Friday 19 February 2021

TALK - Plagues, Pandemics and Covid 19

Yesterday I have my talk on "Plagues, Pandemics and Covid-19" to a History Club in Sussex via Zoom. 

This is - inevitably -  a fairly grim talk but fascinating nonetheless. And in the end it has a message of hope to us all. Humanity has survived far worse diseases than Covid-19. Have a look at this map of the spread of the Black Death across Europe. Up to half the people in Europe were wiped out, and the population did not recover for 400 years. Compared to that, Covid-19 is barely a ripple on the story of humanity - tragic as the disease is for those who suffer from it. 

The talk also looks at how sciene and medicine has struck back on disease. We cover the micro-organisms that cause disease, how they affect a human body and how they spread. That allows the talk to look at pre-modern efforts to combat disease - be it prayer, quarantine or witchcraft - before looking at the first vaccinations against smallpox - as caricatured here by a contemporary print.
The talk also looks at the first outbreaks of what are now familiar diseases, such as when measles [below] first came to Europe. As a new disease hitting a population with no immunity, measles caused millions of death and untold misery. I also explain who such a devastating deadly disease could settle down to become a relatively mild childhood disease.

 But this talk is really a historical overview of the impact disease has had on humanity. The mass deaths of the Black Death and recurrant outbreaks of plague [below] radically altered society, government, religion and the economy of Europe. It changed the direction of history, and we are still living with the consequences. Similarly the cocktail of diseases that European explorers brought to the Americas caused a massive death toll among the Native Americans - up to 95% - and opened the way for European settlement of the New World far more than did guns, technology or numbers.

 The group I spoke to yesterday were particularly interested in the way that disease organisms are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other plants and animals. Generally this works in the direction of making diseases milder in their impact on the human body, but more infectious. That has been the story of nearly all diseases to afflict humanity - with the noticeable exception of Spanish Flu which became more deadly as time passed because of the way human doctors treated it. A warning for the future. 

Offer a range of over 20 talks, mostly on history subjects. Find out more on my website.

Thursday 18 February 2021

BOOK REVIEW - The Reckoning by John Grisham


Well, that was a pile of misery!

I can't say that I enjoyed this book. Pretty much every character ended up bankrupt, homeless, dead - or all three. Being Grisham, this is a very well-plotted book with gripping court room scenes and some interesting legal twists and turns to the plot.

I'll try not to give too much away, but the central section is a flashback to the Second World War when one of the characters fought heroically against the Japanese. I can't say that this bit worked very well. The action scenes came across as a bit pedestrian. You can tell Grisham is a writer of legal novels, not an action writer.

Overall, one of his weaker novels though not without some interest. But as I said at the start - a complete pile of misery from start to finish.

Friday 12 February 2021

Who was the Real St Valentine?

 St Valentine's Day is on the horizon, so today I gave my talk on St Valentine for the first time this year, and for the first time on Zoom. The group of 40 odd folks were a lively audience. I've spoken to this group before, but again this was the first time on Zoom. 

This is a wide ranging talk that covers the various other saints named Valentine - not just our 14th February chap - before going back to the years of the Roman Empire when the early Christians were persecuted for their faith by the pagan Roman Emperors.

The patron saint of love was, in reality, anything but romantic. This talk looks at the real Valentine, who was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Claudius Gothicus on 14 February 269. It then traces his career after his death as his holy reputation became mixed with spring fertility customs to produce the romantic patron saint of love that we know today. In passing we cover great medieval writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Jacob Voragine. And the talk looks at where is relics are eto be found today - including some rather unexpected places for his feet and hands!

Among the lesser known characters the talk covers is Joseph Ritson. If you look Ritson up in an encyclopedia it will tell you that he was the founder of vegetarianism. But so far as St Valentine's Day is concerned he more importantly wrote a card to his beloved that included the rhyme:

"Roses are red, Violets are blue,
the Honey is sweet, so are you."

Shakespeare eat your heart out. 

The audience today seemed less interested in the historic St Valentine than in how his day had become associated with romantic love, how poets had taken up the chalenge and the way the custom of celebrating your love and lover on 14 February spread around the world. 

I have a range of talks for specific times of the year, including:

The Real St Patrick [March]   [Zoom Friendly]
The Real St George [April]   [Zoom Friendly]
Who was Guy Fawkes? [November]   [Zoom Friendly]
A History of Christmas Foods [December]
The Biography of Father Christmas [December]   [Zoom Friendly]

If you would like to learn more about my talks, or enquire about a booking, see my WEBSITE


Wednesday 10 February 2021

Talk - Hengist the First English King


Today I gave my talk on "Hengist the First English King" to a WI group.

Under the Roman Empire, Britain was a Christian country where the people spoke Latin or Celtic languages. Just a few generations later paganism had triumphed and most people spoke English. Alone among the former Roman provinces, Britain fell to the pagan barbarians so completely that their religion and language triumphed. The key figure in this massive change was Hengist, a German mercenary from what is now Frisia, who came to what is now Kent. Displaying guile, violence and astonishing ruthlessness, Hengist carved out a kingdom for himself – a lead followed by other warriors who together created England. Although he was such a pivotal figure in the founding of England, the facts about his life are remarkably scanty and much disputed. This talk looks at the fall of Roman Britain and explains how England came into being.

The talk includes a screen presentation and was given over Zoom - though it works just as well in "real life" as it were. 
The audience was very engaged and asked some great questions at the end. One query concerned the Roman Army, which we were all taught at school was invincible, and why it was that the government of post-Roman Britain needed to hire a gang of tough Germanic mercenaries such as those led by Hengist and Horsa. I explained that by the 5th Century the Roman economy was in decline due to a cooling climate, corrupt government and plagues so that the Empire could no longer afford a large standing army. Instead local government bodies were hiring mercenaries or recruiting local, semi-trained militia - a process well under way in Britain by the time Hengist arrived in about 440. 
I always enjoy giving this talk. For a start the career of Hengist is a great story that includes outstanding examples of honour, treachery, sex, lust, violence and adventure. It also includes some wonderful characters such as Vortigern, St Germanus and Ambrosius. It also allows me to explain about the difficulties of trying to work out what was going on in Britain during the 5th century. But also how it is possible to work out the general trends happening and some of what was taking place. 

It is also a great showcase for how power operates within government structures at a time of stress and collapse.

And finally it explains the origin of the symbol of Kent - a white horse on a red field. An origin steeped in violence and bloodshed.

Friday 5 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - Carry On Henry (1971)


Nobody ever watched a Carry On film expecting accurate history. Which is just as well because you don't get much of it in this offering. 

To be fair to the producers, they don't even pretend. The prologue annonces that the story is based on a manuscript by William Cobbler and so it is a load of old Cobbler's. Having thus set the tone, the film launches into the ribald adventures of the lascivious and greedy Henry VIII [Sid James], the sanctimonious, hypocritical and corrupt Cardinal Wolsey [Terry Scott] and the deviously crooked Thomas Cromwell [Kenneth Williams]. 

In fact the storyline is very loosely - very loosely - woven around some incidents in Henry's life. We kick off with the execution of an unnamed queen [Pasty Rolands] and then lurch into marriage with Anne of Cleves - although here the character of an unwanted wife is not Anne from Germany but Marie from France [Joan Sims]. Her habit of chewing raw garlic puts off the fastidious Henry who tries to avoid consumating the marriage - although the interference of Marie's cousin, King Francis of France complicates the issue. Henry meanwhile is chasing any available busty young lady, with assorted comic slapstick results. 

Next Marie of France transforms into the character of Catherine of Aragon with Henry becoming bored with her just as a new, young lady appears at court - Bettina of Bristol [obviously], played by Barbara Windsor [equally obviously]. Young Bettina displays her assets to get Henry's attention but refuses his advances until they get married - involving Henry in increasingly surreal efforts to divorce Marie. 

But I am being far too serious in looking for historical parallels. This is a bawdy, slapstick farce of the first order. In my view, this is one of the better Carry On movies. 

It is sumptuosly staged - the costumes were left over from the far more serious and high-minded Richard Burton moive "Anne of a Thousand Days". And the exteriors were shot at Windsor and Knebworth. The film has a huge cast - most of them mainstays of British comedy such as Peter Butterworth, Bill Maynard and Margaret Nolan. Though, oddly, most of them get only one or two lines of dialogue. 

A great laugh. Watch it HERE

Note that I have also reviewed the 1933 classic The Private Life of Henry VIII staring Charles Laughton. 

Wednesday 3 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)


 This is a great movie!

Before I watched it yesterday evening I knew only two things about it:

1 - It starred Charles Laughton.

2 - Charles Laughton was the first non-American to win an Oscar, for his starring role in this film. 

Having now watched it, I can confirm that Laughton absolutely deserved his Oscar for his performance in this movie. 

The plot follows reasonably faithfully the life of Henry from 1536 to 1547. It opens on the day that Anne Boleyn [Merle Oberon] is to be executed. We see Anne preparing herself for a noble death, while Henry is boisterously enjoying himself at Court and preparing to marry Jane Seymour [Wendy Barrie]. We follow Henry through that short marriage to see his childish delight at the birth of a baby son and his short-lived grief when Jane dies. 

Determined not to remarry, Henry gives in to Thomas Cromwell's [Franklin Dyall] pleas for a political marriage to plain Anne of Cleves [Laughton's real life wife Elsa Lanchester]. Anne escapes her unwanted marriage with a ruse, after which Henry falls head over heels in love with beautiful Catherine Howard [Binnie Barnes]. Unknown to Henry, Catherine is already in love with his life-long friend Thomas Culpepper [Robert Donat, who comes close to stealing the show in his scenes]. When Henry finds out about their adultery, he collapses. 

I would bet that it is here that Laughton won his Oscar. The crushing of a proud man and his utter desolation in grief is almost painful to watch. What an actor!

But Laughton also does well with the comedy scenes. I especially like the bit where he sneaks out his bedroom in the middle  of the night to creep off to the bedchamber of a pretty young lady. He tiptoes past everyone, but then his personal bodyguard spot he has gone and run after him to crash to attention with stamping boots and cries of "Make way for the King", while Laughton is desperately trying to get them to shut up. Comedy gold.

Eventually Anne of Cleves persuades Henry to marry the matronly Catherine Parr [Everly Gregg] who mothers him as old age sneaks up on the aging monarch.  

Laughton dominates the film as Henry dominated England, but there are some great performances from other actors too. I've already said Donat is good, but so is Laurance Hanray as Archbishop Cranmer and Lady Tree as Henry's superstitious nurse. 

And there are some marvellous little cameo roles. I loved the redoubtable Wally Patch as the cynical cook, Hay Petrie as the hapless barber who gets everything wrong to comic effect and the merchant couple who attend every execution and bicker over how to get a seat with a good view. 

The costumes are magnificently sumptuous. The casting superb. The sets believable and the exteriors were shot at a variety of stately homes. 

Given that this movie is knocking on for being a century old, it has stood up very well to the passing of time. I give credit to a cracking script and to fine acting - especially by Laughton.

You can watch it here:

Note that I have also reviewed the very different British take on the same story - Carry On Henry

Monday 1 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - Santa Fe Trail (1940)


 Well, this is a cracking action adventure movie - though what it's got to do with the Santa Fe Trail is quite beyond me. They talk about it a couple of timees, but nobody ever actually goes to Santa Fe. 

This movie is really about the abolitionist John Brown, Bloody Kansas and the Raid on Harper's Ferry. The heroes of the film are a group of young officers, fresh out of West Point Military Academy who are posted to Kansas to try to keep the peace. They get engaged in a variety of escapades, fights and romances. Playing these heroic, dashing soldiers are Errol Flynn, Ronald Raegan and David Bruce. Clearly the producers wanted to spice up the audience appeal so as well as including Jeb Stuart [Errol Flynn] and Phil Sheridan [David Bruce] (who really were there) they include George Custer [Ronald Reagan] who wasn't. They also manager to shoehorn into the story Robert E. Lee [Moroni Olsen] and Jefferson Davis [Erville Alderson]. No doubt it all helped to pack in the audiences.

The villain of the piece is John Brown, magnificently played as a wide-eyed religious zealot by Raymond Massey. Van Heflin plays a suitably sneaky traitor very well indeed. Olivia de Havilland is her wonderful best as Flynn's romantic interest - though it must be said that she is rather unconvincing in her early appearances as a tomboy. The comedy subplot is wonderfully done by Ginn Williams and Alan Hale as a pair of wagon drivers with aspirations to join the army, though lacking any suitable abilities. The film shows its age in the way it treats the slave characters. Ostensibly the entire plot is driven by Brown's abolitionist beliefs and the way that the helps slaves escape north to free states. We see several of these slaves, but they don't say much and are little better than stock characters - a film these days would make much more of them.

The story gallops along a a fast pace with lots of action and twists to the storyline. I'm not a great expert on Brown and his exploits, but I'm told that the film has a lot of inaccuracies in it. Never mind, it is a cracking adventure film. Enjoy. 

You can watch it HERE.