Joyful times in the sunshine at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival
With a 50 per cent increase in ticket sales and a bigger than ever programme of events spread over nine days, this great celebration of the printed word was already scaling new heights of excellence.
The superb weather — looking set to continue as I write — gives an added dimension of pleasure for the thousands of visitors.
Making my way on Saturday to my first occasion of the festival — a dinner at Quod with Sir David Hare — it struck me that two years ago I met his only rival as Britain’s leading playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard, at a festival party that took place against a background of snow. I mention this partly as a comment on the vagaries of the English weather but chiefly to indicate the calibre of speakers attracted by festival chief executive Sally Dunsmore and her team.
Sir David had been talking about his work, and specifically about his new play South Downs, at the first festival event this year in the Sheldonian Theatre. Set in a public school in the early 1960s, South Downs, a meditation on teenage friendship, was written as a response to Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version [note I do not write ‘Rattigan’s Browning Version’, although Fowler recommends that I should]. The two are being staged together at the Harold Pinter Theatre from April 19.
Saturday’s dinner, as it happens, revived memories of my own school days at about the same period. Chatting during pre-prandial drinks with Prof Robert Hewison, who had introduced Sir David’s talk, I gathered that his undergraduate years had been spent on the other side of the High at Brasenose College. A schoolmaster who had considerable influence on my young life — he brought me, indeed, on my first visit to Oxford — had studied there too. Prof Hewison knew him well. They had been exact contemporaries, both reading history, and good friends.
On Sunday I was back at the Sheldonian for what I judge the funniest festival contribution I have seen or am ever likely to see. This was humorist Craig Brown reading from and talking about his book One On One (4th Estate, £16.99) in which 101 meetings in ‘daisy chain’ style between people, sometimes of a very different sort — Bertrand Russell and Sarah Miles, say, Tsar Nicholas II and Harry Houdini — are described in their own and others’ words.
The book seemed funny enough when I read it during the winter, gin and tonic in hand, beside a flickering log fire. But on Sunday afternoon, as sunshine streamed through the Sheldonian’s huge south window, it had me crying with laughter as a consequence of the performances by two of our finest actors, Simon Callow and Eleanor Bron, in the roles of some of the meetees (as I shall provocatively call them).
Nothing was funnier than their performance of the Hollywood meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Marilyn Monro (“You’re a very lovely young lady,” he tells her. “He was fat and ugly and had warts on his face and he growled,” Marilyn tells her maid.”) A close second, though, came in a description, supplied by HM the Queen Mother, of a grand wartime poetry reading at the Aeolian Hall, which amused her, and her daughters — the elder, of course, Queen Elizabeth II — in quite the wrong way.
“Osbert [Sitwell] was wonderful as you would expect, and Edith [Sitwell], of course, but then we had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem . . . I think it was called The Desert. And first the girls got the giggles, and then I did, and then even the King.”
“The Desert, ma’am?” asks writer A.N. Wilson, to whom her dinner party chatter was being addressed many years after the event. “Are you sure it wasn’t called The Waste Land?”
“That’s it. I’m afraid we all giggled. Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank, and we didn’t understand a word.”
“I believe he did once work in a bank.”
The source of this story was Wilson himself. Lending symmetry to these observations today, I can point out that this versatile littérateur was at Christ Church on Monday to make a double festival contribution. A fascinating talk on his reissued 1988 biography of Leo Tolstoy (he is in One On One, linking Maxim Gorky with Pyotr Il’ich Tchaikovsky) was followed later in the day by another on his Dante in Love.
I met Mr Wilson in the festival Green Room and walked with him to his first ‘gig’. In line with the ‘daisy chain’ principle established by Craig in One On One, this means I can now claim, through him, a link with the Queen Mum, and he through me, should he wish it, with such unlikely people as, for instance, Margot Fonteyn, George Harrison, ‘Singing Postman’ Alan Smethurst, ukulele- strumming singer Tiny Tim, Warhol ‘superstar’ Holly Woodlawn and, indeed, Andy Warhol himself. But, of course, these things work rather differently for a journalist . . .