Tag Archives: history

Podcast Reviews – 3 – History podcasts for your delight

iCat
More Podcast recommendations for those who like podding while you do other things.  Me, I listen to podcasts when I drive, when I cook, when I clean, when I draw diagrams and, as of this weekend, when I’m painting the house.

I’m ambling slowly through the History of Rome in the company of Mike Duncan.  (Website including earlier episodes / the later ones are on on iTunes). This is a polite and courteous podcast, with the occasional flash of sly humour.  Duncan’s telling the entire story from the She-wolf to the Goths (there’s got to be some sort of Death Metal reference there, surely?).  He’s got as far as the late Republic.  I get rapidly bored by most narrative history and prefer analysis and commentary and there’s just enough of both to keep me interested.  In fact, I think I’ll re-run the lot when I’m painting the house, because I listened to a lot of these while mildly distracted, and they and I deserve better than that.

12 Byzantine Rulers.  (Website / iTunes). Another ancient history podcast.  The downside of this one is that it’s not a complete history of Byzantium and it’s a little hard to keep track.  The upside is that it’s Extreme History, and it’s rather fun.  Full of beautiful heterai who become empresses, fathers hurling their sons from city walls and emperors as satisfyingly mad as any you’d find in third rate science fiction.  It’s not science fiction though, it’s history and it’s true.  Lars Brownworth tells these sensational stories without too much sensationalism.  I could have done with more about Byzantine culture and I’d have preferred fewer gaps in the record, but that’s a compliment really.

Binge-Thinking History.  (Website / iTunes) Tony Cocks starts with the premise that the American Constitution didn’t spring out of thin air and looks for its intellectual antecedents in medieval and renaissance England.  I like his gentle and discursive style and I enjoyed his take on the history of the king, power and the people.  Enough analysis to keep the attention and enough information to tell me stuff I didn’t know already.  He then goes rather geekily on to the Battle of Britain, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much, but I’ll happily listen to whatever he does next.

Shakespeare-upon-ipod.  (Website / iTunes) A conspiracy theory in doublet and hose.  Please don’t assume that this podcast successfully puts the case that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare.  Mark Anderson doesn’t put up any of the arguments against, which are considerable, and the case is most definitely ‘not proven’. However, I found these podcasts dirtily compelling, like pot-noodles, and they certainly contributed to my understanding of the 16th and 17th C context of the plays.  But I like my arguments balanced not biased.

History Center.  (Website / iTunes) These seem to have stopped, which is a shame.  These deliberately set out to compare the present and the past, and discuss topics like Iran, war journalism and spying as well as more anodyne stuff like food or Abraham Lincoln.  They caught my attention, even the ones which were clearly the soundtrack for tv shows about photographs.  They are insightful, analytical and subversive and, to my delight, they come as close to criticising the Bush regime and the war in Iraq as, I suspect, public broadcasting ever does in the USA.  Unexpected and informative.  Highly recommended.

The BBC History Magazine Podcast. (Website / iTunes) I rather like this.  It is designed to up the circulation of the printed copy of the BBC History Magazine, but the subjects are varied, the interviewees are grown-up academics, the interviewees are intelligent, and the thing holds together well.  It’s the only multi-topic podcast I listen to, because most of the others irritate me but this one I enjoy.

The National Archives Podcast.  (Website / iTunes) I’ve mentioned these before.  There are three main categories here, ones about how to track down records in the archives, ones about the archival records for specific people, and ones about particular historical documents.  The latter two groups in particular are fascinating.  Eclectic is the only possible word, you are never entirely sure what you’re going to get or who the speaker will be.  The one on Orton and the one on Jermyn stand out, but the standard’s high throughout.  I do recommend them.

Hard Core History.  (Website / iTunes) The marmite of history podcasting: you either love Dan Carlin or hate him.  His approach is almost entirely analytical with just enough narrative to hold things together.  I can appreciate that not everyone would like Carlin’s opinionated and partial view of the historical world, but I love his energy and passion.

The infinit’th monkey

Shakespeare using Mr PicassoheadWhy do people get so aeriated about the question of who wrote Shakespeare? I’ve been listening to the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts (website / iTunes) and finding them increasingly unsettling.  Which is, surely, rather odd?  What does it matter who wrote the plays?  What matters is the plays themselves.  You’d think.

It does matter, though.  The traditional version is that a relatively uneducated midlander walked to London some time towards the end of the 16th century and, once there, he fell in with a rag-tail bunch of players and hustlers and wrote poetry of such startling humanity and expressiveness that it tops anything anyone else has ever written, anywhere.  Ever.  (Personally I find the plays bloody hard work, and only manageable on stage performed by really good players, but there you go).

The traditional version is demotic.  The Bard was of the people.  He was one of us.  The infinit’th monkey.  So the argument which says that whoever wrote the plays and sonnets must have been better educated, more aristocratic, had more political access and been better travelled than Shakespeare, is an argument which means that Shakespeare is no longer Everyman.  He’s no longer one of Us.  He’s one of Them.

I think the fact that it’s a conspiracy theory in doublet and hose is a side issue even though conspiracy theories are designed to be unsettling.  We like certainties, us monkeys.  If we didn’t, then we’d accept the answer “nobody knows” and conspiracy theories wouldn’t gain any credence.

You see, the dispute over who wrote the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare is about History, and evidence, and whether or not there’s enough of it to know for sure that a thing happened or didn’t happen. Its not just about the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s about History as a whole.  There’s the unsettling implication that most historical “facts” are merely hypotheses and ones which cannot be tested at that.

What history and science have in common is their reliance on evidence; but there’s no direct evidence to tell us who wrote the plays and sonnets and no possible experimental test.   What’s important isn’t who wrote the plays and sonnets, it’s that there isn’t enough evidence to answer the question.  This suggests that just about anything you learned in a history lesson could have been made up.  Now that’s subversive.  It’s also probably true, which makes it spectacularly unsettling.


If you want to know more, then Wikipedia has an accessible and well written entry on the dispute, and several on William Shakespeare himself.  By contrast, the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts focus on the pros of de Vere and the cons of “Shaksper”: unfortunately Mark Anderson argues from incredulity – he cannot believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, he fails to mention anything that counters his argument and doesn’t admit that he’s speculating.  By contrast, the Shakespeare Authorship site is more credible because it’s much clearer about the limitations of the evidence.  What recently re-ignited my curiosity about the subject was the (reduced) summary of the authorship question by the Reduced Shakespare Company.

Podcast Reviews – 1

iCatA lot of literary ladies here review books. Well I am going to review podcasts and I may continue to do so intermittently.

Let me declare here and now that the podcasts I like fall into four categories: History, IT, Management and occasionally Science. I’m a geekette, and proud of it.

Aphra’s favouritest podcast series ever is Hardcore History from Dan Carlin.

Carlin describes these as “conversations around the water-cooler”; he picks up an historical event or theme, peers at it from all sides, pokes it a bit to see what gives and puts it back so we can re-consider it from a distance. There are some very pedestrian history podcasts out there at least one of which must owe serious royalties to Wikipedia, but Carlin shows everyone else how it should be done. Very strongly recommended if you like to have thoughts provoked, connections made and paradigms subverted. Carlin’s not made that many of them, so I have started listening to his riffs off American politics and finding them almost as compelling.

Another must-listen podcast in Aphra’s car is The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast

A bunch of likable actors from the West Coast of the US shoot a themed breeze each week on some subject relating to their present and past touring shows. A particular favourite was Let it Snow. Gentle and amusing fun. I’m growing rather fond of them, and will of course go and see them next time they are in the Literary Festival in Little-Wittering-on-the-Wold.

I also enjoy the Business Week Cover Story

These are cheerful interviews between one of the editors of Business Week and whoever wrote the cover story that week. They’ve not made me go out and buy the magazine, but they are interesting, informative and sometimes illuminating.

Alt.text from Wired Magazine is good for a quickie

Running to 5 or 8 minutes or so, one of Wired’s columnists casts a flippant and frequently surreal eye over whatever catches his attention that week. Geeky. Silly. Witty. Worth 8 minutes of anyone’s week.

The National Archives Podcasts

Informative and interesting British history from real live academic historians. The lecturers are specialists and really know their stuff, working from primary sources. The slides they refer to, which one cannot of course see, show original documents. No wikipedia here. So understated it’s cool.

Old English in Context

These are undergraduate lectures from Oxford University which provide background information on the Dark Ages for students studying English Literature. They are detailed, funny and fascinating, and – woo hoo – you and I can listen to them and know we don’t have to write an essay or sit an exam. How bloody jammy is that?

There are several podcasters I am trying out to get a feel for:

Dan Klaas does laid-back essays about whatever strikes his fancy. They are classed as comedy, but I find them thought provoking.

The Cranky Middle Manager seem to have quality interviews on business-related subjects without pretending its aimed at the directors of plcs.

Occasionally the HBR Ideacast has interesting interviews with the authors of academic papers or books, but I overdosed on them early on and now I shake nervously when I hear their theme music.

There was one outstanding podcast from The University of Bath Public Lectures by world-class academics and politicians. These are frustrating because the original lectures were illustrated and the podcasts are audio only. Even so “Dead Sexy – the corpse is the new porn star of popular culture” is an exceptional lecture in an exceptional series.

It’s gotta beat Terry Wogan on the way into work, eh?


I download all my podcasts from i-Tunes. However, it has not escaped my notice that you are going to be looking at this at a PC so the links go to web pages and you can download the podcasts directly and listen to them on your PC. Isn’t that helpful of me?