Henley Literary Festival is without doubt one of my favourite cultural events of the year.
From the amazing choice of speakers (every genre you could think of is covered!), to the beautiful setting, to the fascinating subjects, to the most amazing brownies you’ll ever eat – it really is just a total gem.
The festival runs for a week, but I joined the party a little late this year due to work commitments, just hopping over on the final weekend for two days of literary loveliness.
On the Saturday I went along as a book lover, and listened to two wonderful – and completely different – talks. Both were hosted Q&As, with a good chunk of time for audience questions too.
First up was Sebastian Faulks, who reminded me of why I adore escaping into a really good book. Sebastian spoke about his new novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, which sounds incredible, and also talked about the art of writing. He said how the hardest part of writing a novel is finding your voice, and that Engleby was his easiest book to write as the narrator’s voice appeared to him one day. (If you haven’t read it, I would totally recommend it – the narrator is a fascinating character).
An audience member also asked Sebastian what the ‘right’ way to read a book is, and he spoke about leaving any preconceptions at the first page, and just letting yourself get lost in the story. It took me back to when I read Birdsong and then kept going to the library again and again until I’d finished every single one of Sebastian’s books. I remember feeling bereft when I realised there weren’t any more.
After Sebastian’s talk, I made my way to the Henley Literary Festival hub in the centre of town and spent a lovely hour reading a collection of short stories, which had been entered into a competition run by the festival and Dragonfly tea. Dragonfly were also selling cups of tea with a Gower Cottage brownie for £1, which was a total bargain. And those brownies, oh my goodness, they are the most gooey, chocolatey, gorgeous brownies I’ve ever had.
The second talk I went to later in the evening, was Bryony Gordon in conversation with Polly Vernon. Bryony was speaking about her memoir, Mad Girl, in which she writes about living with OCD and depression.
Bryony was so honest, talking about some of the really difficult things she had been through, but also bringing in humour and some really interesting anecdotes. The way she spoke so openly and passionately about mental health and how the system and society treats people with mental health conditions, also really struck a chord with the audience. I’ve never seen a Q&A which was quite so raw and emotional and people really opened up about the things they had been through.
After both events I felt really inspired, and, at a risk of sounding totally pompous, I really did feel culturally enriched. There’s just something so wonderful about listening to writers talk about their work and their experiences. It’s a little like being back in a university lecture hall with the most fascinating speakers to listen to and learn from.
After Saturday I was so excited for Sunday, when it was my turn to get up on the stage. More to come on that in another post very soon!