The first Harrogate History Festival in 2013 was a tremendous success and in a very short time it has become a major event, attracting some of the biggest names in historical fiction and non-fiction. This year’s programme had its “big-hitters” like Lord Melvyn Bragg, Michael Morpurgo and Ken Follett, but the range was also considerable and included a healthy representation from the non-fiction world – Neil Oliver made a notable contribution. I think some ladies may have swooned…
I am not going to attempt to cover here every individual appearance and panel discussion but merely to raise a few thoughts on the event as a whole.
This year was my third visit to the festival. When I attended the inaugural festival in October 2013, I had just published my second book and was still, inevitably, a very inexperienced writer. I did not really know what to expect at Harrogate. What I found, perhaps a little to my surprise, was that the authors were very welcoming, not only to fellow writers, but also to readers. Here I must mention Simon Turney, the excellent writer of Roman and Byzantine fiction, who made me feel especially welcome on that first occasion.
As I have learned in other circumstances, writers are generally a very supportive bunch of people and that is certainly the case at this festival. Every year you will see writers and readers interacting in a very positive way and I’m not just talking about book signing. Of course writers like to sign their books and will talk about them because all writers want to sell books. But it’s more than that. You will find that most authors are very approachable in the less formal setting of the bar and always willing to have a chat. I well remember last year a very established author spending time talking to a budding writer. It was lovely, because he wasn’t talking about himself, he was asking about her aspirations and ideas.
This year the opening event was an evening where Michael Morpurgo was presented with an award for his Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction and the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown was awarded to Ben Ferguson for his novel, The Spring of Kasper Meier. This was a fine occasion but even better was the informal gathering afterwards where folk could chat with the writers – or indeed each other. I enjoyed this very much and I seemed to have quite wide-ranging conversations with writers, agents and readers. I hope Mark Lawson has managed to finish his piece on Measure for Measure.
There were many other highlights of the festival but I am going to pick just one: a panel session entitled The Lengths They Will Go To. The subject was the involvement of women in warfare. Why have I chosen to focus on this? Partly because my own novels include one particular character who follows such a path but mainly because I learned a lot from it. The panel was a blend of fiction and non-fiction comprising: Elizabeth Buchan, David Ebsworth, Marino Fiorato and Clare Mulley. It was skilfully chaired by Emma Darwin.
All the authors had clearly done a great deal of research on the various ways in which women have involved themselves directly in warfare – and by that I mean they are either in a fighting role or they are in support in the field. I found the detail of this fascinating, especially the examples of the sheer tenacity of women in the heat of battle and who, by the way, might also have their children with them. Some might say that a battle field was no place for women and children, but life is what it is. I suspect there are many more examples of women at war than we used to think. This session was an eye-opener for me and I enjoyed it immensely.
So, the Harrogate History Festival is alive and well. My only slight regret is that the festival has not thus far been able to include some input from independent writers – of whom there are many. Nevertheless, it is certainly the place for lovers of history to be every October. If you were not able to get there this year, put it in your diary for 2016.