Tuesday 18th May and the sun was shining really brightly and warmly for the first time this year. This was surely a good omen for the event taking place at The Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool, launching Time To Read's latest reading promotion Pages Ago.
Billed as a panel discussion about historical fiction, the (almost) full house of library staff, museum and adult learning staff, as well as members of the public, was treated to an inspirational conversation about what makes good writing about history.
Jerome de Groot, an academic expert in Historical Fiction led the questioning covering the value and purpose of historical fiction, the definition of ‘historical’, as well as the virtue of research and scholarship in writing fiction.
Juliet Gardiner, an editor and reviewer, as well as respected author of non-fiction such as the recent The Thirties: an Intimate History talked about the responsibilities of presenting "fingertip history" i.e. that history which some people alive still remember and can challenge the author's interpretations of .
Joyce Tyldesley, an expert Egyptologist and author of Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt talked in detail about the difficulties of presenting history to an audience which thinks it knows a lot, from varying sources (film, theatre etc) but actually knows very little which is evidenced from the past.
Sarah Dunant, author of several renaissance - set novels, including her most recent title Sacred Hearts spoke passionately about the writers' need to place themselves in the time of their characters and to forget all "future thinking", so that what she is writing "stops being history and becomes the present".
All the panellists were suspicious of many film and TV presentations of history but spoke more warmly about many writers, both those which had inspired them to become writers early in their lives (Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy, Umberto Eco) as well as more contemporary titles
(Restoration, Waterland, Suspicions of Mr Whicher).
The final plea from the panel in support of history, linked us with the present. "If we look back at the past, we can interrogate the present better" and we were reminded throughout that there is never just one version of historical events, but all history is an "endlessly dissolving story".
Pressed on the 60 year rule, first posited by Sir Walter Scott, that to be truly historical a novel must be set at least 60 years earlier than the time of writing, Jerome de Groot argued that a historical novel only needs to be firmly rooted in a particular moment, even if that is yesterday.
At events such as this, it is always possible to tell whether the majority of the audience is engaged or not. I think its no exaggeration to say that the audience for this inspirational conversation were concentrating to the end and more than one person was heard to say that they could have listened for much longer.
As a final treat, Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of The Bluecoat spoke briefly to the audience about the history of the building and some of the many influential and artistic "celebrities" who have performed and exhibited there since it became an Arts Centre in the early 20th Century. Where better to launch Pages Ago than in the oldest surviving building in the City of Liverpool and England's earliest Arts Centre?
Tea and cakes rounded off a memorable afternoon.
So many literary, book and reading events present just one writer talking about their own work. The quality of this event for me lay in the fact that all 3 panelists took an overview beyond their own work and really thought about what makes for honest historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. We pushed them to think beyond their own work and came away inspired to read a wide range of new titles, both fiction and non-fiction, which is, after all, the purpose of Pages Ago.