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 – renamed Sevenoaks Literary Festival in 2016 – 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, Lionel Shriver and Mick Herron have drawn packed audiences. Unsurprisingly, so too did Sebastian Faulks and Patrick Gale in 2018.
A special feature of the Literary Festival is the annual series of events for local primary school students sponsored by Sevenoaks Town Council. They include not only presentations (to upwards of 450 students) but workshops too. Outstanding recent participants have included the illustrator William Grill and the novelist, broadcaster and language expert Michael Rosen.
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. Lemn Sissay transfixed a sell-out audience.
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 about his 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. As befitting his subject, Michael Smith offered a compelling account of the polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton.
Our audiences have a strong interest in serious history, with household names such as Sir Roy Strong, Ian Mortimer, Tracy Borman and Thomas Penn and distinguished academic historians like Stephen Smith on Russia in revolution. Tessa Dunlop revealed the power of contemporary oral history in a fascinating account of The Century Girls.
The popular Literary Teas have featured Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and other classic authors as well as contemporary social history and literary biographies. We also 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, Helen Lederer and Gloria Hunniford.
Our continuing aspiration is to stay competitive and compelling in the fast-growing world of literary festivals. We do this in part by offering our authors something special and by constantly refreshing the range of events. Examples include multi-media presentations such as Jane Glover discussing Handel; Virginia Astley reading her poetry to the accompaniment of her daughter on the harp and her own photographs; and events addressing contemporary issues including Gina Miller in conversation with Hannah Knowles and Luke Harding exposing the ongoing attacks on democracy in contemporary politics. The incorporation of the Young Readers Festival Day in 2018 introduced hundreds of members of future audiences to the joys of the Festival.
Audiences in 2018 were larger than ever before and so it would seem that this approach does resonate with the supporters – old and new – of the Festival.