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4 June 2009

Former WiO chair, Janey Hampton, will be appearing on Radio 4's travel programme Excess Baggage at 10 am this Saturday. She will be talking about Africa's oldest ship, the Chauncy Maples. See and Excess Baggage.



5 February 2009

Rita Carter presents a documentary on BBC4 at 9pm on Monday 9th February, called "Why Reading Matters". She thinks there are various repeats as well (I hope she gets a fee for each ...).

Take a look at the information about it on the BBC website,



6 November 2008

Radio 5 has just announced that Janie Hampton's 'The Austerity Olympics' is on the short list of six for the William Hill sports book of the year. 1st prize is to be announced on 24 November.


6 November 2008

Writers in Oxford will be holding a Christmas Book Fair
to showcase the work of local authors to the public, at the Corner Club (formerly the QI Club), Turl Street, on Saturday, 22 November, from 10.30 to 5.00.

Members will be on hand to sign books and to meet their readers, and there will be a series of talks throughout the day (watch this space for more details).

Members who wish to take part should contact Cherry Mosteshar (contact information in the Members' Area of the website).


30 July 2008

Denise Cullington’s new book is described by her publisher as ‘an indispensable, practical self-help book for those going through break-up and divorce’. This may not in itself sound promising, conjuring up as it does visions of the bland and shallow advice dispensed in so many how-to-be-happy-and-lead-a-fuller-life books.

But Breaking Up Blues looks to be rather more interesting than the thumbnail description makes it sound. Denise herself, who is one of WiO’s newer members, is not in fact a self-help guru. She began her career as clinical psychologist and subsequently trained at the Tavistock and the Institute of Psychoanalysis to become a psychotherapist. And her publisher is Routledge Mental Health (who also publish WiO’s Sue Gerhardt). They have done an excellent job on their website, providing both an audio interview with Denise and a downloadable chapter.

Denise explains to me that one of the things she tries to do is look at how so many couples who split up end by breaking more than their relationships. They often do so because, by becoming locked into ‘battle mode’, they fail to recognise the many positive aspects of the relationships they are leaving. In seeking to wage war against their former partners, they can all too easily end by damaging their own self-esteem and their own capacity to make relationships. As she writes in her book:

Rage helps you feel powerful. Blame helps you feel innocent of any fault of your own – but blame and rage can whip you, and your former partner, into a cycle of attack and counterattack which – without a deliberate and determined decision to stop – can keep on going, with all its resultant damage.

Denise will, no doubt, have more to say about this and related matters when she is intervied by Woman’s Hour. The interview was scheduled to take place today (Wednesday 30 July). But, when I ring her to find out why there is no mention of it on the BBC website, she explains that Woman’s Hour have rescheduled. Instead of slotting a discussion of her book in with two or three other items, they will be devoting a full hour to it in September. This is clearly excellent news.

For those who can’t wait, just click (or double-click) on the audio player below to listen to the interview which Routledge conducted with their own author about the book which Dorothy Rowe describes as ‘A wise and practical book for managing heartbreak and change’.

Or, better still, resist the urge to go to Amazon (for the reasons given here) and buy the book from your nearest independent bookseller:

Breaking Up Blues: A Guide to Survival and Growth
by Denise Cullington, Routledge, 2008

30 July 2008

Maeve Bayton, who is sometimes known as ‘East Oxford’s Queen of the Blues’, is not a member of Writers in Oxford on the strength of her talents as a guitarist, harmonica-player and singer song-writer. But, judging by the quality of the songs on her own-label CD, Maeve: Blues and Ballads, she might well be. In fact she belongs to WiO because she is a sociologist and has written a book about women musicians: Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music, (OUP, 1998).

If you would like to browse through selected pages, click to go to the Questia online version (where you can read the opening and the first page of every chapter free).

But if you are simply curious to know why the title ‘East Oxford’s Queen of the Blues’ scarcely does Maeve justice, click (or double-click) below to listen to one of her songs, ‘Willow’:

And don’t be misled by the close resemblance between the audio player here and the one for Denise’s interview. The interview is indeed hosted elsewhere by odeo. But Maeve’s song ‘Willow’ is, in its online incarnation at least, a Writers in Oxford exclusive. You hear it here first!

If it whets your appetite, however, you can listen to more of Maeve’s songs on her MySpace page. Don’t miss ‘Letting You Go’, which should perhaps be adopted as the theme song for Denise Cullington’s book (see above). Or the song which Maeve wrote in what she calls her ‘Victoria Wood moment’, ‘Inappropriate Boyfriend’.

15 July 2008

It’s late in the day to point out that you could have heard WiO’s Helen Rappaport talking about her new book Ekaterinburg: The last Days of the Romanovs on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week on 26 May. But not too late since you can still listen to the programme on the BBC website. Click here and follow the ‘listen again’ link in the centre of the page. (If you want to fast-forward to Helen’s spot, it starts at around 33 minutes.)

It was not Andrew Marr, however, who prophesied that Helen’s book ‘is going to be a bestseller’. These words were written by Susan Hill. For the full story, which also provides a fresh perspective on Amazon’s recent dispute with the publisher Hachette, read my longer piece,
Ekaterinburg: Susan Hill, Amazon and the Woodstock Bookshop’.

10 June 2008

As Julie Summers takes a well-earned rest after an outstanding three years at the helm of WiO, Frank Egerton is taking over the chair from her.

Frank will be well-known to all but the newer members of WiO as a former editor of The Oxford Writer. He is a novelist and a freelance journalist who has reviewed fiction for the Times, the TLS, and the Spectator. (His latest review for the Times was of Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg.). He is also the librarian at the Latin American Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford and a teacher of creative writing.

His first novel, The Lock, came out in paperback in 2003 and he has recently finished a second novel, Invisible. The influences on his writing are many and various, as he reveals in the course of an Arvon Foundation interview:

One of my defining influences was Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers.  I remember reading the TLS review of it in Chippenham library, ordering the novel from the bookshop in Chipping Sodbury, collecting it a fortnight later and reading it in a sitting.  I took my dog for a walk afterwards, my head buzzing, and autumn colours had never looked so vivid, life had never felt so fresh.  Not that I was entirely easy about the story -- there are some very disturbing bits in it -- but I was amazed by the power of the writing.  Reading McEwan's book didn't make me want to write like him but it made me determined to write . . .

I've been influenced by writers such as Thomas Nashe, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), John Cowper Powys (Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance), Angus Wilson, Barbara Pym, John Wain, Beryl Bainbridge, Patrick Gale, William Rivière and Arturo Pérez-Reverte (The Queen of the South has to be one of the most compelling novels ever!).

For more about Frank's writing, read the full Arvon Foundation interview or visit his website.

9 April 2008

Julie Summers - 'Stranger in the houseThe news from the Oxford Literary Festival is that WiO chair Julie Summers delivered an excellent talk about her biography of Sandy Irvine, Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine, which has just been republished by It’s an eventful publishing season for Julie, however, since later this year Simon and Schuster will be bringing out her new book, Stranger in the House.

As Julie writes in the Introduction: ‘The idea for Stranger in the House came to me on a train journey from Oxford to London. I had not long published The Colonel of Tamarkan and the final chapter, when I described the difficult adjustment to post-war life experienced by the colonel when he came back from the Far East in 1945, had struck a chord with many people who wrote to thank me for tackling the thorny topic of returning heroes. I thought about what it must have been like to welcome home a man who had been away for years, who had experienced the horrors of war and who was now expected to get on with life, to build a career, to take up with a family he hardly knew any more and to live in a country ravaged by years of war and rationing. But what about the women? How did they cope? What kind of adjustment did they have to make? How many of these women had any understanding at all of what was coming next?’ Her book will deal with these and many other questions.

Not content with two books, Julie has also just launched a striking new website, designed by Andy Ballingall. The site didn’t come into being until after the completion of the greatly expanded version of ‘To blog or not to blog: a guide to blogs and writers’ websites’. This is why it’s mentioned there only in passing. But WiO member Megan Kerr is surely right when she describes it as ‘visually beautiful’.


16 March 2008

Stephen Law is the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He has published several books, including The Philosophy Gym, and recently hosted a splendid Drinks and Digressions gathering for his fellow WiO members. Soon, on 3 April 2008, he will lead a discussion - ‘There is no God!’ - at what used to be called The QI club and what now, after a change of ownership, goes under the name of The Corner Club. The event is part of Oxfringe 2008 which is is ‘dedicated to promoting upcoming literary, dramatic, comic, artistic and musical talent.’ For booking details, click here.

Like his fellow philosopher, WiO’s Nigel Warburton, Stephen is not, so far as I know, an adherent of what has previously been referred to on this page as ‘one of the more militant faith-groups in the country’, namely atheists of the Dawkinist tendency. But I can’t resist making the suggestion that background reading for Stephen’s talk ought perhaps to include John Gray’s essay, The atheist delusion, in the current edition of the Guardian Review. Gray, who is apparently an unbeliever himself, takes issue with some of his fellow infidels for the religious zeal with which they crusade against the religion from whose chains they implicitly claim emancipation. Among those he has in mind are Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and WiO’s Philip Pullman, whose Northern Lights trilogy Gray describes as a ‘subtly allusive multi-layered allegory’ which is ‘deeply indebted to the faith it attacks’.

What has emerged in recent years, notes Gray, is a new version of an ‘evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times’:

As in the past this is a type of atheism that mirrors the faith it rejects . . . Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

The full text of John Gray’s essay can be read in the current edition of the Guardian Review or online here.


March 2008

Rita Carter's Multiplicity has now been published by Little Brown on both sides of the Atlantic. Her new book follows her immensely successful and widely praised Mapping the Mind and her later book Consciousness.
... Boldly subtitled ‘The New Science of Personality’, Multiplicity puts forward the view that we all have multiple personalities - that we are many rather than one. Indeed, she suggests that new research into the brain indicates that our occasional feelings of split personality are just part of being human.
... Some time ago Rita was interviewed about her book on Woman’s Hour by Jenni Murray. To read the introduction to this interview on the BBC Radio 4 website, click here. To listen to the interview, click here.

2 December 2007

That time of year has arrived when members of Writers and Oxford (and others) need to be pointed towards the ideal WiO Christmas present. This year I'm pleased to say there are three strong candidates. The first is by Sam Jordison who now writes a regular blog for Guardian Unlimited. His latest Christmas offering, coming fast on the heels of Crap Towns, The Joy of Sects and last year's Bad Dates, is Annus Horribilis: A Chronicle of Comic Mishaps wherein all manner of amusing disasters are collected for our entertainment. It's perhaps worth noting that Sam's book has been given five stars on the Amazon website in the only reader's review to have appeared so far. And the name of the reviewer? It so happens that it is one S. Jordison of Oxford, UK. But let there be no accusations that Sam has omitted to declare his interest:

Obviously, I'm going to give my own book five stars.

Shameless, I know.

At least, I guess, I did it under my own name.

And I am quite fond of this one, if that's any mitigation.

And, er, if it gives you as much pleasure as it's given me, it's a sure fire winner . . . .

Eloise MillarWhat's even more remarkable is that the book Amazon currently recommends as the Perfect Partner to purchase with Sam's book is the novel Wednesday's Child (Virago) by Eloise Millar. Quite why Amazon should have selected this remains a mystery. Do they know that Eloise is Sam's girlfriend? Perhaps Amazon have been reading Sam's Guardian list of ten recommended books where 'location is everything'. For there at number 10 we find none other than Eloise's novel. But for those who might wish to point the finger it should be said that there's no whiff of impropriety here either. Once again, Sam is scrupulous in declaring his interest:

10. Eloise Millar - Wednesday's Child
Of course, I'm biased, because I live with the author, but the descriptions of Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate in this promising debut are bang on the money (or lack of it). Run out and buy 10 copies - then she'll be able to get me that Italian espresso maker I've been craving.

As scandals about the funding of political parties and disguised donations swirl around the country, what can one say but this: "Transparency, thy name is Sam Jordison. Step forward! Gordon Brown needs you." It seems a fitting occasion in any case for me to declare my own (entirely disinterested) admiration for the entry on Oxford which, to the surprise of many, was included in Sam's best-selling Crap Towns. When I asked Sam if it would be possible to reprint the piece on this website he sent me the text by return. It transpired that this too was written by Eloise Millar. Given that Eloise is herself a member of WiO it is therefore all the more fitting that her piece should appear on this website. To read her fierce and unusual view of what is so frequently regarded as an idyllic English city, click here.

If comic disasters are not to your taste it's worth bearing in mind the second contender in this year's WiO Christmas stakes. Why not get a copy of Classical Music’s Strangest Concerts & Characters, by WiO members Brian Levison and Frances Farrer? It is packed with stories, all strange in different ways, and all true. There is even a tale about the Argentinean cellist Ennio Bolognini taking a Great Dane to a recording studio and tying it to his chair leg. He had won the dog while gambling the previous night. The dog began to explore the studio as Bolognini was playing Massenet. As the cellist continued playing Massenet with his chair being pulled this way and that, he was followed by a technician with a microphone looking increasingly desperate. Modest as ever, neither Brian nor Frances has yet awarded the book an Amazon 5-star review but perhaps they will now take a leaf out of Sam's book.

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas, however, without another rude book by WiO's Rob Bailey. I do seem to recall that last time I talked to Rob at one of WiO's summer parties he declared his intention to have a book-free year so that he could concentrate on his day-job as a clinical psychologist. But maybe that was last year. Or maybe he was prevailed upon to change his mind by a cheque-book-waving publisher. Wherever the truth may lie, the fact is that this Christmas sees the publication of a successor to Rob's two previous forays into the territory, Rude Britain and Rude World. The new book is called, Rude UK. You can read Rob's own tongue-in-cheek piece about the book in today's Independent on Sunday.


2 December 2007

There is no known connection between Writers in Oxford and John Cowper Powys or his new biographer Morine Krissdóttir. But, as has been noted previously on this page, WiO has never been provincial in its outlook. It therefore seems fitting occasionally to feature items here of more general literary interest.

For anyone who may have lost faith in the art of reviewing there is a piece in the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement which should in itself be sufficient to restore that faith. The review in question is by Margaret Drabble and its subject is the new biography of Powys, Descents of Memory. For those, and there must be many, who have never heard of Powys, it is perhaps the words of George Steiner which best convey the measure of the esteem in which he is held by some of those who have. John Cowper Powys' works are, Steiner wrote in the New Yorker, 'the only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared to the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky ... with an immensity to which only Blake could provide a parallel in English literature'.It is not only his novels of which this could be said. For Powys's own autobiography is, as Drabble puts it, 'one of the most astonishingly frank ... since that of Rousseau.' Her wonderful review does much to explain both the stature of Powys and the reasons why he has been so neglected. But it also manages, as good reviews should, not to eclipse the book under consideration but to focus the reader's curiosity, and what might be called their 'reading-appetite' on it. I, for one, am won over. With all due respect to my fellow WiO members, Jordison, Levison, Farrer and Bailey, I now know which book it is I most want to find in my Christmas stocking.


9 October 2007

Lorna FergussonWhen one of Lorna Fergusson's creative writing students recommended that she should start a blog she was initially tentative. Quite apart from anything else, how would a technophobe like her ever manage to set one up? But there were also obvious advantages to consider. Ever since her first novel, The Chase, had been published by Bloomsbury, she had often thought about starting a website but had been put off in part by the expense. Websites, she observes, can all too easily end up 'costing a fortune'. One of the great advantages of setting up a blog, as her student had impressed upon her, was that it was free. The other great advantage, as she was soon to discover, was that it was surprisingly easy. Half-an-hour after she sat down at her computer that evening her very own blog, literascribe, was up and running. 'I take the view that if I can do it,' she says, 'anyone can do it.' If now, after several months, Lorna is still blogging, it is because she finds she enjoys the particular kind of writing that this new medium allows. In the first place she can use it to communicate her love of books and of the business of writing: ‘Hell for me would be a desert island with no books - in fact anywhere with no books!’. But it's also because she finds it a good way to keep in touch with the students she used to teach and her literary friends.

This is not all:

The next reason is the reason one has for any kind of writing - it's communication of thought, idea, opinion, feeling. It's finding your voice, making your mark. It's saying 'Here I am'. It is, as someone said, egosurfing (the term for Googling your own name - hands up all those of you who've done it. Yes, you at the back - that includes you). It's expression of your own individuality in the hope that someone out there will hear and respond. Of course, now that blogging is so incredibly popular, you're calling out your name in a huge stadium of competing voices ('I'm Spartacus!' 'No, I'm Spartacus!') - how can you be heard? Well, initially you're heard by one or two, and if you're lucky, they tell one or two others who listen in, and so on and so on.

One of the many attractions of literascribe is that, in addition to doing all this, it also has a story to tell. The plot of this particular story is one which many writers are familiar with. It is not so much The Chase as The Wait - the long agonising wait for publishers to make up their mind about your latest book. In Lorna's case her new book is a departure, for she has written a children's novel which, as every reader of her blog knows, is now in the hands of her agent and doing the rounds of various publishers. The great question is what is going to happen next? As with all good plots the only way to find out is to keep on reading. And the only way to do that is to follow in the footsteps of the WiO website and add literascribe to your list of favourites.


9 October 2007

Click for Trevor Mostyn's websiteReaders of this website, or of the Oxford Writer, may well recall Trevor Mostyn's account of his visit to Belarus which was published here two years ago. That mission was undertaken on behalf of English PEN's Writers in Prison committee of which he is the vice chairman. More recently, Trevor has taken on another role in Oxford itself. After a long career as a journalist, publisher and consultant in the Arab world, Iran and India, he has been appointed to run the Journalist Fellowship Programme at The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University's Department of Politics and International Relations. One of his principal roles is to organise a programme of lunchtime seminars at Green College, the Institute's home. The first of these seminars took place on Wednesday 10 October when the Israeli historian Illan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, gave a stimulating talk entitled 'The Self-Censored Watch Dog: The Israeli Media and the Palestine Conflict'. For the full programme of future talks, click here. For Trevor Mostyn's new website, click here.


9 October 2007

No, Steven Pinker has not recently been accepted as a member of Writers in Oxford. But since the review pages are abuzz with news of his most recent book, The Stuff of Thought, it seems appropriate that this website should bring you a distinctive Oxford view of his latest achievement as seen through the eyes of WiO's Rita Carter.Rita, a science writer who specialises in books about the human brain, is the author of the bestselling guide to neuroscience, Mapping the Mind. Last week she reviewed Pinker's latest book for the Daily Mail. TheClick for Rita Carter's website reference she makes in her review to Pinker's rock-star good looks is by now, as she intimates, uncontroversial. However, this is perhaps a suitable occasion to recall that Pinker is not the only scientist to sport 'cascading curls'. Those who think otherwise have failed to study one of the most significant scientific associations of all time. I speak of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. In the words of the club's website:

The project was first announced in mini-AIR 2001-02. The initial list, assembled by a subcommittee comprised of seven members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was meant as a nucleating seed, from which a larger list could grow. The first member, chosen by acclamation, was psychologist Steven Pinker, whose hair has long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study. From that lone, Pinkerian seed, there has grown a spreading chestnut, black, blond, and red-haired membership tree, which you can see below and on the other LFHCfS web pages

To go to the annals of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, click here. For Rita Carter's website, click here.