NEXT weekend you have a choice between two history festivals, very different from each other. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the noisy, oily TankFest is actually more historically accurate than the politicised, commercialised Chalke Valley History Festival.
The competition is direct because of a change of schedule by the Chalke Valley History Festival in 2018 to the last weekend of June, which has always been the weekend for the Tank Museum’s annual TankFest, now in its 16th year.
These two events are sited in neighbouring counties: the Tank Museum in Dorset, the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire. Last year I managed to attend both. Each has international appeal, but each is notoriously difficult to reach.
The Chalke Valley History Festival requires navigating country byways masquerading as A-roads around Stonehenge and Salisbury, followed by pot-holed lanes through the village of Broad Chalke into a sheep field. The field is in a small bowl, such that everything seems to be uphill – during the heatwave of 2018, it was exhausting. Relief from the weather is difficult: you either buy tickets to sit in steamy marquees during talks, sit in a sweltering marquee for expensive refreshments, or sit on the grass. In previous years, the festival was remembered for rain, mud, and ruined shoes, which is one of the reasons it moved up-slope to its current location in 2017.
Dorset has no motorways, although the Tank Museum sits within a triangle of improved A-roads. It is a developed site that is open seven days a week, with hundreds of tanks in permanent halls, an arena, flat hard stands and car parks, grassland for the weekend’s re-enactors and vendors, and neighbouring fields for overflow parking. Even during the heatwave of 2018, the halls remained cool. They accommodate water fountains, cash points, cafés, lecture rooms, shops and meeting areas. Part of the car park is turned over to entertainment, such as singers and dancers.
Chalke Valley History Festival 2018 reported 118 speaker events (with 130 speakers), plus 50 ‘History Live’ events (usually a chance to handle an artefact). Each of the final two days features flypasts, although these are not scheduled precisely, so they are missed by most of the guests.
The Tank Museum reported in 2018 more than 200 re-enactors, 64 tanks running in the arena (54 from the museum, 10 from guests), and dozens of other live demonstrations or talks.
You might imagine that your choice is between a noisy, oily monster jam and a learning experience, but this is where expectation is turned on its head. The Tank Museum has an educational mission that extends to TankFest; the tanks are jumping-off points for wider history and science. Artefactual history tends to be more honest and evidentiary than the narrative history that has unfortunately taken over our bookshelves and airwaves.
Chalke Valley has tanks too and claims to be educational, but while the Tank Museum begins with specialists who generalise cautiously, Chalke Valley was made by generalists and corporate sponsors. The star speakers are journalists, novelists, politicians and comedians with exaggerated passions for history – or people you see on the telly with that vague job title of ‘author and broadcaster’. The festival postures like an academic conference, but delivers like BBC history. Too many of the speakers are looking out for who endorses whom, or pushing a political message, or selling something. Too often, the ticket for a writer’s talk costs more than the book that guests are encouraged to buy at the end. At the weekend, guests must buy tickets to enter the site before they even get to a talk.
The Chalke Valley History Festival has a whiff of pomposity from the start. The attendants in the car park are friendly enough, but the attitude goes downhill as you walk uphill. Too many of the staff are teenage volunteers: they couldn’t advise me where to go, and they weren’t interested either. None that I could see was ever carrying a map or a programme or even a name badge. The village has no historical significance or geographical advantage – it’s just where the organisers happen to live.
By contrast, the Tank Museum is a full-time charitable operation: the staff work full-time; they wear uniforms; they have lanyards containing the maps and programmes; they’re there to help; they know their subjects. One entry ticket gets you into everything.
The History Festival is much more expensive, parochial and elitist. Each marquee – and each talk within each marquee – is sponsored by some corporation or family, who collectively are entitled to the VIP tent. The principal sponsor since 2013 has been the Daily Mail, but it’s difficult to see what it gets out of it. I never saw anyone carrying the newspaper, despite free copies. Since the Mail lost its conservative editor in November 2018, I suppose the 2019 event will be a better fit.
Certainly, the speakers tend to be Left-wing and preachy: you’ll hear plenty of them concluding that Britain was always a nation of immigrants or that Queen Victoria would have opposed Brexit. In 2018, I attended two political events as a reporter: one an interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the other a farcical debate on Brexit. Neither event was as historical as promised; one was downright uncivilised.
TankFest’s perversity is an indirect consequence of its principal sponsor – a Russian company that makes a multiplayer tank game. Incongruously, you’ll see people paying to enter the site just to make a beeline for the hangar in which they can play what they could play online free, while other entrants are watching the real tanks outside.
There’s a lesson in that incongruity. Knowledge these days is too often a choice between somebody else’s agenda or direct observation. TankFest has less agenda and more direct observation.