Inside Oxford - Feast of literature served up in style

Oxford Mail: Lionel Barber Lionel Barber

The Oxford Literary Festival 2014 has arrived. This year it’s bigger, better and more ambitious than ever in its eighteen year history. Hosted in style, once again, by our magnificent city, its wide programme is a delight of for all ages – visitors and locals alike.

Under the magnificent vaulted roof of the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library, we sat – expectantly. This was going to be fun. Oxford’s intoxicating blend of dazzling architecture and challenging enquiry had united over the starched white table cloths of the Financial Times’ celebration Lunch with the FT. This is a weekly ritual in which world leaders and figures of renown are invited to choose a time, place and menu with an FT journalist. While they chat, the journalist picks up on crumbs of self-revelation; when the bill comes, the FT always pays. That’s the rule – even if you’re Bill Gates.

Editor Lionel Barber recalled the most expensive lunch ever ordered, by former Japanese Prime Minister Yusuhiro Nakasone: £306 in 2003; other encounters have journalists longing for a chilled glass of house white while their billionaire lunch guest orders tap water – for them both. One guest who imbibed prodigiously while consuming a little beef, was poured into a taxi home. The next morning, to Barber’s dismay, the guest’s wife rang. Expecting a complaint, Barber was relieved when she thanked him for showing her husband a good time. He’d died that day.

Arriving seven minutes late for lunch with the notoriously coruscating Martin Amis in North London, Barber recalled that the awkward silence which followed was broken by Amis’ remark: “The menu is very pig orientated.” Just back from interviewing Jacob Zuma in Zimbabwe, Barber’s courteous manner belies some steel, yet in remembering less successful lunch encounters, you could see the unease in his eyes.

One feisty encounter between the FT’s petite Lucy Kellaway and cage fighter Dan White – who chose one of Mayfair’s swankiest restaurants, the Cipriani, to bring his own vitamin drink to a meaty menu – resulted in a moment of revelation: “I’m never going to be the good guy, no matter what I do or what I say. I run a company with 500 of the baddest dudes in the world and I am the boss,” White confessed.

The Oxford Literary Festival is an ongoing feast: nine days of national and international authors brought together in a stellar programme, hosted in some of Oxford’s most iconic buildings: Christ Church, the Sheldonian and the Bodleian.

For aspiring writers, there’s even a creative writing course.

“Nobody attending need go hungry for literary fame. The festival is now global in its reach. “Every day is packed with talent,” said Tony Byrne, Oxford Literary Festival’s special advisor.

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