The best books about Oxford where town meets gown - the bits the tourists miss

Who am I?

I was a freelance writer for The Oxford Times for 20 years when it was well respected. For ten of those years, I wrote the Oxford Castaway series in which I cast away inspirational people from 5 continents whose lives have been affected by their time in the city. Even Lord Chris Pattern of Barnes – the Chancellor of Oxford University and former Governor of Hong Kong let me cast him away on Oxtopia! Oxford is still divided between Town and Gown but I stride the two and my husband was an academic at that other Oxford University: Oxford Brookes.


I wrote...

Sculpting the Elephant

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Sculpting the Elephant

What is my book about?

Sculpting the Elephant is half set in Oxford but mostly in the not-so-well-known, ex-working-class district called Jericho. Opposite the Jericho Tavern where Radiohead started, artist Harry King sets up a business called Deco-rators. Chance encounters can change lives and Harry was catapulted into another world when he encountered Indian historian Ramma Gupta. My story not only crosses TOWN and GOWN but also continents, class, colour, culture, and time. I am interested in lost or forgotten histories so the historical subplot concerns the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and Ashoka who in effect created the religion we know as Buddhism.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Tower of the Winds

By Weimin He,

Book cover of Tower of the Winds: Works on Paper

Why this book?

Weimin was the university's artist-in-residence recording the restoration of the C18th Observatory and Radcliffe hospital, the bulldozing of the site, and the building of the Maths Institute and Blavatnik School of Government near Jericho. This historic collection of art evokes past, present, and future, and Town and Gown. The artist comes from Manchuria so to me, it represents Oxford as an international city.

This book is only available from the author, email Weimin He for a signed copy for £20 plus postage. 


The Hunting of the Shark

By Bill Heine,

Book cover of The Hunting of the Shark: The Story Behind the Tale That Crash Landed on an Unsuspecting Oxford Suburban Street

Why this book?

The artist John Buckley made this shark to go into the roof of American Bill Heine’s terraced house. I cast both of them away on my mythical island of Oxtopia. They explained that their aim was to feel shock and awe falling from the sky. When American warplanes were leaving nearby Heyford to drop bombs on Libya, they asked what it would feel like to have your domestic world penetrated out of the blue. Not everyone liked the shark and Bill had a six-year battle against bureaucracy. This book tells that story. It is now a TOWN icon but for me, it has both personal and international significance.


The Midnight Press

By Oxpens Writer's Group,

Book cover of The Midnight Press: And other Oxford Stories

Why this book?

For me, Oxford is the Hollywood of stories and indeed it is now home to The Story Museum. One of the stars of Oxford storytelling was Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse novels have spawned three TV series. He was the patron of the Oxford Writers Group and recommended this anthology. It includes stories from Town, Gown, and County so it is a good holiday read while in Oxford or dreaming of the city.


King of All Balloons

By Mark Davies,

Book cover of King of All Balloons: The Adventurous Life of James Sadler, the First English Aeronaut

Why this book?

James Sadler was the first Englishman to fly. He was a brilliant man – his balloon design is the one we still use – but because he was an Oxford pastry cook he was ignored by the university. I am interested in lost and forgotten history and this is a story that needed to be told.


The Princess Who Hid in a Tree

By Jackie Holderness, Alan Marks (illustrator),

Book cover of The Princess Who Hid in a Tree: An Anglo-Saxon Story

Why this book?

This is the story of Frideswide and the creation of Oxford as a place of learning told for young children. Our grandchildren are weaned on superheroes and I would like them to know the stories of heroes and heroines from the past as well.


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