Henley Literary Festival 2023: traumatic memories and future success

Henley Literary Festival 2023: traumatic memories and future success

A literary extravaganza unveils inspiring stories, thought-provoking discussions, and a bold redefinition of success

by Suswati Basu
0 comment

The 2023 Henley Literary Festival returned with a flourish from September 30 to October 8, offering a treasure trove of 130 talks, performances, and conversations for both adults and children. This year’s festival featured an impressive lineup of speakers, with many events available for both in-person and online audiences.

Henley Literary Festival 2023 book haul includes Emma Gannon's The Success Myth, Isabella Dorta's The Letters I Will Never Send, and Daisy Buchanan's Limelight
Henley Literary Festival 2023 book haul includes Emma Gannon’s The Success Myth, Isabella Dorta’s The Letters I Will Never Send, and Daisy Buchanan’s Limelight. Credit: Suswati Basu.

Renowned figures grace the Henley Literary Festival 2023

The star-studded roster of speakers at the Henley Literary Festival 2023 included an impressive array of renowned authors, thinkers, and personalities. Among them were acclaimed novelist Ben Okri, beloved children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, award-winning journalist and author Gary Younge, and tennis legend Judy Murray. Even former UK Prime Minister Theresa May made an appearance.

The festival also featured prominent figures such as actor Timothy West, comedian Shaparak Khorsandi, bestselling author Sebastian Faulks, poet and author Salena Godden, and musical theatre icon Michael Ball. Joining this illustrious lineup were a host of other distinguished speakers, making this year’s festival a literary feast for the mind and soul.

We had the privilege of speaking to Salena Godden this season on protests.

A literary feast extended

The literary feast wasn’t limited to the festival dates alone. In September and October, the festival treated its audience to an array of pop-up events, featuring renowned personalities such as Rick Stein, Sara Pascoe, Liam Brady, Philippa Gregory, James O’Brien, and Phil Tufnell. These events expanded the festival’s reach and allowed even more people to partake in the celebration of literature.

A glimpse into the life of Commander Nathan Gray

One of the standout events at this year’s Henley Literary Festival was a captivating discussion with Commander Nathan Gray, a remarkable individual with an inspiring story. On December 5, 2002, Gray miraculously survived a crash at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, an incident deemed “unsurvivable” by many. Tragically, his instructor did not share his fate and lost his life in the accident. Despite the physical and psychological trauma, Gray’s determination and resilience propelled him to continue his career as a pilot.

“It’s still painful, but it changed my whole frame of reference for what extreme really is. It still keeps me up at night sometimes. But if anything, I’ve managed to, for the most part, turn that into a positive, turn it into a driver and try to use that as that emotion and channel it so that it has a more powerful, useful outcome.”

Nathan Gray, “Hazard Spectrum” Author

Today, Commander Nathan Gray stands as one of the UK’s elite test pilots, a testament to his unwavering dedication and exceptional skills. His journey is chronicled in “Hazard Spectrum,” a gripping account of his experiences. The book takes readers on a thrilling ride, from combat missions in Afghanistan to a top-secret mission in the Hindu Kush mountains in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. Gray’s story is a powerful reminder of human resilience and determination.

A remarkable journey and personal sacrifices

In his conversation at the festival, Commander Gray shared his remarkable journey, marked by over 140 combat missions and his role in the first take-off and landing of the F35 stealth jet on the HMS Queen Elizabeth. Gray’s story is a testament to the physical and mental challenges faced by those who serve in the armed forces.

Gray also opened up about the personal toll of his experiences, including night terrors and the ongoing impact of the accident on his life. However, he emphasised his ability to channel these emotions into positive outcomes, using them as a driving force in his life.

One remarkable aspect of Commander Gray’s story is the enduring physical reminders of his ejection from the military aircraft. He still carries fragments of lead in his body from the ejection seat’s detonation cord, a reminder of the fateful day. These fragments are a testament to his resilience and the sacrifices made by those who serve in the military.

Teenagers in focus: voices of the future

Another engaging event at the Henley Literary Festival focused on the perspectives of teenagers in today’s world. Authors Daisy Buchanan, Isabella Dorta, and Jaspreet Kaur shared their insights into the challenges and hopes of young people today.

Kaur, a former history and sociology teacher, expressed optimism about today’s teenagers, highlighting their determination to challenge injustice and engage in social activism. She also reiterated the need to support quieter and more introverted young individuals who may struggle to find their place in a digital world.

We spoke to Jaspreet Kaur in season 2 about her book Brown Girl Like Me.

“They’re just like not willing to take the nonsense that perhaps the older generations have been dealing with or have perpetuated. And I love that about them, that sense of, ‘no, this won’t continue on in our generation.’ Anything that is unhealthy, anything that is toxic, anything that serves, to injustice, they are not taking it.”

Jaspreet Kaur, Brown Girl Like Me” Author

Meanwhile, Dorta, a TikTok phenomenon, discussed the complex perceptions of today’s youth, who are both blamed for societal issues and expected to be the change-makers. Hence she highlighted the importance of advocating for young people and providing them with the resources they need.

“Young people are to blame for some of the changes in society, but then we’re also viewed as like, ‘guys, look at the mess of the world that we’re leaving you with. You’ve got to fix this.'”

Isabella Dorta, The Letters I Will Never Send” Poet

Additionally, Buchanan reflected on how social media and the digital age would have influenced her as a teenager. She noted the potential for both positive and negative impacts on creativity and self-identity. Buchanan encouraged young people to explore their passions beyond the constraints of traditional roles and expectations.

“When I was in my teens, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, being a presenter and making something and sharing it and putting it in a place where anyone can listen that just didn’t exist. There was so much sort of gatekeeping you had to wait to be picked and chosen and I know that still exists and there are so many barriers to break and there’s so much we need to do in terms of representation.”

Daisy Buchanan, Limelight” Author

Emma Gannon’s exploration of success and identity

Emma Gannon, the author of books such as “The Multi-Hyphen Method” and “Olive,” delved into her latest work, “The Success Myth.” In her discussion with Francesca Specter, Gannon challenged the conventional notions of success and its impact on personal identity.

She encouraged individuals to resist over-identifying with their jobs and stressed the need to find value beyond professional achievements. Gannon also discussed the detrimental effects of social media on creativity and shared her strategies for maintaining a healthy relationship with digital platforms.

“I thought it was fine for me to over-identify with my job because it’s kind of creative and fun and I’m a writer, but I just think there’s a danger for you to put all that value on what you do, because you’re putting value on you as just a machine, like a money maker. Psychologically, that’s never been great for people to be told you’re owned or like, you’re only of value if you’re making us money. And that is how the world is run.”

Emma Gannon, “The Success Myth” author

Thus in a world that often equates success with traditional career milestones, Gannon’s insights provided a refreshing perspective on personal fulfillment and the importance of defining success on one’s own terms.

The Henley Literary Festival 2023 proved to be a captivating and thought-provoking celebration of literature and ideas. With its diverse lineup of speakers and engaging discussions, the festival offered a glimpse into the evolving landscape of contemporary literature and the voices shaping our world today.

Check out our interview with Who We Are author Gary Younge on identity as he returns with a new book “Dispatches from the Diaspora.”

Subscribe to my newsletter for new blog posts, recommendations & episodes. Let’s stay updated!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?