Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Henley Literary Festival

Last week, from the 29th September to 3rd October, The Henley Literary Festival was in full swing in Henley-on-Thames, a beautiful Oxfordshire village. Every year in the autumn this pretty riverside town becomes a gathering place for the who’s who of literature - and a very reasonably priced ticket will get you an audience with any of them. This year guests included author Antonia Fraser, gardening and cooking expert Sarah Raven, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire and British journalist, author and political aide Alistair Campbell. There were over a hundred events all round Henley, in many different venues - from the the historic Town Hall built in 1897 to the Kenton Theatre, the fourth oldest theatre in England, and readings even took place on the river itself onboard the vessels Hibernia and Waterman. 

There were so many events I would have liked to attend, I could actually have spent most of the week in Henley! My rather full diary made that impossible and in the end I chose just three. The first, a talk by Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, was oversubscribed and I unfortunately missed out. However I did manage to attend a fascinating debate at The Kenton Theatre entitled “Was Feminism Worth the Fight” and an interview with English writer, gardener, cook and television presenter Sarah Raven at Phyllis Court, a beautiful private members club not normally open to the public.

“Was Feminism Worth the Fight” brought together four really wonderful panellists. Moderator Jane Reed, former managing editor of a popular British newspaper joined author Rosie Thomas, writer and former editor Cosmopolitan and She magazines Lynda Kelsey, and Irma Kurtz, a writer who has also been Cosmopolitan magazine’s Agony Aunt for several years.  It was the most civilised debate I think I have ever attended with the panellists and audience agreeing that yes, feminism was worth the fight - particularly in the sense that no one wants to go back to the days before women had the vote, or when we were prohibited from going to university and even told what to wear. Irma Kurtz underscored this by recounting a story of when she was at university some years ago and was literally kicked out of a lecture by a professor who refused to speak until “the woman” was “removed”!  However, the issues of choice, responsibility and has feminism gone too far were also given equal time. It’s an emotive issue, but I thought it was very well handled. One woman in the audience commented that she mourns the loss of her once chivalrous husband, who has grown jaded by the number of times he has held a door or offered a seat only to be shouted at. Another woman raised the issue of what might happen to her career should she choose to have children, and whether childcare could ever be evenly shared. The panellists agreed that the choices feminism offers women also bring responsibility with them, and that while women are definitely ‘equivalent’ to men, men and women are very different creatures and it is quite impossible for us to be ‘equal’. 

Slightly lighter in tone, although no less entertaining, was an interview with Sarah Raven, whose most recent book is Food for Family and Friends. Sarah is also the author of many gardening books, and offers courses on gardening, flower arranging and cookery. Her website, also offers a selection of seeds, bulbs, gardening kits and lots of things to make your home more beautiful. Sarah is a really entertaining speaker, and clearly a powerhouse of energy. She fielded questions from the audience and I left feeling I had learned quite a lot about gardening and her casual and straight-forward cooking style. 

The Henley Festival is a wonderful festival for anyone who likes to read or write and I look forward to attending again next year. For more details, or to become a Friend of the festival, keep an eye on their website where details for 2011 will be available in due course.   

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