29 October 2013

Being a Historical Pioneer

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I booked it quite a while ago and, maybe because I haven't been on any social media for months, I had no idea if anyone I knew would be going. I had a whale of a time at the Crime Festival at the same venue in July and the place was heaving and hopping. I travelled alone and thought that I wouldn't meet anyone I knew. I also assumed it would be a much more subdued affair for various reasons. For a start it would be its first year. After all, it took the Crime Festival ten years to become THE event it is now. In years past the venue was shipped around various hotels and only bedding into the Old Swan in the past few years.

When I checked in I did wonder if there'd only be about 50 people. For one thing, the bar was almost deserted. (One has to fight one's way to the bar at the Crime Fest.) and the bar staff were almost - but not quite - twiddling their thumbs. So I  settled down with my Kindle and a glass and prepared myself for a quiet weekend.

How wrong I was.

Slowly but surely, the room filled up with people clutching their goody bags without which no book festival can hold its head up. And more and more historical fiction readers and writers assembled. The laughter and chat level rose inexorably as the afternoon wore on. Then I spotted Alison Morton and stopped to chat. We worked out when we had last met. Was it at a RNA conference? This year's Crime Festival? This year or last?  Then it can to us. 2012. York Writing Conference. We remembered the fun we'd had and the people we'd chatted to, including Nicola Morgan, Jane Smith, Carole Blake to name but three and Emma Darwin - more of whom later.

The event wasn't organised exactly the same way as the Crime Fest. For one thing, there was a useful  'early bird' set dinner at 5pm with a suitable historical menu at a reasonable cost but there was no all-inclusive lunch or free cups of tea and coffee for those with Rover tickets. Sometimes at the Crime Fest one had to choose between dinner or a long-awaited talk. 

So Alison and I trotted off to the Friday early dinner and then had plenty of time to be in our seats for Rose Tremain, introduced and interviewed by Manda Scott who proved to be a delightfully enthusiastic Chair of the whole event. Everyone soon caught her enthusiasm when she proudly announced that this was to be the very first event in the inaugural Harrogate History Festival. 

There was no doubt by the time of the huge audience for the second talk about the discovery of Richard III's remains in that famous Leicester car park (which was later confirmed by the Chair) that the whole event had proved so successful that not only that there would be another history festival one next year, but that the takings were far in excess of what had accrued at the very first Crime Festival. To be fair to them, they were the pioneers. Having said that, having been there at the very first History Festival, I now will see myself as a pioneer when the event continues to grow in size and prestige.

I do not intend to itemise each talk or panel I attended as Alison Morton has already done so and so much better than I could have done. Read it here. I was extremely star-struck to hear Fay Weldon discuss her latest historical trilogy (Love & Inheritance) as well as buying a signed copy of the third in the trilogy, The New Countess. I call the trilogy the antidote to Downton Abbey. The books are subversive and funny as you would expect from such a sharp novelist.

Manda Scott's discussion with Kate Mosse was another unmissable and fascinating event. I now have a copy of Kate's first short story collection: The Mistletoe Bride. This is a collection of ghost stories that are unsettling rather than horrific.

One strange moment occurred when Alison spotted Emma Darwin's novels in the Waterstone's book shop and signing room and wondered whether Emma would be there in person. Her name was not in the programme and the Festival staff shook their heads. Imagine our surprise and delight when, seated in the hall waiting for the next panel, Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis, the featured writers, Jane Thynne and Elizabeth Fremantle were escorted onto the stage by Emma herself. And a fascinating talk it was too. Afterwards in the book shop we were able to catch up with her and for the rest of the weekend, our paths crossed from time to time.

So, all in all, I had a hugely enjoyable time in all respects. My hotel room at the Old Swan didn't look out on the dustbins or rooftops - unlike the gloomy poky room at a nameless hotel where I stayed for the Crime Festival. Manda Scott was a superb Chair and I enjoyed all the events I went to see. And, as usual I came back loaded with some wonderful books as I always do at such events even though I always tell myself not to. It's like trying to tell an alcoholic not to buy that bottle. Doomed to failure.


  1. Sally, what a beautiful post. We had fun, didn't we? It will always be good to look back when the Harrogate HistoryFest becomes a key event in the festival calendar and think, 'We were at the first one.'

  2. It was great, wasn't it? I went with my American daughter-in-law, who is enthralled by British history. We had a whale of a time and it was such a friendly event too.

  3. Oh, how I wish I'd have attended now! It sounds wonderful. Next year, maybe! I'm so glad you enjoyed the event and met up with some lovely people, Sally. x

  4. Oh, how I wish I'd have attended now! It sounds wonderful. Next year, maybe! I'm so glad you enjoyed the event and met up with some lovely people, Sally. x