Smuggler chat on BBC Radio Solent

The sad thing about most university work is that for all the hours (days, weeks!) of effort you put into an assignment, once it’s handed in for marking it rarely sees the light of day again. The journalist in me doesn’t like this one bit, which is why I’ve made a point of turning assignments into feature articles or blog posts (see my History Bombs review and Dior feature) and it’s also how I ended up on BBC Radio Solent chatting about Dorset’s smuggling history last week.

As part of my Public History MA, I produced a radio documentary all about a smuggling legend, Isaac Gulliver, who lived and died in my hometown of Wimborne, Dorset. (Find out more here). As such I was invited onto the Breakfast In Dorset show on BBC Radio Solent by Steve Harris to chat a bit more about him – Isaac Gulliver, not Steve.

 

A big positive about radio over TV, which I learnt, is that you can sound semi-confident even while your face is glowing red and your hands are shaking violently through nerves. Have a listen and let me know what you think – do I sound as stomach-churningly nervous as I felt?

Alternatively, click here to hear the original (the Isaac Gulliver interview starts at about 02:10:20).

Check out the documentary in question in full below:

Snowy weekends in Devon

Not to encourage stereotypes and all, but British people love some good weather. You know, the type of real, substantial weather that gives us some handy small talk fodder to use throughout the day. And we’ve been in luck recently – snow, in March? I know! Can you believe it?

While most of us are itching to fling our winter hats, coats and scarves to the back of the cupboard for a few months and soak up some springtime sun, there’s no doubt that last weekend’s ‘Mini Beast From The East’ gave us some beautiful snowy views.

Fortunately, I was visiting a quaint countryside spot in Devon and managed to capture a few snaps. My camera hasn’t had much use this winter, sadly, and my fear of rogue flying snowballs (being flung by my friends) meant I only took a few and I’m not sure they really capture how beautiful it all looked.

Below are a few of my favourite and all the shots can be found on my Flickr page. What do you think?

Hope you all got out and romped around in the snow this weekend. Now, bring on spring (please)!

Uncovering A Legend: Isaac Gulliver

Who knew that local history could be fun? Well, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t. That is until I decided to tackle a nugget of Dorset history for a radio documentary I recently produced, as part of my Public History MA. The task was to create a half-hour history programme from scratch on, well, absolutely anything. (Intimidating is an understatement!)

Perhaps I was homesick because, even with a whole world of options, I honed in on my home town of Wimborne Minister, Dorset and one of its most infamous residents: Isaac Gulliver, Smuggler King! I’d recently learnt about this character and was immediately hooked. Born in 1745, he started out as a common smuggler, but built himself up to rule over an epic smuggling empire and eventually became an extremely wealthy businessman!

In one document officials describe him as “one of the greatest and most notorious smugglers in the west of England“. Considering how rife smuggling was in the 18th and 19th centuries that’s a pretty big claim!

Isaac Gulliver in his 70s

I tend to avoid more straight-laced histories about British white men, (they’ve had enough coverage as it is!), but who doesn’t love a bit of smuggling history? Plus, throughout my research I discovered new dimensions to (and great legends about) Gulliver that makes him a really mysterious character. It’s frustrating, really!

The documentary includes stories of assassination plots, faked deaths, mysterious disappearances, smuggling churches, violent warfare and secret rooms. But what I also love about smuggling history is the fact that so much of what we understand today has actually been influenced by the books we read as kids and the TV shows we watch (Poldark anyone?).

Anyway, grab a cup of tea (or brandy if you’re feeling smuggler-y), settle in and take a listen. Please do let me know what you think – either in the comments or the contacts page.

Oh, and be kind!

Credits: 
Experts
Malcolm Angel (In Search of Isaac Gulliver)
Roger Guttridge, (Dorset Smugglers)
Voice Actors
Martha Shaw (Twitter – @MarthaShaw17)
Alice Cable

 

A Proud History Nerd’s feature writing updates

Anyone who knows me – or has even glimpsed my Twitter and Instagram accounts – will know that I am an out-and-proud history nerd. Always have been, (as any of the popular kids at my school could have told you…). As such, history has become an increasingly big focus of my feature writing.

It’s something I have a real passion for researching and writing about so, while all my freelance work can be found on my Portfolio pages, I wanted to share a few of my favourite and most recent history-related features:

Dior’s New Look

In many ways this feature for All About History magazine was a long time coming. I wrote about Dior a few years ago when an editor wanted a quick write-up on some fashion news. I was terrified, because, well, fashion terrifies me! But quickly discovered the fascinating history around the end of rationing and the breakthrough of Christian Dior’s lavish designs. So I jumped at the chance to write a full feature on the subject!

Sweet History: the history of dates

If there’s one thing I love more than history, it’s food AND history (or…food history)! Living in Dubai for three years gave me a real enthusiasm of dates. Not only are these sweet treats ridiculously delicious, but they are incredibly important in Arabic culture and history, which is something I explore in this feature for Citizen K Arabia.

Jane Austen’s England 
FTA_Austen Britain

While being a fan of Jane Austen might seem pretty basic, I just can’t help it! This feature for Food and Travel Arabia has a travel focus to it, but is packed with details about Jane’s own story and how her life experiences massively influenced her novels. I had a hard time sticking to the word count and this could easily have been twice the length.

Tbilisi titbits: the Georgian dumpling from the hills

Again, while this nugget for The Guardian is food-focussed – on Georgian khinkali to be precise – it has plenty of history. I love seeing a country’s past through its national dishes and nowhere is this more true than Tbilisi. Squished between some of history’s most notorious empires, Georgia’s rocky past can be found through its weird, wonderful (and delicious!) food. And the wine – oh my gosh, the wine! (You can also find my longer travel feature on Tbilisi here)

Thanks!

History Bombs: Public History Review

For a recent assignment for my Masters we were asked to review a piece of Public History and I choose a video by the wonderful team (and new BAFTA winners) History Bombs. While it’s a little longer (and more academic) than my average blog post I thought ‘what the heck?’, I’m proud of it so why not post it. Enjoy!

The last decade has seen a wave of public historians on a mission to convince the masses that history is cool. This is certainly no easy task, considering history’s engrained reputation as a subject full of dusty books, out-dated ideas and stuffy old men.

One of the latest challengers taking up the fight is History Bombs. This team of young, determined historians and film-makers recently won a BAFTA for their efforts, producing fun and punchy videos intended to inspire students and complement teaching.

Essentially teaching aids, these snappy five-minute videos introduce the big facts and arguments of particular historical events for students, aged 11-16, and each video comes with handy teacher’s notes, worksheets and quizzes. Clearly inspired by the success of TV shows such as Horrible Histories, History Bombs is an example of content which – to embrace the cliché – brings history to life in a high-energy and engaging way, essentially tricking people into learning.

Anyone brought up in the UK will remember the joy felt, as a student, when the teacher would wheel the TV in at the start of class. While wheeled TVs have likely gone the same way as cassettes and snap bracelets, I imagine students feel the same delight now when the teacher turns on the projector. Video content will always be a sure-fire way of gaining the full attention of a room of teenagers.

While History Bombs is first and foremost a business selling school resources, some of their free videos have taken on a viral identity of their own – their YouTube channel has racked up almost 5,000,000 views so far.

Their most recent upload looks at the author – and new face of the ten-pound note – Jane Austen. However, their video on World War One (above) remains one of their most popular creations. A whirlwind tour through the First World War, led by a news-reporter-turned-narrator, it’s loaded with information as well as plenty of clever rhyming, rapping, props and the occasional explosion.

It is so fact-heavy that the contents of this one-take video includes, (but is not limited to), the following: the 1914 shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empirical plans, the Schlieffen Plan, the Gallipoli Campaign, chemical weapons, trench warfare, volunteer nurses, German naval strategies, the Russian Revolution, the German-Russian union and new war technologies. All in six minutes.

For most viewers, packing in this much means the facts are often lost among the chaos of information and speedy dialogue. Saying that, if you manage to keep up, the attention to detail is impressive.

The team has clearly made conscious efforts to include some more neglected aspects of the war, including the commonwealth contributions. Popular media rarely focuses on those soldiers from as far as Canada, Bermuda, the West Indies, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Women’s involvement in the war effort also features. One volunteer nurse almost has her own monologue when, in reaction to a soldier’s comment “trenches are no place for a girl”, she announces:

“Neither are they fit for a man! / But we’re here to help the best we can / And who do you think manufactured your gun? / Us girls will see this war is won”

Credit to the writers. In these few sentences, some of women’s hands-on contributions on the front line and home front are put centre stage. The Red Cross’ Volunteer Aid Detachments (VADs) had 90,000 members working abroad and at home during the war and by 1918 more than 700,000 women had become ‘munitionettes’.

There is also a brief nod to carrier pigeons. Why pigeons were deemed more worthy of a mention than, say, the Mark I tank – the first tank to see battle and a revolutionary feat of engineering– isn’t clear, but then again there is something oddly endearing about the stories of these hard-working feathery soldiers. One was said to have saved four airmen’s lives after struggling against strong gales to report their crash, only to die of exhaustion upon its arrival. Where is that Oscar-winning movie?

There is more than just a touch of Horrible Histories influence in this video. Lion Television’s sketch comedy show, Horrible Histories was initially for children and aired on CBBC, but it quickly amassed an enthusiastic adult following – and a BAFTA – thanks to its hilarious Monty Python style humour. Many teachers have admitted to using its sketches to liven up classes.

While I refuse to use the phrase ‘funducational’ sincerely, both Horrible Histories and History Bombs successfully blur that line between learning and comedy. The key difference, however, is that while the CBBC show prioritises entertainment – using pop-up placards to inform its viewers when it may be telling the truth – History Bombs’ priority is firmly within the education camp.

Put simply, History Bombs produces educational material that happens to be entertaining, while Horrible Histories creates entertaining material that happens to be educational.

History Bomb’s determination to cover all the facts does have adverse effects at times. In attempting to explain the breakout of war the video runs aground, stumbling its way through the complex web of alliances, politics and bureaucracy. Despite funny characterisations and gun shots, ultimately they are forced to resort simply to a map of Europe and a pointer. To their credit, they created a separate video wholly dedicated to the explanation, entitled ‘Whose Fault Was It?’.

Combining comedy and history can be tricky line to tread. While the expanse of time between ourselves and medieval Britain means that History Bombs – and any production company – can tackle subjects like the bubonic plague with relative ease and plenty of comedy, covering the reality of something more recent, such as the First World War, requires considerably more tact and sensitivity.

The laughs in this video come mainly from silly and exaggerated characterisations – think bad accents, over-the-top facial hair and dramatic gesticulations. It’s also hard to miss the fun made at the expense of the Americans, who look vaguely like extras from Top Gun and declare “the enemy better reach for the skies” before ducking from gunfire.

Perhaps as a way of actively recognising the gravity of the conflict, the video concludes on a rather sombre note, with the narrator reflecting:

“All in all, a tragic loss / Europe secured, but at what cost? / A generation lost / We are forever in debt / 100 years hence / Lest we forget”

Talking straight down the camera in a bright yellow t-shirt, the narrator stands out as the modern-day visitor to the foreign land of the past. Perhaps he represents us, the student and viewer, attempting to traverse the events of the First World War. Either way, the authoritative narrator character works well considering these videos are intended as teaching aids.

From a public history perspective, questions are raised about History Bombs’ creative licence. If the videos are teaching resources, intended to sincerely complement the school curriculum, then how much freedom does the team actually have in terms of choosing the topics and angles?

Also, while it is refreshing to see nods to the commonwealth soldiers and volunteer nurses, beyond that the narrative is one that is traditional, recognisable and, ultimately, British. For example, the video starts by essentially blaming the German leader’s militaristic attitude and desire for empire, (the irony here, given Britain’s mighty empirical realm, is almost comedy itself).

However, if this video’s approach seems a little stale and outdated then, as teaching aids, perhaps that tells us more about the British school curriculum than it does about the History Bombs team.

Within the sea of public historians determined to convince the world that history is cool, or at least not as dusty and old-fashioned as some believe, History Bombs has hit on a trick: convert them when they’re young.

Dior, the war and why historians need a fashion attitude makeover

History and fashion rarely mix. This isn’t a dig on historians’ fashion sense, but rather a comment on how fashion, as a source material, is neglected by academic history. Perhaps fashion is believed to be an industry obsessed with the future – so what can it tell us about the past? – or maybe it’s simply seen as too shallow to be of any real historical significance.

I am here, however, to reveal the untapped historical potential stitched away in fashion, by looking at the most famous designer of the 20th century and possibly ever: Christian Dior.

The second series of The Crown, the award-winning Netflix drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s early years, is due on our screens next month. As with most period dramas, fashion plays a starring role and this is particularly true for the character of the young Princess Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby.

Kirby is regularly captured sauntering around in stunning extravagant dresses, clearly inspired by 1950s Dior designs. While the show uses plenty of artistic license, here the producers have used historical fact to their advantage.

The young princess was a genuinely huge fan of Dior – then a desirable new Parisian designer – wearing one of his designs for her 21st birthday, which was immortalised in a portrait by photographer Cecil Beaton. Perched on a sofa, her small frame is practically hidden among the swathes of luxurious fabric making up the skirt of her almost Disney-Princess-like ball gown.

While this may not look controversial today, in post-war Europe Christian Dior’s designs were revolutionary. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Dior’s debut collection, which stunned audiences in the French capital.

Vanessa Kirby in The Crown (Source: facebook.com/TheCrownNetflix)

From the 90 pieces in the collection, the real headline act was the Bar Suit: a large corolla skirt that kicked out over the hips, teamed with a white blazer that synched in at the waist. The 1947 collection was famously coined the ‘New Look’ and spread like wildfire across the continent and over the Atlantic to New York – Dior was crowned as having revived a struggling post-war fashion industry.

The ‘New Look’ was all about creating an hourglass silhouette by accentuating the hips and squeezing the waist. It was womanly, voluptuous and set the standard for not only fashion, but femininity for the next decade.

To understand why this was so shocking to audiences at the time, it’s worth noting that years of wartime rationing and austerity had manifested itself in clothing. Early 1940s fashion tended to be simple suits and knee-length dresses with boxy, almost militaristic, shoulders.

Dior designs, including the Bar Suit [far right] (Source: Flickr/pennyspitter)

In the UK, silk had been banned in civilian clothing in 1941 and, the following year, so too were pleats, ruching and embroidery. Even pockets were monitored and hats, being deemed a luxury item, were heavily taxed. The Board of Trade even created the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (or InSoc) to help popularise the austerity-friendly designs.

For a large part of European society, this make-do-and-mend attitude was not only reserved for wartime but continued, and in some cases worsened, in the years following the conflict. It must have been shocking to see Dior’s models enveloped in layers of lavish material, with fine details and soft sloping shoulders. It’s said that his average dress contained more than 18 metres of fabric.

This unapologetically feminine and glamorous style was a complete rejection of the Second World War reality that western society had been living.

World War Two fashions (Source: iwm.org.uk)

“The bulkiness of the coats and capes to go over these tremendous skirts is startling,” said one reporter. “Wide sunray pleats each backed in taffeta and slashed open to the knee are so manipulated that the swing of the skirt is a gracious thing.”*

Reporting on the collection in 1948, one journalist was particularly taken by the pockets:

“One felt that these were an integral part of the costume for it added great style to see the manikins thrust their hands into them, pushing them slightly forward in a gesture that contributed immeasurably to the movement of the full skirts.”**

Strangely, despite the wide-brimmed hats, synched waists and exaggerated bosoms, it seems it was the long skirts that caused the most drama.

Fuelled by austerity, wartime fashion had seen skirts generally stop around the knee. Dior’s style sat around mid-shin and those few seemingly inconsequential inches were deemed by some as a snub to the war effort itself. It seems almost ironic that, just decades before the moral panic surrounding the 1960s mini skirt, there was scandal about such a conservative style.

Extravagant Dior designs (Source: Flickr/Annie Harada Viot)

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the ‘New Look’ was anything but new and was instead a return to the more traditional styles of early 20th century. Dior apparently even admitted that his initial collections were inspired by the full skirts and petticoats his mother wore.

Of course, the brand was haute couture and in a world recovering from war, most could not even afford the notion of owning Dior. However, the wealthier classes lapped it up and, as fashion often does, Dior’s style trickled down, cementing itself in popular society for much of the 1950s and ’60s.

This influence can be seen in the trailer for Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and due for release early 2018. The film follows a haute couture tailor in 1950s London and, as expected, the trailer is packed with Dior influences: opulent detail, lavish fabric and tiny waists on beautiful ball gowns.

It highlights how influential fashion is in instantly telling a story or setting a scene. Much like in The Crown, certain designs can immediately represent an era or community in a powerful but subtle way – in this case 1950s upper-class western society.

Ten years after his debut, Christian Dior died of a heart attack. In that decade he not only succeeded as a designer, but created one of the most historically significant fashions of all time. His ‘New Look’ has come to epitomise social morals, class divides, but mostly the move away from wartime austerity to the glamour of the 1950s.

*The New York Times, “Schiaparelli, Dior And Lelong Show”, 8 August 2017, p. 15 (https://search.proquest.com/hnpguardianobserver) [accessed 7 November 2017].

**The New York Times, “Dior, At Opening, ‘Copres Himself'”, 9 November 1948, p. 32 (https://search.proquest.com/hnpguardianobserver) [accessed 7 November 2017].

(Feature image source: Unsplash/Kris Atomic)

Bad feminist dating featured

Bad feminist: Feeling sorry for men & other things I’ll never say again

Gird your loins, as I’m unlikely to say this again: occasionally I feel sorry for men when dating.

Hear me out. We’re lucky enough to live in a world of increasingly forward-thinking attitudes towards gender, a world populated by more and more cool, independent feminist types (of all sexes). So why, even in liberal circles, do we still accept the dusty, archaic concept of dating, like a loveable but un-PC older uncle who happily uses the term ‘Oriental’ and shouts about how the internet is going to kill us all?

If a man is fortunate enough to find himself dating a feminist lady-type, there are times when it must feel like some cruel obstacle course – a Spartan Race of social norms, language tests and patriarchal pitfalls.

Bad feminist dating dinnerThen, to make matters worse, there are guilty feminists like myself who, try as they might, instantly lose all feminist principals the moment they fall for someone.

What I’m trying to say is, I’m a complete and utter hypocrite. I realised this the other week when, in a genuine state of confusion, a male friend asked me: “Who should pay the bill on a first date?”

Of course, I instantly declared that a couple should split the bill or, at least, that’s what I’d want. I earn money, the man doesn’t owe me anything (and vis versa) and presumably I actually want to be there, so why wouldn’t I pay my way?*

(*Side note, if I ever found myself coerced into a date against my will then yes, I wouldn’t be as eager to pay for my half of the tapas.)

Bad feminist dating flowersWhen he ventured further, however, asking whether I’d be put off if a chap didn’t at least offer to pay the whole bill, I was shocked and appalled to realise that my gut reaction was ‘yes’!

I am a sham feminist. Revoke my feminist license for I am unworthy. If the feminist police made me walk a straight feminist line on the pavement I’d probably veer off course, because I’m drunk on the patriarchy…

…you get the point.

Anyway, just like that, all my many dating hypocrisies flooded back. I’m guilty of delving dangerously deep into a guy’s Instagram history, sacrificing hours of productivity to daydreaming about the fictitious couple holidays we’ll never take, and finding all and any reason to bring up the guy in conversation – “Oh, that book sounds fascinating… the guy I’m dating also has the ability to read, you know!?”

I’m not proud.

Bad feminist dating wineBy wanting to split the bill, but then wanting the man to want to pay it I’m encouraging all kinds of bill-paying shenanigans. Thinking back, at least twice I’ve let a man pay, only to sneak money about their person and message them ten minutes later saying “Look in your top pocket”, like some rubbish confused magician.

It’s this same conflicted part of me that secretly loves it when a date holds a door open for me. The same part of me that never wants to be the first person to lean in for a kiss, and is far too forgiving of ridiculous old-timey Audrey Hepburn movies – He’s 30 years older than you and trying to ship you across the Atlantic, Audrey. Why are you kissing him!?

Bad feminist dating handsDoes it make someone a bad feminist if, deep down, they still want to be wooed? Or at least, want a guy to want to woo them? Yes, yes, it probably does.

At the end of the day, I guess it all boils down to context – the place, the people, the feelings – but for well-meaning men dating must feel like a minefield sometimes. Or, at least, that’s certainly the impression I got from the bewildered look on my friend’s face as I stuttered my way through an explanation.

Okay, you can de-gird your loins now.

(Images: Unsplash)