History and the National Psyche

Our Editor at Large is a huge enthusiast of the Chalke History Festival and here writes about what makes it his favourite history festival.
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A couple of years ago at the Chalke History Festival, General Sir Simon Mayall, a popular member of the red trouser brigade, Balliol man, and retired military top brass strode onto stage to rapturous applause. Introducing his recently published memoirs he delivered a plea for history to be taken seriously: “study of the past offers the means by which societies can progress, learn, and make a better world.”

Drawing upon his half-century as a soldier and diplomat, he warned that history also has the “power to empower those with grudges and grievances, giving legitimacy to ancient enmity and violence.”

With global conflict raging, escalation anxiety, further pandemics, AI, climate, poverty, and a stuttering economy, you’d think that the history crowd would be having a field day.

In some ways they are. The Anglosphere lacks a French-style tradition of public intellectuals, but we make up for it with historians who command popular affection and who are present in our national conversation. Two of the venerable popularisers of television history back in the day – Schama and Starkey – regularly opine in the media on national issues, from elections to coronations, as well as constitutional matters such as Brexit.

Nowhere has a greater claim as the intellectual hub where history meets national life than Chalke. In the twelve years since it began the festival has become part of the summer season, a magnet for history fans, schoolchildren, retired diplomats and military types.  The modern ‘establishment’ descend by train or helicopter: hedge funds founders, business leaders, parliamentarians, newspaper proprietors and TV execs.

Few self-respecting historians stay away. The roll call of speaks for itself – this year’s line-up includes Max Hastings, Jonathan Dimbleby, Michael Palin, Anthony Beevor, Saul David and Frank Gardner.

It’s not just the stellar cast. As festivals go, Chalke has an intimacy and depth that lends itself to learning, thinking, and the sort of long discursive evenings that are best accompanied by a glass of frothy ale, picnic, or a three-course gourmet supper.

Where else can you spend the day in and out of talks on Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, cold war anxiety, Tom Holland on the Persian Wars for children, Darwin’s epic voyage on the Beagle, before retiring to the dining tent for venison and rose with friends, and later dissecting the day in the beer marquee?

The setting takes some beating. Nestled in one of the most picturesque valleys of England’s chalk downland, it’s an Elysian escape from the horrors of ‘Broken Britain’. Mobile phones really do not work unless you are prepared to traipse up a steep hill.  Consequently, screens tend to take second place to the real thing. The valley creates a linear strip, starting at the magnificent bookshop and hospitality tents, past the various stages before time-travelling into the realms of re-enactors and re-constructors.

The Civil War crowd quite rightly have a reputation for quality cosplay, and you will encounter die-hard footguards, gentleman bands, and camp followers, all magnificently costumed and in-role. There are Romans, Royal Navy Commandos and mediaeval knights.   One of the most impressive displays in recent years has been the perfect replica of a Cold War NATO armoured division command post.

All jolly good fun, of course, but does any of this matter? Is the fun of Chalke any different from Edwardian England’s wilful blindness to the horrors around the corner, with Asquith and Grey playing cricket whilst armies mobilised across Europe? Isn’t this all just fiddling whilst Rome burns?  Does any of this history-in-a-valley help, as General Simon suggests, to make the world a better place, further knowledge, drive progress and understanding?

The festival is not immune to the culture wars gripping society. In 2017, the festival’s alleged lack of diversity prompted a boycott by a speaker nobody had ever heard of. Unsurprisingly the news media loves these controversies. Nigel Biggar, bogeyman of the progressive illiberals, attracts voluble detractors whenever he speaks, and fodder for the Daily Mail. And there are many who would love to see these conversations cancelled.

Study the British Empire? Amongst mainstream academia this is beyond the pale unless of course your conclusion is that it was irredeemably awful. Strategic studies, once a mainstay of Cold War political analysis, and enormously relevant today, is now almost impossible to get funded at any British university. The Roman Empire is now a source of shame if the ‘de-colonisers’ have their way.

And yet here, in the magical and unique setting of a midsummer idyll, lies one of the last prospects of intellectual hope and renewal.  This year’s festival promises hundreds of talks on topics across the spectrum, with something for everybody, during a week of sunshine and balmy evenings under the stars.

The dashing chronicler of wartime exploits Saul David will be discussing British Airborne Forces in the Second World War, the subject of his most recent book.  Eighty years ago, at Arnhem, 35,000 soldiers landed by air. There are less than 5,000 airborne soldiers in today’s British Army. With a major conflict raging in Europe, this is worth reflecting on.

Peter Pomerantsev, the Soviet born journalist and broadcaster, has writes about modern day Russian information operations.  The Russians don’t want you to know about their techniques to spew misinformation and discord, because knowledge acts as an antidote, and the truth inoculates society to its effects.  Pomerantsev will be discussing his latest book about Sefton Delmer, the World War Two journalist whose radio broadcasts helped defeat Hitler’s propaganda machine.

Remember Feargal Sharkey? Punk rocker, Undertones singer, and performer of 1985 hit song A Good Heart, he is also a keen fly fisherman and environmentalist. Sharkey campaigns against the pollution and will be talking about his work to stop water companies dumping untreated sewage into our rivers.

Chalke stands out as not just one of the best, most civilised of the festivals. It also occupies a vital role in our national consciousness.  Whether you’re a bookish fan of some neglected aspect of our past, an armchair general, inquisitive type, or a budding world leader seeking ideas and inspiration this year’s festival should be top of your to do list this summer.

Justin Doherty is is Aspects of History’s Editor at Large. The Chalke History Festival runs from the 24th to the 30th June. Tickets remain available but are selling out fast. Aspects of History sponsors Frank Gardner’s talk on Sunday 30th June.