We have a treat for you today – the first part of a special issue to mark the 20th anniversary (and bear in mind that in digital resource years that makes us at least 200) of Reviews, for which we have asked our Editorial Board to recommend some of the most influential / significant history books of the last 20 years.
Some suggested themselves, some commented that the task itself was impossible (‘Ha ha sure that’s straightforward Danny, name the best history book out of what – only a million or so contenders!’), but I think we came up in the end with a good spread of books, and nice spread of approaches to revisiting a ‘classic’.
Anyway, here are the first four (I don’t know what it says that we didn’t review any of them when they first came out! I wasn’t in charge then of course…).
We start off with Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova, as Hannes Grandits goes back to a book which became an instant must read on its publication in 1997 (no. 2035).
Then we turn to Randall Packard’s The Making of a Tropical Disease A Short History of Malaria. Maureen Malowany looks back over a timely overview of the history of one of the most complex and ancient of all diseases (no. 2034).
Next up is Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Sonya O. Rose. Laura Beers tackles a book which, more than a decade after its publication, remains a model for students interested in contemporary cultural history (no. 2033).
Finally, we have Christopher Bayly’s Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, and Ricardo Roque revisits a book which made him travel to places and explore ideas that he would not otherwise had considered (no. 2032).
Martin Luther, as ever the life and soul of the party…
First up this week we have Dominic Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt: the Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, as Charlotte Methuen and Dominic Erdozain discuss a fascinating study of the ways in which religious faith could open the door to doubt (no. 2031, with response here).
Then we turn to the Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence, edited by Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams and Keisha N. Blain. Lydia Plath praises an innovative crowdsourced response to the tragic events of Charleston (no. 2030).
Next up is Danes in Wessex : the Scandinavian impact on southern England, c.800-c.1100, edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey. Jeremy Haslam reviews an edited collection which should provide all students of the period with material to ponder and enjoy (no. 2029).
Finally, we also have a lengthy response by Dmitri Levitin to our earlier review of Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700, which you can read here.
Our reviews this week kick off with George Goodwin’s Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. Angel-Luke O’Donnell and the author discuss an immersive biography, useful for anyone interested in 18th-century sociability (no. 2028, with response here).
Next up Benedict Wiedemann reviews two different but equally valuable approaches to the medieval papacy, Popes and Jews 1095-1291 by Rebecca Rist and Pope Innocent II (1130-1143): The World vs the City, edited by John Doran and Damien J. Smith (no. 2027).
Then we turn to Balfour’s World: Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Nancy W. Ellenberger. Andrew Hillier praises a fresh and illuminating perspective of what would otherwise be familiar territory (no. 2026).
Finally we have Robert G. Parkinson’s Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. Jonathan Wilson recommends an account that deserves attention from any historian studying early American national identity, racism, western expansion, or print culture (no. 2025).
Dr. Donald A. Henderson (right), who led the World Health Organization effort to eradicate smallpox, examines a child’s vaccination scar in Ethiopia.
We start this week with The End of a Global Pox by Bob H. Reinhardt, as Susan Heydon and the author discuss a valuable contribution to the literature on smallpox eradication (no. 2024, with response here).
Next up is Dmitri Levitin’s Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700. William Bulman enjoys a book full of subtly analyzed, elaborately contextualized, extensively detailed, and often interrelated examples (no. 2023).
Then we turn to Keagan Brewer’s Wonder and Skepticism in the Middle Ages, as Stephen Spencer praises a thought-provoking discussion of wonder, skepticism and marvels (no. 2022).
We begin this week with Catherine A. Stewart’s Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. David Cox and the author discuss a superbly researched, engaging, and insightful book (no. 2020, with response here).
Next up is Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy, edited by Ariel Hessayon. Liam Temple reviews a valuable and timely collection of essays that offers new direction to those concerned with studying the Philadelphians (no. 2019).
Then we turn to John B. Freed’s Frederick Barbarossa: the Prince and the Myth. Thomas Foerster believes that this book will become the standard work in English on Frederick Barbarossa and 12th-century Germany (no. 2018).
Finally we have Exploring the Next Frontier: Vietnam, NASA, Star Trek and Utopia in 1960s and 1970s American Myth and History by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell. Kendrick Oliver thinks that a more polished and persuasive book would have better explored these worthwhile themes (no. 2017).
Less than a week to go until the US elections, and, thanks to the hard work of our editorial board member Daniel Peart, we are able to present an election special – four books showing the ways in which the current generation of American politicians use history to promote their own brand of politics.
We start with the current frontrunner and potential first-ever woman president, Hilary Clinton, and her Hard Choices. Karen Heath believes this memoir will be of particular interest to students of the political uses of history (no. 2016).
Next up is former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal’s American Will: The Forgotten Choices That Changed Our Republic. David Tiedemann poses some big questions for the former presidential hopeful (which to be honest he is unlikely to answer… no. 2015).
Then we turn to God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy by another Republican White House wannabe, Mike Huckabee. Roy Rogers discerns, through Huckabee’s frustrations, some useful insights on the state of American conservativism in the age of Donald Trump (no. 2014).
Finally we turn to Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto. Kenneth Owen questions whether the fundamental values this libertarian Republican espouses are closer to those of the Founding Fathers or to Austrian School economists (no. 2013).
We start this week with Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States by Dana Nelson, as Mark Boonshoft and the author discuss a book which offers a coherent paradigm for understanding an important part of the early American democratic tradition (no. 2012, with response here).
Next up is Medieval Merchants and Money: Essays in Honour of James L. Bolton, edited by Matthew Davies and Martin Allen. Chris Dyer recommends a volume which is a tribute to the ingenuity of historians (no. 2011).
Then we turn to Ashley Wright’s Opium and Empire in Southeast Asia: Regulating Consumption in British Burma, which Jim Mills believes to be another significant contribution to the revisionist movement in the history of narcotics in modern Asia (no. 2010).
Finally we have Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945 by Roger Daniels, and Alan Dobson is disappointed by a biography focusing on Roosevelt’s spoken words (no. 2009).
You may remember that back in April we posted an appeal for the anonymous author of a particularly interesting pamphlet from Senate House Library’s Ron Heisler collection to come forward…
…little did we think that they actually would!
Anyway, we saw this as a good opportunity to quiz the author as to how far their views had changed in the thirty years since Bigot was published, and the interview, as well as the full text of the magazine itself, is reproduced below.
Are you still a vegetarian? The page with the picture of the butchered carcass is perhaps the most visually arresting in the magazine – did you draw it yourself?
Yes I’m still vegetarian and yes I drew all the cartoons/graphics in Bigot. I came to vegetarianism through animal rights and the punk scene in the 1980’s. It was part of the ‘package’. But I think if a person’s primary reason for this becoming vegetarian is for animal rights reasons (ie, conscience and altruism) then it’s hard to reverse that, as the reasons are so heart-felt. It’s not the same if you did it for your own health reasons. I know a lot of now ex-veggies that have been vegetarian foremost for their own health benefits, but have reverted to eating meat again as they have read some report that suggests they should do so. I’m still mostly vegan in fact. I’m now a professional photographer shooting outdoor/adventure editorials so I travel a lot and to a lot of remote places and ‘developing countries’. Vegan is hard to do on some of the trips, but I’ve stayed vegetarian and haven’t eaten meat or fish for 32 years.
I suppose the main thing is how much of a continuum there has been between this publication and your later life, whether in a sense you still recognise yourself here, and whether the people around you would recognise you from it?
I think I could really do with seeing a copy of Bigot again to best answer some of these questions. Unfortunately (?) I don’t have one. But as I remember Bigot, then yes I see quite a lot of continuation in my thoughts, ideas and passions 30 years or so later. I have the same base politics (anarchism) but as with most people, it has become diluted as I have become incorporated into the working world. I wouldn’t say I have sold-out, just maybe more realistic. In fact a very good friend sees me as still being a prime example of the punk message –to just go and do it and not worry about what others think or expect of you.
I’ve changed jobs/career paths several times, leaving solid, secure jobs to go traveling etc, and now work for myself as a freelance photographer. I think for me it’s easy to feel like I have compromised in many parts of my life though, for example I photograph advertising campaign images that are used to encourage people to consume more – but I am choosy about who I will work for. I have turned down work for a major cigarette company and Coca-Cola, and I know who I wouldn’t work for – McDonalds for example. All the brands for which I photograph commercially are involved in the outdoor industry. Yes, they sell products but the products encourage and enable people to get outside, get into the wilds, get fitter, discover the world, nature etc, so I guess that helps placate my own unrest/unease about participating in encouraging consumerism. The ‘great outdoors’ has played a big part in my own passions and lifestyle.
I think the underlying continuum is that I still have a ‘do unto others as you’d wish them to do to you’ ethos. I think people need to take responsibility for their actions, but I still believe that we’re not encouraged to do so, nor largely allowed to do so. When people are not encouraged to take real responsibility in society then the resulting breakdown allows the excuse for increased restrictions, laws, oppression. Don’t confuse me with ‘libertarians’ that want freedom to do whatever they want (and to heck with the rest of society), rather that I still believe that everyday distractions (TV, iPhone, Facebook etc) and the image we’re sold of what life is meant to be we are not responsibility or allowed to really see the truth. That hasn’t changed since I put together Bigot. The distractions are there, but they have changed slightly with technology.
Some would argue that most people don’t want to see the truth, and want to get on with life as they have it. I think that’s a cop out excuse.
Oh and I still love hummus.
Is this publication something that your friends and family would know about, do you talk about it or did you forget all about it?
One of my 2 brothers would know about it, but not other family members or most current friends (aside from a couple of old friends from that era in Swansea.) I think it’s important to understand the era in which Bigot was made, and the fact that police harassment (eg, stop and search of our cars and phone tapping) was something we genuinely had to deal with once your name was known. I was involved in a lot of direct action and certainly producing a political magazine like Bigot was not something you publicised that much, hence the anonymous PO box contact. And there was nothing to gain from putting your own name on it anyway. It’s not like I was entering the Booker prize. We made magazines like this to politicise what we thought was (and I believe still is) an ignorant and apathetic population, it wasn’t to get your name out there and win friends or status.
There was a great slogan back then that read ‘just because they say you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you’, or something similar. I might even have included it in Bigot?
Were you part of a community at Swansea sharing things like this or was it really an individual effort?
I was involved in many group actions and political action/campaign groups in Swansea. We hosted punk gigs as benefit fund raisers for causes like Rape Crisis Centre and the striking miners etc. We had Chumbawamba play a few times, back when they released their critique of Live-Aid/charity ‘Pictures of Starving Children sell records’ LP. They’d all sleep on our bedroom floor after the gig. We played in our own (punk) bands too. Producing Bigot was another output for my political ideas and a step in my own social development. It was perhaps a way for me to re-enforce my own beliefs too, and for me to address my own controlling tendencies. I was involved in making another political paper at the time called Swansea Black Sheep, with two other student anarchists. It was a great paper but I felt like I had to compromise a little doing that, so I wanted to put produce something that was solely my own editorial, hence Bigot. It probably played some cathartic role. I sold it at punk gigs around the country and in the local community bookshop (called “Emma’s”, named after anarcho feminist Emma Goldman). I went on to be involved in other political (anarchist) national papers for years afterwards until about 1996.
Interestingly the title Bigot (and cover cartoon I drew) came to mind after another argument with my own mum, when she accused me of being a bigot because I wasn’t “willing to listen to others” (her words). Meanwhile I was trying to explain to her that we live in a pseudo-democracy where our idea of freedom and free speech is dictated to us by those in power (I still believe this is the case). I was trying to show her that I wasn’t the bigot, but those in power, holding the reins over a sham of free speech, are the bigots. The idea of the middle and upper class raping the world and then shouting bigot at the few underdogs as they struggled for change society seemed to sum up the idea that I should call it Bigot. It was sic / tongue in cheek.
One of the things that strikes us looking at Bigot is that it comes from perhaps the last generation of students who would have turned primarily to print, and we suspect that now this sort of content would be published in blogs and personal websites. Do you have any feelings about what that shift means in terms of getting your voice heard?
I believe print had its place and still does. It was and still is an important way of getting your voice heard. Its physical form and presence exerts more resonance, especially nowadays when most media is digital and so easily passed over, to be forgotten after 30 seconds. I think yes if this kind of voice is now on blogs etc, then it is largely swamped by the online media tsunami that is the internet. I’m thinking that the town I am in now needs a printed newsletter, distributed for free, rattling the cage and pointing out the inadequacies of the local council to try to embarrass them into (re)actions. Print was (is) all about taking it to the people, selling papers on the streets, handing out pamphlets. People wont find these political messages on the internet unless they go looking for it, and then the readership is likely already sympathetic. That’s good as it helps build solidarity, but it doesn’t take your message to the extra people, the critical mass that will make the difference, whether it is through making changes to their own personal lives for climate change reasons or putting pressure on the authorities for change, be it local or global.
On the plus side I’m amazed at how responsive and quickly online things can get done, organized and achieve results. For example, petitions can get a million signatures in a week and protests and news from protests can be seen and shared so quickly on twitter etc. The downside of online is how easily the message can be bastardized, become misaligned, challenged and ridiculed through half truths or misinformation and the same channel that was meant to deliver your message can become the soapbox for the opposition.
I don’t know how much contact you have with students today, or how much you are still involved in campaigning groups, but I suppose the obvious question is whether you think young people today are politically engaged as you very obviously were?
I don’t really have any contact with students nowadays. I live much of the time in France and am not that involved in campaigning groups –those that are active locally where I live are too liberal and wishy-washy in their methods for me to really want to be involved with them. I do talks and presentations that raise money for causes and I donate my photography work to charities to use. But from what I see around me, no I don’t think young people are as socially-politically engaged as we were in the 1980s. The 80s were a pretty challenging decade – we had the real threat of nuclear war hanging over us, and it was easy to identify the ‘enemy’. Today the enemy is harder to define as a single focus for our energy, the protest movement is so fractioned, and there are so many distractions for young people that politics is lower down the list of priorities. I hope it’s just that I am out of touch. I think I could safely say that Bigot and the politics I was into then was pretty marginal, and I am aware that most people in the 80s actually didn’t give a toss about much either, just as people are today.
I do think there is a rising tide of dissatisfaction in young people again though. People are worried about their futures, the rise of the right wing and the destruction of our planet. Things are hotting up and I think there will be a lot more protest to come. It’s in the pipeline.
What issues do you think you would be writing about if you were doing another issue of Bigot today?
Unfortunately I think it would be the same issues. That’s a depressing thought isn’t it? The same issues face us now as they did then (albeit without the same threat of nuclear annihilation – although as I write seem to be spiraling back towards some 1980s Armageddon-threatening era of fear). The only thing that would be different in a new Bigot, would be in its delivery – a more upbeat production perhaps, although I seem to remember using cartoons to make it more penetrable and accessible to people?
I see a lot of what we shouted, protested and warned about in the early-mid 80s as having come true: increased state control and powers under the guise of anti-terrorism, CCTV on every corner, ignorant Kardachian-mania (replacing Princess Diana-mania), xenophobia, mindless consumerism having more importance than protecting the planet, the rise (again) of racism, the pervasion of sexism (made ‘acceptable’ again by a strange post–PC laddish attitude). Not much has changed really. They even voted to renew Trident yesterday 30 years after we spent a decade living in fear of being blown away. Insane. We’ve xenophobically got out of Europe and the USA is about to vote a bigoted racist in as president. These are worrying times.
Personally, three decades of head-banging-against-wall feelings gets tiring and it gets me down. But there is still something in me that refuses to give in, to let the bad win.
Bigot was obviously fairly counter-cultural – how does it feel that it has been added, without your knowledge, to a major academic library?
We need academics. I’m not a ground zero Maoist. There’s nothing wrong with education, study, academia, and so on if it benefits society. We need people to theorise and think. I think its easy to see ‘counter-cultural’ as the same as anti-everything. It isn’t. It’s subjective. It depends on the culture. It’s the same trap people see about punk too. Punk was originally about DIY music and disaffected youth escaping the drudgery of life (and about art school students making money), but it soon became a political stage that was also about protesting against the capitalist-governed society. That’s where bands like Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, Conflict and Chumbawamba came in. Yet people on the outside only see it as being about smashing things up. It’s easy to label protest movements, to compartmentalize and misrepresent them so that their true messages are conveniently side-stepped. Bigot wasn’t about the overthrow of everything we know, but about highlighting the wrongs of the world and praising the good (like hummus).
It seems the wrong question to ask about a magazine that deplores capitalism and quotes Marx, but it must have been reasonably expensive to print – did you make a profit do you remember? Or was it maybe quietly put together on Swansea University equipment without too much cost?
Bigot didn’t cost much to make, although for a student it felt like it did at the time. I did all the artwork, layout etc myself, and got a local printer to print. I seem to have a figure of £60 in my head for the printing and paper. I have no idea how many copies I printed – maybe 1000? Maybe 500? I sold it for whatever it cost to print per issue. Was it 20p? No profit. I seem to remember insisting on using recycled paper, even back then. That was important.
We start this week with The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley, as Charlotte Riley recommends a compelling exploration of one way in which the British political establishment and the British public (mis)interpret, (mis)remember, and (fail to) engage with history (no. 2008).
Next up is Matthew Strickland’s Henry the Young King 1155-1183 by Matthew Strickland. David Crouch praises a book whose study of the Young King is carried off with thoroughness and an enviable mastery of the chronicle and literary sources (no. 2007).
Then we turn to what I am sure the reviewer won’t mind me gently saying is a slightly overdue review (the sequel is already out!) – Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends by Mary Sperling McAuliffe. Charles Sowerwine praises a great read for professional historians and the educated lay reader alike (no. 2006).
Finally we have a review article covering The New Deal: A Global History by Kiran Klaus Patel and Great Exception: The New Deal & The Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie. Gabriel Winant believes that in the distance between these two books, a range of new questions to debate for years ahead emerges (no. 2005).
We start this week with The Radical Right in Late Imperial Russia: Dreams of a True Fatherland? by George Gilbert, as Geoffrey Hosking and the author discuss a good general guide (no. 2004, with response here).
Next we turn to Jonathan Hogg’s British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long 20th Century. Richard Brown recommends the first major contribution to what promises to be a significant sub-field of British nuclear history (no. 2003).
Then we have John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat by Crawford Gribben, as Elliot Vernon praises a fluent biography of a difficult historical figure (no. 2002).
Finally Ronan Fanning’s Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power is reviewed by Brian Girvin, who believes this book sets the bar high for any future assessments of de Valera (no. 2001).