Term is coming around quickly, but before you dig into your reading list, have a look at some of the content our editors have enjoyed over the summer.
Firstly, Black and British by David Olusoga, selected by Luke Bateman. Luke writes, ‘this book is an astonishing piece of writing, charting a ‘forgotten history’ of the Black and British experience onto the more familiar history of the British Isles. From the Black Tudors to the abolitionist movement, from the African kings who first protested Cecil Rhodes to Olusoga’s own experience of the National Front in the 1980s, I found this book to be an eye-opening and deeply moving starting point for wider historical evaluation.’
Luke also recommends Olusoga’s documentary series A House Through Time, in which he takes a normal house and tracks the history of its inhabitants all the way through to modern day. This innovative means of examining history through the lived experience of ordinary people provides a fascinating new perspective on key moments in British and global history. For example, the most recent series was set in Bristol, exploring the slave trade and the involvement of men like Edward Colston, a figure whose name became widely known after his statue was pulled down and thrown in the river by Black Lives Matter protestors, who were protesting against the memorialisation of a man who profited off the slave trade.
One of the most powerful documentaries of the last few years experienced a resurgence in popularity as a result of the 2020 BLM protests. The 2016 documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay centres on the 13th amendment to the US constitution and draws a powerful link between its wording and the subsequent criminalisation of black people in the US to this day. Featuring academics such as Angela Davis and drawing compelling links between past and present racism, this is probably the most important and relevant documentary you will watch this year.
For me, one of my favourite ways to consume historical content is through podcasts. There are plenty of good history podcasts out there, but one that is very easy listening is Greg Jenner’s You’re Dead to Me. An episode that was a particular favourite of mine was ‘The Mughal Empire’ – a brilliant combination of academic insight from Dr. Mehreen Chida-Razvi and light-hearted comedy from Sindhu Vee, this episode provided a clear and accessible introduction to the Mughals, whilst also challenging preconceptions about various rulers, and exploring the dynasty’s fascinating relationship with art and visual culture.
I’d also like to recommend a new podcast on a very particular aspect of queer British history called The Log Books, created by Tash Walker, Adam Smith and Shivani Dave. This podcast is about the records and notes kept by the volunteers at the LGBT+ charity Switchboard. This was a telephone helpline, information service and support network for queer people in the UK from 1974 onwards. Combining this previously untapped archive with new oral history interviews, this podcast provides a fascinating insight into what it was like to be a volunteer at Switchboard, as well as casting light on the issues that were important to the callers. As such, it is a wonderful and unique look at the social history of 70s and 80s Britain.
While we’re on the topic of queer history, Molly Archer-Zeff recommends watching (or re-watching) The Danish Girl. She writes that her perspective on the film fundamentally shifted after having listened to CN Lester’s fascinating lecture on ‘The Shock of the New: cultural amnesia, trans erasure and what we can do about it’, as it ‘demonstrated the flaws in how we study the history of trans individuals’.
For those of you looking to re-engage with the classics, James Morrison recommends reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as an antidote to the assumption that historical comedies are no longer funny or relevant to a modern audience. James writes ‘how wrong I was. I was gasping and scoffing on cue with the other characters at social faux pas,’ citing in particular Mr. Collins’ inability to ‘take a damn hint. Such moments, told with Austen’s wit, evoke both laughter and despair over what women had to (and still have to) put up with.’
If you’re interested in ancient history, we (and Luke specifically) recommend Dr. Emma Southon’s Agrippina. The book charts the life and political manipulations of ‘the first Roman Empress’, Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. Luke states that this book – ‘in equal parts engaging, fascinating and funny’ – is well worth reading, ‘whether you’d ever heard of Agrippina before or not’.
And lastly, here’s one for the history of science fans – the 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast hosted by Dr. Kevin Fong, which tells the story of NASA’s historic missions to the moon on Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. I’m not usually one for the history of science, but I absolutely fell in love with this podcast because of its compelling story-telling, accessible scientific explanations of the mechanics of spaceflight, its use of original recordings from the spacecraft and mission control, and the way it integrated the Apollo missions into the wider context of the Cold War.
This is just a snapshot of some of the excellent historical content we’ve been consuming over the summer. If you’re passionate about a particular programme, book, or historical theme, then please do get in touch with OHR if you’d like to write about it. Stay tuned for more recommendations!