The Henley Literary Festival 2015 Preview


While September usually heralds the gloom of back to school – for adults and children alike – the passing of the last Bank Holiday and, generally, that long haul until Christmas, there is one notable exception that has emerged in the last few years that has become a diary entry to look forward to. No, not Halloween. Nor Guy Fawkes. Not even Half Term. It’s the Henley Literary Festival.

Taking place in – and taking over – the centre of the picturesque Thames town, the festival runs for a week at the end of September and is fast nipping at the heels of its more entrenched peers such as Edinburgh, Hay, and Oxford further up the river. With ticket sales increasing year on year, as it has grown in number so has it grown in stature with this year’s 170 events, talks, panels and Q&A’s offering their most varied, thought-provoking and accessible festival yet.

Where else could you see a food-blogging sensation, one of music’s smartest songwriters, an EastEnders star and the Archbishop of York? And that’s just the Tuesday. How about Friday, with the Green MP, the lieutenant general, the ‘hot feminist’ and a radio icon? And with their strongest ever line-up of novelists, some great new talents as well as the creators of Captain Corelli, Jane Tennison and Carrie Bradshaw.

Henley Sir Ranulph Fiennes

It says something of its appeal when authors are happy to come back – and returning speakers this year include Melvyn Bragg, Bonnie Greer, Ranulph Fiennes and Deborah Moggach – and, so too, are those who have long been on their wish list – Brian Blessed, John Sentamu, Lynda La Plante, Sue Perkins and many more – all tempted along for the first time.

As well as an enviable line-up for the discerning adult, there is a comprehensive children’s programme, too. Starting in 2013 with just six events, the offering for children far exceeded expectations and now features fifty events for children aged two and up this year, from top authors like Lauren Child and David Melling to much-loved family favourites, Alice in Wonderland and the Famous Five.

Finally, Henley is embracing the writing of fiction with a short story competition. Sponsored by Dragonfly Tea, the festival is appealing to budding writers with the Story in a Teacup. Helen Lederer comperes the ceremony that celebrates the winners for each of the categories on Sunday 4th October and The Arbuturian is privileged to be publishing the winning stories in the week following the festival. There is still time to enter as the deadline closes on Monday 31st August. Further information is available on the festival website.

Here, then, is our choice of events:

Henley Louis de BernieresLouis de Bernieres The author of the international best-seller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin makes his Henley debut talking about his new novel The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which takes place in the years of King Edward VII’s reign. Set in Kent, it tells the story of four sisters and the sons of two neighbouring families, whose days of childhood adventure are shadowed by the approach of war that takes the boys to the Western Front. A master storyteller talks about his latest acclaimed work with Society of Authors chair, Daniel Hahn.

Jane Hawking No one who saw the Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything left without great admiration for Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane. Her fascinating and frank memoir, Travelling to Infinity, on which the film was based, tells the inside story of their extraordinary marriage. As his academic career soared, he battled with motor neurone disease and Jane had to deal with his 24-hour care and the needs of their growing family. It is a remarkable story of a marriage that ends in a high-profile meltdown, which Jane movingly talks about with candour and humour.

Candace Bushell Sex and the City in Henley? The real-life Carrie Bradshaw – whose columns and books charting the single and not-so-single life in New York spawned the TV and film phenomenon – makes her UK literary festival debut. Her latest novel, Killing Monica, sees a writer whose novels about a young woman making her way in Manhattan have become a hit series.

Other Monday highlights: Max Mosley in conversation with Anne Robinson, Harry Mount on Greece: Past & Present

Travel writing event with Frank Barrett & Tim Bentinck; Join the Mail on Sunday’s travel editor and an Archers favourite on a literary journey around Britain. Frank set off in an elderly Saab (120,000 miles on the clock) to visit his favourite landmarks of literature. In Treasured Island he journeyed from TS Eliot’s East Coker to Jane Austen’s Bath, Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hartfield to Dracula’s Whitby. It is a fascinating personal odyssey to places that inspired great writing. Frank appears with the multi-talented Tim, who is probably best known for playing David Archer in the long-running Radio 4 series. But he is also a noted travel writer and has just had his first book published: Colin the Camper Van. The pair will make a thoroughly entertaining and informative travel double-act – always one of the festival’s most popular features.

Natalie Livingstone on Cliveden If you thought the Profumo Affair was the first scandal linked to Cliveden you were a good few hundred years out. Conceived in the 17th century by the Duke of Buckingham (as a retreat for his scandalous affair with Anna- Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury), the house was occupied over the next 300 years by a dynasty of remarkable women, as told in Mistresses of Cliveden. Writer Natalie makes a fascinating introduction to them all, from Elizabeth Villiers brokering the rise and fall of governments to Nancy Astor, the consummate controversialist who became the first woman to take a seat in parliament.

Other Tuesday highlights: Princess Michael of Kent, Ranulph Fiennes

Anita Anand on Sophia, the Indian princess turned suffragette; as presenter of Radio 4’s Any Answers, Anita is a familiar voice. Now she has written an acclaimed first book Sophia – Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, the true story of Sophia Duleep Singh. Born in 1876 she was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, a realm plundered by the British including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond. Her father, the dispossessed Maharajah, was exiled to England where Sophia, goddaughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman. But when she secretly travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary, devoting herself to fighting for Indian independence, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the trenches and, above all, for female suffrage.

Jane Wellesley On the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, there could be no more apt time for a journey through the Wellington family history by Lady Jane, the daughter of the 8th Duke who died last New Year’s Eve. In Wellington: A Journey Through My Family, Jane shows the Iron Duke as husband and father, as brother and several degrees of grandfather.

Other Wednesday highlights: Vince Cable with ‘After the Storm’, Wildlife Campaigner Virginia McKenna

Gill Hornby Gill returns with All Together Now, the much-anticipated follow-up to her hugely successful debut novel, The Hive. Set in the village of St Ambrose it tells the story of the Bridgeford Community Choir whose singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, meaning the motley group must join forces in pursuit of an unlikely goal.

Henley Lynsey Addario

War photographer Lynsey Addario with novelist Sunny Singh. Fact meets fiction with leading war photographer, Lyndsey, looking back on her career alongside journalist and writer, Sunny – whose latest novel features a female war photographer as its protagonist. Lynsey’s It’s What I Do is the story of how war has shaped her life. From Afghanistan to Iraq, to Darfur and her headline-making kidnapping by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya, hers is a life packed with drama. Sunny’s Hotel Arcadia tells the story of Sam, a war photographer famous for capturing hauntingly beautiful pictures of the dead, who checks into an expensive hotel at the exact moment terrorists launch an attack.

Other Thursday highlights: Sonia Purnell on Clementine Churchill

Sue Perkins A copy of a much-anticipated memoir and an evening with one of our funniest presenters, for less than the RRP of the book? What a treat. Everything Sue touches turns to broadcasting gold, from Radio 4’s Dilemma and Just a Minute to TV hits Mel and Sue, the Supersizers series with Giles Coren and, of course, The Great British Bake Off. Her book promises to answer such questions as ‘Does orchestral conducting simply involve waving your arms around?’ (Yes, the way I do it) and ‘Is Mary Berry real?’ (it’s complicated).

That Was the Coalition That Was In 2010 the UK found itself with its first coalition government since the war. Assembling a top panel to look back at the last five years and, in the midst of party conference season, look ahead, the participants include: Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP for Lewes until he lost his seat in May, served in that government at the Home Office and tells his story in Against The Grain; Guardian commentators Polly Toynbee and Ann Treneman published Cameron’s Coup earlier this year; and All In This Together is the coalition as told by the Times’ very funny parliamentary sketch writer, David Walker. From AV to the Scottish referendum, via tuition fees and public spats – how will we fit it into an hour?

Other Friday highlights: Britain’s first Green MP Caroline Lucas, Stephen Church on King John and the Magna Carta

Downton Abbey packshotJessica Fellowes on Downton Now this is something special: an hour with the official chronicler of all things Downton Abbey – a sought-after writer and speaker in her own right, and niece of the hit series’ creator, Julian Fellowes. Unsurprisingly, Jessica is a big draw on both sides of the Atlantic, speaking at venues including Canterbury Cathedral, The Royal Horseguards and Washington’s National Press Club – and, now, the historic Fawley Court, built in 1684 and closed to the public for the last 175 years. Jessica discusses her latest book, The Wit & Wisdom of Downton Abbey, plus a preview of the upcoming Downton Abbey: A Celebration, which marks the final episodes of the much-loved show.

Other Saturday highlights: Caitlin Davies on swimming the Thames, Ben Fogle on Labradors

Alan Tomkins: Stars & Wars Love cinema? Then this is the event for you. A 40-year career that began with being draughtsman on Bond classic, Dr No, finished with Alan as senior art designer on Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, Batman Begins. His movie credits include Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, Saving Private Ryan, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Empire Strikes Back, which rightly earned him an Oscar nomination. Join Alan to hear what it’s like working with directors including David Lean, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Franco Zeffirelli and Clint Eastwood, as he discusses Stars and Wars, his book of unpublished film artwork and behind- the scenes photographs.

Henley Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed The very definition of larger than life. With his booming voice, huge frame and electric personality, Brian has been entertaining us for nearly 60 years. He burst onto the scene in TV’s Z-Cars and has enjoyed a career that has included a stint in the original production of Cats, works by Shakespeare, Peppa Pig – and, of course, Flash Gordon. From growing up as the son of a miner in Goldthorpe to nearly causing an international incident when meeting the Emperor of Japan, via falling for Katherine Hepburn and winning round George Lucas for a part in Star Wars, Brian will look back on an action-packed life in his inimitable, boisterous style. Oh, and he also sparred with Mohmammed Ali, attempted to climb Everest three times and became the oldest man to trek to the magnetic North Pole. A real national treasure and the embodiment of all things Arbuturian comes to Henley to talk about his aptly named memoir, Absolute Pandemonium. Henley’s Alive!!

The 9th Henley Literary Festival runs from Monday 28th September to Sunday 4th October 2015. For a complete programme of events and to book tickets, visit

And hurry! Entries for the Story in a Teacup competition close on Monday 31st August 2015. For entry details, visit the website.