Thursday, 3 October 2013

My literary week

Stella Rimington, former head of MI5
Dame Stella: MI5's first female head
Credit: James Gifford-Mead
We had a marvellous day out last Saturday: we went en famille to an open day for a private school in Abingdon. There were newly hatched chicks in the biology lab, smarties in the maths room and trampolining in the gym! The kids were in heaven, but what impressed me most was the onsite theatre, two-tier library and purpose-built lecture hall. I realised this was what we would be paying our fees for: the chance to plant our children in a glorious hothouse.

Now that my days in full-time education are long gone, I realise I miss that heady atmosphere of learning new things and discovering a world in books... which is why I adore The Henley Literary Festival. Once a year, thanks to this jamboree of writers, historians and bloggers, I get my literary fix. The festival takes place right on my doorstep for a week at the end of September and I have been attending ever since former journalist, Sue Ryan, set it up seven years ago. It has gone from strength to strength, selling over 14,000 tickets this year.

Kate Humble, presenter of Countryfile
Kate Humble: admired in the green room
Credit: James Gifford-Mead

A sign of the festival's new found maturity is its ability to drive the news agenda. This week several national newspapers reported how Dame Stella Rimington dismissed whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden as "self-seeking twerps" during a talk at the festival. Now a thriller writer, Dame Stella told an enthralled audience about her time as the first female Director General of MI5. She rose from humble beginnings as a part-time clerk typist in Delhi after being recruited by MI5 with the traditional tap on the shoulder. She is a classic example of a woman who shattered the glass ceiling. Early in her career, she and other female colleagues rebelled against the twin-track career paths at MI5, which historically kept women as "assistants" to male officers. 


Other highlights of my week included:


  • hearing how bloggers Helen McGinn of The Knackered Mother's Wine Club and Maggy Woodley of Red Ted Art successfully published books off the back of their blogs. Helen recently became the resident wine expert on The Alan Titchmarsh Show and reported how she introduced puppets Sooty & Sweep to the art of wine-tasting!

  • laughing with novelist and brilliant raconteur Deborah Moggach, who penned the novel on which the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is based. Her funniest anecdote involved Steven Spielberg, Barry Norman, the word "wanker" and a field of tulip bulbs. You should have been there.

  • an entertaining and informative talk by historian Ruth Goodman on how the Victorians lived. Most Victorian babies were dosed up on opium from birth, owing to an unregulated trade in medicine.

  • eating chocolate brownies with Countryfile's Kate Humble in the festival green room. She charmed all the young volunteers with her humour and lack of pretension. It appears she is also great friends with comedian and actor Miles Jupp, who managed to earn applause from a room chockful of silver-haired festival-goers after graphically describing his back-passage. Read his book Fibber in the Heat for more details.

  • Clive Limpkin, Emma Clark Lam and Mike Read during a radio interview
    Clive Limpkin and me during our radio interview
    Credit: James Gifford-Mead
  • being interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire by Mike Read with fellow ebook author Clive Limpkin, ahead of our session on self-publishing on Sunday. It turns out Mike knows one of my favourite bloggers from Country Wives. What a small town Henley is!

It has been an inspirational week, reaffirming my faith in books, history and culture. Best of all, this hothouse of festivals is considerably cheaper than private school fees and every bit as edifying. No smarties or newly hatched chicks though. Must have a word with the organisers. Perhaps next year Kate Humble could bring some down from her farm.


The Henley Literary Festival runs until Sunday, 6 October, 2013.