Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival
PUBLISHED: 11:53 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 20 February 2013
There's a glittering line-up at this year's Oxford Literary Festival. Sandra Kessell looks at some of the highlights of the eight-day extravaganza
College is the star
Theres a glittering line-up at this years Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, with comedians, politicians, broadcasters and academics taking the stage alongside ghost writers, novelists, biographers and thriller writers. The eight-day extravaganza celebrates all things literary and is based in Christ Church and Corpus Christi College, as well as The Sheldonian Theatre. The event has become a favourite with seasoned festival-goers as anyone staying at the colleges gets to rub shoulders with authors, playwrights and other speakers.Critic, journalist and author DJ Taylor, a 2003 Man Booker Prize judge and winner of the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize for Orwell: A Life, has been a regular speaker at the festival over the years and has watched it evolve. Some festivals have been spoiled by the cult of celebrity taking precedence over the literary aspect of the gathering, he says, remembering a festival where former US President Bill Clinton was paid thousands of pounds to attend while the writers turned up for free, much to their irritation.David and his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, who last year gave a talk together, and their three sons, rank Oxford among their favourite festivals.The children enjoy it because theres so much variety, says Rachel. Last year they went to the poetry reading competition and loved taking part in a quiz on the Sunday evening in the Hogwarts dining hall upstairs in Christ Church. The ambience is part of the festivals success - swanning around Christ Church has got to beat the marquees of the Edinburgh Literature Festival!David and Rachel both studied at the University of Oxford, although they didnt meet until several years after they had graduated and David doesnt have the fondest memories of his student days inthe city. Rachel says she likes the friendliness and democratic feel of the Oxford Literary Festival.I hope visitors feel this as well as the participants, she says. I enjoy browsing in the book tent and not knowing who you might bump into next.David appreciates the dedication of those who attend, recalling one year a heavy snowfall threatened to limit the numbers attending his talk Bright Young People, based on his book exploring the lives of the 1920s glitterati, many of whom wereat Oxford.I was sure there would be nobody there but the place was absolutely packed out. I was really touched by this, says David. Another memorable event, last year, involved Richard Blair, Orwells adopted son, talking publicly for the first time about his father.We did a kind of tete-a-tete and 400 people turned up. It was a fantastic event, says David.This year, as part of The Orwell Prize series of events, DJ Taylor and Evelyn Waughs biographer Paula Byrne are comparing the lives and works of Orwell and Waugh, who were both born in 1903. The event takes place at Christ Church on Saturday March 26, at 8pm.Rachel says she and David attendother peoples talks, besides supporting each others.Anything by Philip Pullman appeals to me, says Rachel.Bodleys Librarian, Dr Sarah Thomas - who is in charge one of the worlds oldest, largest and best collection of books, held by the Bodleian Library - is thrilled to have such an interesting festival on her doorstep, though the quality of the sessions makes it hard to choose whichto attend.The festival creates such excitement around authors and books and reading, says Sarah, who was the first female, first non-British national, to be appointed Bodleys Librarian in its 400-year history.In fact, I am going to have to decide between Lyndall Gordons Lives Like Loaded Guns talk on Emily Dickinson and Philip Pullmans discussion of his new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, both of which take place on Sunday March 28 at noon. Emily Dickinson lived a few miles from the town in Massachusetts where I grew up, and shes a fascinating woman. But now, having lived in Oxford for three years and gotten to know Philip Pullman,Im also eager to hear him speak on his new work.Her other must see choices are John le Carrs talk on March 24 and Hilary Mantel who discusses her 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall Sunday March 28 at 2pm.Theres an incredible array from which to select, continues Sarah. Balcors Second Nature on the inner lives of animals; David Boyd Haycocks A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Arts & the Great War, and John Harris on gin tasting. What a range!Events to look out for include a discussion between award-winning playwright and author Simon Rae, who wrote a definitive biography of legendary cricketer WG Grace, and the book Unplayable and one of the worlds top women cricketers, Charlotte Edwards, who is an ambassador for the Chance to Shine cricket and education foundation; the incomparable Malorie Blackman, quirky Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman discussing fantasy fiction with childrens books reviewer Nicolette Jones and screenwriter and childrens author Anthony Horowitz interviewed by Paul Blezard. Other top-of-the-list discussions include acclaimed crime writer Ruth Rendell interviewed by David Grylls about Penguins The Complete Sherlock Holmes, as well as her own creation Chief Inspector Wexford; eminent scientists Richard Dawkins, Georgina Ferry and Steve Jones talking about science, certainty and the Royal Society with Roger Highfield,editor of The New Scientist and Oxford-based author, film-maker and artist Roma Tearne talking about her latest novel,The Swimmer.
Oxford Literary Festival runs from Saturday, March 20 until Sunday March 28, with events, courses, discussions and dinners taking place in Christ Church College, The Sheldonian and Corpus Christi College. For a full list of timings and to book tickets, visit www.oxfordliteraryfestival.com or tel: 01865 276152. Box office: 0870 343 1001 and watch out for more information in the The Sunday Times, and Blackwells book shops.
Oxford-based artist, film-maker and writer Roma Tearne lives and works in the centre of the city. She tells Sandra Kessell about painting, writing and the literary festival on her doorstep
Beyond Oxfords towers, spires, quads and high-ceilinged Dons houses lie the less grand cottages and terraces of the artisans, craftsmen and artists who, over centuries, made or provided the everyday things needed to keep the world of academia ticking over, allowing academics to study and philosophise, teach and theorise
without having to get too involved in day-to-day living.
Meeting the multi-talented Roma Tearne in one of these quirky little houses, close to the canal, seems very fitting in the 21st century. She could epitomise the modern Oxford resident - cultured, intelligent, artistic and, for good measure in a city that has one of the highest proportions of residents born outside the UK, Sri Lankan by birth.
The first thing you notice about Roma is her tiny stature. Shes diminutive - and I find myself looking for her when she answers the door to her family home in Jericho, my gaze travelling swiftly downwards to meet herhuge eyes.
Its at this house that she writes her novels, having initially made her name as an artist and film-maker. In fact, shes been so bound up with her writing over the last few years, that she stopped renting a studio because she simply didnt have time to use it. Not that shes stopped drawing or collecting the materials for her installations. She customises Moleskine notebooks, stuffing them with observations, sketches, photographs and tiny, neat handwriting that curls around corners creating a visual feast of its own. After hitting the mark with her first three books, Mosquito, Bone China and Brixton Beach, and with a fourth, The Swimmer, due to be published in May, Roma is getting the urge to paint once more and looking at ways of incorporating a studio into her study.
Dressed in black, with a black and single red bead strung around her neck, Roma leads me into her house, which is packed with books, paintings, installations, porcelain, colour, mirrors and splashes of light. Theres a penchant for Venetian red and in a cabinet lined with postcards, letters, old photographs - Romas junk-shop objets trouvs. Shes a compulsive rummager, she confesses. Her desk is surrounded by bookshelves, photos of her children, printers letters, tiny blue glass bottles and other collectibles. Its like a magpies nest, lined and cosy but theres a reason for this, I find. Roma lost all her family photos, baby albums and notebooks in a house move and has been seeking solace in documenting other peoples history ever since.
Not that Roma can find a word to summarise her professional occupations. Shes neither pure writer nor pure artist, novelist nor narrator, though that hasnt stopped her being recognised and acclaimed as all of the above. She admits shes seriously self-critical, which in part dates back to her early university experiences. Reading English she submitted an essay about Charles Dickens and was accused of plagiarism by a discouraging and unenlightened tutor, who doubted her ability to produce such quality work and told her he would send her down if she transgressed again.
I was an 18-year-old immigrant girl who came from London and who had struggled to integrate. Instead of fighting him, I just left. I was writing a novel at the time, I stopped, says Roma.
It had been English that had brought her parents, who had lived with disapproval for their mixed Sinhalese-Tamil marriage in Sri Lanka, to England. Her mother had been a journalist, her father a poet. On learning that English was to be banned in Sri Lanka they packed a few belongings, boarded a boat and headed to the UK, bringing 10-year-old Roma to what they thought of as a promised land. The familys hopes were invested in English in a way few English peoples ever are.
My parents were passionate about the language. It was assumed I would read English and Id always said I would be a writer, says Roma.
After her university experience she dropped out of her studies but her future was still bound up with the language. She married an English professor and had three children. She trained as a painter, later completing her MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she was encouraged to explore other sides of her creativity. Her work was chosen for the Royal Academy summer exhibition and she became a Leverhulme artist-in-residence for the Ashmolean Museum. It was here that her writing came to the fore once more. She started writing short stories about the staff for the staff newsletter.
The staff found it amusing. I had a little romance going and the staff concerned were very chuffed about it, she remembers. The staff started asking when the next episode would be published and encouraged her to write write a book. Until then no-one had ever read her work.
Id written short stories that Id just chucked. I didnt know if I was any good, she says. I had a lot of artistic friends, I didnt know any writers, coming into it late.
In 2006 she was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship to work at Oxford Brookes University and the following year her first novel, Mosquito, was published and shortlisted for the Costa award for debut novel. Since then she has a produced a book a year and has been a regular fixture at the Oxford Literary Festival, suddenly finding herself on the platform, rather than in the audience. Now a Creative Writing Fellow at Brookes, this year she will be talking about her forthcoming novel at this years festival.
Theres an awful lot going on in Oxford, she says, adding that the festival is good for students as well as visitors. At the end of April, Roma is taking up a weeks residency at Blackwells book and poster shops, where she will be investigating the life of a bookshop, its staff, customers and other visitors. Drawing inspiration from paragraphs in books chosen from different departments around the Blackwells shops in Broad Street, Roma will produce written and visual work. Its hard to pigeon-hole or pin down her work, let alone give her a title that sums up her occupations, despite the extensive number of words at her fingertips. What there can be no doubt about is her next creations will be welcomed by her growing army of fans and her talk attended by an eager following.
Roma Tearne will be talking at Christ Church on Tuesday, March 23, at 12 noon. Her residency at Blackwells runs from Monday, April 26 to Saturday, May 1. Her novel The Swimmer, is published by Harper Collins on May 3.