HistFest 2018 starts a revolution

To even the most optimistic soul, HistFest looked like an enormous gamble – and not because among the 50 guest speakers, over half were women.

Eschewing the usual trends that dominate history festivals and bestseller lists, HistFest forged an eclectic itinerary of subjects to take audiences off the beaten path. Subjects such as Barbara Lisicki’s History of Disabled Activism, Dr Islam Issa’s Milton and Shakespeare in the Arab World, and Dr Charlotte Riley’s “Cheap Cows Like You”: Good Girls and Angry Women in 100 Years of British Politics.

A tailwind, rather than a headwind greeted HistFest. Taking place over three days and across three venues in Central London – etc. Venues – The Hatton, St John’s Priory, and the Marx Memorial Library – the event brought together guest speakers at the forefront of their fields, and a few fellow travellers with vital perspectives to contribute. These welcome wildcards included the Big Historical Fiction Debate that saw Doctor Who writer Vinay Patel join Call the Midwife star and science communicator Stephen McGann, director Mike Leigh discussing his radical epic movie Peterloo, and Labour MP and Windrush campaigner David Lammy bringing very recent, headline-grabbing urgency to the Missing Archives Debate.

What’s clear from the debut HistFest is that the organisers’ faith in their many overlapping audiences was justified. With ticketing per talk rather than a single event or day pass, a gloriously eclectic audience passed through the festival’s three venues – helped along by canny scheduling that bunched sympathetic topics neatly together for that all-important “Oh why not?” up-sell.

Whether to be entranced by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb holding forth on the Early Modern witch trials in the atmospheric gothic fantasia of St John’s Priory, or being charmed by Strictly Come Dancing and Countryfile star Anita Rani in conversation with Dr Janina Ramirez on her affecting Partition documentary, HistFest felt intimate and inclusive. Even when the turnout was on occasion lower than expected, they made a virtue of it – moving one talk at St John’s Priory downstairs into the ancient stones of the crypt, where long-dead crusader knights joined the curious audience.

Satellite events also took place in Leeds, Swansea and Belfast, while some of London’s flagship talks were live streamed on the website. These were small initiatives, yes, but they confirmed that for HistFest inclusivity isn’t just about what’s on stage and the audience is as worth of as much respect, consideration and love as the biggest name on the bill.

Find out more about HistFest here and check out the highlights on Twitter and Instagram.
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