Month: January 2014

On the siege of Leningrad

leningrad anna reidMy guest in this podcast is Anna Reid, a historian of Russia and author of Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege 1941-4, the first book in English to be devoted to the siege since 1969.

The siege by the German army lasted 900 days and led to the deaths of three quarters of a million people. The city was cut off, encircled by a siege ring in September 1941 as the Wehrmacht inflicted on Leningraders one of the oldest and most appalling forms of warfare that aimed to bombard and starve them into submission or death.

A directive from German High Command in September 1941 was unambiguous: “The city of Leningrad is to be sealed off, the ring being drawn as tightly as possible so as to spare our forces unnecessary effort. Surrender terms will not be offered.”

Anna’s book reveals great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice alongside ones of hideous brutality and cruelty. It also emphasizes the stubborn human will to survive. To listen to the podcast, click here.

German novelist Eugen Ruge on ‘In Times of Fading Light’

eugen rugeIn Times of Fading Light is Eugen Ruge‘s debut novel, a bestseller in Germany, and the winner of the 2011 German Book prize, awarded to the best German-language novel of the year. A multi-generational story spanning well over half a century (and drawing to a certain extent on Ruge’s own family history), it charts the impact of wider historical events on the lives of the Umlitzer family, who once belonged to the Communist elite but whose socialist utopia has long-since vanished by the time the book opens in 2001.

Through four generations, Ruge presents different perspectives of life under changing political regimes and the restrictions they imposed – we move from Fascism, to Communism and post-Communism, finishing with hyper-Capitalism. We witness characters’ lives that still have their fair share of mundane chores, problems and domestic disputes, but which appear extraordinary set against backdrops that are hard now to imagine.

ruge fading lightEugen Ruge was born in 1954 in the Urals in the former Soviet Union, where his German communist father Wolfgang had fled from the Nazis in the 1930s. When Russia and Germany went to war Wolfgang as an enemy alien was sentenced to hard labour and exile. After his release, he married a Russian woman and in 1956 the family returned to East Germany, where Wolfgang Ruge became a noted historian and his son pursued studies in mathematics and later a career in geophysics. But literature exerted a powerful appeal and Eugen Ruge began writing for the theatre, radio and documentaries, and also became a distinguished translator of Checkhov’s plays. Despite his Russian origins and a period in the west that began in 1988, Eugen Ruge has spent the majority of his life in Berlin, the city where, despite all the changes it has seen in his lifetime, he told me he still feels most at home.

I met Eugen at his home in the Prenzlauer Berg district of former East Berlin in  autumn 2012, where this interview was recorded.



Excavating the mummy’s curse

mummy's curse coverRoger Luckhurst‘s 2012 book, The Mummy’s Curse, is much more than just an opportunity to revisit the familiar story of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the winter of 1922 and the death soon after of his patron Lord Carnarvon in circumstances ascribed to the eponymous curse.

Roger’s real interest is in finding out where the story of the curse came from and what it says about the society in which the rumours circulated. I met up with Roger in order to explore ‘the lumber room of the Victorian exotic unconscious’ and tune in to the shuffling footsteps of the mummy…

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Paranormality: investigating the impossible with Richard Wiseman

paranormalityMy guest on this podcast is psychologist (and former magician) Richard Wiseman, who has long been interested in why people are fascinated by the paranormal – and willing to believe things for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence. The result of his interest is Paranormality, a book which lifts the lid on the tricks that psychics and mindreaders play and investigates why humans developed and retained a readiness to believe the impossible. In the podcast he explains how he rose to the challenge of investigating Hampton Court Palace’s ghost

To listen to the podcast, click here.

From imaginary beasts to barely imagined beings…

barely imagined beingsCaspar Henderson‘s 21st-century bestiary, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, is one of the most imaginatively conceived and beautifully produced books I have come across in the past couple of years. In the introduction, Caspar describes how the book was inspired when he was on a riverside picnic – Alice-style – in Oxford a few years ago. He had been reading Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, and having leafed through this book, fell asleep.

Then, he writes: ‘I woke with the thought that many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones, and it is our knowledge and understanding of them that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate them: we have barely imagined them.’ And so was conceived this A-Z of weird and wonderful creatures – all of them real – and their unfamiliar ways of being in the world.

To listen to the podcast, click here.