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Literary festival organiser plans the events in her spare time
There are lots of show-offs in this world, as Sally Dunsmore points out.
But within five seconds of meeting her, it’s obvious she’s not one of them.
Actually, this quietly-spoken, modest woman has every reason to strut about.
The brains behind Oxfordshire’s two fabulous book festivals, Oxford and Blenheim, she rubs shoulders with famous writers, actors, politicians and artists.
Ruth Rendell, We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Lionel Shriver, Countryfile presenter Julia Bradbury, Hollywood star Stefanie Powers, Rachel Johnson and curry queen Madhur Jaffrey are just some of the big names who rolled up to the Oxford Lit Fest earlier this year.
And next week’s Blenheim Palace festival has an equally impressive line-up of ex-Prime Minister John Major, singer songwriter Beverley Craven and celebrity chef Rick Stein.
Amazingly, she organises both festivals in her spare time, while holding down her day job at Conference Oxford, the university’s conference booking arm.
This means most weekends and evenings at her home in Woodstock are filled with festival work and liaising with her 100-strong team, most of whom are volunteers like her.
“I love and believe in it, so I want to make it happen,” she said simply.
“The first day of either festival, I always get very nervous and feel physically sick and think to myself ‘I don’t know why I do this’.”
It all started 17 years ago, when she took the job with Conference Oxford.
A passion for European theatre and art led her to travel, where she spotted a Greek theatre group.
“I am not into Greek theatre and the whole tragedy thing particularly but these people were sublime. “It was so incredibly beautiful,” she said.
Sally decided to bring them to the UK and set about finding a venue and raising the money to pay for it.
She remembered: “It was my first introduction to putting on an event myself.
“The week before, I didn’t have any ticket sales and had 17 Greeks coming over. I felt physically sick.
“So I rang every single person in my address book and told them all they had to come and bring 10 people.
“Amazingly, I ended up with a sell-out.
“The people who had come had spread the word it was excellent and by the end of the week I had people fighting at the door to get in.”
That sparked the idea of putting on a festival for book lovers and was the catalyst for the Oxford Lit Fest.
The first was just one day and had 10 events at the university’s student union.
“We did it as local people for local people and the challenge was whether it would work,” she said.
“Thankfully,1,000 people came and loved it which was brilliant and we thought ‘Right, let’s do it again next year’.
“From these small beginnings, I could never imagine it would end up on the scale it has now.”
In the case of the Oxford Lit Fest, it has mushroomed to an incredible 550 speakers over nine days, while Blenheim packs in 100 in five days.
Tickets, most of which are around the £11 mark, would be three times as expensive if they were not subsidised by the £1.25m she and the team raise each year, she says.
Coming up with fresh ideas for speakers, debates and talks at the festivals is a challenge.
Although she is determined there should be no dumbing-down, she wants them to appeal to everyone.
“It’s called a literary festival but it’s actually a group of people who come together and talk about everything from politics, philosophy and science to art, fashion and cooking,” she pointed out.
“It’s about hearing other ideas and the community coming together for a day out and, of course, it should be fun.
“What’s lovely about lit fests, is they give us time to sit and think about the world.
“In recent times, we have been gagged and told what to think about things. And who knows, hearing something could challenge the way you see the world.” Does she find it hard to deal with stroppy celebs and cantankerous customers?
“Hah,” she jokes, “I can be quite bossy at times.”
“But most authors are very charming, pleased to be here and meet other authors and love engaging with their readers, so there are few real problems.”
She tries not to pick favourites but meeting Ireland’s first female president Dr Mary Robinson, who came to Blenheim last year to talk about her autobiography, was special.
“What really struck me about her, she seemed such a charming, delightful woman who you could sit down and have a cup of tea with,” she said.
Sally has lived in Woodstock for 10 years and before that Oxford, when she worked at Oxford University Press and what was once the Museum of Modern Art, now Modern Art Oxford.
She says one of her favourite ways of relaxing is with a glass of white wine and good food.
Every morning Sally takes her two dogs Toffee and Sweep, a Yorkshire terrier and a miniature schnauzer, for a long walk around the grounds of Blenheim Palace. “I do that before I go to work and love it, because it gives me time to think,” she said.
Ironically, for someone whose life is so entwined with the university, she did not go herself.
She explained: “Once I’d got my A levels, I chose not to go to uni but if I had my time again, I would.”
Reading and learning are her passions. No matter how tired she is, Sally says she manages to squeeze in a few pages before bed, or while sitting on a bus or train.
At the moment she is enjoying French psychologist Marie de Hennezel’s book The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body From Rusting, which talks about how ageing doesn’t mean getting older.
Having just turned 50, she is fascinated by the thought of keeping an open mind and a youthful outlook on life.
“What makes me happy is to remain curious,” she explained.
“My curiosity drives me and I hope I never lose that because it gives me energy.”
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