THE PLAN, WHEN booking the Oxford Literary Festival, was a romantic weekend for two with entertainment on the side. As it happened, we travelled with one teenager and an instruction from another not to return home without an autograph from Jeremy Paxman.We didn’t overbook events but looked forward to a diversity of topics: from learning to read hieroglyphics to the history of Hollywood and the real Downton Abbey. The only talk I was not looking forward to related to legal issues surrounding publication - homework for me.
We flew to Birmingham and drove to Oxford, arriving, early morning, in the mist-covered university city with its breath-taking sandstone, Gothic architecture.
Travelling with a teen, we went for the authentic Oxford experience, staying in student accommodation in Christchurch College which was central to all events. Bordering our balcony was a ropey vine my husband could have climbed, if romance had still been on the agenda.
Staying at the university offered incredible access to it. The main hall at breakfast was like entering the Great Hall in Harry Potter (inspired by Christchurch’s hall).
Over three days, I learned that you don’t have to be a reader or writer to enjoy a literary festival, you just need to have a degree of curiosity in life.
Until Oxford, I didn’t really know about the true evolution of the world or how Hollywood has been dominated by ruthless businessmen, or how long-term-thinking China is investing hugely in Africa in return for mineral rights.
I learned things that were not in the books being featured. Paxman, speaking about the British empire, became uncharacteristically introspective, digressing to recall a time he reprimanded a friend, at 17, for having happiness as his only ambition.
Years later, realising the chap had been right, Paxman sought to find him. Finally, he did and apologised. The man had no memory of the incident. But did seem happy.
I did get that autograph. I hated accosting him but he was gracious and amusing - and better-looking in the flesh. Meeting him was a highlight of the trip. And it meant we could return home.
Irish Times literary critic, Eileen Battersby, reading from her new book, Ordinary Dogs, was interrupted by a phone call which resulted in her speaking, movingly, about loss.
In addition to talks, many festivals run writing workshops, not only for adults but teens and children. Competitions and awards offer opportunities for both established and aspiring writers. Children’s programmes have made most literary festivals family events.
● Another literary festival set in a university town is CambridgeWord Fest (April 12th-15th), cambridgewordfest.co.uk
● Listowel Writers Week (May 30th-June 3rd) is a friendly festival where writers, aspiring writers and readers mix easily in a relaxed atmosphere: writersweek.ie
● Bill Clinton called the Hay Festival in Wales (May 31st-June 10th) “the Woodstock of the mind” as it brings together thinkers and writers from all disciplines from around the world. Hay now runs 15 festivals across five continents: hayfestival.com. For an extensive list of all festivals in the UK, see literaryfestivals.co.uk
● The Dublin Writers Festival (June 4th-10th) is an international event: dublinwritersfestival.com
● The Dalkey Book Festival (June 15th-17th) and the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dún
Laoghaire (September 4th-9th) provide cosy local events that facilitate bumping shoulders with the stars: dalkeybookfestival.org and mountainstosea.ie
● For a beautiful setting, try the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry (July 8th-14th): westcorkliteraryfestival.ie