Our festival began in 2002 with a modest list of events as part of the Sevenoaks Summer Festival, with Nigel Nicolson and Edna Healey among the invited authors. In 2004 we decided to branch out into a two-week programme in the autumn as Sevenoaks Literary Celebration, and we have followed the same winning formula ever since. Relying on a volunteer committee with a lot of help from Sevenoaks Bookshop, we have deliberately kept our annual programme to a dozen or so events, concentrating on quality rather than quantity. While other festivals have over-stretched themselves or become over-reliant on sponsorship, we have paid our way and have seen our audiences and our reputation grow. Authors enjoy coming to Sevenoaks because they know they will not only be paid but get a warm welcome.
Over the years we have had the privilege of hosting a succession of leading novelists, including Hilary Mantel talking about Wolf Hall on the eve of her first Booker Prize win. Kate Mosse, Sarah Waters, Patrick Gale, Jonathan Coe, Justin Cartwright, Sarah Dunant and Lionel Shriver have drawn packed audiences.
We have made poetry a regular feature, with readings by two Poets Laureate – Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy – and by the national poets of Wales and Scotland Gillian Clarke and Liz Lochhead, as well as popular names such as Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay, Ruth Padel and Daljit Nagra. We also drew a big audience for a celebration with music of John Donne, who was rector of Sevenoaks.
Our biographers have included the prize-winning Lucy Hughes-Hallett (The Pike), Andrew Lownie, biographer of Guy Burgess, and Matthew Hollis talking about the poet Edward Thomas. Ian Kelly, actor and writer, has been to Sevenoaks twice to talk abouthis books on Casanova and Vivienne Westwood, while Kathryn Hughes told us all about Mrs Beeton and Kate Williams presented her first bestseller, a biography of Emma Hamilton.
Our audiences have a strong interest in serious history, with household names such as Sir Roy Strong, Ian Mortimer, Tracy Borman and Thomas Penn. Our special events, often involving afternoon tea, have featured Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and other classic authors. Other non-fiction authors have included Kate Summerscale (Victorian crime), Rachel Campbell-Johnston (art history), Dave Goulson (bees) and David Crystal (language).
We organise an annual literary lunch at which our guest speakers have included John Julius Norwich, Charles Allen, Virginia Nicholson, Daisy Goodwin, Juliet Nicolson, Mark Forsyth and Helen Lederer. In our first decade we organised a very popular annual literary walk around Weald village, once the home of authors such as Vita Sackville-West and Edward Thomas. With help from Sevenoaks Town Council, our schools events have featured prominent authors for young adults such as Tim Bowler and Meg Rosoff, and we have brought a series of writers to talk about their work to audiences from local primary schools.
Our aspiration for the future is to stay competitive in the fast-expanding world of literary festivals by offering our visiting authors something special and by building on the loyalty of our supporters.