My Oxford: Harry Sidebottom
"Oxford overwhelmed me when I first came up"
We are incredibly lucky to live where we do. Oxford (and Oxfordshire in general) boasts spectacular levels of natural and architectural beauty, a lively and eclectic culture, and a warm and communal atmosphere. When I left the city of dreaming spires to start university, it quickly became apparent that bulk of my peers had felt relieved to escape their hometowns, and very few others that I met over my 3-year stint in higher education would ever talk about their roots apart from to lament how dead/ugly/boring their towns are. I was almost unique in my description of my city as “actually quite nice, really” and it was only on my return to an OX postcode that I truly appreciated how lucky I am to have grown up and lived where I have.
You’ll be relieved to hear that I am actually going somewhere with this. As we live in such an exceptional place, we thought it was only right to speak to some of Oxford’s most celebrated characters and see what the city means to them. Each issue, we’ll talk with one of Oxford’s notable residents and see if they share my enthusiasm. This time, we spoke to bestselling author and acclaimed historian Harry Sidebottom.
What to you are the most iconic aspects of Oxford?
The views from Christ Church Meadow and Boars Hill. When you are in the middle of something it is easy to take it for granted. Sometimes you have to look from outside to really see. Although quite often walking down Ship Street on my way to Lincoln College, I look up at the gargoyles on Exeter College spire, and they remind me just how lucky I am to work in such an extraordinary city. Perhaps I could write a novel where the hunched, winged creatures are the main characters, watching over the city at night.
What are your favourite haunts around the city? Where do you eat and drink?
Browns Café in the covered market for breakfast, Quod for lunch, and The Old Parsonage for dinner. Depending on the company drinking in the Bear or the Duke of Cambridge.
What about Oxford has inspired you or helped your creative process?
Oxford overwhelmed me when I first came up; there were too many people who had read more than me, knew more than me, and were just more intelligent than me. It took years, and the support of various senior Dons for me to get the confidence to try and get my stuff published. More recently, talking to my students is a source of encouragement and inspiration – for me at least, I’m not sure what they get out of it.
What’s the worst thing about living in Oxford?
Trying to get out of town in the Friday rush-hour.
What's the best area of Oxfordshire outside the city and why?
Woodstock. The buildings, walking in Blenheim, eating in the La Galleria, drinking in the Kings Arms, and staying at the Marlborough Arms, but most of all the incredible mix of people who live there.
Harry Sidebottom was brought up in racing stables in Newmarket where his father was a trainer. He took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Corpus Christi College, and is now a Director of Studies at St Benet’s Hall.
Since 2006, he worked on the bestselling Warrior of Rome series of novels featuring the Anglo-Saxon nobleman turned Roman army officer Ballista, which are set in the Roman Empire during the so-called ‘Great Crisis of the Third Century AD’. He also wrote the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction to Ancient History.
Harry’s most recent publication Blood & Steel, the second book in his Throne of the Caesars series, is “absorbing, rich in detail and brilliant”, and his prose “blazes with searing scholarship” (The Times). Blood & Steel is available from Waterstones, WHSmith and amazon.co.uk