Chalke Valley History Festival. June/July 2012.


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This year saw the second of the Chalke valley Literary History festivals, and it has expanded a lot since the first event.From an inaugural event it has now become to be regarded as the most important festival of its kind, and continues to grow,

The event is held in the beautiful Chalke valley area in Wiltshire; an area of beautiful hills, impressive valleys and bloody awful roads.
Having been to the very forst one, I was supremely confident I knew the way, only to find that the venue had moved from a cricket pitch in what was essentially the back garden of James Holland's farm to a much larger (and even harder to find) field. However, it was signed better this year.

I arrived on Friday evening to find the venue bathed in our glorious English summer sun. Well, ok, in cloud and occasional rain. However, shelter was good, with a large and capacious beer tent as well as sundry other refreshment tents, and the all important Waterstones book area. I stress the importance of this because - along with the Daily Mail, they sponsored the event as a whole, although other individual sponsors did contribute.

The line up of speakers was impressive, and although I had missed two days of the festival (it ran from Tuesday 26th of June to Sunday 1st of July) there was still a superb line up to choose from.

I chose a talk by Ian Hislop as my first treat, and it was wonderful. The subject was 'The Age of do-Gooders' and was a companion piece to the speaker's series on bankers as a force for good, recently on television. Ian Hislop was introduced by -an irony here - a solicitor, and lauded as the most sued man in recent British legal history! It sort of set the tone for the evening.

For those who know Hislop from his series 'Have I got News For you' I can tell you that his acerbic wit is as prevalent in lectures as it is in entertainment. He was witty, erudite, at times scathing but always entertaining. His talk, which was scheduled for an hour, ran over and none of us wanted it to end. The subject was how the Victorians were philanthropic and did good works, and whilst it sounded like a dull subject, it became most entertaining and interesting in Ian Hislop's telling.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Hislop afterward, and I can assure you that he is as witty in private as he is in public.
Another speaker that evening was Michael Wood. He is an acclaimed historian and broadcaster; his list of documentaries range from the Dark Ages to the history of India, via the Trojan wars and Shakespeare. Last year his series The story of England', which concentrated on a single village in Leics was well recieved and a further similar series is planned for this year.
On Friday he spoke of the whole country from a regional perspective and was fascinating.

Victoria Hislop - wife of Ian - gave a talk on modern Greece, 'War and Turmoil in the 20th Century' and I'm told that was a huge success. Sadly, because of the overlaps, I wasn't able to attend that one. I did see Adam Nicholson, author of the book Gentry, a study of six centuries of British gentry, and enjoyed that too.

Saturday began with the very entertaining Martin Brown and 'Horrible Histories; Romans and Tommies'. Martin Brown is the illustrator for these very amusing and informative books, and a very good speaker who energises the audience and involves them totally. If you ever get the chance to see him during the Horrible Histories tour then I urge you to do so.

Scattered around the site were a number of encampments. These were populated by Romans, Victorians and World War 1 re-enactor groups There were also a Napoleonic group, with the British 95th Rifles ( naturally a superb bunch of fighting men) and French troops. They replayed, in minature, the battles of the Peninsular War, complete with Baker rifles, cannon and muskets.Great fun.
I visited a WW1 group, who were portraying the Rifle Brigade, of which I have a committed interest, and very friendly and helpful they were too, allowing anyone to examine the rifles and Lewis guns they had. What struck me was that despite an inbuilt intolerance for people who like to dress up and play soldiers, I was impressed with their dedication, knowledge and willingness to help. They also lived as closely as they could to the conditions that would exist at the time they portray, by camping, cooking over hexy blocks ( in the instance of the WW1 types) or wood fires and eating similar rations. The Napoleonic group, for example, had caught rabbits and were cooking them. Again,a good sign.
Also running as a continuous display was The Sword School, where qualified fencers and swordsmen showed children ( of all ages, up to around my age) how to fight, using swords and shields.
James Holland - one of the organisers and an acclaimed historian, author, broadcaster and good bloke - gave a talk on'Tommies, Yanks and Jerries; fighting men of World War 2'and was helped by some of the aforementioned re-enactors demonstrating uniform, equipment, rations and weapons. This was followed by a live-firing ( blank ammo) demo of various weapons, including the MG42, the dreaded and awful Sten and the Bren gun, as well as assorted rifles and pistols. It was amusing to see the crowds reaction to some very loud bangs!
Michael Morpurgo was one of the hottest tickets there, thanks to the book, film and stage play 'Warhorse', and quite wonderful it was too. Again, there was a deonstration of horses in war, the uniform and equipment used.

Around the site, as well as the re-enactors, were a number of market stalls and food stalls. One that particularly caught my eye featured two very attractive and stauesque girls, clad in quite fancy dress military hats and little else, other than stockings, suspenders and a basque each. As a penance for enjoying myself I sought out their stall, which was selling quite fancy and outrageous clothing and, oddly, face painting.

There were many other talks on Saturday, and all of such a high standard that it was difficult to believe that we were in a soggy field in Wiltshire, but for me, the highlight of the day was twofold. First of all, at around 1630 there was a fly past. By a Spitfire. And very low it was too. it beat the field up for about 12 minutes and stopped the show. Following on from that was a talk on 'The Flying Aces' by Tom Neill, a retired Wing Commander, Battle of Britain pilot and all round flaying ace. Tony Iverson should have been there but having been very involved in the memorial to the Bombers which was very recently unveiled, and being quite elderly, he was unable to attend. James Holland, who has written an excellent book about the Battle of Britain chaired the talk, however such was the power of Tom Neill's personality that James had little to do. Tom was a Hurricane pilot during the battle and his telling of the build up to and fighting of that historical action was powerful, amusing and riveting. he went on to tell of how he and his squadron were to be posted to the middle east and set off on a carrier, flying off and following a guide who just, well disappeared, then having no maps or guidance had to return to the carrier. When they eventually made it to their destination - Malta - they were informed that their aircraft would continue onward without them, but they, the pilots, would remain on Malta. What a tale that was.
Wing Commander Neill's hour was up far too quickly! Despite the hardness of the chairs ( fold up wooden ones; hateful) we could have listened to him all night, but being 92 he was getting tired, yet I believe he could have carried on as well. He recieved a very long standing ovation. And well deserved it was.

On that Saturday I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow Arrseman. Brush-dust_shake. He lives nearby, and despite the total lack of mobile phone signal, we eventually met up.He is a big lad, and a very pleasant bloke.

One other speaker I would like to mention is Juliet Barker, who spoke on Agincourt. It was a wonderful, informative, fascinating and amusing talk. She is funny, knows her subject and can pass on her love for it. Again, I could have listened to her for much longer. I also want to read her book.

There were many superb speakers. Brilliant historians and authors such as Anthony beevor, Sir Max Hastings,Michale Gove (MP) Gary Sheffield and Peter Caddick-Adams, to single out a few. All are experts in their own - and often other - fields and accomplished speakers. The talks were on fascinating subjects and delivered to a very high standard. If I had a quibble, it would be the very minor one that the seating was uncomfortable, but that seems a small price to pay for such a prestigious and terrific event.

I urge any of you to make the effort to go to the next one, it's a superb event and an informative one. I shall go again.
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