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Making History Cool


Pic courtesy of James Holland from his book Battle of Britain As the Chalke Valley History Festival prepares for its second outing Country Calling goes behind the scenes with historian and festival founder James Holland History has gone out of fashion and James Holland can’t understand it. He is a man on a mission, determined to rebrand his favourite subject as sexy and exciting and to ignite passion in a new generation of students.

He says: 'It is a sad fact that people are giving up history at school.  Yet it is important to have an understanding of the past so that we can prepare for the future.’ James Holland is an acclaimed historian whose last book Battle of Britain became a best-seller. His brother Tom is also a historian and best-selling author of Rubicon, who has just published In the Shadow of the Sword. No one better then to attempt a repositioning of a subject which has somehow lost its vitality and thrall. Last year James created the CVHF with James Heneage (founder of Ottaker's) – inviting ticket-busting names such as Michael Morpurgo, Martin Brown of  Horrible Histories, John Julius Norwich and Peter Snow to talk alongside reams of lesser known historians. It was a risky strategy perhaps but one that paid off, the festival was a huge success and people are still talking about it. Just as the Young British Artists instigated a thirst for art 10 years ago and Professor Brian Cox recently rebranded science, the CVHF wanted to make history cool again. It was after a conversation with David Cameron and David Miliband James realised he had to do something. Both politicians wrongly assumed that Britain was a junior partner to the US in the Second World War which James, a WW11 historian, found astonishing. He says: “If senior politicians who are Oxford educated and very well read don’t know a basic historical fact then that is very worrying.’ His programme for change saw the launch this year of the Chalke Valley History Trust which will channel proceeds from the festival into revitalising history education in schools. There are planned TED-style ‘lecturettes’ where some of the festival’s leading speakers will be asked to make accessible 10 minute films which can be shown in schools. The CVHF team are nothing if not brave – against a backdrop of recession and almost daily news of yet another festival going bust -  it is going for gold this year with an extended six day residency and an ambitious programme of events. In a new location in beautiful Ebbesbourne Wake, CVHF has drawn a stellar line up of names – Ian and Victoria Hislop, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Paxman, Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor, Dan Snow, Simon Jenkins. Yet again Martin Brown’s Horrible Histories was an instant sell out. Most exciting perhaps is the Living History theme where history is brought to life by experts. There will be men re-enacting the life of a WW1 tommy, the firing of WW2 weapons (using blanks) and a visit from WW2  yeomen with their war horses. Pic courtesy of James Holland taken from Battle of Britain There is also the Greatest Briton Debate to find our favourite hero of all time – tough to choose from a top 5 which includes Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth 1, William Shakespeare and Alfred the Great. Also new for this year is the Chalke Valley History Prize – a historical fiction writing competition for 11-18 year olds – which has been judged by a panel including Michael Morpurgo and Education Secretary Michael Gove. The winners will be announced at the festival and author Sebastian Faulkes has just agreed to give a historical writing masterclass (an overnight sell out to be sure). There’s a sword school for kids, historical encampments, serious food and the Anonymous Travelling Market with its brilliant mix of live music and stalls. For adults there are delicious three course dinners from upmarket caterer Bread and Flowers with talks and debate from some of the brightest minds in Britain. Literary festivals may have been the cultural event du jour but with ticket sales already exceeding 10,000 it feels like CVHF is onto something. James says: 'I can see why history is a hard sell. When you're young, at a certain point your life becomes about playing cricket, girls, movies, music, getting your driving license. If we can in some way change that and have a chance to make a difference then that is hugely exciting.' The Chalke Valley History Festival runs from 26 June to 1 July      

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