Prior to the Cliveden Literary Festival one of its invited speakers, the great Salman Rushdie, suffered an horrific attack in upstate New York. Fortunately, Rushdie is now in recovery, but the brutal assault was a reminder that there are certain authors who really do suffer for their art. In the current climate of fury, fuelled enthusiastically by social media, with sides talking past each other, one yearns for a meeting of minds, and that is exactly one finds in the palatial grounds of Cliveden House in Berkshire. We see novelists William Boyd, Ben Okri and Robert Harris; historians Simon Sebag Montefiore and Andrew Roberts; actors such as Brian Cox; businessmen like Octavius Black and the odd politician (Michael Gove). We were even graced with the presence of a monarch, Tsar Simeon II of the Bulgarians. Quite the brains trust.
Of course, whilst this highly enjoyable weekend progressed, Ukrainian cities were being bombed mercilessly by Putin, and the conflict was a constant in many of the talks. One in particular, Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine), featuring two speakers, historian Olesya Khromeychuk and academic Yana Sofovich, brought home exactly what is being fought for. Yana produced a piece of shrapnel contained within cluster bombs that was handed around the audience (a small arrow-like shard of metal). Olesya’s brother was killed fighting the Russians in eastern Ukraine.
There was plenty of light relief to be found, not least from Brian Cox talking amusingly about Succession, and it’s always nice to hear his voice booming out, “FUCK OFF”. Boyd, one of Britain’s greatest writers, made a wonderfully entertaining interviewee talking of his new novel The Romantic which was a highlight – one among many that included Okri’s recitation of his poem, Finding the Present.
But this is a history website, and so the talk on global history, and what the past says about the present with Sebag Montefiore, Catherine Ostler, Peter Frankopan, Aindrea Emelife and Okri provided a unique insight with such a diverse collection of writers. Lies and myths make the ability to maintain truth the challenge, and it is a historian’s job to cut through – this was a spirited debate. Sebag’s new book, The World: A Family History, is certainly one that has taken on that job.
Tsar Simeon, the only surviving head of state of the Second World War has led an incredible life. From narrowly escaping Soviet Bulgaria (after his father mysteriously died on his return from a meeting with Hitler at the Wolfsschanze), to exile in Spain and a triumphant return as Bulgarian Prime Minister from 2001 to 2005. Robert Hardman, Royal journalist, spoke with him in a discussion that was a great example of living history.
The Cliveden Literary Festival runs annually over a weekend in October, and I encourage readers to clear their diaries in 2023. If you’ve also got a spare few hours, you can get lost on the Cliveden YouTube channel and enjoy previous years. If pushed, I’d recommend watching BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Carera’s chat from last year with Israeli journalist Ronen Bergmen on the Mossad’s secret history, and defy you not to buy Bergmen’s book, Rise & Kill First.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the editor of Aspects of History.