When we reach late September, and the leaves start turning from green to amber, that time of year we call “festival season” often seems like a distant memory. Glastonbury has been and gone; Isle of Wight is long out of sight; the Hay Festival has had its day. And yet, it is into this autumnal twilight that Henley-on-Thames comes alive. From 30 September to 8 October, the historic Oxfordshire town becomes the site of one of the UK’s leading literary events: the Henley Literature Festival.
Held this year in partnership with The Independent, Henley will play host to a number of globally famed speakers, including former Conservative prime minister Theresa May, writers Sebastian Faulks and Jacqueline Wilson, comedians Sara Pascoe and David Baddiel, and journalist Robert Peston. There are also poets (Ben Okri), historians (David Olusoga), athletes (Pat Nevin), musicians (Michael Ball) and filmmakers (Neil Jordan) among the lineup, as well as a sizable children’s programme at the weekend.
“No other festival matches Henley for the connection between authors and their readers,” says Harriet Reed-Ryan, the festival’s events director and programmer. “Henley has a special feel. The audiences are not too large and we allow enough time between events for the audience to meet the authors. We have a really broad programme covering all genres with lots of big names and also exciting new ones.”
Events are staged across the bucolic town of Henley, with most of the proceedings taking place across three venues: a scenic riverside marquee (Baillie Gifford Marquee at Phyllis Court), the Laithwaites Stage at the Kenton Theatre – the fourth oldest working theatre in the country – and the Gower Cottage Brownies Stage in Henley’s storied town hall.
If the festival stands out for the variety of its programming, then just as important is its commitment to accessibility, with the majority of talks also being live-streamed online for those unable to attend in person. “The authors seem to love coming to Henley as so many of them ask to return,” adds Reed-Ryan.
Details on how to purchase tickets can be found at the bottom of this article. In the meantime, here’s a quick rundown of some of the festival’s highlights…
30 September, 10am
Fronting the line-up is former Tory PM Theresa May, whose book The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life is out in mid-September. Just over four years after her tenure as leader came to a premature end, May will be sitting down with The Independent’s Simon Walters for an interview on 30 September. Whatever your political affiliation, the event represents the chance to see one of the most significant politicians of our era away from the pomp and game-playing of Westminster, speaking on her own terms.
Tom Crewe and Jo Baker
30 September, 10am
The New Life, the debut novel from Middlesborough author Tom Crewe, has garnered astounding reviews and accolades including an Orwell Prize since its release earlier this year. Baker, meanwhile, is the author of the celebrated 2013 Pride and Prejudice re-mix Longbourn, as well as this year’s The Midnight News. Both authors are interviewed here by James Scudamore.
30 September, 12pm
The revered historical novelist returns to the festival for an interview with The Independent’s chief books critic Martin Chilton. Faulks is here to discuss his latest work, a future-set sci-fi novel about genetic engineering. In our five-star review of the novel, it is described as a “stunning meditation on responsibility, decency, love, the intricacies of consciousness and what makes us human”. Chilton is also chairing an interview with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin author Louis de Bernieres later in the festival (8 October, 12pm).
30 September, 2pm
The children’s publishing phenomenon that is Dame Jacqueline Wilson makes her Henley debut at the 2023 festival, with this kid-oriented event tied to her new book The Best Sleepover in the World. The Tracy Beaker writer and Children’s Laureate is a consummate performer at festivals such as these; the event is sure to be a delight.
Laithwaites Wine Downs
4 October, 6pm
This free event, held at the Kenton Theatre, lets you spend time in the company of a panel of authors while sipping a complimentary drink from Laithwaite’s Wine. Wednesday’s event is food-themed, featuring appearances from Bake Off’s Chetna Makan, The Ultimate Air Fryer Cookbook’s Claire Andrews, and culinary blogger Sarah Rossi. The previous Saturday sees authors Eva Verde, Robert Thorogood and Cleo Watson take the stage at 6pm.
4 October, 8pm
Following a sell-out talk in 2016, renowned writer and journalist Gary Younge comes back to Henley amid the release of his latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora: from Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter. The essay collection spans his rich and varied career – and will surely provide brilliant stimulus for this stage conversation with The Independent’s race correspondent Nadine White.
5 October, 8pm
Hosted by the publisher Penguin Michael Joseph, this event, hosted by Daniel Hahn, sends attendees home with advance “proof” copies of two hotly tipped debut books: Ishi Robinson’s Sweetness in the Skin, and Mrs Quinn’s Rise to Fame by Olivia Ford. The manuscripts in question won’t be publicly available until next year.
Erica Davies with Candice Brathwaite
5 October, 8pm
“Clothes can make you feel your best, but what happens when life throws your style off course?” That’s the question posed by this intriguing two-handed event. On one side, we have Erica Davies, fashion editor and journalist. On the other, Lorraine style expert Candice Brathwaite, author of the bestselling book I Am Not Your Baby Mother.
6 October, 6pm
Former Chelsea footballer and well-respected pundit Pat Nevin is among the sporting figures to be appearing at Henley this year, alongside Danny Cipriani, Mike Brearley, Martin Bayfield and Judy Murray. As part of the talk, he’ll be discussing his latest book, Football and How to Survive It, showcasing his deep understanding and love of the beautiful game.
6 October, 8pm
The Independent’s Simon Waters meets with Robert Peston, one of the country’s leading journalists and broadcasters, for this event that takes place between the two biggest party conferences. Peston’s been seen all over British TV – as the BBC’s former business editor and the political editor of ITV – and in print. Alongside his nonfiction writing, Peston has also proved a dab hand as a novelist, going by his bestselling debut The Whistleblower and the political thriller The Crash, the latter of which is out in September.
Rebecca Wait & Liv Little
7 October, 2pm
The minds behind two of the most acclaimed novels in recent months – Liv Little (Rosewater) and Rebecca Wait (I’m Sorry You Feel That Way) – are interviewed here by Leah Davis. Speaking to The Independent in May, gal-dem founder Little proved herself an insightful and engaging subject – this will be a talk worth catching.
Talking to Your Teenage Self: Daisy Buchanan, Isabella Dorta, Jaspreet Kaur
7 October, 4pm
Three writers explore the life advice they would have imparted to their younger selves. It’s a strong premise for lively discussion, and the writers in question – TikTok sensation Isabella Dorta, Brown Girl Like Me’s Jaspreet Kaur, and How to be a Grown-Up’s Daisy Buchanan – are sure to provide it. Leah Davis, meanwhile, will chair the discussion.
The full programme and booking is available via henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk and by calling the box office on 01491 575948.