Sevenoaks Literary Festival was established in 2002 with the aim of bringing the brightest and best of current authors to the area.
Now in its twenty-first year, it is clear that that aim has been more than fulfilled. Indeed, the success of the Festival has spawned other local festivals in the region.
Run by a small group of volunteers, Sevenoaks Literary Festival is almost completely self-funded. Taking place over a period of two weeks from the end of September to the beginning of October, the Festival’s events – including an afternoon literary tea – are held at various venues throughout the town.
It has always included a broad range of speakers: novelists, biographers, activists, poets, historians, politicians, political commentators and journalists.
Recent highlights from the Festival include events with acclaimed actress Dame Eileen Atkins, journalist Bryony Gordon, crime novelist William Shaw, barrister and author Marina Wheeler and actress and presenter Mel Giedroyc.
Leading novelists have been central to the Festival from its inception: Hilary Mantel talking about Wolf Hall on the eve of her Booker Prize win, Kate Mosse, Sarah Waters, Patrick Gale, Jonathan Coe, Justin Cartwright, Sarah Dunant, Victoria Hislop, Penelope Lively, Lionel Shriver, Meg Rossoff, Mick Herron and Sebastian Faulks.
Biographers have included prize-winning Lucy Hughes-Hallett; Andrew Lownie, biographer of Guy Burgess and of the Mountbattens; Matthew Hollis talking about the poet Edward Thomas, Kathryn Hughes on Mrs Beeton; Michael Smith recounting the trials and adventures of Ernest Shackleton; Kate Williams on the infamous Emma Hamilton and the Queens Mary and Elizabeth; and former MP Chris Mullin on the politics of post-Brexit Britain.
The diverse range of historians speaking at the Festival has consistently attracted large audiences. They include Sir Roy Strong, Ian Mortimer, Tracy Borman, Thomas Penn, Stephen Smith, Tessa Dunlop and most recently Julia Lovell exploring the continuing global reach of Maoism and Henry Hemming revealing the British practices of fake news in persuading the USA to engage in the second world war. Sevenoaks audiences also enjoy politics, with successful events for Ian Dunt, Alan Johnson, Gina Miller and Luke Harding speaking on money, Putin and Trump.
National Poetry Day usually coincides with the Festival and poetry is a regular feature. Past readings have included three Poets Laureate – Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, and the geographer Simon Armitage; the National Poet of Wales – Gillian Clarke and the National Poet for Scotland – Liz Lochhead, as well as popular names such as Jackie Kay, Ruth Padel and Daljit Nagra. Lemn Sissay gave a riveting performance of his poetry as well as offering a chilling account of the inhuman power of the state in his memoir My name is why.
The Festival’s Literary Teas and Literary Lunches have been excellent opportunities for audiences to get up close with authors, as well as to indulge in some excellent food. Authors have included Karin Fernald, John Julius Norwich, Virginia Nicholson, Daisy Goodwin, Sophie Hannah, Sinclair McKay, Juliet Nicolson, Helen Lederer, Vanessa Nicholson, Gloria Hunniford and Thomas Harding on, appropriately enough, the history of what was the largest catering company in the world – J. Lyons.
A special feature of the Festival is the school day, with talks and workshops for about 450 primary school children. Recent participants have included the illustrator William Grill, Michael Rosen, Piers Torday and Harriet Goodwin.
Sevenoaks Literary Festival continues to develop, and no two years are the same. Musical events have included The Milton Consort accompanying Shakespeare’s Sonnets on period instruments; Laura Barnett discussing her novel Greatest Hits while Mercury-prize nominated Kathryn Williams played the music specially written for it; poet and photographer Virginia Astley reading from The English River accompanied on the harp by her daughter. The visual also forms a telling element of the Festival. Film director James Ivory introduced a screening of his film A Room With A View and Adam Nicolson was joined by his illustrator Tom Hammick with a selection of his brightly coloured landscapes.
The annual day-long Young Readers Festival Day was launched in 2018. It is run by Sevenoaks Bookshop with support from Sevenoaks Literary Festival which has always worked closely with the Bookshop. The YRFD brings a mixture of ticketed and free events and activities for children of all ages.
This broad range of events is testamant to the objective of Sevenoaks Literary Festival to make books and literature as alive, accessible and relevant as possible.