Tom Harper, Harrogate History’s Programming Chair, tells us what to expect at this year’s festival.
London’s burning. Nero fiddles. In the shadow of the iron curtain, and in occupied France, spies swap secrets and betrayals. Revolution brews in Paris and Moscow, tanks rumble through the Ardennes, while dragons circle over the Iron Throne of Westeros. Mrs Engels takes tea with Mr Pickwick. Saints point the way to a better life, but they can’t divert people from their most basic urges: sex and violence. Or, in Henry VIII’s case, both simultaneously.
Do not adjust your set.
When people ask me what period I write about, my answer is simple: all of them. My work’s taken me from ancient Greece and Rome, via medieval Europe and the crusades, through the Napoleonic wars and all the way to the present day. I love it all, and I love the stories that come from it. Each book is a chance to throw myself into a new period, to learn everything I can about it and then distil that down into a story.
That’s why I love the Harrogate History Festival. For four days, you get the whole span of history under one roof. Instead of sitting alone in a library, I’m sharing it with like-minded authors and readers, with old friends and people who will soon be old friends. So when I got the chance to be Programming Chair of the Festival, I felt like Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane: that I’d been handed the biggest electric train set any boy ever had. With a talented committee that includes authors Antonia Hodgson, Toby Clements and Manda Scott; publicist extraordinaire Patsy Irwin; plus Harrogate Festival masterminds Gemma Rowland and Sharon Canavar, I set about putting it together.
Devising the programme is a bit like writing a book. Part opportunism – making use of what fate gives you – and part sheer wish fulfilment. Over lunch, the committee met and considered dozens upon dozens of authors who’d been suggested by their publishers, or who had books out in the coming year. We looked for themes and big anniversaries, argued for our favourite subjects, tried to find interesting combinations that would throw sparks. I’m not ashamed to admit I pulled rank.
It was painful how many great authors we had to leave out. But the end result is a programme I’ve been salivating over since January. Wherever you look, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Philippa Gregory becomes the first woman to receive the Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction award, following in the footsteps of Bernard Cornwell and Michael Morpurgo. Tracy Chevalier, who changed the way I think about historical fiction, introduces her new book an ocean away from Girl with a Pearl Earring. Tom Holland revels in the debauched excesses of Rome’s first emperors. If World War Two is your bag, Jonathan Dimbleby, Paddy Ashdown and Anthony Beevor open the festival with an incredible three-pronged blitzkrieg. If you want first sight of the Next Big Thing, look no further than the incredible authors on the New Blood panel.
What makes this festival unique is putting historical fiction and non-fiction side by side. This year we also bring in a little fantasy, with Joe Abercrombie, one of George RR Martin’s go-to reads. He’ll be talking about his own work, which draws liberally on historical themes. He’ll also be participating on our Game of Thrones panel, looking at the vast swathes of (sexy, violent) history that are the building blocks of Westeros, and the impact history has had on fantasy in general.
But it’s not just a feast for the mind. The real pleasure of Harrogate is that we put all this under one roof, over one gloriously long weekend. You can soak up as much or as little as you like, and then head to the bar (or to Betty’s famous tearooms) where you’re more or less guaranteed to meet like-minded souls, and probably some of your favourite authors too
The Harrogate History Festival offers something for everyone: for enthusiasts, for generalists, for experts and amateurs, for anyone who loves history and the stories that come out of it.
I hope I’ll see you there.
The winner of the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown 2016 will be announced at the festival on Friday 21st October. To win all six shortlisted books, enter our giveaway now!
All photos, Harrogate History Festival 2015.