Literary Life: FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival highlights

From menus and mess to Vikram Seth

The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival takes place from Saturday March 25 to Sunday April 2. The festival, which celebrates its 21st birthday this year, features a wide range of events in venues across the city, including the Bodleian Library, the Divinity School and the Sheldonian Theatre. FT Weekend at the Bodleian is a series of events staged by FT Weekend on Saturday April 1.

Festival highlights are listed below; for more details, and the full programme, visit Tickets are available from the website, from the festival box office in the Blackwell’s marquee, or by telephone: 0333 666 3366.


Lionel Shriver talks to Boyd Tonkin

March 25, 12pm

Weston Lecture Theatre, £13.50

The author of We Need to Talk about Kevin talks to literary critic Boyd Tonkin about her latest novel The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047, a dystopian story set in the near future that explores the effects of financial meltdown. Lionel Shriver will also join former Downing Street adviser Tom Fletcher to discuss “A Trumpian World”at 4pm, St John’s Auditorium.


A Conversation with Vikram Seth

March 25, 6pm

The Sheldonian, £15-£25

Vikram Seth, author of international bestseller A Suitable Boy, talks about his life and work — as well as the upcoming sequel A Suitable Girl — with BBC journalist and former arts and media correspondent Nick Higham.


Robert Harris
BBC World Book Club: ‘Imperium’

March 26, 11am

Worcester College, free admission

The bestselling author of The Ghost, Enigma and Pompeii talks to Harriet Gilbert about his Roman trilogy and the publication of its first instalment, Imperium.


Alfred Brendel
A Pianist’s Life: A Fireside Chat by Candlelight

March 29, 6pm

Worcester College, £20

The world-famous pianist talks to BBC radio broadcaster Sue MacGregor in the Provost of Worcester College’s 18th-century home.


George Carey
Being Trumped: A Parable for Our Time?

March 30, 10am

Worcester College Lecture Theatre, £12.50

The former Archbishop of Canterbury examines the rise of Donald Trump and asks whether, far from being an aberration, he has been called forth by our times.


William Boyd interviewed by Richard Ovenden

Bodley Lecture and Award of Bodley Medal

March 30, 6pm

Sheldonian, £15-£20

The much-loved author of 14 novels, including Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach and Restless, talks to Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian, about his life and work, before being awarded the Bodley Medal.


Tim Harford
‘Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World’

April 1, 10am

Weston Lecture Theatre, £13.50

Tim Harford, the FT’s Undercover Economist, draws on research from neuroscience, social science, psychology and examples of real people achieving extraordinary things to argue that we should embrace messiness in our daily lives.


Peter Stothard interviewed by Alec Russell

‘The Senecans: Four Men, and Margaret Thatcher’ and Seneca’s Lessons for the Trumpian Age

April 1, 11.30am

Weston Lecture Theatre, £12.50

The former editor of The Times talks to FT Weekend editor Alec Russell about politics, memoir and ancient history, looking at four men involved with Margaret Thatcher who all had a taste for the Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist Seneca.


Alexandra Shulman
‘Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th year’

April 1, 12pm

Sheldonian, £12.50

The outgoing editor of Vogue on the true story of the world’s most eminent fashion magazine in its 100th anniversary year.


David Tang interviewed by Jane Owen
How I Conquered the World with Good Manners

April 1, 12.45pm

Weston Lecture Theatre, £12.50

David Tang, businessman, FT agony uncle and author of Rules for Modern Life, talks to Jane Owen, deputy editor of FT Weekend and editor of House & Home, about the importance of good manners in today’s world.


Bill Emmott interviewed by Sarah Gordon
‘The Fate of the West: The Decline and Revival of the World’s Most Valuable Political Idea’

April 1, 2pm

Weston Lecture Theatre £12.50

The former editor-in-chief of the Economist talks to FT business editor Sarah Gordon on what liberal democracies must do to recover and thrive.


Hilary Mantel © WireImage

Hilary Mantel and Diarmaid MacCulloch
The British Academy Lecture: Thomas Cromwell

April 1, 2pm

Sheldonian, £15-£25

Two-time Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel and historian and broadcaster Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch talk about their different perspectives on the 16th-century lawyer and statesman Thomas Cromwell.


Richard Ovenden and David Tang

John Thomson’s Illustrations of China and Its People

April 1, 2pm

Weston Library Seminar Room, £12.50

John Thomson was one of the first western photographers to travel to east Asia. His work capturing landscapes and people in the 19th century helped lay the foundations for photojournalism. FT columnist David Tang and Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian and a Thomson expert, give a masterclass on Thomson’s work.


Nicholas Lander interviewed by Natalie Whittle

‘On the Menu: The World’s Favourite Piece of Paper’

April 1, 2pm

Oxford Martin School, £12.50

FT restaurant critic Nicholas Lander looks at the history, design and evolution of the restaurant menu, from a menu served in the Paris siege of 1870 through to classic menus from the triple-starred El Bulli in Spain, five times voted the world’s best restaurant.


Lucy Kellaway interviewed by Michael Skapinker

NowTeach: Why I am Leaving a Top Job at the FT for Teaching

April 1, 3:30pm

Weston Lecture Theatre, £12.50

FT columnist Lucy Kellaway talks about her decision to leave the Financial Times after more than 30 years to teach maths in a challenging London secondary school. Kellaway has founded a new charity, NowTeach, that is encouraging successful people in the public and private sectors to consider teaching mainly maths, sciences and foreign languages in London schools.


Peter Frankopan and Stephen King

Changing Global Order and the Rise of the East

April 1, 4pm

Sheldonian, £12.50-£15

Historian Peter Frankopan and economist Stephen King talk about the rise of economic power in the east and ask what the future holds for the world over the next century or more. The Brexit vote and Trump victory are signs that people are rejecting the globalisation and free trade that have dominated world economics for the past 30 or more years. Meanwhile, economies of the east, along the old Silk Roads, are rising. What, they ask, does potential break-up of the EU, greater protectionism in western economies and the growing power of the east mean for us?


Robert Armstrong, Philip Stephens, Jonathan Derbyshire and Sarah Gordon

FT Live Leader Debate

April 1, 4:45pm

Weston Lecture Theatre, £12.50

For the first time in 125 years the FT lifts the lid on its daily editorial conference. Robert Armstrong, the FT’s chief leader writer, and senior journalists including Philip Stephens, Jonathan Derbyshire and Sarah Gordon debate the issues of the day and decide the “line” for an editorial in the following Monday’s FT.


Jeremy Paxman interviewed by Alec Russell

The Art of the Interview in the Post-Truth Age

April 1, 6:30pm

Sheldonian, £12.-£20

Political interviewer and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman talks to FT Weekend editor Alec Russell about how the introduction of the idea of “alternative facts” on day one of the Trump presidency underlines how “post-truth politics” has captured the zeitgeist. How should a political interviewer and a news organisation such as the BBC respond to post-truth politics? And how does your average voter get to the truth of issues today?

One to see: Why Fitzwilliam Darcy continues to charm

Heartthrobs in literature have mostly been dreamt up by women, writes Carol Dyhouse. Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, has proved icon and archetype, one of the most powerful fantasy-males in modern cultural history. The Darcy played by Colin Firth in Andrew Davies’ 1995 BBC adaptation barely calls for description: as Firth emerged wet-shirted and virile from the lake on his estate, women all over Britain went weak at the knees.

When scientists working on pheromones found a hormone in the urine of male mice that proved powerfully attractive to females, they decided to call it “Darcin”. But men often find it hard to understand Darcy’s appeal. Though rich, he’s an insensitive snob when we meet him. It’s the story that matters. Lizzy Bennet has few resources apart from her intelligence and fine eyes but she transforms the man into the perfect provider, protector and soulmate. We — and women readers especially — suspend disbelief because we want to believe that this can happen, that life can be a fairy tale.

In the 19th century, it was hard for the daughter of a gentleman to earn a living. She needed to marry. A man — and the richer he was, the better — offered protection and respectability. If marriage was impossible and there were no male relatives, things were pretty desperate. “Governessing slavery” was one of the few options left, and it was not an attractive prospect.

© Alamy

This made it sensible to be calculating. Lizzy’s friend Charlotte Lucas makes a prudent decision to marry the pompous and self-important clergyman Mr Collins, because she is well-aware that her choices are limited and that it’s probably her best option.

Aiming for sensible choices wouldn’t stifle fancy, of course, and 19th-century literature is full of it. Austen amply depicts the seductive charm of the reprobate George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë offers us the darkly passionate sexiness of potential bigamist Edward Rochester. But both Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Brontë’s heroines, however responsive to such masculine allure, however buffeted and tormented by their own desires, strive for prudence.

The romantic literature of the last 150 years shows both continuity and change. Heroines are feistier these days — less likely to need rescuing, and the shape of imaginary heroes has also changed. But the conventions of romance fiction have remained remarkably constant. The fairytale narrative whereby women somehow transform damaged or difficult men into loving life-partners is with us still.

Carol Dyhouse will be speaking about her book ‘Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire’ at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday 25 March


One to see: a Jewish journey traced in the collections of the Ashmolean

A perfume flask from Bronze Age Jericho; a Dead Sea Scroll jar from the caves of Qumran; the funeral plaque of a sausage-maker in 4th-century Rome; a forged bank note made in a Nazi concentration camp. These are just a few of the objects in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum that chart the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, from their emergence in ancient Mesopotamia to the present day, writes Rebecca Abrams.

Perfume flask © Ashmolean Museum

The mere fact of these objects’ preservation is in many cases extraordinary, and the stories they tell are no less so: stories of the people who made and used them, and the diverse contexts in which they were made; stories spanning a vast and varied terrain, covering many different cultures.

The journey described by the 22 objects I wrote about is both temporal and physical, starting with the Sumerian King List (1800BC) from ancient Iraq, and wending its way from there across the centuries and continents. The last of the objects, a delightfully grumpy pottery camel, has itself been travelling for 1,000 years, from Tang Dynasty China via Nazi Germany to modern day Oxford.

The recurring imperative for Jewish people to move from one place to another as refugees and economic migrants gives their story a particular resonance now. But as these objects also remind us, the mythic figure of the Wandering Jew is misleading, because Jewish people have lived for long stretches as settled citizens in almost every country, contributing to the cultures of those countries in myriad ways.

Manifested in these objects is the complexity of Jewish history, and the tantalisingly vivid glimpses they provide of the lives of ordinary men and women, parents, children, artisans, traders, artists and soldiers, as well as kings, queens, priests and professors.

Rebecca Abrams will be speaking about her forthcoming book ‘The Jewish Journey’ at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday April 1


Nilanjana Roy: cats and kindness in old Delhi

When my novel The Wildings came out, many assumed that it was about cats — they took centre stage among a babble of cheels, crows, bandicoots and other creatures. But this was only partly true. The Wildings was about all of Delhi’s unseen inhabitants, especially those who were misfits.

Most of the characters in the two Wildings books are strays, sometimes homeless, sometimes at risk of losing their homes. The two protagonists who have homes, a kitten and a tiger, are both trapped: Ozymandias in a zoo, Mara by her own fears.

How do strays survive in teeming, brusque, manic Delhi? I spent some years watching and following stray cats, monkeys and birds around the city. A thread of rich kindness connected these permanent migrants. Often it was people who had little to offer who gave unsparingly, sharing their homes, their meagre meals and their love with creatures who would have died without that shelter and kindness.

Another city lurked beneath the hard surface of the Delhi I knew. It was a softer, gentler place; it made space for the smallest of the city’s invisible, non-human citizens.

Nilanjana Roy will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday April 1


Min Kym: the pursuit of the perfect violin

Min Kym

Why is the bond between a violinist and their instrument so particular? And how is it that when you find your violin you know that this is the one — your voice, your partner, the completion of your being?

It’s not simply a question of looks or even sound — it’s more the matching of an instrument’s personality with your own. It’s like a marriage. Jascha Heifetz had his 1740 Guarneri del Gesù, Ginette Neveu her beloved Strad.

That’s not to say you never change. Yehudi Menuhin said it was the Stradivarius he wanted to stay faithful to but the Guarneri which seduced him. What we are all looking for is the violin that produces the voice that is unmistakable ours.

A story: Fritz Kreisler walked into a music shop, where he showed the proprietor his Guarneri. After inspecting it the man left his shop, then returned with a policeman in tow. “Arrest this man!” he said. “He has stolen Fritz Kreisler’s violin.” With no papers on him, Kreisler picked up his instrument and played, his identity confirmed . . . 

Min Kym will be speaking about her book ‘Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung’ at the FT Weekend Literary Festival on Saturday April 1

Photographs: Alamy; WireImage, Dreamstime; Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

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