HISTFEST

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

All About History - - REVIEWS -

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.

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