John Garth explores the 2014 Literary Festival — from biographies of The Beatles to mapping English language

Lit Festival

By John Garth

Christ Church dining hall, a model for the one at Hogwarts, rings out with the chants of children chanting ‘Set him free!’ Enter a hooded, robed figure — not Dumbledore, but an even more senior wizard, released briefly from enchanted imprisonment in a cavern.

Kevin Crossley-Holland gamely stayed in character for an hour while Merlin received the This Is Your Life treatment from Nicolette Jones, in charge of the young people’s programme at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. He posed medieval riddles, recounted the legendary origin of Stonehenge, and mined Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory and the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen for details from the lives of the wizard and of Arthur. In return, young members of the audience told him about Gandalf and Harry Potter. ‘Harry who?’ asked Merlin.

A slightly younger life story was recounted elsewhere in the Festival — the story of the English language in Britain. Prolific linguistics author David Crystal and his wife Hilary introduced their book Wordsmiths and Warriors, an attempt to do for the language what travelogues have done for literature, by visiting key places in the history of English. For the purposes of the talk, they began just over the road from Christ Church with Alice’s Shop, in honour of Lewis Carroll — after Samuel Johnson the most quoted author on language. Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray won Oxford a further place in their tour: in the Banbury Road he has one of only two blue plaques in Britain which celebrate a linguist.

The book itself runs chronologically, from Pegwell Bay in Kent, where the Anglo-Saxons disembarked with their exotic tongue; via the Gloucestershire tower commemorating English Bible pioneer William Tyndale; to the other blue plaque, in Hinton St George, Somerset, honouring H.W. Fowler of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage.  But to see the English language celebrated with full vigour, the Crystals had to travel to Scotland, and Alloway, birthplace of Robert Burns. The walls of the Burns Cottage Museum there are studded with stones engraved with the dialect words he kept alive: cranreuch, bughtin, cauld. Inside, artist Iain McIntosh’s giant version of The Last Supper has Burns taking the place of honour among other giants — Gandhi, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare and Mandela amongst them.

But this was a biography of the language, and even Burns was given no more than a walk-on part. It is a testament to the Crystals, with their charming if slightly wooden double act, that they almost filled Corpus Christi’s MBI Al Jaber auditorium without the help of the cult of personality. 

Or of a television tie-in. That advantage went to Lucy Worsley, who presided over an absolutely crammed auditorium for the first screening of episode one of her forthcoming BBC series, The First Georgians. The series, marking the tercentenary of the start of the Georgian era, would be a relief from ‘metal fatigue’ arising from the centenary of 1914, said Worsley. After introducing a sassy new haircut which reinvents the girlish TV historian as a bit of a sexpot, she moved on to reinventing the Georgian kings — not as ‘the bad one, the mad one, the sad one and the fat one’ but as the new bosses who successfully turned around the ailing business of Great Britain.  

The programme artfully sketches the outgoing Jacobeans, declining into a cul-de-sac of sterility; and the incoming Hanoverians, fecund, liberal, enlightened. Also covered are the Georgian era’s permanent contributions – the novel, ‘His Majesty’s loyal Opposition’, the stock market – and its more temporary highlights, including Neo-Palladian architecture, a lapse in censorship, and a concomitant boom in satire that produced such excellences as the engraving of an ambitious office-seeker kissing the Prime Minister’s colossal backside.

As the lights came up, Worsley joked: ‘When you watch that, you see a history programme. When I watch it it’s like seeing my holiday snaps.’ Filming took her from Oxford Prison (standing in as the Bastille) to Chiswick and Greenwich and to the homeland which George I never really left, Hanover. There, the locals made the BBC crew very welcome, all the more so because they had not come to talk about the war. The programme has been made with the Royal Collection, but Worsley stressed her interest is history and biography, not promotion. ‘Some people think I study the royals because I’m some sort of crazy monarchist,’ she said. ‘But it’s because these are the best-recorded lives at any period.’

The Beatles’ lives must now vie for the crown of best-recorded in the modern era. Or they will when Mark Lewisohn has completed his three-volume biography, All These Years — a task which he does not expect to complete for another 14 years, though volume one alone took him 11.  Having filled 960 pages – and there’s also a double-length version of this volume for the truly hardcore – the biographer simmered with barely contained detail. We heard the book has no fewer than four George Martins (one of whom was driving the car Eddie Cochran died in); that Paul McCartney did the best Sun-era Elvis Presley voice in Liverpool; that the Beatles vowed never to do anything the way Cliff Richard did it. 

In a relaxed conversation with Oxford-based radio presenter David Freeman, Lewisohn told how John Lennon, a young hell-raiser who had suddenly turned doe-eyed over Elvis, first encountered the sound of Little Richard. The way Lewisohn told it, you almost felt you were there with the schoolboys bunking off at lunchtime to eat chips and huddle round the record player. ‘And John hears Long Tall Sally,’ explained Lewisohn, ‘and is completely stopped in his tracks.’ Such was the paucity of information compared to our own era that Lennon had to be told Little Richard was black. ‘You mean blacks make this kind of music too?’ he’s said to have replied.

Lewisohn’s self-belief is infectious: I didn’t need to be persuaded that the Beatles were the best, but I came away convinced that his might indeed be the one to summon them back to full life — those latter-day enchanters, from the Cavern.

Image by Oxford University Images