#EventReview Henley Literary Festival 2022 Round-Up

Henley Literary Festival

Today is the last day of this year’s Henley Literary Festival bringing to a close nine days of fantastic author talks, interviews and panel sessions as well as a full programme of children’s events.

Below are brief reviews of the events I attended either in person or virtually. Links from the book title will take you to the entry on Goodreads. You can read a full review of the first event I attended, with author Robert Harris here.

And finally, a date for you diary. Next year’s Henley Literary Festival will take place between 30th September and 8th October 2023.

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius SanchoTuesday 4th October – Paterson Joseph, author of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho

Appropriately for an actor turned author, Paterson Joseph took to the stage of the Kenton Theatre, the fourth-oldest working theatre in the UK, to talk about his book The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho which was published on 6th October 2022. Based on Sancho’s diaries, the novel charts the life of a man who was born on a slave ship in 1729, orphaned at the age of three and sent to live with three spinsters in Greenwich but who, despite a series of hardships, became a leading figure in Georgian England, including being the first Black voter.

Paterson explained how he first came across Sancho’s story in 1999 and how it opened his eyes to the presence of people who looked like him further back in English history than he had imagined. Bringing Sancho’s story to a wider audience – including in a one man show performed in New York – has been a 20 year obsession and a real labour of love. Paterson gave two brilliant readings from the book – my favourite being a scene set in the Black Tar Tavern – in which, as you might expect from an actor of his stature, he really brought the character of Sancho to life. Paterson feels there is still much more to be discovered about Sancho’s life and, if there is, I’m pretty sure the author is the man to do it.

Paterson was asked if he intends to write more novels. He said he’s a ‘gadfly’ and has no plans, confessing writing this novel was the hardest thing he’s done. At the same time, he’d found it exciting because as an actor you’re always in the middle – between the playwright and the audience – whereas with a book the connection with the reader is direct. However, if he did write another book, it would most likely be based on his own family history. To me that sounds like a yes to the question.

I’m currently reading The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho and I’m going to put a marker down now for its appearance on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Thursday 6th October – Patrick Gale, author of Mother’s Boy & Sarah Winman, author of Still Life

Mother's BoyWhat a joy to have these two brilliant authors came together to talk about their books with writer and translator, Daniel Hahn. Asked about the inspiration for their books, Patrick explained Mother’s Boy arose out of a kind of panic that the poet Charles Causley was ‘slipping from public view’, his work having been removed from the National Curriculum. As a Patron of The Charles Causley Trust, Patrick felt the need to rescue Causley and that his novel is an ‘act of missionary work’ that would introduce readers to the real Charles Causley.

Still LifeFor Sarah, the inspiration was a trip to Florence and learning about the floods that affected the city, the traces of which can be seen today in the form of flood markers, and seeing photographs of young people from all over the world who travelled to Florence to help restore the artwork.

Both authors touched on how war enabled individuals to travel to new places, experience different cultures, different foods and escape the conventions of life at home, that it could be quite liberating.

Both books centre on relationships between two individuals. In the case of Still Life, it’s young soldier Ulysses Temper and Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian, who meet by chance at a roadside inn in Italy 1944. Sarah joked that in this period there are always English spinsters who turn up in the most unexpected places. In Patrick’s book it’s the relationship between Charles and his mother, Laura. Patrick explained he decided to include Laura because he thought there needed to be someone who loved Charles, because he could come across as quite hard to love. Laura never gives up on him and that means, Patrick hopes, the reader won’t either.

Both authors gave readings from their books: Patrick from a section of the book which describes a touching episode from Charles’ childhood; and Sarah from a scene in which art historian Evelyn attempts to formulate and introduction to still life paintings.

Those who have read Still Life won’t perhaps be as puzzled as those of us who haven’t by a question from an audience member about how she wove a sentient animal into the story. Sarah said it started as a bit of a joke, amusing herself with playful moments as she was writing, but the character just stuck.

Godmersham ParkThursday 6th October – Gill Hornby, author of Godmersham Park

Gill’s latest historical novel, the follow-up to Miss Austen, focuses on Anne Sharpe who arrived at Godmersham Park in January 1804 to take up the position of governess to Fanny Austen, one of Jane Austen’s many nieces. Asked by interviewer, fellow author Ayisha Malik, about the process of writing the book, Gill explained very little is known about Anne’s life other than the period of two years she spent there as governess, references to which are found in Fanny’s journal. Gill has been able to take advantage of the unknown parts of Anne’s life – the circumstances which led to her taking a position as a governess and the reason for her summary dismissal two years later – to craft her novel. What is known, Gill explained, is that Anne became a very close friend of Jane Austen. Indeed, the last letter Jane wrote before she died was to Anne and she also gave her a presentation copy of her novel, Emma (sold at auction in 2008 for £180,000).

Ayisha asked about the nature of the relationship between Jane and Anne; could it have been more than platonic? Gill thought it unlikely Jane was gay although there was undoubtedly deep affection between them. As she remarked, there might have been ‘sex and drugs and rock’n’roll’ taking place in Georgian London, but not in Hampshire.

Gill explained the role of governess was a uniquely difficult one. (It was also one of the only three options, along with companion or prostitute, that was open to an unmarried woman without financial support.) As governess, Anne is neither one of the family, nor one of the servants. One wrong move might result in instant dismissal, which is what happened in Anne’s case although the reason put forward in the book comes from Gill’s imagination and a few clues in Fanny’s journal.

Gill was asked by an audience member if her husband Robert Harris’s claim (mentioned at his own event earlier in the week) that he completes a book in six months is true and she confirmed it was. Gill is currently working on another Austen-related historical novel, about a marriage which started out as an elopment, which she also intends will take her six months to write.

Book ClubThursday 6th October – ‘Book Club Thursday’ with Mike Gayle, author of The Museum of Ordinary People, Justin Myers, author of The Fake-Up and Clare Pooley, author of The People on Platform 5

Jo Finney, Books Editor at Good Housekeeping, chaired this panel session comprising three successful authors of what is known in the publishing world as ‘commercial fiction’ or, as Clare observed, books that sell loads.  Jo asked about the inspiration for their latest books with answers ranging from Adele’s divorce, to items found in a skip, to what extreme event it might take for regular commuters on a train to talk to one another.

All three authors have written non-fiction: Mike, about his year spent completing the items on his To-Do list; Justin, about his experiences as a gay man of dating; and Claire, about her journey to sobriety.

The three authors shared their views on social media, acknowledging that although some aspects of it can be toxic, it now has an important role in promoting their books, especially since ‘commercial fiction’ seems to get less serious coverage than, say, literary fiction. Mike was particularly generous about the role of book bloggers in sharing their love of the sort of books he, Justin and Clare write.

One Of Our Ministers Is MissingFriday 7th October – Alan Johnson, author of One of Our Ministers Is Missing

Prompted by fellow author Craig Brown, Alan recalled his switch from writing memoir to fiction. Now the author of two crime thrillers (and working on a third), he had initially planned to write historical fiction based on the history of the area in which he lives, on the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire. (He might still do, as he conceded whilst he signed my copy of his book.) Alan has always paid tribute to the English teacher who encouraged him to write and shaped the kind of books he read, introducing him to authors such as Wilkie Collins, Arnold Bennett and Anthony Trollope.  Alan read a section from This Boy, his first volume of memoirs, which illustrates this.  Craig observed that this introduction to literature was one of just a series of ‘What If?’ moments in Alan’s life, another being the intervention of a social worker, Mr Pepper, who ensured Alan and his sister were not separated after their mother’s death.  For this reason, he’s a man they ‘venerate’.

Craig asked if it was important to be very organised when writing a thriller because of the requirement to brings lots of threads together.  Alan said for him it starts with the characters and a sense of the general direction the story will take but his philosophy is very much ‘Set sail and see where it takes you’. He loves every bit of writing his crime novels, especially the opportunity to mislead people which he couldn’t do when he was a Member of Parliament. Cue, lots of laughter from the audience.

A regular visitor to Henley Festival, Alan’s seemingly endless supply of anecdotes, the majority of which involve self-deprecating humour, make him an engaging speaker.  His books are great too.

These reviews are based on notes I took during the event and are my own recollections. Any errors in recording views expressed during the discussions are my own.


#EventReview Robert Harris at Henley Literary Festival 2022

Henley Literary FestivalThe Baillie Gifford Marquee at Phyllis Court was packed to the rafters on Sunday 2nd October to hear Daniel Hahn interview Robert Harris about his latest book, Act of Oblivion. (Passed in 1660, the Act of Oblivion was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War and the subsequent Commonwealth period with the exception of certain people, such as those involved in the regicide of Charles I.)

Daniel asked about the moment that inspires one of Robert’s books.  Robert said it could be anything – a character, a phrase or, as in the case of Act of Oblivion, a tweet about the ‘greatest manhunt of the 17th century’. As he read more about it he thought, ‘This is fantastic’, because it was such an interesting situation with so many possibilities and of course it involves that classic element, a chase. Although more than fifty men involved in the execution of Charles I fled overseas, he decided to focus on just two who fled to Amerrca: Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, each very different characters. Given there was a manhunt there must have been a manhunter, although Robert was obliged to invent one – Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council.

Daniel asked about the writing process. Robert explained, for him, the characters are the most important. The reader needs to care about them, empathise with them. They need not be virtuous, but they need to be human. Everything about them needs to be plausible so Robert asks himself what would someone do in a particular situation. For instance, in the case of the two characters in Act of Oblivion, how would they travel, what would this have been like, where did they stay? All this detail provides an immersive experience for the reader.

Daniel asked if this was more difficult with characters from a different age. Robert acknowledged it is a tough proposition but thinking of his two characters as the Puritan equivalents of Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid helped! Puritan colonels may not seem the most engaging of characters but there were aspects of the two men he thought helped humanise them such as the fact Goffe had to leave his wife and five children behind. And he felt Whalley, the more moderate of the two, might have started to have doubts about his actions.

Daniel observed that the manhunter, Richard Naylor, is a zealot but he is given a personal reason for his involvement which perhaps makes it easier for the reader to understand him. Robert said while reading the diary of John Evelyn, the 17th century writer and gardener, he came across an account of a secret (and at the time, illegal) Mass held in a private chapel at Christmas in 1657. It was Goffe and Whalley who interrogated the participants so Robert put Richard in the scene providing the personal motivation referred to and posing the question, what happens when you become obsessed with revenge.

At this point Robert read an excerpt from the closing part of the first chapter which describes Goffe and Whalley’s arrival in America.

Daniel noted there are two events that take place on the same date and ventured this is more than coincidence. Robert said he feels the day of the week on which something takes place is important because each day has a different routine. It’s something he researches as he believes it’s this sort of detail that provides a connection with the past. For the same reason, he also likes to include the weather. He said he likes to write ‘novels of sensation’ – what something feels like, smells like, whether a journey is uphill or downhill.  He believes his job as a writer is to take the reader there and these sort of details are not superficial.  However, when it comes to history, there are always gaps in our knowledge but those gaps are great things. After all, he observed, if we knew everything there wouldn’t be any point in writing historical fiction!

Daniel asked how the relationship between Goffe and Whalley changes as the book progresses. Although it involved an agonising end (described in a paragraph that Robert advised skipping if you’re squeamish), most of the regicides faced death bravely convinced that it was ‘a fast ticket to heaven’ and actually looked down on those who fled. Whalley is a ‘pragmatic survivor’ but Goffe comes to regret he will not suffer a martyr’s death. Many believed 1666 was to be the year of the ‘Second Coming’ and it was important to think what this would mean to them.

Daniel asked about the inclusion of events in London happening at the same time, including those involving Goffe’s wife, Frances. Robert said Frances was a daunting character in a way because she is left behind, forced to live in the houses of Puritan sympathisers. He wondered what this would have been like for her, resolving ‘I must put her in the book’, and in fact she becomes an important figure and helps drive the plot.

Having mentioned that at times when writing Act of Oblivion he hated it, Daniel asked if he was currently hating a new one. Robert said he was at the best stage of a new book when you have ‘delightful possibilities’ starting to evolve in your head.  He admits he makes it hard for himself because he aims to complete a book in six months (which means 800 pages a day), confessing he needs the adrenaline of a deadline.

Audience questions included Robert’s approach to research, such whether he visited places that appear in the book. Robert explained sometimes there was little point in this as they would have changed so much over the centuries. He also observed that it was important to know when to stop your research. ‘Just because it’s true doesn’t make it interesting’, he remarked. He was also asked about his involvement in the film adaptations of his novels. Although he wrote the screenplays for some of them he said in general he was a fan of Kingsley Amis’s advice to ‘take the money and run’. Finally, Robert was asked why the Act of Oblivion and its consquences is so little known about. (Confession: I had never heard of it before learning about this book.) He thought the divisive nature of the English Civil War is perhaps a national trauma we still shy away from addressing and there has been much more focus in fiction on the Tudor period.

Act of Oblivion SignedI know I’m not alone in having thoroughly enjoyed hearing Robert talk about his book. One advantage of attending the event in person was leaving clutching your very own copy of the book. The line to get your book signed was long but Robert was still thanking people for coming until the very end of the queue.

This review is based on notes I took during the event and my own recollections. Any errors in recording views expressed during the discussion are my own.

Act of OblivionAbout the Book

‘From what is it they flee?’
He took a while to reply. By the time he spoke the men had gone inside. He said quietly, ‘They killed the King.’

1660. Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, cross the Atlantic. They are on the run and wanted for the murder of Charles I. Under the provisions of the Act of Oblivion, they have been found guilty in absentia of high treason.

In London, Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council, is tasked with tracking down the fugitives. He’ll stop at nothing until the two men are brought to justice. A reward hangs over their heads – for their capture, dead or alive.

Act of Oblivion is an epic journey across continents, and a chase like no other.

Robert HarrisAbout the Author

Robert Harris is the author of fourteen bestselling novels: the Cicero Trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and DictatorFatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy which won four prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Conclave, Munich, The Second Sleep and V2. His work has been translated into forty languages and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in West Berkshire with his wife, Gill Hornby.

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