Oxford Literary Festival 2020: Who’s Appearing, Where, & When Are They Speaking?
Posted on 14/02/2020
Called the most elegant and atmospheric of literary festivals by none other than Colin Thubron, the Oxford Lit Fest is one of the highlights of the bookish year, and as usual it’s packed to the elegant sandstone domes with a vast array of our authors talking wisdom on a vast array of topics. And so, like any responsible literary agency, we’ve collected their events here, in convenient chronological order:
Saturday, 28 March 2020
11am, St Cross College
Elleke Boehmer & Naomi Ishiguro: The Art of the Short Story
Elleke is a professor of world literature in English at Oxford and a successful novelist and biographer, recently receiving the Olive Schreiner Award for Prose and drawing praise from JM Coetzee. Her second collection of short stories To the Volcano tilts between north and south, ambition and tradition, and light and dark. Characters include an African student in England longing for her desert home and an Argentinian travel agent agonising about joining her boyfriend in New York.
12pm, Cohen Quad Lecture Theatre
Julie Summers–Dressed For War: The Story of Audrey Withers, Vogue Editor Extraordinaire
Historian, researcher, and author (Jambusters/Home Fires, Fashion on the Ration) Julie Summers tells the story of Vogue and its editor Audrey Withers during World War II when the magazine forged a new identity that set it up for the rest of the 20th century, explaining how Withers took the magazine far beyond the realm of stylish clothes into reporting both the plight of people living in war-torn Europe and beyond, and reflecting the lives of ordinary people at home, ensuring they were Dressed for War.
2pm, Sheldonian Theatre
Val McDermid and Emma Smith–Shakespeare & Marlowe: Rivals, Collaborators, or Aliases… an Early Modern Mystery
Crime writer McDermid and Shakespeare expert Professor Emma Smith discuss some of the mysteries around two giants of the English stage — Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Emma is professor of Shakespeare studies at Hertford College, Oxford, and the author of This Is Shakespeare: How to Read the World’s Greatest Playwright. She has published and lectured widely and her podcasts on Shakespeare and early modern dramatists are highly praised.
6pm, Oxford Martin School Seminar Room
Dominic Frisby–Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Change Our Future
Financial writer Dominic Frisby argues that there is a tax story near the heart of all of humanity’s defining events from the Magna Carta to modern political debates and considers whether there are alternative ways to fund services. Tax is power, says Dominic, and, without it, kings, emperors and governments lose their power. He argues that many of the problems we face today, including wealth gaps between the rich and poor and between generations, can be traced back to tax, and asks whether there are better ways to fund our public services, or whether tax is simply Daylight Robbery.
Monday, 30th March
6pm, Sheldonian Theatre
James Barr interviewed by Matthew Stadlen–Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate Middle East
Historian Barr talks about how Britain and the United States rivalled each other for post-war influence in the Middle East, in conversation with LBC radio host and BBC presenter Matthew Stadlen. James uses new source material to challenge the assumption that the US and Britain have colluded in the Middle East. He reveals how the CIA sabotaged British efforts to maintain a post-war sphere of influence that threatened US-owned oil companies, how the US foiled a British attempt to split Iran in 1951, uncovers the clandestine efforts of British intelligence and explains how the US ultimately prevailed to become Lords of the Desert.
Wednesday, 1st April
12pm, Oxford Martin School Seminar Room
Adrian Tinniswood–The House Party: Leisure, Pleasure and the Country House Weekend
The architectural and social historian gives a unique insight into the quintessentially British tradition of the country house party. Adrian looks at the country house weekend in all its wildest and most decadent forms, from debauched royal tours to the excesses of the Bright Young Things, from the world of croquet, parlour games and cocktails to the hidden drinking, feasting, gambling and fornicating habits of the guests at The House Party.
6pm, Bodleian Divinity School
Adrian Tinniswood–The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science
A busy day for Adrian as he turns his evening attentions to The Royal Society and why it has been at the forefront of cultural life in Britain and across the globe for more than 350 years.
TRS received its charter from Charles II in 1662, and its scientific journal is the world’s first and longest-running. The 8,000 fellows elected to the society so far include all of the leading scientists of the last four centuries, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking.
Thursday, 2nd April
10am, St Cross College
Archie Brown–The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War
Leading expert on Mikhail Gorbachev Professor Archie Brown argues that the Cold War was not ended because of America’s military and economic strength but by the rise of Gorbachev and the relationships between the main political leaders. Archie draws on interviews with leading Soviet and British figures to argue that Communist rule would have continued if anyone other than Gorbachev had come to power. He says the strong relationship Margaret Thatcher formed with both Gorbachev and Reagan meant she was able to act as a conduit between the US and the Soviet Union and sell Gorbachev to Washington, and that without The Human Factor the brutalities of Soviet rule may have continued well beyond 1991. Archie is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy. He is author of many books on the USSR and its demise and was the first person to draw Thatcher’s attention to Gorbachev as a potential reforming leader of the Soviet Union.
12pm, Oxford Martin School Lecture Theatre
Thomas Penn–The Brothers York: An English Tragedy
Dr Penn relates the dramatic story of Edward, George and Richard – the figureheads of a ruling dynasty in 15th-century England and the men at the heart of the Wars of the Roses. Thomas explains – in grusomely gripping detail – how these brothers turned on each other and unleashed a chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide so explosive it destroyed an entire family in the space of one generation.
‘The Brothers York spring to ferocious life, and you need strong nerves to meet them. With insight and skill, Penn cuts through the thickets of history to find the heart of these heartless decades.’ – Hilary Mantel
2pm, Sheldonian Theatre
Karen Armstrong–The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts
Former nun and one of the world’s leading religious commentators Karen Armstrong advocates for an open engagement with holy scriptures to counter the intolerance, arrogance and violence that many justify from a narrow reading of religious texts. Karen argues that narrow reading of scriptures – the Quran to justify war and terrorism, the Torah to deny Palestinians the right to live in Israel, the Bible to condemn homosexuality and contraception – are a recent phenomenon. For hundreds of years these texts were seen as fluid and adaptable and as a means for the individual to connect with the divine. Karen is convinced they still has a lot to teach us and asks if we will ever rediscover The Lost Art of Scripture.
6pm, St Cross College
Westminister Abbey: A Church in History, with Diarmaid MacCulloch
Leading religious historian and broadcaster Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses a new book in which distinguished historians consider Westminster Abbey’s place in history. Westminster Abbey includes contributions from MacCulloch, Sir David Cannadine and William Whyte, also in conversation. It explores the abbey’s architecture, its Catholic monks and Protestant clergy, its place in political and religious revolutions, its relationship with the monarchy, its congregations and its tourists. MacCulloch is professor of the history of the Church at the University of Oxford.
Friday, 3rd April
10am, Sheldonian Theatre
Michael Wood–The Story of China
Historian, author and broadcaster Michael Wood talks about his book – and BBC television series. Michael believes that we must closely examine China’s history if we want to understand China today. He argues that over 4,000 years the Chinese have created their own distinctive vision of the world and this vision is still powering the country in the 21st century. To research the book, Michael travelled across China to explore the landscapes, places, people, culture, and history that have conjured the country’s distinctive character and are vital to understanding The Story of China.
12pm, Bodleian Divinity School
Janet Ellis and Kirsty Wark, interviewed by Lucy Atkins
Novelists and television presenters Janet Ellis and Kirsty Wark talk about their latest works and their writing in conversation with fellow novelist Lucy Atkins. Kirsty is a journalist and broadcaster who has presented many programmes over 30 years including the Late Show and Newsnight. Her debut was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award and her new novel, The House by the Loch, is a story of family drama and secrets set in the beautiful Caledonian countryside and recently topped the Scottish paperback charts.
Saturday, 4th April
12pm, Sheldonian Theatre
AC Grayling–The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy
World-renowned philosopher Professor A C Grayling states the foundations on which our democracy stands are inherently flawed and sets out the reforms we need to make. Grayling says that Britain and the United States can never be truly democratic when a ‘first past the post’ system means a voter supporting a losing candidate is not represented. He argues for a clear and principled written constitution that addresses the imbalance of power between parliament and government, for fixed terms for MPs, proportional representation and a lowering of the voting age – the first steps towards living in The Good State.
2pm, Oxford Martin School Lecture Theatre
Gill Hornby–Miss Austen
Novelist Gill imagines the life of Jane Austen’s forgotten sister Cassandra and considers why she might have destroyed a treasure trove of letters from her famous sibling. The #1 bestselling novel follows Cassandra as she returns to the family’s vicarage home in Kintbury 23 years after Jane’s death. She discovers a collection of family letters containing secrets she feels should not be revealed. Cassandra reflects on her youth and the life of her sister including long-buried truths from both their pasts. Should she let the letters colour Jane’s legacy – or should she protect her reputation whatever the cost?
Sunday, 5th April
12pm, St Cross College
Clover Stroud–My Wild and Sleepless Nights: A Mother’s Story
Writer, journalist and parent to five children Clover Stroud talks about what it means to be a mother and about female sexuality and identity. Shehonestly addresses the conflicting emotions of motherhood – how intense, sensuous, joyful, boring, profound and dark it can be. My Wild and Sleepless Nights charts the first year of the life of her youngest child and searches for answers to questions many would be afraid to admit having.
12pm, Cohen Quad Lecture Theatre
Roy Strong–The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture
Historian, broadcaster and former director of the National Portrait Gallery Sir Roy Strong casts a fresh eye on the Elizabethan image in this illustrated talk. Sir Roy is a leading authority on Elizabethan portraiture and was behind a seminal exhibition on the subject at the Tate. He claims the Elizabethan age was one of the most fascinating periods of British art. It reveals an age similar in many ways to our own, with a country aspiring professionally and changing socially. Fascinatingly, Strong explains how the pictures were not necessarily meant for public consumption and how often, The Elizabethan Image offered an intimate glimpse into private worlds.
12pm, Worcester College Lecture Theatre
Sally Gardner–Invisible in a Bright Light
Award-winning author of Maggot Moon and I, Coriander, Sally Gardner talks about her dazzling new novel Invisible in a Bright Light, which draws its inspiration from the great Hans Christian Andersen. Set in the beautiful Royal Opera House of 19th-century Copenhagen, it is a story of magic and enchantment, rich in colours of light and dark: where the kind and generous, however humble, and the selfish and cruel, however exalted, get their just desserts.
12pm, Oxford Martin School Seminar Room
Bestselling novelist Anna talks about her new contemporary novel – a story of three women trying to find their way in life as mothers, daughters, wives and rebels. Expectation is about best friends Hannah, Kate and Lissa whose young lives in east London are full of art, activism, romance, revelry and the promise of what is to come. Ten years on, amidst flailing careers and failing marriages, they each find themselves hungering after what the others have and are asking themselves the same question: How do I have a meaningful life?
4pm, Worcester College Lecture Theatre
Robert Service and Catherine Belton–The Rise of Putin: Dashing Hopes for a New Russia
Biographer and historian Robert Service and former Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton discuss the rise of Vladimir Putin, how he has dashed hopes for a new Russia, and the stark consequences of his rule for Russians and the rest of the world. Catherine’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Turned On the West explains how wealthy ex-KGB men came to dominate Putin’s circle and how Russia came to hack the 2016 elections, sponsor extreme politics in Europe, make war in Ukraine and wage a concerted campaign to undermine the West. She shows vividly how former KGB agents were able to siphon off billions in cash, seize private companies and replace the freewheeling tycoons of the Yeltsin era.
4pm, Sheldonian Theatre
Lucy Worsley–The Austen Girls
Finishing up the festival with a grand show in the Sheldonian, historian, writer and television presenter Lucy Worsley brings alive the fascinating life of one of Britain’s most treasured novelists Jane Austen as you’ve never heard it before. Expect costumes, trivia and tips on how to become the hero of your own story! Lucy is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that runs the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, and The Austen Girls is her fourth historical novel for children.