… by the organisers to put together such an imaginative programme for the second Chalke Valley History Festival.
Quite how James Holland and James Heneage managed to attract such a star-studded group to a field in the back of the beyond is a mystery. But what a line-up! Paxman, Stourton, Hastings, Gove, Beevor, Hislop, Jenkins: the list just went on and on. Subjects ranged from The Odyssey and Arcadia to the Berlin Olympics and (seriously) The Origins of Sex.
Juliet Barker’s lecture on Agincourt was particularly enjoyable. I had always assumed that Shakespeare exaggerated things in King Henry the Fifth. (“This note doth tell me of ten thousand French that in the field lie slain…”) Not a bit of it. There really were barely 100 English deaths in one of history’s most one-sided battles.
Among the contemporary history talks, Rowland White’s account of the Black Buck Vulcan bombing attacks on Port Stanley airfield in 1982 was also fascinating to those of us who remember the Falklands campaign. Equally impressive was the audience. There was a huge amount of collective expertise in the tent. “I was second-in-command of HMS Fearless” prefaced one questioner. “I was a Vulcan radar-navigator” said another.
The purpose of the festival is to raise funds to improve the teaching of history in schools throughout the country. Provided the organisers can sort out the problems with their extraordinarily complicated website, next year’s CVHF could rival Salisbury Festival.
**************** On Monday we went to Belfast to see a friend receive an honorary degree from The Queen’s University.
It was a splendid occasion, but for me one of the highlights was staying again at the Europa – a place which was bombed and boarded-up so often it was nicknamed “Hardboard Hotel” by the press corps.
we visited the Titanic exhibition, of course (it's well worth the money) and then took an open-top bus tour. It was both astonishing and encouraging to see the Lower Falls, the Shankhill and Sandy Row (dangerous places in the 1970s) relegated to tourist-attraction status.
Over dinner the wife of one of the Queen’s professors told me how she’d been brought up in one of the very swish suburban houses near Stormont. “Sometimes we’d hear a distant explosion, and of course we saw lots of soldiers,” she told me. “But we never saw any trouble. I think your Northern Ireland and mine must have been very different.” She was right, of course. And hers was (and is) better.