HistFest 2023

This is a different sort of convention report. HistFest is a convention for fans of history books. It takes place in London, at the British Library no less, but is also available online through a streaming service. In addition to the event itself, HistFest, the organization, also offers online talks through the year, and I have presented a couple of those. Being part of the family, so to speak, I got a comped weekend pass to this year’s event.

I’m gong to start by detailing differences between HistFest and a traditional SF&F convention, because I suspect some of you will find that interesting. The most obvious difference is that, while you can buy a day pass or weekend pass, you can also buy access to individual talks. I believe that the Edinburgh convention, Cymera, works in the same way, as of course do most literary festivals. This does mean additional security, but as there was only one stream of programming that was fairly easy.

While HistFest has done panel-like events in the past, all of the talks at this year’s live event were interviews, with I think one solo talk. Each event was associated with a relatively new book, and the interviewer was chosen for their expertise in the subject of the book. Again that’s very much a literary festival model.

There was no dealers’ room as such, but there was a dealer. Blackwells were on hand to sell copies of every book being discussed, and in some cases other books by the author in question. Also if the interviewer was sufficiently high profile they might have their book too, and they had a book by HistFest’s Director, Rebecca Riddeal. They didn’t bring books by anyone who wasn’t on programme. Sales appeared to be very good, in that they sold out of almost everything and were regretting not having brought more books by some authors, in particular Bettany Hughes.

The programme structure was one-hour slots of roughly 45 minutes interview and 15 minutes audience questions. The author in question then moved to the signing table. A one-hour gap was scheduled between each slot, giving attendees a decent amount of time to buy a book and get it signed before the next event.

There was no other programming as such, but a couple of costumed musicians were on hand to entertain the signing line with mediaeval tunes.

The streaming was all arranged through the British Library’s tech system, which they also use for their own events. I gather that there were some teething troubles on the Saturday morning, but those did get sorted out. All of the events were recorded so if you had a virtual ticket you could watch at your leisure over the coming week.

A feature of the talks is that they were all accompanied by sign language interpreters. I can’t comment on the quality of the translation, but a key thing about sign language is that it can be very expressive. The interpreters had quite a lot of fun with some of the material, and though most of the audience could not follow the signing we took to watching them for the comedy value.

HistFest also supplied automated speech-to-text subtitles on the streaming, which we could see from the audience because there were screens with the streaming content next to the stage. These were hilarious for entirely different reasons.

Of the four talks on Saturday, I was most interested in Rupert Everett talking to my friend, Dan Vo, about Oscar Wilde. Given that the current UK government is threating to repeal existing trans rights, making it a crime for me to use a women’s toilet, Oscar’s tribulations were a very timely topic. Sadly I’m unlikely to be offered any accommodation as spacious as Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Courting India, Nandini Das’s book about Thomas Roe, Queen Elizabeth I’s ambassador at the court of the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir. However, she and Sunny Singh turned out to be hugely entertaining. It sounded as if Roe was in a similar situation to the Brazilian king who spent a year at the court of Henry VIII: viewed as a minor amusement at best.

Sunday was rather more busy for me. It began with Pragya Agarwal interviewed by Elinor Cleghorn about her book, Hysterical! Exploding the Myths and History of Gendered Emotions. This was brilliant. Entirely unprompted by me, Agarwal started on about the need to explode the gender binary, because gender essentialist thinking is what leads to women being defined as inescapably inferior. I asked her a question about female-coded robots, and it turns out that the final chapter of the book is on that subject, citing Donna Haraway and Kate Devlin amongst others.

Caroline Dodds Pennock’s talk held no surprises for me as I had read and enjoyed On Savage Shores already (and reviewed it last month). However, it was interesting to hear her chat with Adam Rutherford who seems like a very sensible fellow. I bought his book on eugenics.

The person I most wanted to see was Bettany Hughes. I am happy to report that she is just as bubbly in person as she is on screen, and that despite her being fresh off a plane from Albania where she had been filming. Her chat with Jasmine Elmer about the Venus and Aphrodite book was hilarious, and frequently NSFW. I got to talk briefly to Hughes about Roman trans people, which made the whole trip worthwhile just by itself.

There was a small bar at event, but very little seating so none of the bar culture we are used to at SF&F conventions. However, there was an afterparty at a pub near St. Pancras. Not everyone turned up, but Lucy Worsley came. Sunny Singh and I had a long chat about the awfulness of the “Gender Critical” movement. And Kate Williams popped in to say hello despite not having been on programme. Historians are good people, and I very much enjoyed hanging out with them for a weekend.