Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Taylor Downing | Published 14 September 2018
Daniel Ellsberg is well known as the whistle blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Less well known is that, at the time he copied the secret documents about Vietnam, he also copied a mass of material about US nuclear policy that he similarly intended to leak, but which was eventually lost. The Doomsday Machine goes back over his time as a nuclear war consultant at the RAND Corporation, the think tank that advised the US Air Force, and his later work for the Department of Defense and the White House. The revelations are truly shocking. Official US policy...Read more »
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The History of Council Housing

David Brady | Published 31 August 2018
In the 1950s, the nation gathered beside the wireless to enjoy Take It From Here , the BBC Home Service comedy about Ron Glum and his fiancée Eth, suffering an interminable engagement because they were unable to find a home of their own. In Municipal Dreams , John Boughton, who has blogged about the history of councils for years, provides an overview of the beginnings and the development of local government housing. After setting out the background, he moves briskly through a chronology of council estates. Examples include the Latchmere Estate in Battersea (opened in 1903), which was built by...Read more »
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Feminist Energy vs Vehement Opposition

Lyndsey Jenkins | Published 24 August 2018
Detail from the song sheet of Ethyl Smyth’s The March of the Women, by Margaret Morris (1911). One hundred years after some women in Britain won the right to vote, we are once again experiencing an extraordinary moment of feminist energy and vehement opposition. A woman’s right to choose seems to be in reach in Ireland, yet is under increasing attack in the US. High profile campaigns on sexual harassment and equal pay are bringing together women across classes and countries, but legitimate concerns are being raised about whose voices are privileged within these movements. Women have new platforms and...Read more »
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What Have The Greeks Ever Done For Us?

Amy Smith | Published 05 August 2018
It is a truism that the modern world feels the influence of ancient Greece – not least, in languages, arts, politics – yet the interactions of ancient Greece with other cultures rarely surface in popular histories. Jeremy McInerney weaves these two stories seamlessly together, evoking the importance of Greece as a conduit of cultural change. His book opens with a stunning image of a marble statue of a girl directly opposite discussions of ‘cultures in dialogue’ and ‘truth and beauty’. This girl, Kore 674, belongs here. A votive dedication to the gods on the Athenian Acropolis, admired and drawn by...Read more »
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How Europe Learnt to Swim

For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.

A woman swimming in the sea in Margate, Kent, Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800.

A woman swimming in the sea in Margate, Kent, Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800. 

Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.

By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?

Ancient sea gods depicted by Wenceslas Hollar, 17th century.

Gregor MacGregor, the Prince of Poyais

Like a herald of lost Atlantis, Gregor MacGregor arrived in 19th-century London with news of a Central American utopia. Unfortunately, Poyais didn’t exist and its would-be emigrants found only a ‘sinister coast of disillusion’.

Sunrise in Nicaragua, Martin Johnson Heade, 1869.

Sunrise in Nicaragua, Martin Johnson Heade, 1869.

In 1820, the year of George IV’s accession, there came to London from the Americas, His Serene Highness Gregor the First, Sovereign Prince of the State of Poyais and its Dependencies, and Cacique of the Poyer Nation. He arrived unheralded and without ceremony but, within a few months, his name was to flash like a meteor across the skies of contemporary fame and as rapidly to pass into oblivion.

Nine years before, in 1811, a young Scottish adventurer had taken ship to Venezuela at the age of 25 to seek his fortune in the wars of independence fought by the Spanish colonies in Latin America. His name was Gregor MacGregor, and he came of a fighting stock. His grandfather was a famous clansman, named in the Gaelic, Gregor the Beautiful, who became one of the early officers of the Black Watch and, after long years of campaigning, settled down in honourable retirement as the Laird of Inverardine in Breadalbane. These soldierly traditions were carried to Venezuela by his grandson and namesake. A debonair and imperious young man, he possessed a winning personality, a boundless West Highland imagination and a fiery daring that could hardly have been excelled by any of his turbulent clan. Resource and ability were his to an exceptional degree, and also a lack of scruples which transformed his many admirable qualities into a highly mischievous product of human nature. With some years of meritorious service in the British army to commend him, the young Highlander was readily granted a commission by Simón Bolivar.

'El General Mac Gregor': Gregor MacGregor, painted by J.S. Rochard, engraved by S.W. Reynolds Bayswater, 1820-1835.

France, from Gaul to de Gaulle

Desmond Seward | Published 10 July 2018
John Julius Norwich’s history of France was his final tribute to a country that he loved throughout his long life, ‘living in everything from the grandeur of the British Embassy to a humble Strasbourg bedsitter’. As the title indicates, the reader is taken for a cheerful gallop, Norwich covering everything from Vercingetorix, Caesar’s heroic, doomed opponent, to the end of the Second World War. He brings to life Clovis, King of the Franks, the Emperor Charlemagne, Count Robert of Paris, St Louis and the disastrous Crusades, the end of the Templars whose last Grand Master was burned at the stake...Read more »
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Who Were The Phoenicians?

Mark Woolmer | Published 29 June 2018
The people known to history as the Phoenicians occupied a narrow tract of land along the coast of modern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. They are famed for their commercial and maritime prowess and are recognised as having established harbours, trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean basin. However, the Phoenicians’ lack of recognisable territory, homogeneous language or shared cultural heritage means that, despite being one of the most influential Mediterranean peoples of the first millennium BC, their identity has long remained shrouded in mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians takes the reader on an exhilarating quest to reveal more...Read more »
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Ferdinand Columbus, Bibliophile

Lisa Barber | Published 19 June 2018
Ferdinand Columbus. Christopher Columbus brought the riches of the New World to Spain; his son, Ferdinand, collected the riches coming from the new technology of the printing press and brought them to Seville, where he founded the most astonishing library. Ferdinand (or Hernando) also wrote the biography of his father, which is our main – and often only – source for the great explorer’s life and voyages. Until now, however, no full biography of Ferdinand has existed: a void amply filled by Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. He places Ferdinand firmly within the intellectual, social and political milieu...Read more »
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The Beauty of Physical Ageing

Rosalind Janssen | Published 05 June 2018
‘Really wonderful work. No use describing it, you have to see it.’ So wrote Ludwig Borchardt in his official excavation diary on 6 December 1912, the day he discovered the ‘life-size colourful bust of Queen’. Last July, 105 years after that discovery, my Oxford students and I were privileged to enjoy a pre-museum opening tour of the Amarna Collection at Berlin’s Neues Museum led by Friederike Seyfried, Director of the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection. Having spent time alone with Nefertiti in the semi-darkness of the north dome room, I was therefore sceptical as to what Tyldesley’s ‘creation of an...Read more »
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