Some time ago we (Mark Rothery and Paul Jackson) decided to launch a podcast. We wanted to discuss history but to make it topical and current, linking it to current affairs. We called it Beyond Histories. Historians often think about current affairs and politics and linking these to historic examples they can think of, but they generally keep it to themselves for fear of being obtuse or, well, wrong!
But it is fun and we thought we’d have no trouble co-opting people to interview along these lines, both historians and more interesting and fashionable citizens of the world. We had absolutely no experience of doing podcasts or of interviewing – both of which were probably evidenced by the early podcasts (or all of them!). It was (is) a bit like Wayne’s World with footnotes!
We were spurred on by the COVID-19 crisis, out of a feeling of being isolated from our colleagues (which had some benefits but overall was problematic) and of being isolated from the wider community. Podcasting remotely through weblinks and virtual recording studios allowed us to connect with people and talk about history, both a hobby and a livelihood.
Our first podcast, Emotions in History was published on 9 June 2020. Mark outlined this new and vibrant area in historical research, the sources and the methodologies. He then discussed his own work on aristocracy and anxiety, as well as a side project on emotional economies of pleasure. The role of emotions such as loneliness in the present pandemic provided a hook with current affairs.
That first outing was followed by an interview with our colleague, Dr Rachel Moss, on Medieval Fatherhood. Rachel specialises in medieval masculinities and, in particular, fatherhood. She explained the contours of fatherhood in the medieval world, and the central and fundamental role that fatherhood and patriarchy played in the structures of medieval society. We couldn’t resist a discussion of ‘Cummingsgate’ – the story around Dominic Cummings and his ‘uber-masculine’ removal of his family to County Durham.
Events were overtaking us as the Black Lives Matter movement gained huge momentum across the globe. This felt like a very significant moment. That feeling may have been part of the more visceral experience of life that the COVID-19 crisis has engendered but with retrospect, it was spot on. We decided to interview some of our own students about this – and we did this on 24 June with Black Lives Matter: Student Perspectives. Two of our history undergrads, Amelia and Charlotte, spoke intelligently and passionately about their experiences of the movement, their hopes for the future of it.
A key event in the UK corner of that movement, of course, was the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and the deposit of it in Bristol harbour. We turned to Professor Astrid Svenson, of Bath Spa University, for her expert take on The Power of Symbols. Astrid explained the long history of contested and problematic histories and the way these have often centred on public memorials and statues. Political activists and iconoclasts have long focused their attention on these monuments.
Liam Liburd was our next guest, an expert in the area of The British Empire and Fascism. In this podcast we explored the links between empire and extreme politics. Fascists were often experienced in empire, as participants or as recipients of an orthodox history stressing the benevolent role of the British empire. Enoch Powell is a fascinating case study – an officer during the Second World War and the last days of British India, his racism and anti-immigrant politics were shaped by this reverse flow of peoples and ideas. In this episode we also discuss David Starkey’s comments on the history of slavery, comments that echo many of those made by racists such as Powell.
In the most recent episode, The Economic Recovery from COVID-19: Green Shoots of Optimism we interviewed the Director of an environmental NGO, Ed Davey of the Food and Land Use Coalition. Ed explained that we should have some optimism for the future. Past examples of ‘green recoveries’ such as Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s USA and the Earth Day during the Vietnam War (first one in 1970) proved to be turning points in the environmental movement. There is always, of course, room for manipulation and Boris Johnson’s recent claims for his ‘New Deal’ (more aptly named a ‘micro-deal’) are a warning that we should not accept forgeries at this key and opportune moment (or indeed ever).
Looking back over the podcasts we have recorded over the past six weeks is a historical journey in itself. We are living through tumultuous times and having a spoken record of ours and others’ experiences is something we and hopefully a couple of other people (our ‘listeners’) really value.