The Henley Literary Festival in its 16th year saw another great line up of headliners this year with many sold out events for the big names which include Sir Lenny Henry, Sarah Ferguson, Charles Spencer and Tim Peake closing the Festival on Sunday.
We were delighted to attend Sir Lenny Henry, Irvine Welsh and former Red Arrow Wing Commander David Montenegro. See reviews below.
Sir Lenny Henry
The Book of Legends
Sir Lenny Henry has played all sorts of characters in his life including the Shrunken Head in Harry Potter, the voice of Sporty in Little Robots, Elephant in the Tinga Tinga Tales as well as being Blob in The Masked Singer he told the young audience at his Literary Festival event promoting his new children’s book “The Book of Legends.”
This is his second children’s book; the first Boy With Wings and the new one were both written during lockdown. He said, “When I was young there were no books with characters that looked like me. I wanted to change that agenda. When I used to read to my daughter in the 90s there only one or two books. I wanted to go big on including everyone so that children can relate to what it is real in their world. I’ve done a few audio books as the narrator and loved doing all the voices but I wondered what it would be like to write a book so in my pants eating Hobnobs during lockdown I started writing.”
When Lenny was young, he was distracted at school and wanted to be either a Beatle, Elvis or to fight Mohammed Ali. He said, “I think lessons shout be outside and we would learn more. Back then it wasn’t easy to get into showbiz as it is now. He left school with few qualifications and so during a summer season in Blackpool with Cannon & Ball when he was bored he decided to return to college to redo his exams. He said, “I went to Preston College to resit my O Levels, I got some strange looks and comments like “Why is the man off Tiswas sitting exams.” He later went on to continue his studies through Open University and got a degree in English Literature and a PhD in Screen Writing.
In “The Book of Legends”, twins Bran and Fran go on a quest to find their Mum; they’ve already lost their Dad. Lenny said, “I’ve always loved my Mum and Mums are so important, Dads aren’t much use. They just drop you off you at school but forget to pick you up!” Bran has a hearing impairment and Fran signs for him. Lenny said, “Bran’s character shows that nothing should stop kids going on an adventure.”
Lenny read excerpts from both The Boys with Wings and The Book of Legends and delighted the young and old audience with an amazing array of voices and expressions.
Humour plays a big part in the books and they also include jokes. Lenny explained, “I collected jokes when I was young. I saved myself from bullies by cracking jokes as it confuses them. After the questions he got the audience to tell him some of their jokes.
The Long Knives
The Town Hall was busy on Friday night as Irvine Welsh took to the stage to discuss his new book, The Long Knives, as part of The Henley Literary Festival. In conversation with Daniel Hahn, Welsh lounged back on the bright yellow sofa, relaxed, as the audience cheered him. Welsh, now a Henley local, seemed very at home and explained how he loves to write in Henley away from the chaos of London and especially loves all of Henley’s “great coffee shops” which got a real laugh. His new book is a follow up to his novel, Crime, which was adapted for TV staring Dougray Scott. He said of writing the sequel that it does get easier to re-enter the character’s life but after a TV adaptation it is hard to see the original character and not the actor.
Welsh is a prolific writer with thirteen novels to his name and more projects to come. He says lockdown was a great time for him, he loves being locked away, going on to list all the writing he completed, including, a musical, three and a half books and two television shows. He laughed saying he had a “bloody good plague.” Welsh sometimes knows no barriers and at times knows he can be offensive or say the wrong thing. However, he likes shocking himself and believes that it is good for us to “lean into things which make you uncomfortable”.
The conversation at times, not surprisingly, took a darker turn and Welsh expressed his concerns about life today and how we live. He explained that the continuous theme throughout his writing, right back to his early books thirty years ago, is “how technology is making people redundant”. He wants to understand the world and it is this drive which keeps him writing, thinking about how as individuals and a society we transition when facing bigger existential questions, such as, “what are we here for?”
As a writer, he doesn’t write with a plot in mind, and can write twenty-thousand words without a particular direction. However, he lets “the sub-conscious do the heavy-lifting” and writes about the “immersive process of life” which helps explain why his books feels so real, often gritty and brutal, but true to life. It is clear Welsh is a deep thinker and cares greatly about society. Asked at the end by a member of the audience how he imagines a post-capitalist world, he immediately said, “small communities” with political systems giving local autonomy and power, where “we all help each other.”
Perhaps, the highlight of the evening was listening to him read from The Long Knives. He stood up, coughed, folded the book and in his thick Scottish accent took the audience to a dinner table in Glasgow. We were all quiet, captivated. Despite diving into the middle of the story, unfamiliar with the characters, Welsh is such a professional, really inhabiting his characters, that it didn’t matter, it was a privilege to hear him read his work. For all his brash language and tough front, he is a writer who cares, who writes to say something and who inspired the crowds in Henley on Friday night, especially exciting us all as he told us about his next project, Trainspotting the Musical, which sounds like one not to be missed.
Wing Commander David Montenegro
The Red Arrows: The Official Story of Britain’s Iconic Display Team
Flying at 645mph at just 300 metres high, the margin for error is tiny and even after hours and hours of practice things can wrong. David retold his horrendous experience when he was flying as Red 7 in the synchro pair in 2010 on a training exercise in Crete. David explained, “It was my first tour with the team and we were in the final stages of the display. We had lined up perfectly hundreds of times over the last 3 weeks. It was a perfect day and it was the third sortie of the day. Red 9 and I were pointing at each other and we were a fraction later for the manoeuvre and we clipped each other. I closed my eyes and heard a thud. I opened my eyes and saw a few Olive trees and saw some bits missing from the aircraft. Part of my fin went through Red 9’s canopy. I saw afterwards that Red 9’s pilot Mike had escaped and ejected. We were both OK but Mike had some injuries from the ejection. We learnt a huge amount from this. We both felt equal guilt and worry.”
The selection to become a Red Arrow is arduous as you can imagine but David explained the biggest thing is you need to have “the right kind of character – no ego and humility.” He only applied after his Squadron Leader ordered him to apply. He remembers fondly his first time getting into the hawk jet and looking into the small mirrors in the cockpit “all you can see is those two red wings.”
Asked how does the G force affect your body? David replied, “The positive down forces drain your blood from your brain and your organs move 1 inch for every 1G. We wear special trousers that inflate and increase your blood pressure. They are a real comfort blanket. I missed the feeling after a week of not flying.”
Interviewer journalist and broadcaster, John Stapleton then turned his questions to negative things and kept probing and labouring points to the disgust of the audience. First he asked David “Should taxpayers money continue to be spent on the Red Arrows (around £1.7m each year and £10-12m tour cost)” to which David replied that after a tour in China, he understood there was £8billion invested in UK business It is though very difficult to put a value on it.”
John then asked about the enquiry into bullying and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the team. David said, “The enquiry has led to two members of the team being suspended.” After further probing questions a member of the audience shouted out “Move on” to which the audience then applauded.
Audience members then got their chance to ask questions. One asked what was David’s most exhilarating flight and why? He said, “On our way back from Singapore, we were approaching Kuala Lumpur and air traffic control came over the radio and said you have got the air space for five minutes. Flying with the Petronas Twin Towers in the background was amazing. I loved that day at work and it was captured by team photographer who was in the backseat of Red 10.”