller set in the 1970s against the background of skulduggery involving both the CIA and the British government. Our hero Flemyng, a former spook who is now a junior minister in the FO is encouraged by the Cabinet Secretary to utilise his old skills to solve the mystery.
Gentleman Jim explained the background to why he wrote the story, how he had to be very careful, given his role at the BBC, not to appear to be partisan in anyway and also why he chose the particular period. Much of this was to do with wanting to tell a story at a time before mobile phones, email and twitter when it was possible for people to genuinely disappear for a time and not be traced. There were inevitably many question s about the future of the BBC (he is predictability a fan of the licence fee), Scottish independence (on which he would not be drawn on his own views, again predictably) and Alec Salmond who he clearly admires as a person. His passion for Scotland shines through like a beacon in his writing in the novel where significant parts are set in, I think, Peeblesshire.
He won a great response from a partial audience who I suspect were distressed at missing the Archers omnibus.


Robert Muchamore

Robert Muchamore

I knew from previous encounters that Robert likes to keep his audience waiting “because they will appreciate me more if I can increase the sense of anticipation”. On this occasion he was on time, probably because of the civilizing influence of Sophie.
One thing we can be certain of is that Robert Muchamore will not be writing any books about one-legged Zimbabwean boys. This is I suppose, good news for the rest of us in a sense at it leaves the field wide open to tackle this neglected creative goldmine. Poor Sophie didn’t know where to look when Robert erred into distinctly non-PC territory, which he did on more than one occasion. Definitey an Apple man. As in “frame the b*tch – make her eat the apple!”
Anyway, whatever the more mature people in the audience thought (i.e. anyone with a mental age above 13) the kids absolutely loved him and clearly devour his books. He was able to commune with them on his own level. I cannot bend down that low anymore, try as I might. Sophie was lovely (as I imagine anyone with that name is) and also had a very strong following from the young females in the crowd. She was particularly good on the subject and craft of writing especially the challenges of starting and the determination one needs to succeed. The main message was “talent helps, hard work is essential and a little bit of luck can make all the difference”. Oh, and don’t give up the day job until you can totally support yourself from writing.




Rachel Johnson

This was an extra special event. Lots of spice and mustard. No holds barred insults were traded and the battle continued after the event had finished courtesy of the dowager Mrs Blizzard-Hyphen.
The turnout was disappointing, only about 60, which for the Sheldonian is less than 10% of capacity. However, the spectator sport was shall we say un-The Lady-like but all the better for it. Willys and testicles were frequently referred to, mostly by m’lady, and although at 2pm this was definitely a pre-watershed slot there weren’t any children, as such, that is in the chronology sense, in the audience. Thank goodness. We learnt very early on, well immediately in fact, that the last proper encounter between them was when Paul had been unceremoniously told that his future at The Lady was behind him. On the face of it, it seemed to be something to do with short stories. Tall stories more like. Management tall stories that is. They wanted, in US parlance, to “include Paul out” of the future plans of the mag. He was too expensive apparently even though no-one actually seemed to know how much he earned.
Rachel Johnson is a bold, bright, confident and very very funny woman though I suspect she sometimes feels bruised by the written GBH she sometimes suffers. “As ye shall sow, so ye shall reap” comes to mind. I hope that she really doesn’t mind, as she claims, though I suspect sometimes it gets to her. Knowing as I do something about the television production process, I am totally convinced that she did not have a hand in the misleading editing of the programme on ‘The Lady’ of Le Blizzard’s precipitous demise. I am not sure that Paul believes this however. The world of publishing is I am sure as horrible and brutal as that of television and film. Always assume, unless you are a receptionist or a book-keeper (and you didn’t have your hand in the previous boss’s boxers or the till) that when the new CEO/President/Publisher/Editor arrives it is time to look for a new job. Manage your personal cashflow on the basis that you will be fired. Like all good comedy, this inevitable tragedy is just a question of timing. It won’t be because you are good or bad at your job or because you are too expensive (though that doesn’t help) it will be because you are already there. Simples.
Paul had brought along a hatchet to the event which he ostentatiously placed on the table. At the end of the event he wanted to know whether he should bury his weapon, or as Rachel suggested, it should be buried between her shoulder blades. An audience vote was called for and everyone apart from one lone voice elected for the burial and a resumption of civility between the antagonists. The lone voice turned out to be Paul’s mama. As far as she was concerned La Johnson had ruined her son’s career. If his performance at the Sheldonian is anything to go by he is doing fine.
An excellent show and totally unexpected. Paul himself is writing an account of the events that led to his dismissal. Entitled Saving Grace it will be worth looking out for next year. Given the modest size of the audience sales were, by the way, respectable. Rachel’s book is exceptionally funny. It gives a great sense of time and place; the characters are well drawn if somewhat two dimensional – a bit like one of those great cartoon strips in what used to be called the broadsheets. Hugely offensive and beautifully written, I love it. Paul took the passages about himself that Rachel read out, which were let us say, not entirely complimentary, with the good grace of the gentleman that he obviously is. The passage about his name dropping was very funny. This is a man who we are told would say things along the line of “As I was saying to Jo (J K Rowling), Marty (Amis) and Hillary (Clinton) the other morning over breakfast in Sandy’s (Alexander McCall Smith) kitchen, Salman needs to chill out a bit. Personally I also find Tony (Blair) can be a bit arrogant but modesty has its place and he isn’t Clem (Attlee) who Winston (Churchill) once told me was a very modest man with a lot to be modest about”. Now I know that my tales about Dave (Cameron), Justin (Cantaur), Hughie (Grant) and Leo (di Caprio not Abse) can be irritating but he clearly takes this art to new heights.
Rachel is a star but I hope she appreciates the talent that Paul has. Her best piece of advice for a would be leader seems to be “grow some balls”.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

An excellent crowd turned up to hear Robert Harris talk about his book, An Officer and a Spy. The subject of the book for those who don’t know is L’Affaire Dreyfus, a trial in France that was to divide a nation for the best part of a century. It is clear that Harris has brought all his journalistic skills that gave him huge success with books ranging from Fatherland and Enigma to Pompeii and Imperium. Who would have thought that the life of Cicero would ever provide such a rich vein to be used for a successful series of novels?
An Office and a Spy focusses upon Colonel Georges Picquart rather than Dreyfus himself. Picquart, who was largely responsible for Dreyfus’s demise and didn’t really like him, is a fascinating character obsessed with doing the “right thing” even though it would cost him his own career.
Harris spent a lot of time talking about the genesis of the project and how it had emanated from a commission from Roman Polanski to write a movie about the subject which was close to his heart. Polanski, who had lost his mother in Auschwitz and was himself a survivor of the holocaust, is fascinated by the issue of anti-Semitism which was at the heart of L’Affaire. Harris decided to tackle a book first and the film is now to be made later this year.
He also talked about the third part of the Cicero trilogy which he is currently working on.
There were so many questions that the event could have gone on for another hour and it had to be brought to a closure. He was wonderful with the people he met and very generous with his time and interest.
It is also worth saying that John Gapper (from the FT) was one of the most impressive interviewers I have seen at the festival over the years. He had a total grasp of the subject, knew the book intimately and ask searching and interesting questions.

aitkenThere is no doubt that Jonathan Aitken, like a thoroughbred racehorse, was trained for his role as a politician. Smooth without being oily. He does of course have a great pedigree with a grandfather, Lord Beaverbrook in Churchill’s wartime cabinet and Max Aitken MP as a father. In spite of a general feeling of doubt about him prior to the event he very quickly established a rapport with the good sized audience. Self depricating, funny, indiscreet and very bright. An interesting demographic in the audience which included HM’s former Ambassadors to the USA and Kuwait, President Carter’s fomer PA, lots of ladies with blue hair from Burford, Woodstock and Cheltenham, some unreconstructed trots ready to heckle (they didn’t) , a couple of Alumni from D Wing at HMP Belmarsh and probably the Editor of Garagiste Gazette.
Stephen Glover, the co-founder of The Independent, interviewed JA (funny how he has the initials of another fallen Tory) in a genuinely impartial and informed manner. We did learn new things about Mrs T. or “Fatcher!”, depending on your standpoint, largely as a consequence of Aitken’s family tie through dating Carol for three years. He admired her but in quite critical way. She had absolutely no sense of humour; was intensely loyal and yet unforgiving; loved her family and yet never showed physIcal affection towards her children; had a weakness for the company of good looking men and no time for the anaemic Carter, the reptilian d’Estaing or the corpulent Kohl; had no regrets, ever, never apologised for anything and gave a new meaning to the word stubborn.
He also told a few very funny and quite naughty anecdotes. One that can be put in print was about Denis Thatcher ringing him to invite him for lunch just after he had come out of gaol. He was convinced it was Rory Bremner taking the water and no doubt responded accordingly.



Philip Ardargh is a genius with children. At 6′ 7″ with a Marquess of Salisbury beard, he really is the BFG. He was keen to remind us that Roald Dahl was ónly 6′ 5″. Our very own Rebecca Waiting was also keen, for reasons best known to herself, to remind him that she had spilt champagne over him at Kensington Palace. Not even I can top that. He seemed to remember the occasion with affection but claimed to only remember Harri and not Rebecca. This wind up was very effective.
Nicolette Jones from the Sunday Times set out, unsuccessfully, to have a vaguely serious and worthy but perfectly acceptable event that examined Roald Dahl’s writing. Philip was having none of it. He simply hijacked the proceedings and set about doing very funny vox pops about Dahl with the kids. Lucy Mangan rang in sick which was probably a “good thing” in a Sellars and Yeatman way as it gave “far more ‘me’ time” as Philip called it. His infectious enthusiasm for Roald Dahl as well as his amusing vanity made for an entertaining show.
The audience of 300 was then treated to a sublime performance by 10 year old Christina Fray, the young star of Matilda for the RSC in the West End. She received tumultous applause from the audience. Philip then spent 40 mins signing books and engaging with a throng of youngsters. We also got Christina to sign copies of Matilda!

What a wonderful, wonderful event.


One comment

  1. What a perceptive review of the RACHEL “WHAT HO!” JOHNSON & PAUL BLIZZARD-HYPHEN encounter. It was humbling and a privilege to listen in to their fireside chat. The review captured with appropriate humour the essence of what was a mesmerizing conversation. It was a literary festival and theater at its best. I hope this launches a double act. Rachel’s book is on a par with the best of its genre and perfect for a sitcom or film treatment. My 16 year old daughter finds it ‘cool’ .As for Paul’s book Saving Grace he is incredibly modest and didn’t plug it at all. It’s worth supporting for the launch party alone and next years installment from the pair of them. Quite what the spectator in the upper gallery made of it I don’t know but he looked like the rest of the audience enraptured by it all. What I enjoyed too was the conversation and camaraderie it created afterwards amongst the audience. Did it really happen or was it a dream?

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