WITH an easy going charm, ready wit and plain speaking honesty, Michael Rosen is instantly engaging.

A master storyteller and eloquent speaker, his wild imagination and fascination with the world betray a fierce, though modestly understated, intelligence. Listening to him speak is exhilarating – a breakneck succession of tales, anecdotes, recollections and trips down cerebral rabbit holes.

Read more: Oxford Literary Festival brings scores of famous faces to city centre for 10-day spectacle

The level-headed author, poet and one-time Children’s Laureate has an uncanny knack of making most of the rest of us seem dull by comparison.

Today, the writer and national treasure, who honed his craft reading English at Wadham College, returned to the city to help launch the Oxford Literary Festival.

He joins a line-up of experts from almost every field imaginable, with a bill boasting an ex-Tory leader (William Hague), former Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey) and the Chancellor of Oxford University (Chris Patten).

But while his heavyweight fellow speakers will hold forth on the major issues of the day, Michael took to the stage at the Sheldonian Theatre to share the fantastic adventures of an imaginary hound – Gaston Le Dog.

Oxford Mail: Michael

“Gaston is a friendly dog who likes telling stories," he says cheerfully.

"He longs to go to the seaside he remembers from years ago.

"He sets off on a journey but keeps meeting obstacles and friends including a butterfly, a terrifying cat who bears a strong resemblance to Puss in Boots and a hippy yak who collects flotsam that floats down the river.

“There are dangers too... things like being entranced by a strange revolving fossil, or being turned into a garden gnome.”

The stories come from his new book, The Incredible Adventures of Gaston Le Dog, which was inspired by stories he used to tell his son on holiday in France.

It was the book he, says, he dreamed of writing while recovering from Covid. His deadly struggle with coronavirus and his experience of being hospitalised for months, some of it in a coma, also inspired his powerful book Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS.

In contrast, Gaston’s challenges sparkle with a dusting of myth, magic and fairy tale, with elements of some of his own favourite stories.

He says: "People might find traces of Pinocchio, Homer’s Odyssey, Where the Wild Things Are and Puss in Boots... but it is not like anything else. It’s a strangely analogous sideways glance at the world.”

Oxford Mail: Muswell Hill children's author Michael Rosen will read from a series of children's storybooks on March 23 Image: Supplied

The hour-long, family-friendly performance also featured some of his other creations – such as the award-winning We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (which he stresses he did not write, but merely adapted from an old American campsite folk song).

Michael has been looking forward to returning to Oxford with its reminders of his happy years as a student, such as trips to the Kings Arms with his friend, the late Christopher Hitchens.

“I had a fantastic time in Oxford,” he says with a touch of reverie.

“There were new things happening and a sense of rebellion. I had an amazing time with a great group of people.”

He shares tales of intellectual sparring, and of a boisterous misunderstanding in the middle of the night with an amorous sculptor who had falsely suspected him of stealing his girlfriend.

But while many things remain the same, there have been some unwelcome changes in ‘the city of dreaming spires’.

“I went there recently and sat in the King’s Arms – and I was distraught to see that the menu had changed,” he says with mock indignation.

“I used to have pickled herring and sweetcorn there every day as a student – but you can’t get it now!”

He is, however, more than impressed by the literary festival line-up.

He says: “It’s always fun going to festivals as you find yourself rubbing shoulders with the great and august – who ask you what it is you are doing.”

And the prospect of reading children’s stories in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian has been particularly appealing.

“That was the place where, if you got to finish your course, you’d get your degree or go to listen to celebrated speakers,” he says.

“It is interesting doing ‘Bear Hunt’ and things like that there.”

Underlying Michael’s writing is his love of language and differences in how it is used. He is an advocate of plain speaking, eschewing flowery prose. Exploration of the way we speak forms the basis of his BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth.

“I am fascinated by language,” he says.

“Some say you should strive for beauty, but others say there’s virtue in simplicity.

“The Americans find a way to use simple language to express difficult feelings.”

He cites favourites, from Raymond Carver and Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan.

“I admire people who express powerful thoughts with simple words,” he adds.

And fans of all ages were given a chance to admire his own word craft this morning.

Encouraging people to enjoy the book - available at the city's book shops  - he says: “Come on a joyful trip with stories... and the element of surprise!”

  • Michael Rosen's The Incredible Adventures of Gaston Le Dog  is available in all good bookshops.
  • For more on Oxford Literary Festival, and a full programme of speakers and events, go to oxfordliteraryfestival.org/