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Hanging on every word

22 February 2013

Last weekend, a book-hungry crowd descended on the Oxfordshire village of Bloxham, for the second Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature. Reviews by Malcolm Doney, Meryl Doney, Jo Duckles, Paul Handley, and Sarah Meyrick. Photographs by KT Bruce

Happy-clappy: a rapt Bloxham audience

Happy-clappy: a rapt Bloxham audience

GOING to school was never like this. Last weekend, the half-term calm of Bloxham School was disrupted by the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, produced in association with the Church Times and Greenbelt.

The sun shone, and memories of school food were forgotten in an instant on entering the refectory. And if people moved along the corridors at a slightly slower pace than the usual incumbents, they still exhibited all the enthusiasm of their term-time counterparts.

This was the second such festival. The first had taken place in St Mary's, Bloxham, in October 2011. The move to Bloxham School, part of the Woodard family of schools, was made to accommodate more events and more visitors. Altogether, between 300 and 400 people attended the 30-odd events.

THE festival began with a gala dinner to mark the Church Times's 150th anniversary. The food, produced by the catering staff at Bloxham School, was widely praised; wine was kindly provided by Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres. The guest speaker was the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who spoke of the need to make time for books, but also of the importance of silence.

He recalled marking the launch of his book on using time creatively with a PR stunt on Reading Station, in which he handed out egg-timers to commuters in front of the television cameras (a story, he said, that had been covered by most of the world's press, but not by the Church Times). The stunt, he was reminded, had been organised by Sarah Meyrick, the festival's director and the Oxford diocesan director of communications. 

THE following morning, Lady Willams of Oystermouth, James Runcie, and Sara Thornton discussed growing up in a clerical household. Sara Thornton, now head of Thames Valley Police, whose father was an incumbent in Liverpool, felt the scrutiny of the public gaze most keenly. Jane Williams confessed to hiding the fact that her father was a bishop when she worked in a fish-finger factory in Hull. He was self-employed, she said; "so not actually a lie". You just did not invite friends home.

Concerning the effect on their faith, Sara Thornton referred to "the building at the bottom of our garden that we spent quite a lot of time in". She had told her parents how lucky they were that she had not rebelled. Jane Williams spent much of her childhood at boarding school. God was not left at home, but accompanied her there, she said. James Runcie spoke of a childhood of "compulsory piano, and voluntary religion", with the result that he was much better disposed towards the latter.

Being a vicarage child meant not minding when the Christmas table was swelled by people whom nobody else wanted; coping with unexpected trauma (James Runcie told another seminar of the time he was asked, aged six, to convey the news to his father that a man had been stabbed); and managing with the usual clerical poverty. But they agreed that it had been a largely positive experience, training them to be at ease with people of all ages.

MARIAN PARTINGTON held her audience spellbound as she told them about the life, disappearance, and death of her beloved sister, Lucy, at the hands of Fred and Rosemary West (Feature, 22 June 2012). She read passages from her intensely poetic memoir If You Sit Very Still, followed by silence, interwoven with conversation with Michael Lloyd, as she described how she came to terms with the terrible loss. She ended with one of her sister's poems, because, as she said, she wanted the last word to be Lucy's.

MARGARET HEFFERNAN is one of those rare creatures who can both make a documentary and read a balance sheet. Her remarkable CV takes in radio and TV production, academia, and business leadership - all of which give her a credibile edge when she talks about corporate culture.

In conversation with the well-informed Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, she outlined the corrosive perils of something she described as "wilful blindness".

She talked about the physician and epidemiologist Alice Stewart, who, in the 1950s, found that exposing pregnant mothers to X-rays doubled the risk of cancer in their children. It took "25 years of banging the drum" before she was taken seriously. She also recalled the explosion and fire at a BP Texas City refinery in the United States, in 2005, where 15 workers were killed and 150 were injured, after a long list of safety failures. 

Margaret Heffernan described wilful blindness as something that takes place when "there are things you could have known, and should have known, but didn't know." She talked of a prevailing culture, especially in large organisations, that was inclined to accept the status quo; and "when information comes up that doesn't fit our picture of the world, we trivialise it and dismiss it." She described the "bystander effect", where the larger the number of people involved, the less an individual will take responsibility.

This was the case, she argued, in such catastrophes as the failure of banks, child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and the failures at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. "None of these scandals takes place in private," she said. "It puts a lot of pressure on us to realise that these can only happen if we remain silent."

BLOXHAM festival-goers were led into another experience of silence by Stephen Cottrell, as he took them into the wilderness in the company of the artist Stanley Spencer.

The irrepressible Bishop attracted probably the largest crowd of the festival, infecting them with his enthusiasm for Spencer, whose work, he said, was a welcome contrast to "the ghastly rubbish that clutters up our churches, masquerading as Christian art".

Spencer had always intended that his series Christ in the Wilderness should comprise 40 pictures - one for each day of Lent. He completed only eight, but these, Stephen Cottrell said, provided vivid insights into the character of Jesus, and "say something powerful about the nature of prayer".

Jesus was portrayed as being "propelled by an inner gale" into the wilderness. The pictures drew on Spencer's faith, which, though "unorthodox, runs very deep". Stephen Cottrell focused on two particular pictures: Consider the Lilies, and The Scorpion. In the first, Jesus gazes at daisies "in the way that God gazes at us".

In the second - which acts as a kind of shadow version of the first, bringing together Gethsemane and Calvary - Jesus receives a scorpion in his hand "as if it were the Host". Jesus examines it with "the same intensity and delight" as he does the flowers, even though it symbolises the suffering that is his destiny. 

THE session "Murder in the Dark" assembled three likely suspects: the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Blair; the novelist and documentary-maker James Runcie (who has recently turned to crime: Features, 1 February); and the actor Jeany Spark, who plays the daughter of the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in the eponymous TV series.

What ensued was a good-natured and good-humoured tussle on the difference between "true crime" and fiction. Ian Blair said that the closest he had come to fictional crime in his career was when, after the death of a dowager duchess, he had arrived at the family pile and had been announced with the words "My Lady, the gentlemen from the Yard are here."

He said that, otherwise, crime fiction rarely reflected the life of the ordinary detectives who were doing their job "to pay the mortgage and out of a sense of duty".

Jeany Spark and James Runcie agreed that, in their experience, crime fiction delivered more than a vicarious thrill, and that there was a moral dimension. Jeany Spark said that, in the English version of Wallander, the detective was cast as "a spiritual person who takes on the moral weight of the crime". James Runcie said that, in his Grantchester Mysteries, he was more interested in the "whydunit" than the "whodunit" - in the moral impact of the crime on its perpetrator, and victims, which was why his detective was also an Anglican priest.

Ian Blair said that he had once taken P. D. James to task over her outdated means of detection, and she had replied: "I don't care. . . More importantly, my readers don't."

All the panellists agreed that crime fiction lived in a world of its own. Jeany Spark said that, for instance, crime fans liked oddball detectives because "like a puzzle, and we also like an existential crisis". James Runcie said: "You're given a framework in a crime story, and you can add a whole lot of stuff on top. . . It is an excuse for you to write about what you want to write about."

Ian Blair concluded the session with his own Hercule Poirot moment, revealing, to the Bloxham audience, the identity of Jack the Ripper. He talked about the continuing obsession by "Ripperologists" with conspiracy theories about who had perpetrated the Whitechapel serial murders. These stoked the public imagination, but were entirely fanciful, he said, because he had examined the archive notes at Scotland Yard, which revealed, beyond doubt, that the Ripper was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish immigrant.

DASTARDLY villains are not just the stuff of crime, but also figure largely in children's fiction. The children's author Julia Golding drew on her series of novels Companions Quartet to talk to a family audience about baddies.

Many villains in children's fiction, she said, were irredeemably bad. While this made it easy to identify the forces of good from evil, she felt that, in her own work, she want to reflect a more nuanced view. Consequently, "I set up evil characters that you might actually mistake for being good, or right."

She also talked about how people opposed to each other could mutually regard their foes as baddies. She was prepared to place her young readers "in the middle, trying to decide who's right".

Companions Quartet features a secret organisation known as "the Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures", and places Sirens, Medusa, the Minotaur, and the Chimera at the centre of 21st- century adventures. This provided ample opportunity, in the session, for children and adults to dress up, and act out, this ancient and post-modern villainy.

THE novelist Chibundu Onuzo's route into authorship had been breathtakingly fast, she told Jane Williams in her interview session. She submitted 30 pages of a novel while studying for her A levels, at the age of 19, and had not looked back. The Spider King's Daughter, published by Faber, is set in her native Lagos, Nigeria, where her family roots are Christian and Ibo. 

Her immediate family moved to Britain when she was 14. When asked where she felt her home was, she replied "England"; and she is proud of being a north-London girl. She "doesn't do fish and chips", but she absolutely "gets" the British sense of humour.

Her novel is about the relationship between a rich, spoilt Nigerian girl, Abike, and a street hawker. (She emphasised the word "hawker" because some interviewers, mishearing her accent, thought he was a "hooker".) Behind their unlikely friendship is the relationship between Abike and her father, with his spider-like influence over their world.

Despite her Englishness, Chibundu Onuzo is acutely aware of the problems of Nigeria, and is concerned to effect change in the future. To this end, she is currently working for an MA in public policy, and has her sights set on a political career. She does not see the need to choose between this and her writing, however. A second novel is under way.

IN THE session "Christ in Modern Art", the artist Roger Wagner and the Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, took as their theme artists' treatment of the image of Jesus in the modern era. Turn and turn about, they presented their own favourite images, leaving a civilised few seconds for people to take in each image, before setting it in context, and describing the reasons for their choices.

Describing the context of each work they were about to show, Richard Harries quoted the artist David Jones's view that "there exists 'a gap' in the 20th century, between the dominant cultural and religious ideology that unified Europe for more than 1000 years, and the new world of technology, which has no place for the artist or theologian."

A rich and exciting series of images followed, with work from Max Beckman and Georges Rouault, through Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer, Marc Chagall, John Piper, and Graham Sutherland to near-contemporary paintings by Albert Herbert, Craigie Aitchison, Norman Adams, and Elisabeth Frink. Sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro and Nicholas Mynheer was included, and stained glass from Thomas Denny.

Finally, talking about his own painting Walking on Water - in which Jesus walks towards Peter over a stretch of water, in front of the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station - Roger Wagner aligned himself with Van Gogh's efforts to bridge "the gap" by seeking to bring together "distant antiquities and crude modernity".

ONE of the most high-powered sessions was the seminar on the values of the City (sponsored by Bates Wells & Braithwaite). David Rouch chaired a discussion with Sir Tony Baldry, Anne Kiem, and Dr Peter Selby, former Bishop of Worcester, in front of a knowledgeable audience. They lamented the fragmentation of the financial sector, and the difficulty of holding anyone to account.

Peter Selby remarked that, because those considered the best players in the market, the churches and charities, were under a legal obligation to get the best return on their investments, it was not surprising that lesser organisations concluded that the only way to measure good performance was by profit-making. An audience member asked, to applause, whether the time had come for a statutory maximum wage. Unenforceable, the panel thought ("but that's what they said about the minimum wage," the questioner said afterwards).

ANOTHER session exploring standards in public life took a sober look at the journalistic profession in the wake of the Leveson inquiry and the News International arrests. The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, conversed with the Guardian journalist and Church Times columnist Andrew Brown; and Andrew Graystone, from the Church and Media Network, presided.

It emerged that economic stringencies were having a greater effect on the press than any political or ethical pressures. The collapse of advertising in the local press was particularly alarming. Alan Wilson spoke of a journalist who once had to produce four stories a week. He now had to come up with ten a day. This was turning an information system into "a factory whaling ship".

The panel were generally in favour of giving some form of legal weight to the press complaints procedure. For the time being, the BBC provided the greatest check on newspapers - which was why the media barons hated it so much.

THE evolution of a story from Germanic folklore through to a classic 1950s Disney movie was told by the Bloxham Festival's co- director, the Revd Ed Newell, and Jeany Spark, in "Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Reflections on good and evil in 'Snow White'".

The original, shorter version from 1812 was read out, before the audience heard the 1857 version. The Grimms' turn of phrase was highly entertaining and informative, as were the commentaries that followed.

The way in which the Christian and moral themes evolved over time was drawn out, noting the way in which evil step-parents were a theme throughout the stories, the stepmother's jealousy playing a significant part in this fairytale. In the final version, the way the Prince brings the heroine back to life, and takes her off to a life in paradise, intentionally reflects the resurrection.

THE poet Wendy Cope stood in as a last-minute replacement for the former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, who was recuperating from surgery. The enthusiasm of the audience for her warmth and wit suggested that they were not too disappointed. She spoke of her own faith journey, from an intensely Evangelical upbringing to an abandonment of belief as a student.

She told Canon Mark Oakley how, later in life, she gradually found her way back to an appreciation of the numinous through attending cathedral services - first, at Winchester, and, more recently, at Ely, where she now lives.

The shadow of Andrew Motion's presence remained over the festival through his choices of readings, which formed the spoken part of "All we like sheep…", an hour of music and words that explored good and evil. His place was taken by Mark Oakley, alongside Jeany Spark, and their contrasting voices, and apposite interpretation, brought the readings to life. Music was provided by talented local singers, members of the North Cotswold Chamber Choir. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama starred on Saturday night with a poetry reading and a storytelling session. His poems blended almost unnoticeably with his quiet but arresting anecdotes about growing up in a Roman Catholic family in Ireland, and about grief, being gay, the Troubles (the Irish word for troubles could be translated as "the bereavements"), and about his mother's encounter with the Virgin Mary.

He recounted how his mother insisted that nodding off in a stuffy, overheated prayer meeting was a "holy sleep". Although the poetry reading was in the Bloxham School chapel, there was no sleep, holy or otherwise.

A little while later, in the school's smaller Liddon Chapel, the poet encouraged a group of 20 diffident people to become storytellers.

THE Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance provided a counterpoint to the day's feast of words. A small troupe of seven dancers explored some of the eternal archetypes of "the numinous" - the phrase that the choreographer Ross McKim prefers to "spirituality".

His project "Dance in Cathedrals" has been running since 1976, in an attempt to convince Christians of a certain cast of mind that the flesh is not evil. "The Church hasn't got a lot of dance in it. It's still a new thing. We've not got it right yet, but perhaps we've done enough for one lifetime."

PAULA Gooder's conversation with the portrait artist Nicola Green was something of an exclusive for Bloxham. Following on from her current exhibition of work produced as artist in residence for the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign ( Features, 15 February), she showed a number of photographs amassed over a period of years, which document a series of meetings between many of the religious leaders of the world.

Asked to remember who they all were, she ran through an astonishing list, including the Dalai Lama, the Grand Mufti, and the Chief Rabbi, at the end of which she said: "I've forgotten one. Who was it?" She paused for a moment. "Oh, I know - the Pope."

It is a tribute to Nicola Green's powers of persuasion that she was able to be present when so many sensitive and unprecedented meetings were taking place. A questioner asked her if she had been the only woman in the room, and she replied that there was only one occasion when there had been another woman there. When asked what this imbalance felt like, she replied: "I'm considering this for a future art project."

The gestation period for any of Nicola Green's projects is long, and the work is slow. She will now examine the thousands of pictures that she has taken, and, from them, create a series of works that distil the essence of the encounters she witnessed. The project The Light should be with us some time next year.

JASPER FFORDE spent an hour fielding questions about his Thursday Next novels, a set of literary, satirical, fantasy detective novels that take place in a parallel Swindon, where literature excites the same passion as football does in this world.

One questioner asked whether his invented world was bizarre enough, given some of the present day events. Another asked what was behind the name of one of his chief characters, Landen Parke-Laine. It was a reference to when his brother used to beat him at Monopoly, Fforde said.

At the heart of his novels was the determination to take "the road less travelled", avoiding the tired tropes of much genre fiction. His advice for budding authors was to concentrate on producing a good book, without which all the publicity in the world would be worthless.

He admitted that his earlier novel, Shades of Grey, had had an unexpected spike in sales recently.


PROFESSOR Keith Ward may have a luminous academic CV - including professorships in philosophy and theology at the universities of London and Oxford - but his directness and humour were engaging.

His task was to look at the gospels from a philosophical perspective, and he cheerfully dismantled common preconceptions about most prevalent certainties about Jesus and what he may have said.

He began by pointing out that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which obstinately refuses to reveal its nuances (such as humour and cultural reference) into anything we can understand. As a result, it is impossible to divine the precise meaning of what he said.

The four Gospels, he argued, gave distinct, and often contradictory messages about Jesus, with the "mystical" Gospel of John proving the least trustworthy historically: "Jesus [in John] is a construct. . . Hardly anything in John was said by Jesus."

What Jesus meant by "the Kingdom of God", his parables, and the "Son of Man", among other ideas, defied precise definition, he said. Yet, while it was impossible to garner "a single coherent view of what Jesus said" from the Gospels, it was possible to discover a core message.

Looking at significant incidents, such as the Sermon on the Mount, Keith Ward said that one could clearly see that Jesus wanted to communicate "the mercy, forgiveness, and unlimited love" of God. He believed that Jesus "mediated God in human form", and, echoing the apostle Paul, said that, although we might not know precisely who Christ was, or what he said, "we only know we should be like him."

THE freelance writer Francis Spufford, whose book Unapologetic was described by his interviewer, John Pritchard, as a "brilliant firework", takes a determinedly emotional approach to the question of faith.

He said that he had been hoping that someone else would write "something that would explain what Christianity felt like from the inside", but no one had; so he felt compelled to do so. His contention was that people of faith do not assent to a series of propositions, but work towards them because the faith feels right. 

"We live our way towards recognitions, and then look around for forms to put those recognitions into." He was not saying that "ideas and reason, ideas, and intelligence" do not matter, but that, by nature, human beings are "metaphysical over the cornflakes".

Francis Spufford said that his vernacular approach was an attempt to "outwit" people's preconceptions about notions such as sin, which now have more to do with "ice cream" and "frothy lingerie". He described humanity's need for redemption in acronym form: "HPtFtu" - the human propensity to f*** things up.

Quoting the poet and singer Leonard Cohen, he said: "There is a crack in everything". He went on: "The bits of Christianity about redemption only make sense if you accept the bad bits first. . . To tell the God story is to commit yourself to something open-ended. The 'no God' story is a sealed container." 

IF BLOXHAM was some people's idea of heaven, the freelance theologian Paula Gooder might be inclined to agree. Her session "Heaven and Hell in the Bible" undertook a forensic examination of these two locations.

Biblical references to heaven, her thorough explorations concluded, were rarely about the afterlife. They were cosmological, not escatalogical. "We've privatised it and postponed it, when it's actually said about God, now," she said. Heaven, the Bible said, was the place above the sky where God lived. It has a finite creation, just like earth, which would pass away, making way for a new heaven and a new earth.

This idea of a heaven as being near, but veiled from earth, in another dimension, is a concept that is readily understood by her own children, who have read Philip Pullman, or seen Doctor Who. There is a home for little children above the bright blue sky? "We don't talk about that in our house."

Common ideas of hell, she said, were accretions of references, myths, and mistranslations, which added up to an idea of a "Dante-esque" location - "something 'down there' with a Devil with horns and a trident, and perpetual fire". Essentially, hell had no place in the Bible, she said, and certainly not in the New Testament.

Echoing Keith Ward, earlier on the same day, she said that the Bible was something that was unlikely to pin such things down. "The Bible is like having a jigsaw puzzle of which two-thirds of the pieces are missing, and most of those pieces you do have are sky."

SUNDAY afternoon ended with the novelist Patrick Gale in conversation with Sally Welch about his most recent book A Perfectly Good Man, the central character of which is a priest. Barnaby is intensely human, and struggles with personal disaster and a crushing loss of faith - yet manages to keep living out his calling. His nemesis, Modest Carlsson, stands in stark contrast. An earlier book of his led to a rush of enquiries to the Quakers. But he said that he did not set out to create characters with faith, it was more that he was interested in people's inner lives.

THE festival transferred to St Mary's, Bloxham, for its finale: a sumptuous parish tea, and a well-attended "Songs of Praise" that featured a joint choir from the parish and Bloxham School, presided over by the Revd Sarah Tillett, and Kate Sturgess. There were notable solos from Will Diggle and Alisha Woods.

A final blessing was given by the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, the patron of the festival.


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