Due to changing jobs a few months ago, my rail commute into London with its opportunity to read and write-up my thoughts has been replaced by a drive down to obscure parts of Surrey, rather to the detriment of this blog. However this does give me a couple of hours per day with no demands on my time from family or employers in which to get some intellectual stimulus and the historical podcast has been an epiphany to me. I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of these podcasts and casters over an article or two.
The podcast is a loose term- and one I use more loosely than most- as any piece of recorded speech downloaded from the internet. As we will see this embraces a broad church of recordings.
On of the most common sources is radio programmes repackaged as podcasts. These, of course, benefit from far better production values than a chap with a mic in his office. Whilst this also means that there has to be a big enough audience for the subject to be commissioned, which rules out the most obscure and recherché we are very lucky in having Radio 4 with its public service brief delivers some superb stuff.
My favourite, and the backbone of my listening has been In Our Time. This has been running for donkey’s years and the entire archive is available on podcast. In these, unedited 45 minute programmes, Melvyn Bragg hosts three, often quite prominent, academics to discuss a given topic in science, philosophy, history or literature. Bragg, informed by notes from this guests, (and frequently his own prejudices) guides and referees the discussion. Now whether you enjoy these or not depends a lot on how you feel about Bragg- and a lot of people I know take strong exception to him. I think he does a rather good job of courting or suppressing disagreement as required, moving the academics on from dwelling on their hobby-horse topics and keeping the show within its time limits. Un-scripted (or, at best loosely scripted) as they are they vary in quality somewhat, some really come off and others are less successful but few fall really flat. They are nicely weighted to please the completely layman whilst still having something for the informed amateur but the beauty of them is their variety. How else could you , in one week listen to expert views on The Norman Yoke, The Peterloo Massacre, the Boxer Rebellion, Octavia Hill, The Volga Vikings, Caxton, The Borgias, the Condordat of Wormes and the Seige of Munster?
Although I have no pretence at all of being a classicist, I will admit to being a devotee of Mary Beard and her short contributions to another Radio 4 Production, A Point of View are worth a listen. There is a lot to admire about her. Her conscious defiance of the convention that TV historians should either be distinguished middle-aged men or pretty young women is perhaps slightly dated, but her determination to be herself is refreshing. Her TV delivery seems lighthearted and almost naive with her smirking references to willies and coitus. Although her undyed hair and eccentric dress may be very much her own she does sometimes make an affectation of not being affected . However I enjoy the personal nature of her histories and there is always a hard intelligent core to all she does. Her recent series on Rome had some real nuggets of social commentary without being heavy handed. Despite her mildness and clear compassion he has, of course also sparked a couple of significant controversies. After September 11th her soundbite about America “having it coming” was, if not exactly out of context, certainly more palatable when framed as part of her more nuanced argument. She recently raised ire again by questioning the veracity of locals complaints about the effect of immigration on rural Lincolnshire. I happen to think that she may not have been entirely right here and that she might have allowed her instinctive liberalism to dismiss a genuine issue. However her exposition of the malice and misogyny on twitter and forums which were a consequence of her comments further demonstrated to me her integrity and steel. Her contributions to Point of View on such subjects as the modern age and beauty, death in Pompeii, the age of consent, poverty and academia are studied, engaging and poignant and exemplifies how valuable a historical perspective from a first class on modern social issues can be.
Another revelation, and one which has been an absolute joy, was the discovery that the whole of Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James II is available on podcast. This is not the place to dissect the merits of Macaulay, so I will try to limit my enthusiasm and only do so briefly. We are taught that we ought to rather dismiss Macaulay as his Victorian Whig perspective of the perfection of the English constitution and the perhaps slightly unfair perception that he believed that this was determined by fate due to some inherrent virtue of the English and Anglicanism are considered oversimplified, wrong and, worse quaint. This is maybe true, but to discount him like this is to do him- and yourself- a great disservice as it is wonderful stuff. He writes beautifully, with a verve, authority and even tenderness which few modern writers can match. If the thread of his narrative doesn’t stand up to modern scholarship (or indeed near contemporary Marx was not a fan to say the least) it betrays his bias not his lack of insight or analysis which is thought provoking even now.
The online recordings are by LibriVox, an organisation of volunteers which makes public domain reading of out of copyright books and it is credit to them to have taken on the huge 5 volume history. It also gives the recording a rather different character to a professional recording would. Instead of the middle aged,male received pronunciation you would expect, segments are read by a variety of the volunteers from around the world. I actually rather like it, although some of the American renderings of some English place names was a bit off (Charles lost at Nas-er-by we are told), and hearing the Sun King referred to as “Lewis” grated a bit, only one reader with a heavy Indian accent actually made understanding difficult. I’m getting through about a chapter per week or so the whole work will be a project of several months, but what a pleasure it is. I particularly enjoy the reading of Chip from Tampa and the anonymous Yorkshireman who do much or the early reading but the change of voices from around the English speaking world and of both sexes is perhaps no bad think for such a long piece.
LibriVox has an extensive catalogue of fiction and non-fiction, including G.K. Chesterton’s (considerably briefer) History of England, and they are working on David Hume’s (almost equally long) opus – which I may even contribute to. It is a brilliant completely free resource which I’m nor sure many people realise is there.
I’ll write a couple more of these in the near future, hopefully interspersed with some actual posts on history. I hope you’ll reign me in if you find I am regressing into Whiggishness due to saturation in Macaulay.