March 29th, 2010

A RISING MOON over Christ Church meadow brought the very successful 2010 Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival to a memorable end yesterday.
The great thing about literary festivals these days is that they are no longer just about ‘literature’ or dominated but the literary establishment. Rather the opposite. Their programmes now are celebrations of great ideas and current controversies which offer the reading public the opportunity to listen to and rub shoulders with men and women who (in the main) have recently published books expressing those ideas.
Given the importance of issues like global warming and the recent economic meltdown it’s no surprise that it has been the economists, modern historians, geo-politicians and environmentalists with new books out who have been especially popular with the punters.
The festivals themselves are rarely reviewed as a whole, just the individual speakers. Not surprising since it’s nearly impossible for an individual to attend enough of the events to form an objective overview. But it might be worth saying a couple of things about the Oxford festival as a festival. It was very well organised with really excellent and friendly front of house management: warm greetings, quick ticket service and generally knowledgeable staff.
The important business of book sales, whether in the general books sections or around individual signings (all run by Blackwells Bookshop staff) was efficient and well conducted, never an easy thing.
The individual events were often in the hands of volunteer stewards who proved to be a mixed and occasionally eccentric bunch: some too effusive, others very long-winded about the house-keeping stuff that needs to be said at the beginning of each event and many unable to handle mikes properly or thrown by mishaps and inclined to flap. One got so carried away by the panel discussion that he insisted on asking his own question before parting with his mike so the audience could have a chance. Send him to the naughty step!
But overall the stewards’ wonderful friendliness, enthusiasm for authors and their books and good cheer and charm was what made the festival feel festive. It was just wonderful.
With a single exception the venues proved very good, including the marquee which can sometimes be problematic at such festivals. The exception (as any who attended an event there will know) was Christ Church Hall, whose elongated layout and reverberating acoustics proved disastrous for speakers and audience alike. I understand this venue will not be used again.
The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival was an absolute winner this year which got people engaged with, and talking about, ideas and books for which otherwise busy lives so rarely give proper time. It’s great for Oxford, for books and for authors. But most of all it’s great for the reading public and that’s what matters most.

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