Showing posts with label Christ Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christ Church. Show all posts

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Jane Shilling, middle age and House With No Name's birthday

If I’m honest, the main reason I booked to hear Jane Shilling’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival was because she’d been teamed up with Rachel Cusk.

Cusk is the writer whose recent memoir about her divorce, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, has prompted a flurry of criticism and debate.

But at the start of the discussion, the audience (like me, mostly middle-aged and female) was told that Rachel Cusk had had to pull out. No reason was given, but instead, the session on Women in Middle Age would be Jane Shilling in conversation with writer and journalist Rebecca Abrams.

Abrams got the event, held at Christ Church, off to a cracking start by telling us that while Shilling calls her book about middle age “a monument to introspection,” she reckons it's “a call to arms.” She also referenced two brilliant quotes from a couple of Hollywood stars. While Doris Day said “the really frightening thing about middle age is that you know you’ll grow out of it,” Lucille Ball declared that “the secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”

Jane Shilling began writing her own book, The Stranger in the Mirror, in her 40s, when it suddenly struck her that she was becoming middle-aged. Her frank memoir garnered plenty of headlines when it came out, largely because of its cover (above). There can't be many 40-something women who would countenance posing naked in front of a mirror - but that's what Shilling did.

“It’s very painful to relinquish youth,” she said. “But part of living a good middle age is to embrace it. At some point you arrive at the realisation that what remains is more important than what has been lost.”

And despite newspapers’ stereotypical view of middle-aged women as either desperate to look younger or grumpy old women, she reminded us all that the middle aged are in the majority. Not only that, interesting role models are “coming out of the woodwork” – women like Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett.

Ending the discussion on an upbeat note, a woman in the audience piped up and said she wanted to “put a more positive spin on things.” Middle age isn’t all empty nests and worries about ageing, she said. “I have just hit 50 and there are some very good things to be had."

PS. Today is House With No Name's first birthday! It seems no time at all since the very first post, but thank you so much to everyone who's read House With No Name over the last 12 months and here's looking to the next 12.

Monday, 2 April 2012

William Boyd at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

The massive marquee at Christ Church was full to bursting for William Boyd’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday night. The event was a sell-out and fans were so keen to hear him talk about his latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, that an orderly queue formed outside – just in case there were any empty seats.

In a way, Boyd, with slicked back hair and wearing an immaculate dark suit and dazzling white shirt, was back on home turf. He spent three years as an English literature tutor at St Hilda’s in the 1980s and said his time there coincided with the start of his writing career. In between, he told us, he’d done just about every writing job going – “from restaurant criticism to Hollywood movies.”  He’s written 17 novels to date, along with a myriad of screenplays and short stories, and been awarded the CBE.

For me, the most enthralling part of Boyd’s hour-long talk came when he outlined the details of how he writes. Famed for his amazing settings – from 1920s Berlin to Africa to Vienna before the First World War, he admitted that he doesn’t necessarily go to these places before writing about them.

“It’s the power of your imagination that makes it work and makes it feel real,” he said. “I send my imagination as a proxy traveller, and recreate a city in my mind. I have never worried about visiting a place. I do it from my armchair. Sometimes the use of imagination is more true than the documentary evidence that your eyes and ears provide you with.”

He reckons you need three things for a novel – the ability to express yourself lucidly, a relish for observation (“I take enormous pleasure in the cinema of everyday life”) and a well-functioning imagination.

It was fascinating to hear that before Boyd writes a word of his novels, he’s often spent two years planning them and thinking them through in very precise detail.

“I have a particular working method,” he explained. “Iris Murdoch talked about periods of invention and periods of composition. I have a long period of invention and maybe two years will go by before I start writing. I maybe travel a bit, acquire a small library of books that will help me, fill notebooks of ideas and think about the characters.

“It’s only when I know precisely how the novel will end that I start on page one and the period of composition begins. I write with confidence because I have done all my thinking and have a very clear plan. I add flesh to the bones but the actual writing of the novel is done, not with ease exactly, but with peace of mind.”

Unlike many writers and thanks to his tried and tested method of writing, he never finds his characters suddenly doing something he hadn’t expected them to do either. “My characters are my creatures and do my bidding,” he said firmly.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ian Rankin at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

The sun’s shining, the blossom’s out and one of my favourite literary events of the year is underway.

The Oxford Literary Festival always attracts a galaxy of writing superstars and this year is no exception. Last night I hurried down to Christ Church to hear bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin in action. He was there to talk about The Impossible Dead, the second in his gripping new series featuring Inspector Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. But he also spoke about Inspector Rebus’s retirement, his view that “a cop is a good tool for dissecting society” and his long abandoned PhD on the novels of Muriel Spark.

Like me, several members of the audience did a double-take when they walked into the grandly-named Master’s Garden Marquee. Ian Rankin was already ensconced onstage but instead of looking at notes he was busy filming us lot. The reason, he explained later on, was that Alan Yentob is featuring him in a forthcoming edition of BBC2’s Imagine series and has given him a video camera to capture his writing life. Considering that novelists spend most of their time shut away by themselves, Rankin reckoned that a film of him out and about in Oxford would make more interesting footage.

Tantalisingly, Rankin waved around the first draft of his new novel, due out in November. The contents are so top secret, he said, that he’s not even allowed to reveal the title yet. But he lessened the blow by giving us a different exclusive. He read an extract from a short story set in 1930s America, the first draft of which he’d finished the night before. “I loved doing it,” he said. “I didn’t realise what fun it was writing American PI (private investigator) stuff.”

Other revelations along the way included the fact that he chose the name Rebus because it means puzzle – after all, if Inspector Morse’s name is inspired by a code, why shouldn’t Rebus come from a puzzle? He revealed that his new protagonist, Malcolm Fox, is far more like him than Rebus. “I like writing about his family – his dad and his sister,” said Rankin. “And Fox is open to seeing Edinburgh as a beautiful city whereas Rebus sees it as a series of crime scenes.” Most telling of all, Rankin admitted that he feels a sense of unfinished business about characters like Rebus, his sidekick Siobhan and the notorious Edinburgh gangster Cafferty. Does that mean they might one day reappear in his work? Like millions of Rankin fans, I do hope so.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The day that changed their lives

The sense of excitement in Oxford on Wednesday afternoon was palpable.

Police in fluorescent jackets lined St Aldate’s, a helicopter hovered overhead and an acrobat walked across a tight rope on Cornmarket. Oh yes, and just down the road at Christ Church, Michelle Obama was encouraging a generation of schoolgirls to aim high and achieve their potential.

The First Lady’s connection with girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College in Islington dates back two years. She first visited the school in 2009 and stayed in touch afterwards, an impressive feat in itself considering her whirlwind, and worldwide, schedule. This time round she met 37 girls from the school during their day-trip to Oxford to learn about the university experience and higher education. After meeting academics, talking to students and visiting Oxford landmarks like the Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre (pictured above), the teenagers rounded the day off by filing into the dining hall at Christ Church (now famed as the Hogwarts dining room in the Harry Potter films) to hear Michelle Obama speak to them.

As she recalled her own path from a modest Chicago background to studying at Princeton, she told them: “I realised that if I worked hard enough I could do just as well as anyone else. I realised that success is not about the background you’re from. It’s about the confidence that you have and the effort you’re willing to invest.”

Michelle Obama was inspiring, wise and warm. She answered the girls’ questions – from how long before the US has a female President to how to pick a good husband – and gave each of them a heartfelt hug. As one 15 year old wrote in The Times afterwards: “My name is Aneesah Siddiqui. If I hadn’t met Michelle Obama, you would probably have never heard it. But now – watch this space!”

After an hour and a bit, the police stopped the traffic once more, the First Lady’s cavalcade swept past in a flash and the First Lady, resplendent in white, smiled and waved from the window. The crowd waved back and seconds later the centre of Oxford looked the same again. But girls listening to Michelle Obama that afternoon will remember it as the day that changed their lives.
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