Saturday, 31 July 2021

Fleet Street veteran who’s made Henley ‘interesting’

SUE RYAN admits that the first Henley Literary Festival in 2007 was an “incredibly amateurish” affair

SUE RYAN admits that the first Henley Literary Festival in 2007 was an “incredibly amateurish” affair put together by a small team of enthusiasts.

It lasted three days and featured just 30 events.

That compares with the seven days of this year’s festival with almost 150 talks, readings and other attractions with big-name writers such as Robert Harris, Sebastian Faulks, Val McDermid, Fay Weldon and Jeremy Paxman.

It was the calibre of authors that Mrs Ryan, a former Fleet Street journalist, was able to attract to that first festival that indicated how successful the event was to become.

Those writers included Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, The Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson and then Henley MP Boris Johnson.

Their presence was largely due to Mrs Ryan’s passion and determination to put Henley on the literary festival map and the quality and quantity of authors who have visited over the years — some more than once — shows how successful she has been.

She began planning that first festival having just lost her job as managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

“I just felt too old to start again at another paper but too young not to work,” says Mrs Ryan, who has more than 40 years’ experience as a journalist.

“There was that gap where, having been incredibly busy, I woke up in the morning and there was nothing in my diary, although that was rather nice.”

As well as directing the festival, she still writes travel features for a number of publications. She also manages the editorial training programme for Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail.

She is helped with the festival by her husband Jon, a former sports editor of the Daily Mail, and their children, Tom, 36, who is the  programming director, and Harriet, 33, the events director.

“I thought this town would really work for a literary festival,” says Mrs Ryan. “Literary festivals need to be in nice places — you need people to want to go there and Henley is a lovely town. The venues are not very big, which makes for a much nicer audience experience.

“Being close to London makes it easier because most authors come from London or Oxford or, if they are flying in, from Heathrow, so it’s convenient. One of the things that marks us out is that nearly every author that comes here asks to return because they like the audiences and we treat them well. We are getting a reputation for doing that.”

When Ann Widdecombe appeared at the festival in 2013 Mr Ryan picked her up from Reading station and she assumed he was a taxi driver.

The former Conservative minister and Strictly Come Dancing star is one of the eight authors appearing at this year’s festival who also came in 2007.

Back then, the event was developed by Mrs Ryan with the help of a number of key people — Jonathan Hobbs, managing director of boat hire firm Hobbs of Henley, who had just  co-organised the first Henley Food Festival, Geoff Pitcher, of the Peppard Revels, Henley resident Andy Trotman, designer Simon Haynes and Kursha Woodgate, of Henley PR firm Mexia Communications.

She also enlisted the help of her friend Pam Morris and her husband, with whom she has lived in Peppard for more than 30 years.

Mrs Ryan recalls: “They were all prepared to work on the basis they might get paid, they might not, because we had absolutely no money.

“We had what we called an advisory group and we used to meet and discuss logos and all that sort of thing. It was incredibly amateurish when I think about it but there was a charm about it and it was very intimate and we had some fantastic speakers in that first year.

“We didn’t have a proper audio-visual company. The acoustics in the town hall were just awful but now we carpet it.

“For seven years it operated out of my house. Three years ago we got an office and a full-time administrator. Now we’re incredibly professional.” In that first year Mrs Ryan relied on her contacts and was helped by the late author and barrister Sir John Mortimer, who lived in Turville.

She recalls: “He said, ‘come round and have a glass of wine’. He opened up his contacts book and gave me names of people like Jeremy Paxman. I knew Boris Johnson.”

Mrs Ryan managed to get other famous names on board thanks to a project designed to raise money for Unicef. This involved a collection of short stories, called The Weekenders and The Weekenders II, which were projects led by her and late Daily Telegraph editor Bill Deedes and featured the likes of Welsh, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan (another 2007 veteran) and former England cricket captain Michael Atherton.

“Irvine is a really good friend of mine,” says Mrs Ryan. “I was the posh girl from the Telegraph and he was the bad boy from Edinburgh!

“I guess that was very much part of why we wanted to do the festival. I like working with authors — they have a different DNA. It’s not that different from journalism — instead of putting it on the written page, it’s on the stage.”

A total of 3,500 tickets were sold in the first year of the festival and from then it gradually grew in popularity.

Mrs Ryan says: “The second year was a bit flatter and I think that’s when we decided we needed to put more behind it and we just couldn’t rely on my contacts book.

“We started to build relationships with publishers. I think that because we’d had big names they thought, ‘we want our authors to be part of that’.

“It also became clear that three days wasn’t practical. We thought that people wouldn’t be free on a Monday or Tuesday but there are a lot of over-fifties and people who don’t work or work for themselves and can take time off. Now we have an awful lot of people who come for the week.

“We felt we could sell the tickets and by this time publishers were offering us their authors. We have had people you could sell 2,000 tickets for and at the time the highest number we could sell was 230. We’re lucky enough to get really good names and interesting speakers.”

The festival moved from three days to five in 2011 and to a full week in 2012. Last year a record 18,000 tickets were sold. Sales are going well for this year’s festival, too, with visitors coming from as far as Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

“David Essex is the one that’s bringing people from a distance,” says Mrs Ryan. “We have kept the core with the events that we do but we have introduced comedy, food and a lot of things that appeal to younger audiences. We now have a separate children’s festival as well as the river readings, which are unique to us. We have grown, we’re not just doing more of the same thing.”

Mrs Ryan says the festival has helped boost trade in the town. In 2013 she had to put up two authors at her own home because every hotel and bed and breakfast was fully booked.

“Hotel du Vin have been very supportive,” she says. “We have the green room there and we have food and drink available all day. The courtyard is just full of recognisable faces. Last year we had Terry Waite and Brian Blessed — two huge men with big beards.

“Writing can be a lonely job as you’re usually sitting at home pounding out words and they really do like to come out and have some connection.”

For the first time this year the authors and interviewers will be paid a flat rate of £150 each and the festival has built up a “a bit of a kitty” to enable this.

Mrs Ryan says: “It’s not a lot to them and it’s a huge amount to us, but it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to put the ticket prices up. I’m not sure it would work as people would just go to fewer events so we have to find a way of making it work and I’m optimistic it will.

“You’d think it’s all about getting the speakers but it’s not, it’s all about getting the audiences and it’s actually easier getting the speakers. What author wants to speak to an empty hall? They want to sell out. You want that feeling of it being full and buzzing.

“Henley feels like a university town during the festival because there is a buzz with everyone sitting in cafés talking. There’s a feeling that we’re an interesting town, full of interesting people. It feels a broader, cultured place and I think it has helped bring people together.

“I’m really pleased because the festival is something that will last even if I’m no longer involved in it.”

More News:

POLL: Have your say