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The 'We Have Ways' phenomenon
…long may it continue
I’ve just got home from three days away at a history festival in rural north Oxfordshire dedicated solely to the exploration of the Second World War. Now only in its third year it has all the gravitas and maturity of something that has been going on for half a century. Its a surprise, therefore, to consider that its only been going since the onset of all those desperate covid restrictions just over three years ago. If anything good has come out of that dreadful experience, it is this. A spin-off from the hugely popular We Have Ways podcast run by my friends James Holland and Al Murray, I reckon that at least 2,000 men, women and children crowded into the three venues at the sprawling Blackpit Brewery near Bicester each day between Friday, Saturday and Sunday to enjoy talks by some of the world’s leading (gentle cough) historians discussing a wide range of subjects associated with the greatest calamity to hit the world since the Bubonic Plague. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Such is the fantastic sense of community built up by the We Have Ways fraternity that a Security Guard told me that he was bored: there was no civil disorder to manage amongst the teeming masses of smiling, bookish afficionados sporting garish Hawaiian shirts (all in aid of the DKMS charity that’s close to the members hearts), such that there was nothing for him to do, despite the considerable quantities of Blackpit Brewery beer consumed. Well, it was very hot after all…
The itinerary for Friday and Sunday provides something of a flavour of the weekend. One of the dramatic successes of this years festival was the democratisation of story-telling: a large number of members of the Independent Company (the name members of the podcast have bestowed on themselves) have sprouted wings and presented on subjects close to their hearts and in which they were developing real academic and literary expertise, such as tanks in Burma, mapping warfare, touring battlefields and the work of SOE in defeating the Japanese.
It is a remarkable phenomenon to see all this going on alongside talks by some really established historians such as Antony Beevor, Saul David, Peter Caddick-Adams, Frank McDonough etc etc along with a few history nuts such as James May and Dermot O’Leary. Its a fabulous smorgasbord of historical and writing talent, with authors mixing freely with their readers in a way that no other festival that I can think of (with the exception of Chalke Valley) can dream of.
Its a history festival dedicated to first-class history and first-class writing. I was genuinely privileged to have played a small part in the events of what is an enormous undertaking, by giving three talks along with (respectively) Kate Vigurs on the demise of the Prosper network in France in 1943; Lucy Betteridge-Dyson on the disaster that was Arakan (Burma) in 1942/3 and with General Lord Dannatt on the subject of our new book, Victory to Defeat.
Spread over several acres, with some attendees camping or ‘glamping’ in adjoining fields (I was assured that showers were available…), the site offers three large tents (one which accommodates over 1,000), the festival is supported by carefully selected re-enactors. The wearing of uniforms is otherwise strictly forbidden. It is not that sort of festival. This festival doesn’t support war, or militarism: it remembers it. There’s a big difference, and the silence that was evidenced in the lecture this morning when Saul David and Ingram Murray described the casualties in various British airborne operations in the war was deafening. There is no flag waving at We Have Ways but there is nevertheless lots of fun, and a sense of purpose and wonderment. If I’m lucky enough to be invited back I’ll be there like a shot. Thank you Al, Jim and the remarkable Goalhanger team led by Tony Pastor, and all the attendees for such a tremendous experience. The whole 2,000+ of you all already feel like family.
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