Harrogate History Festival 2014

Manda Scott

This was my first visit to the Harrogate history festival and only the second year it had been on. It was led by Manda (MC) Scott, Chair of the Historical Writers’ Association.

Set in a cooler time period of autumn and relatively new to the writing festival scene, it was a much less dizzying affair than Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival which is held in July. You could get a reasonable seat with a view, without worrying about queuing. You could get a cup of tea and go to the loo without queuing. You could even find a seat in the bar. It was very civilised and enjoyable. But it was no less stimulating than the summer festival.

We travelled down just for the day and went to four panels. Originally we had planned to go to three panels which were all in the afternoon: Charlotte Higgins and Richard Hobbs talking about Rome’s impact upon everyday life in Britain at 2 pm; Sarah Dunant and S J Parris in conversation with Sara Sheridan at 3.30 pm, and special guest, Dr Irving Finkel at 5 pm, talking about his exciting find of Cuneiform writing on a tablet, describing precisely how to build an ark.

When we heard a week or so ago that Charlotte Higgins and Richard Hobbs would be speaking at 10.30 am instead of 2 pm, we pondered whether to kill 4 hours in Harrogate or go to a fourth panel. We opted to go to another panel at 12 noon called  Black Cats and Broomsticks.

Special Guests: Charlotte Higgins and Richard Hobbs 

Under a Roman Sky

Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian and Dr Richard Hobbs, curator of Romano-British collections at the British Museum, talked for an hour about various Roman finds in Britain, such as the Crosby Garrett helmet, the Ivory Bangle Lady found at York, Arthur’s O’on near Falkirk in Scotland, the Mildenhall Treasure and the difference in interpretation that time and new discoveries can lead to. For example, in 1904, the then curator of the Bodleian library in Oxford deciphered text on a clay tablet in Roman Britain. Much later in 1994 it was realised that in the original reading the tablet had been deciphered upside down, thus changing the meaning of the translation. On a more personal level, Richard Hobbs read Roald Dahl’s short story about the Mildenhall Treausre as a child, never imagining that one day he would be the person responsible for the real treasure at the British Museum.

Black Cats and Broomsticks

Black Cats and Broomsticks

This panel introduced me to five new authors. Katherine Clements was interviewing Tracy Borman, Paula Brackston, Karen Maitland and Elizabeth Gifford about their books and thoughts on witchcraft, magic and folklore during the times their stories are set and beyond to the present day. It is interesting how wise women were highly regarded until the late 15th century when the Pope issued a Papal Bull which gave the public free reign to hunt women as witches.

Special Guests: Sarah Dunant in Conversation with SJ Parris

Sarah Dunant and SJ Parris with Sara Sheridan

I had read three of Sarah Dunant’s brilliant Renaissance Italy novels in 2011 before visiting Italy in the summer, but I hadn’t read her latest novel or any of S J Parris’s novels. I learned a lot about Lucrezia Borgia from Sarah Dunant and about Giordano Bruno from S J Parris (whose name is Stephanie Merritt. Both are fascinating real characters brought back to life by two talented women authors. The discsussion was fascinating and I particularly loved Sara Sheridan’s question “Would you go back to that time?”

Special Guest: Irving Finkel

Irving Finkel

Irving Finkel, a world expert on cuneiform script, was excited to decipher the writing on a tablet that described the raw materials and the process for building an ark to save the world and life itself. His talk explained how this discovery led to a Channel 4 documentary to be shown in Autumn 2014, of the construction of an ark and the book he has written about the entire experience. He is a most entertaining speaker, making what might not at first seem interesting, turn out to be tremendously so. If you get a chance to hear him talk, do take it. You won’t be disappointed. He had the audience in stitches for a large portion of the hour but at the same time managed to put forward a plausible interpretation of the Noah’s Ark story. To find out more he says we’ll have to read his book, The Ark Before Noah.

So …

I’ve come away with an enormous amount of enthusiasm for historical writing and plenty of new authors to add to my ever growing TBR list. I’ll definitely be looking to see what is on at Harrogate History Festival 2015.