High energy new history festival brings a riot of colour Date 7-9 December 2018 Location Central London Speakers Philippa Gregory, Greg Jenner, Anita Rani, Dr Janina Ramirez, David Olusoga, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and more Website histfest.com
It shouldn’t be considered courageous to hold a history festival where over half of the speakers are women. Nor should it be considered courageous to focus on events not occurring between 1939 and 1945. After all, half the planet are women and World War II is six cataclysmic years out of a great many thousands of the ruddy things.
It is, though, and Histfest looked to even the most optimistic soul like an enormous gamble.
Great man biographies churned out by politicians and glorified Boy’s Own World War II retreads dominate both history festivals and bestseller lists. That’s a commercial reality. Sure, you can still tell these other stories, but to set the standard fodder aside entirely for subjects such as Barbara Lisicki’s History of Disabled Activism,
Dr Islam Issa’s Milton and Shakespeare in the Arab World, and Dr Charlotte Riley’s “Cheap Cows Like You”: Good Girls and Angry Women in 100 Years of British Politics is to fly boldly – and perhaps foolishly - into the electrical storm.
A tailwind, rather than a headwind greeted Histfest. Taking place over three days and across three venues in Central London – The Hatton, St John’s Priory, and the Marx Memorial Library – the event brought together over 50 guest speakers, all at the forefront of their fields, and a few fellow travellers with vital perspectives to contribute.
These welcome wildcards included the Big Historical Fiction Debate that saw Doctor Who writer Vinay Patel join Call the Midwife star and science communicator Stephen Mcgann, director Mike Leigh discussing his radical epic movie Peterloo, and Labour MP and Windrush campaigner David Lammy bringing very recent, headline-grabbing urgency to the Missing Archives Debate.
What’s clear from the debut Histfest is that the organisers’ faith in their many overlapping audiences – not just a belief in a homogeneous single audience sipping Pimms in the sun and waiting for their sixth consecutive lecture on Operation Dynamo – was justified.
With ticketing per talk rather than a single event or day pass, a gloriously eclectic audience passed through the festival’s three venues – helped along by canny scheduling that bunched sympathetic topics neatly together for that allimportant “Oh, why not?” up-sell.
Whether being entranced by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb holding forth on the Early Modern witch trials in the atmospheric gothic fantasia of St John’s Priory, or being charmed by Strictly Come Dancing and Countryfile star Anita Rani in conversation with Dr Janina Ramirez on her affecting Partition documentary, Histfest felt intimate and inclusive.
Even when the turnout was on occasion lower than expected, they made a virtue of it – moving one talk at St John’s Priory downstairs into the ancient stones of the crypt, where long-dead crusader knights joined the curious audience.
Satellite events also took place in Leeds, Swansea and Belfast, while some of London’s flagship talks were live streamed on the website.
These were small initiatives, yes, but they confirmed that for Histfest inclusivity isn’t just about what’s on stage and the audience is as worth of as much respect, consideration and love as the biggest name on the bill.
Histfest 2018 is hopefully the first of many and the spark that could start a festival revolution.