Sue Ryan, the founder of Henley Literary Festival, indulges us with a little literary escapism, her dream dinner party guests and all the books you need in your lockdown library right now….
Tell us a little bit about Henley Literary Festival, and why you think it has become so popular?
Henley Literary Festival was launched fourteen years ago without research, proper budgets or anything formal on a wing, a prayer and instinct. Literary festivals work best when they are in places people want to visit, and Henley-on-Thames ticks that box. We also have lovely venues and are close enough to London to make it easy. We treat our authors well, so we quickly became established as one of the top ten.
Can you tell us any funny anecdotes from your speakers at the Festival?
There have been a few! One of the ushers once confused her torch with her microphone (it was very dark in the theatre) and handed a surprised member of the audience a torch to ask her question. One year, Sir Max Hastings was looking over the notes for the talk he was about to give when a gust of wind flew several pages into the fish pond in the Hotel du Vin. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, once missed his connection at Twyford train station, meaning he arrived exactly when he was due on stage. However, as he was entering the venue, he heard children singing in their drama group and decided to pop in to chat to them, until we dragged him out! At her final public event at Phyllis Court, Judith Kerr said the Germans had turned Mog, written as a female, into a tom-cat because he was so clever. So in the next book she made Mog pregnant with kittens and told the Germans to “try and get out of that one!” Last year, the newly-married Melvyn Bragg lost his wedding ring – thankfully, it was found in the gents at Phyllis Court!
What is your most memorable event at the Festival to date, and why?
That’s a hard one. We have had so many good ones. John Mortimer was a great supporter and came every year until he died. He was in such pain during his last interview but kept going like a trouper. I remember getting goose-bumps in our second year when Craig Brown brought Sir Simon Russell Beale and Eleanor Bron to perform extracts from his book. We were such a tiny festival and they were so moving and professional. Baroness Trumpington was a triumph. Baroness Lawrence was humbling, as was Sir Roger Bannister who had done a full day’s medical rounds before he ran his four minute mile. Roddy Doyle was superb. There are also moments of huge emotion. Richard E. Grant welled up when recalling his wife’s still birth, rugby player Gareth Thomas spoke for the first time publicly about coming out as gay and Brian Moore talked about being abused. In all cases, there were long silences when you could hear a pin drop.
What are your future plans for the Festival, particularly in the wake of coronavirus? Do you have any plans to take the Festival abroad?
We are still hoping to go ahead this year as we think we can follow social distancing rules. We are doing a cruise next April with Good Housekeeping and we have been approached about setting a Festival up in the Caribbean. But it’s still very early days for anything travel-related.
As we’re all spending more time at home, what should we be reading?
It’s a good time to go back to the classics, so you can escape from modern dilemmas – Graham Greene, Henry James, and P.G. Wodehouse are well worth a revisit. Gill Hornby has written a delightful book, Miss Austen, based on the story of Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra. It reads just like an Austen novel so you get the double whammy of being a new book with an old feel. If you haven’t read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman or Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce, they are both good, escapist, page-turning stuff. My sister-in-law Jane Gordon’s book, How Not To Get Old, published last week, is very timely. I have not yet read Maggie O’Farrell’s new book, Hamnet, but it has had great reviews.
Who are the writers we should be looking out for at the moment?
James Scudamore’s English Monsters has just come out and he is a rising star. Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped is a fascinating memoir of her father’s experiences during the holocaust – his family were sent from Czechoslovakia to concentration camps but he escaped and hid out in Berlin under a false name. For light relief, The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh is a real page-turner.
What is your favourite book, and why?
I think books are like favourite foreign destinations. Where you want to go and what you want to read depends on your mood, your age, your circumstances at the time. You can’t compare India to Venice. For a book you can’t put down, I found myself reading Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You until 4am. At university, I loved D.H. Lawrence and Brian Patten’s poetry. E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India is a favourite classic. I grew up in India and Paul Scott’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Staying On, had a strong resonance.
With virtual books becoming bigger, in what ways is digital vs. hard copy becoming a very real battle for authors?
Surprisingly, sales of printed books are going up and digital is going down – although I think Audible is increasing sales as it’s something you can do while gardening and cleaning.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I had an idyllic childhood; I went to boarding school in Windermere and went back to India, where my parents lived, for the holidays. When my father retired, they bought a house in East Sussex, where we had ponies and dogs. After university at Bath, I became a journalist on the Thompson training scheme and went from there to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Today, Observer and the Daily Telegraph, where I was initially Head of News, and then became managing editor.
You still work as a travel writer – what are the most interesting places you have visited?
I love all travel. India is a favourite, and not necessarily the Golden Triangle. I love the sheer energy and madness of Kolkata. East Africa, particularly Lewa Conservancy, is mind-blowing. We take a house on the coast near Malindi with some friends every year – and just managed to do that this year again, before coronavirus hit. Some places are as much about the hotels as the cities – The Gritti Palace in Venice, Hotel du Cap in Nice, George V in Paris, The Taj in Mumbai, Raffles in Singapore. I am lucky to have stayed in so many fabulous hotels – and several times over.
You’re a committee member of Women In Journalism – what does the committee seek to do, and how does it work to ensure that contemporary journalism reflects a female voice as well as the traditional male voice?
We seek to support other women. We have networking parties, mentoring schemes and lots of events on relevant topics. We also undertake research projects to show how newspapers are dominated at the top by men and that most advisers quoted are male. It all helps to act as a pressure group to redress the balance.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party, and why?
Edna O’Brien, Michelle Obama, Judi Dench, Madhur Jaffrey, Jane Austen, Indhira Gandhi, and Katherine Grainger. I like powerful, interesting and amusing women who have realised their ambitions.
Finally, the one question we ask everyone! What is your favourite luxury?
Normally I would say staying in world class hotels, but it may be a couple of years before I can return to that. But I just bought Caroline Hirons’ Spring Kit of cleansing and moisturising treatments. They are all different makes and she recommends using all six in order every morning and night. It cost £150 but individually the items are worth two or three times that, which is perhaps why they sold out online in about half an hour. That, and because it is so wonderfully pampering.
For more information about Henley Literary Festival, go to www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk.