Henley Literary Festival


(Originally posted on October 5, 2015)

Last week was Henley Literary Festival and what a week it was! It’s one of my favourite weeks in the calendar. It’s always sunny and seeing my hometown transformed into a bustling hotbed of literary gorgeousness is a joy. The programme this year was even bigger and broader than previous years. From Anita Anand talking about Indian suffragette, princess and revolutionary, Sophia Duleep Singh, to Ben Fogle talking about his love of Labradors, and then an array of people from Candace Bushnell, Richard E Grant, Michael Lynagh, Lynda La Plante, Brian Blessed, Ranulph Fiennes, Lauren Child, and over a hundred and sixty other events between, there really was something for everybody. I was delighted to be asked to chair three events. The first was on Tuesday evening, talking to Ella Woodward, this year’s cookery book phenomenon, who has stormed the book charts and given us this year’s top selling book, Deliciously Ella. Young, glowing and very passionate about healthy eating and its benefits, we talked at Christ Church in front of a crowd of 300. I was extremely nervous for a few days before. This was a big gig. She was one of the headline talks and it was sold out. Thankfully, as soon as we stepped on stage the nerves melted away, credit in part to Paul Ross who’d I’d been chatting to on Radio BBC Berkshire earlier in the day for their Festival Special, who essentially told me to stop worrying about it get out there and kick some proverbial!

On Friday I hosted the Book Club Friday event with Cesca Major, author of the stunning, The Silent Hours, and Nicola May, author of seven books, her latest the funny and heartwarming, The SW19 Club. This was a lighthearted, relaxed, and extremely fun hour, with lots of laughing. Cesca and I have done a few events together now, and she really is a joy to be on stage with, and Nicola, who I hadn’t met until half an hour before the event, slotted in perfectly.

My mum and dad also came along to this one. It’s reassuring to know that even well past the age of 40 I can still grin at my parents in the audience like a child with a stripy tea-towel on her head in a nativity play…

My final event was on Sunday, when I interviewed two very inspirational young women, Helena Coggan, author of The Catalyst, and Samantha Shannon, author of the internationally acclaimed The Bone Season series. Helena signed a three book deal at the tender age of 15 and Samantha wrote The Bone Season – the first in a seven book series, which was snapped up by Andy Serkis’ film company, Imaginarium Studios – whilst studying English at Oxford. I could have chatted to these two young women all afternoon. Covering topics as diverse as building fantasy worlds, to the portrayal of female characters in film and literature, to living under the weight of being ‘The Next JK Rowling’, both girls spoke with a warmth and passion that was a delight.

As well as hosting this year (and benefitting three times over from the box of incredible Gower Cottage Brownies they gave away as gifts for speakers. If you haven’t tried them, you must. I’d offer you one of mine, but well, they’ve gone…) I also attended a number of events. Jane Hawking was wonderful. It was fascinating to hear about her life, about the bits of her memoir that the film – The Theory of Everything – omitted or embellished, her life with Stephen, and what it was like to see herself portrayed on the Silver Screen. Sadly, a poorly child meant I had to miss out on Will Hutton, Bonnie Greer and Anita Anand, which though unavoidable was so frustrating! (Mothering, eh? Tch.) I adored Sue Perkins. I knew I’d love her – I have done since she and Mel Giedroyc presented Light Lunch seventeen years ago, a programme which kept me entertained whilst feeding a tiny newborn every day – but I didn’t know it would be with quite such passion. She is remarkably warm, extremely witty, with a lightning intelligence, and her kindness, love for Mel and her family, not to mention a real sense of her being appreciative of her lot, all shone through. She entertained us with lovely anecdotes from her memoir, Spectacles, about Bake Off, meeting Mel for the first time, and rude graffiti (or is it?) keyed on to her car. And then there was Patrick Gale and Polly Samson, who were glorious to listen to. I now have a crush on Patrick Gale, and I don’t think I’m alone…

For book lovers, or indeed anyone who loves learning more about subjects they adore, or finding out about subjects they have little knowledge of, the Literary Festival is an absolute must. To have something like this on our doorstep is a huge privilege. I am already counting the days until next year’s festival kicks off. (Roughly 361, if you also want to start counting…)

Amanda Jennings