The Chalke Valley History Festival is an amazing event that takes place in a little village called Ebbesbourne Wake, just 10 minutes down the valley from the village I grew up in: Broad Chalke. Because of this local connection, I have volunteered at the festival for the last four years, taking on all kinds of jobs from working in the green room, chaperoning speakers around the site and taking tickets. The festival is run almost entirely by local people who give their time for free, and it is a joy to take part in this fantastic celebration of history and history education! This year, I volunteered my services to the social media team and loved working with Pam, Sarah and Alex: writing posts for the History Hub, live-tweeting talks and running the festival’s Instagram feed.
I wanted to write a couple of posts about my time at the festival this year. As part of the festival team I get to attend countless incredible talks, meet historians and authors that I greatly admire, spend hours wondering through the living history field and pretty much live in a parallel universe for 7 days. This year I even gave a talk on my research as a part of the new Pop-Up History programme, which was a great experience despite some initial nerves and confusion over time slots! Firstly, I’d like to give a brief review of the talks at the 2015 festival that really got me thinking, and most excited about the power of sharing historical research.
The festival programme is full of experienced and confident speakers, and as someone who finds public speaking an incredibly daunting prospect, the number of speakers who perform flawlessly – without notes(!) – blows my mind. I wrote a piece for the festival’s History Hub on the strength of female historians / female histories at the festival this year, and for me the speakers that ‘performed’ the best were all women: Janina Ramirez, Tracy Borman, Margaret Cox, Helen Castor and Julie Summers. These historians were powerful speakers for many reasons, they were funny, moving, compelling, enthusiastic and energetic in turns, but most significantly, they really engaged their audience. I went into Janina Ramirez’s talk knowing quite literally nothing of the subject, but soon found myself entirely invested in the lives of Anglo-Saxon Saints due to the careful blend of humour and highly original research. None of these speakers sought to alienate or dazzle their audience, but used emotion and narrative to take them on a collective journey. This is exactly the kind of history that I would like to convey – whether through written word or voice. It was Ramirez’s talk that convinced me to ditch my notes and attempt my own presentation at the festival with a few bullet points only – and I am so glad I gave it a shot! (More on this later).
Though the Great War was not as prominent at the festival this year as it was in 2014, there was still a fair amount of coverage in this, the second year of the Centenary. A couple of speakers gave fairly ‘traditional’ talks on the various campaigns of the war, but the talks I found more exciting considered aspects of the conflict from less well-documented angles. David Olusoga, for example, described in his talk the horrific struggles faced by non-white participants in the war, many of whom were effectively written out of history once the war was over. In the UK we hear so much about the sacrifices of European countries, Australia and New Zealand, sometimes India, but I have read very little about the involvement of African countries, or Native American Indians, for example. In my research I have looked at attitudes towards Britain’s allies and enemies as conveyed in dress, and the turban does feature as a ‘tribute’ to the ‘loyal’ soldiers of India, part of Britain’s Empire. When I met David Olusoga after his talk he told me that African soldiers working in Europe during the war were forced to wear grim overalls purposefully designed to humiliate them, allowing no pride to be taken in their work. Little surprise, therefore, that these have not (that I know of) been referenced in women’s fashion of the war period. I have just started reading David’s book and I hope that it will be of great help in my own research, in understanding the true global nature of the conflict, and deciphering some of the complex relationships that evolved between nations.
I have become very interested in the work and theory of archeologists over recent months, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to Margaret Cox talk (twice!) about her role in an excavation at Fromelles, the site of a major battle in 1916. As she described the many different disciplines drawn upon by her team to identify the remains of 250 soldiers, I started to think about how wonderfully varied the processes were, and how they reflected the processes used to identify and date objects. They used highly scientific analysis, reliant on the latest technological advancements and the skills of specialised practitioners, but also attempted to match bodies with passed-down family myths and stories, via ancestors still hoping to find the final resting place of long-lost relatives. They drew heavily on material culture, ran the site as a crime scene, and have so far successfully identified 144 of the soldiers. The interdisciplinary nature of the project is so inspiring, and though it is unlikely that I will ever deal with such poignant and emotional subject matter as human remains, it gave me some really interesting ideas on how we interpret, treat, and engage with objects.
The last talk I would like to discuss in this post was given by Mark Evans, a former officer of the Coldstream Guards, and his co-author, Andrew Sharples. I met Mark at the start of the week building a bread oven in the woods on the festival site (of course) and he told me about the very cool Dig Waterloo project that he is currently working on, but I didn’t know that he was also at the festival to talk about his book, Code Black. In his talk he told the audience very calmly about his experiences serving in Afghanistan, and specifically his role in an especially brutal battle – The Siege of Nad Ali – which was subsequently largely covered up by the British media. On Mark’s return he suffered from severe PTSD, which he also discussed with great candor. Given that my area of research is women’s fashion in the First World War – it would be easy to assume that this talk would have very little overlap with my subject. However, there were many issues in Mark’s story that I found incredibly moving and insightful, and it led me to truly consider (probably for the first time) what really are the consequences of participation in conflict. In my research I have touched on men’s experiences at the front in order to try and understand what women were experiencing at home, but it is impossible to understand the physical, emotional and psychological trauma of conflict and its aftermath without first hand accounts. Hearing Mark’s experiences I started to better understand the feelings of panic, isolation and blind fear that go along with the more glorious, celebrated heroics of war. And more than this, I started to question the way we, as a generation, ‘celebrate’, ‘commemorate’ and ‘remember’ the ‘heroes’ of the First and Second World Wars with very little knowledge or understanding of those men and women serving in our own time and from our own generation. They face comparable challenges and conditions but unlike those two twentieth century conflicts, their activity is not the number one topic of conversation back home. Soldiers returning to civilian life appears to be a problem that has yet to be fully dealt with – I also saw this play at the Edinburgh Fringe last week dealing with similar subject matter to Mark’s book – and I have been reading this book on the legacy of mental health in the First World War. Mark and Andrew’s talk certainly gave me a huge amount to think about, and this slightly rambling blog post has helped me to refine some of the key issues.
The 2015 Chalke Valley History Festival was an incredibly busy week (for everyone involved) and in my next post I am going to write a bit about the 1940s dress up day, my talk on Great War fashion, living history, pop-up history and some other personal highlights. I’d thoroughly recommend visiting or getting involved with the festival to anyone interested in history – there is so much to see and do and I always leave with lots of new ideas, and a pile of shiny new books.
Thanks for reading!