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)

From Georgia with love…

It hasn’t even been four months since I moved back to the UK and I’m already getting itchy feet and feeling the urge to travel and explore. This probably has something to do with the fact I’ve been writing about Tbilisi, Georgia for a recent project and have also finally set up a Flickr page for my photos.

Now, I’m most definitely not a professional photographer. I’ve worked with far too many fantastic and talented photographer types to insult them by grouping myself as one. I don’t use editing software and, other than playing around with the ISO and aperture, I’m little more than a point-and-click kind of gal.

That said, I do love taking photos – setting up great shots, capturing moments and all that – and have been lucky enough to visit some brilliant places camera-in-hand. One such place was Tbilisi, Georgia in February 2016. It’s such a beautiful, friendly and ancient city, where buildings lean precariously out over pot-hole ridden roads and there are almost as many wine bars as there are Orthodox Georgian churches. Everything is charmingly rough around the edges.

That said, check out all my Georgia photos Flick, or take a gander at some of my favourites below.

Sparkly new website and portfolio

After much exporting, uploading and linking (fuelled by my stash of peanut butter filled pretzel bites from Trader Joe’s), I’ve finally spruced and updated my portfolio – check it out here.

There’s a bunch of my published work, categorised into Travel, Food & Drink, History & Culture and Profiles. One of which includes this photo I took of a fetching camel.

salalah camel edit

I’ve also uploaded a few of the videos I’ve produced for What’s On, all about new, fun, sparkly things to do and visit in Dubai. (The team actually have a load of cool videos and the videographers and digital guys are brilliant – see the collection of YouTube videos).

Anyway, now that’s done I’m going reward myself with some more pretzel bites.

NB. This post was actually drafted a good few months ago,  long before I made the foolish foolish mistake to give up sugar for lent. Never again!

beyonce-queen

12 times I apologised and didn’t mean it

Maybe I was late to the game, but my love of podcasts started almost two years ago when, home for Christmas, my sister shoved her iPod Nano into my hand and demanded that I listen to this show call Serial.

Naturally, I absolutely gobbled it up and was hooked. After Serial, a longtime favourite was the Women’s Hour podcast, (don’t knock it, that show is an institution I tell you, an institution!), and more recently I’ve been listening to the Guilty Feminist. Hosted by the hilarious, honest and wonderfully odd Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White, each episode tackles a different topic and one of their best so far was all about apologising.

The Guilty Feminist Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White

The Guilty Feminist, Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White (Instagram @theguiltyfeminist)

There’s so much out there about how women apologise more than men, downplay their achievements and all that self-depreciating jazz. But it wasn’t until I heard Deborah talk about how difficult she found it to simply pitch a project to a male comedian with confidence – without saying sorry or filling silences with self-doubt – that something inside me really clicked.

Quick note, if you think that challenge sounds simple then you are clearly: a) A man b) Lying c) Beyoncé d) All of the above – a man lying about being Beyonce and, hey, who am I to judge?

Anyway, I was suddenly acutely aware of how often I drop the ‘S’ word. As a child, I actually found myself apologising for saying sorry, like a sad broken record, more than once. And now as an adult (apparently), I realised that I start most conversations with colleagues, especially male colleagues, with a ‘sorry’. As if I’m starting every interaction by apologising for being in their presence.

beyonce-queen

I thought to myself, as I often do in times of need: what would Bowie do? As ever, the answer varies depending on the era of Bowie*, but he’d probably do something like throw on a diamante eye patch, sing his colleagues a freaky freaky song and dance out the office red mullet held high. One thing Bowie would certainly never ever do is apologise.

Sadly, being Bowie is tough, (otherwise we’d all be Ziggy Stardusting our way through life), and in making an effort not to apologise unnecessarily I’ve left a few men rather bemused by starting conversations with an awkward, “Sorry, hang on… no I’m not…anyway!”. And once, in a heated discussion I declared, “I’m sorry but I’m not going to apologise…damn!”. I’m pretty sure my boss thinks I’m insane, but that might have something to do with the diamante eye patch.

bowie-eye-patch

Whether it’s because I’m female, British or as awkward as heck, I’m not sure, but I regularly apologise for the weirdest things and often when I don’t even mean it, such as…

  1. Trying to get past people walking extremely slowly up escalators.
  2. Calling a restaurant to book a table.
  3. Ordering a drink at a bar.
  4. When people bump into me.
  5. When I can’t hear someone who’s talking to me across a room and is clearly too lazy to come over.
  6. Kindly declining the advances of a strange man in a bar / café / street / anywhere.
  7. Proposing an idea at work.
  8. Handing over a note at the till when I don’t have the exact change.
  9. After I’ve told a fantastically hilarious cheese joke.
  10. Stopping (read: chasing down) someone to pet their dog.
  11. Getting in a taxi.
  12. Not replying to Whatsapp messages immediately (those blue ticks betray me every time)

Obviously there are times when apologising is a must and, as a stereotypical awkward Brit, I approve of all and any necessary apologies. But maybe, before starting every conversation on the back foot, we should all ask ourselves #WWBD (What Would Bowie Do?).

Or maybe not, it’s up to you. I just thought it’d be nice, I’m sorry…

 *I don’t like to ask what would the Thin White Duke Bowie would do, because the answer would most likely be cocaine…

ladies heels_featured

Stilettos, switchblades and blisters: Why heels are the worst

Heels have been a hot feminist issue for years. Are they empowering, because they make us lady types look taller, more professional and generally darn sassy? Or are they just tools used by the patriarchy to imprison women, like a diamante ball and chain?

It’s a complicated argument but personally, to paraphrase the all-powerful Caitlin Moran c.2011, I want heels that still let me run away from potential attackers. They’ve got to have that flee factor. Or, or be on flee-k…

Ladies heelsCounter argument: A sharp heel could double up as an effective weapon. Stilettos must have been named after an Italian switchblade for a reason. Maybe those 50s’ designers weren’t trying to trap women, but rather arm them!

In fact, here are some other ways stilettos could be handy:

  1. To smash a window and break into your house when your flatmate’s locked you out.
  2. Open a can of food when you’re hungry and don’t have a can opener.
  3. Write a unsightly letter to a loved one like a crude ink quill.
  4. Make a tiny slide for a family of mice.
  5. Hack your arm off if you find yourself in a 127 Hours situation on your walk home.

welly bootsAnyway, despite these obvious plus points, I am firmly on team flats when it comes to going ‘out out’. I saw the light a couple of weeks ago after an impromptu night out with a friend that unexpectedly ended in a dance party to the corniest of 90s and 00s tunes in an Irish bar, (I wish I could say I was ashamed).

We were leaping and frolicking around the ‘dance floor’, (the space between the bar and loos), and I’m proud to admit I still know most of the moves to Steps’ Tragedy. The next day I woke up with blister-free, pain-free feet and only the embarrassing video my friend took of my sweet moves to worry about.

heels piano

This lady’s in so much pain she can’t even concentrate on her piano practice!

Then it hit me, every time I’ve had a great night out recently has been when I’ve chosen flats over heels. I’ve never been super into heels and maybe that’s why I’m still such a novice, but this is how a normal heel-wearing night goes for me:

The shoes start out comfortable enough – and my calves look amazing, seriously, just look at them – then about an hour the pinchy pain starts in the ball of my foot and I curse myself for not insisting the taxi driver take me all the way to the entrance. I try to dance, but my moves are limited to the side step (popular with dads at weddings everywhere), so I overcompensate with insane arm movements.

Outside, it starts to rain and while any men chaps can run for cover, I’m left doing a kind of unsettling baby giraffe power-walk that resembles a drag queen in their first week of training (I’m assuming drag queens attend some kind of camp, right?).

Soon after, the pinching feeling has become an all-encompassing burning and all I can think about is sitting down or, ideally, lying on my back with my bare feet in the air. And I can tell you, that is not good bar behaviour – a good way to make friends though. I eventually teeter home early and fling my shoes across the room shouting, “JUDAS!”.

red heels

An example of inappropriate bar behaviour

On the other hand (or foot), wearing flats means you can bound around to your heart’s content. Although freedom does come with certain disadvantages – 1) looking like an idiot and 2) becoming such a sweaty mess that your smoky eyes and bold red lip starts to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Heels have been worn by men and women for thousands of years in one way or another. But while men, generally speaking, stopped having to wear them a good century or so ago, why do women still feel obliged?

Converse flatsI’m always impressed by women that essentially live in heels. You know the ones, the rare breed of ladies that will happily tackle a mountain in a strappy pair of Jimmy Choos. If that’s what you can (and want to) do then you go for it. For everyone else who just wants to fling themselves around a make-shift dance floor to Mambo Number 5, I say: long live the flats! (And maybe carry a stiletto for self defence).

Image credits: Unsplash