Michael Wood on the return of history festivals
“The communal retelling of history is magical. Just ask the kids!”, writes Michael Wood
One of the pleasures of the summer, as lockdown was lifted, has been the return of history festivals. These live events have become part of our cultural landscape over the past few years, and what we have been missing really hit me at the Chalke Valley History Festival, held in the Wiltshire countryside at the end of June. What a treat to see big audiences again in the open air; tents and stalls teeming with people having a good time in a beautiful landscape; translucent blue sunsets shading into starry nights as we listened to stories round the fireside.
The talks were great: Tom Stoppard being interviewed by his biographer Hermione Lee; James Rebanks conjuring up the lives of three generations of Cumbrian farmers; Cat Jarman teasing out a Viking epic from the travels of a Carnelian bead; Rana Mitter on China’s forgotten role as the fourth ally in the Second World War.
This year there was much more living history: Romans, Saxons and Vikings, Roundheads and Cavaliers. Walking through the crowds you could bump into Ragnar Lothbrok, Florence Nightingale or Field Marshal Haig (the latter complete with an immaculately waxed moustache). Among the tents, an Iron Age woman was briefing spellbound kids on her daily life and afterwards a young boy earnestly quizzed her about what Iron Age people ate for breakfast. Next door a blacksmith fashioned nails using hand bellows.
Seeing the children’s reaction was a real treat. They loved engaging with history in this way – entering another world and another time, talking to ordinary people from the past. I met a 10-year-old from Skipton who said she’d liked finding out about Second World War camouflage canoes, although her favourite was when a Roman legionary lunged at her with his sword.
A 13-year-old old history fan from Oxford was also impressed: “The living history people were great. They had time to explain anything I wanted to know. I even liked the main talks, which were easy to understand even for people who knew nothing about the subject, like me!” She would have liked more events that weren’t centred on British history. Porus and his elephants next year then?
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I entirely agree about living history. Working in TV I’ve always been so grateful for the fabulous attention to detail and the brilliant ability to conjure up a scene, whether small and domestic or large-scale and military. I will never forget filming a re-enactment of the battle of Hastings after which an Anglo-Saxon peasant woman told me: “On this day we lost everything.” She was really there! And I guess that is the essence of history: an imaginative engagement with the past. Even the greatest scholars started with that.
The variety on offer at history festivals grows every year. Just from my own recent experience: HistFest (this year hosted online at the British Library); Manchester Histories; Gloucester History Festival (running from 4–19 September this year); the BBC History Magazine weekends; not to mention Black History Month with its eye-opening takes on forgotten histories. Which reminds us once again that the best history offers a realistic view of our shared past, of our rich history on this multicultural island. In a nutshell, good, responsible history is a crucial part of our commitment to the public good.
And listening to the children at Chalke Valley also made me feel – not for the first time – that there is a kind of magic in the communal retelling of history. That history is always changing but, almost like strands of DNA, it transmits something of our deeper past down to us.
A friend wrote after the festival: “The drive home from Broad Chalke was magical last night. The evening light on the landscape was something no camera or painting could have captured. Absolutely beautiful. And coming after a talk on the early English, the whole place was suffused with a very ancient feel to it!”
On the last night I gave a talk by the fire about an Anglo-Saxon woman who lived in Chalke Valley more than a thousand years ago, trying to conjure her life from the bare facts in her will. And I spoke her words. For, after all, if we want to understand the people of the past, don’t we want to hear them speak? The kids were right after all!
This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine