Category: history and politics

The hammer and the cross – rethinking the Vikings

I heard an interesting interview with Robert Ferguson on the New York Times Books podcast at the weekend in which he talked about his new book on Scandinavia (“an engaging, layered look into a culture,” New York Times). It reminded me that I did an interview with Robert a few years ago when his new history of the Vikings, The Hammer and the Cross, came out. I listened again to that interview this morning on the dog walk and thought I’d repost it here.

In the interview, Robert told me:

One of the most important reasons for the outbreak of the age [of Viking raids and conquests] was acts of cultural self-defence. Almost – it is anachronistic – but almost terrorism. They couldn’t defeat the might of the [Christianizing] Frankish empire on the battlefield, so they resorted, as many a small culture will do when it’s under cultural threat, to terrorist-like activities, violent manifestations on frankly soft targets, monasteries and so on.

“And of course there was money to be had and things to be stolen as well, but there was no need to burn these places down and kill the unarmed monks, so I think that you have to look for some explanation as to why there was an almost psychopathic edge of hatred to this. It wasn’t simple robbery…”

 

Philip Hoare on Leviathan

philip hoare leviathanI see that Philip Hoare is publishing the third volume of his trilogy about the sea next week. RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR comes nine years after his award-winning book on the culture and history of whales, Leviathan, so I though I would re-present the interview I did with Philip about that book back then in a coffee shop in Bath (to listen click on the player above or download here)… As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

The story of a man’s obsession with whales, which takes him on a personal, historical and biographical journey – from his childhood to his fascination with Moby-Dick and his excursions whale-watching.

All his life, Philip Hoare has been obsessed by whales, from the gigantic skeletons in London’s Natural History Museum to adult encounters with the wild animals themselves. Whales have a mythical quality – they seem to elide with dark fantasies of sea-serpents and antediluvian monsters that swim in our collective unconscious.

In ‘Leviathan’, Philip Hoare seeks to locate and identify this obsession. What impelled Melville to write ‘Moby-Dick’? After his book in 1851, no one saw whales in quite the same way again.

This book is an investigation into what we know little about – dark, shadowy creatures who swim below the depths, only to surface in a spray of spume. More than the story of the whale, it is also the story of our own obsessions.

Olympic Games, 388 BC style

Greek charioteerWhat would it have been like to spend five days attending the ancient Greek Olympics in 388 BC? That’s what Neil Faulkner‘s book sets out to explore. You can listen to the interview, which I recorded with Neil in the spring of 2012, shortly before the London games, by clicking on the media players above or below. And there’s more information about the book on Yale University Press’s website here.
In the interview, Neil tells me:

‘Ancient Greece is a highly divided and competitive world, and it’s a world that puts huge emphasis on sport, partly because all of Greece’s city states depend for their armed forces on a citizen militia made up of their adult male citizens. So there’s a sense in which Greek sport is war without the shooting. It’s preparation for war in a highly divided and competitive world.’

And we also produced a short video of Neil talking about the book:

Neil Faulkner on his Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics from George Miller on Vimeo.

 

LMD podcast: Ed Emery on the Kurdish songbook project

My guest in the most recent podcast for Le Monde diplomatique was Ed Emery, who is an ethnomusicologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and also the presenter of Ed Emery’s Revolutionary Radio Show.

Ed wrote a piece for Le Monde diplomatique in which he described the regular visits he and fellow musicians make to Calais to talk to and make music with Kurdish people who have fled from Syria and hope to gain entry to the UK: what he calls ‘musical solidarity work with migrants’ as part of a wider Kurdish songbook project. In this interview he told me more about the project and plans for the reconstruction of the devastated Kurdish town of Kobane.

kobane

Graham Farmelo on Churchill’s Bomb


Graham Farmelo

I thought this might be an appropriate time to re-post my interview with Graham Farmelo from December 2013 about Winston Churchill’s interest in science and in particular nuclear weapons. Click on the player above to listen to the interview. Here’s what I said about the book in my introduction:

Graham Farmelo Churchill's BombI first became aware of Graham’s work a decade ago at Granta, where he had that rarest of things, a bestseller about equations, called It Must Be Beautiful. I interviewed him a few years ago for the Faber podcast when his biography of fellow physicist Paul Dirac came out; that book, entitled The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize. Graham and I met up again recently at Faber’s offices in Bloomsbury to talk about his new book, Churchill’s Bomb, a fascinating and pacy story of how Britain became a nuclear power, seen through the lens of Winston Churchill’s career.

Graham shows that Churchill’s interest in science – especially as it applied to the changing nature of warfare – ran all the way through his career. He was a devoted reader and sometime friend of that great speculator on the future, H.G. Wells. And Churchill himself pondered the nuclear question in his writing. In 1937, He contemplated the destructive potential that science’s mastery of nature held out – at a time when many scientists still doubted a nuclear bomb was achievable – and asked “Are we fit for it?”

Churchill’s Bomb provides an absorbing exploration of what happens when scientists encounter the pragmatic world of politics, and of whether politicians can cope with the power that scientists were increasingly able to place in their hands. As Graham says in this interview: ‘the availability of nuclear energy at the time when the world was plunged into its biggest conflict was one of the cruellest tricks that fate played on the human race in the twentieth century’. The book is also the story of how the centre of nuclear physics shifted from Britain to the United States, and the coming into being of post-war geopolitics in which nuclear capability would loom so large.

Atul Gawande on The Checklist Manifesto

To coincide with his giving this year’s Reith Lectures, I thought I would re-release this interview with Atul Gawande from 2011, in which I spoke to him about The Checklist Manifesto and how something as simple as a checklist could have dramatic, positive benefits in healthcare.

“We have people at the frontline who have great expertise – we couldn’t have people in medicine who are better trained, working harder, or given more technology to get their jobs done – and yet the puzzle is that for many of the steps along the way, such as in surgery, we have seven million people a year globally left disabled or dead through complications. At least half the time, we know that it’s from failures to use knowledge that already exists, steps in care that could have avoided it. And so understanding how we close the gaps, not just of ignorance but, for want of a better word, what we have to call ineptitude, is fundamental.”

Rafael Barajas on Mexico in crisis

In the December edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Rafael Barajas and fellow journalist Pedro Miguel have written about Mexico’s current state of crisis after the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teacher training college in September. It appears that they were handed over by the police to organized criminals who subsequently killed them.

If such horrific things are possible, then President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Mexico has become a terrorist state, Barajas and Miguel argue, concerned principally with defending the interests of those who gain from the multi-billion dollar drugs trade against the people, using violence and intimidation to make the lives of many ordinary Mexicans unbearable. ‘Beheadings’, Rafael told me, ‘have become a part of our daily news. So when I rang him in Mexico City on 25 November, I began by asking why – against this backdrop of violence and brutality – the disappearance of these 43 students had provoked such outrage.

Rafael Barajas quote

Mary Bosworth: Inside Immigration Detention

Mary Bosworth“Following 9/11, the US and then the UK decided to introduce new pieces of legislation which were ostensibly aimed – at least to start with – against terrorism and concerned security. But they rapidly bled into other fields, in particular into the area of immigration. So we saw throughout the first decade of the 21st century a series of new pieces of legislation which restricted access of asylum seekers and changed the way they were handled in the UK, and also restricted access of economic migrants and how they were handled. And in order to enact those changes of legislation, the UK government began to expand its immigration detention estate. And that was the point at which I realized there was a big gap in the academic literature on these institutions and that led me to this project…”

This is the first in a new series of podcasts commissioned by OUP’s law publishing department. My guest is Mary Bosworth, reader in criminology at the university of Oxford and concurrently professor of criminology at Monash University in Australia. Mary has had extensive and unprecedented access to the UK’s immigration detention centres  – now renamed immigration removal centres – where she conducted hundreds of face-to-face interviews with detainees and staff. In the post-9/11 world of heightened anxiety and tougher regulation, she’s been pursuing the question – what are these centres for? She’s also tried to capture what life is like for the people who pass through them, to help ground the debate about them in reality rather than polarized political stances. The results of her research are contained in her new book Inside Immigration Detention.

Quotation from Bosworth interview