Category: history and politics

(Nearly) two hundred years of the Old Vic

The Old Vic first opened its doors in May 1818. Back then, building a new theatre south of the river was a commercially risky venture, and the Royal Coburg Theatre (as it was originally known) was only made viable by the recent construction of Waterloo Bridge. The first night programme included a melodrama, a pantomime and a harlequinade. Outside, Waterloo Road was unpaved and only half-completed, Waterloo station was still thirty years in the future. The approach to the theatre was across a badly lit bridge and then through Lambeth Marsh and theatre-goers worried about falling prey to thieves…

Terry Coleman’s fascinating history of the Old Vic covers all of the astonishing ups and downs in the theatre’s history from opening night via Lilian Baylis and the Olivier era as first home to the National, to Kevin Spacey and beyond. I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to him about it in this interview recorded on location in the circle bar last month for the Faber podcast.

And here is an interview from last year of related interest with director Michael Blakemore in which he speaks about his involvement with the early years of the national theatre in the seventies:

terry coleman

Uncivil War: the Israel-Palestinian Conflict and the Jewish Community


Keth Kahn-Harris Uncivil War“For Jews, Israel goes very close to the heart, whether you’re a Jewish supporter of Israel or you’re a Jewish critic of Israel and of Zionism, it’s very hard to be indifferent about it. In fact, it would be very odd if most Jews were indifferent about Israel because this is the major project of the modern Jewish people. […] The author Joel Schalit says in his book Israel vs. Utopia that it isn’t just an issue for Israel and the Palestinians; it’s really become the world’s conflict. Everyone seems to have a stake in it, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever. It’s something that it’s very difficult generally to be indifferent about, which has its positives and negatives, but I think it’s mainly negatives…”

This podcast features an interview with sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris about his new book, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community. This book sets out not only to examine the heated, often vitriolic, even poisonous nature of that debate and explore how it has come about, it also aims to make its own contribution to improving the debate. As you’ll hear in this interview, Keith and his wife experimented with commensality – the practice of eating together – to see what that might achieve when members of the UK’s Jewish community with widely differing views sat down together.

You can find out more about the book at David Paul Books and you can read more about Keith and his work at his own website.

Catriona Kelly St Petersburg interview – part II

I don’t want to normalize it completely, but I think Britain has many of the same problems as Russia actually: mass alcoholism – there’s plenty of that – a governing elite that doesn’t really give a toss for anybody, doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what happens when you administer cuts at the top level and so on. And instead we sit round and point the finger at them…

In this concluding part of my interview with Catriona Kelly about her recent book, St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past, we talk about the shadow cast by the Blockade over the post-war life of the city; getting by under communism; adapting to life post-Communism; and Catriona’s own experience of becoming a part-time resident of the city – including a visit to a builder’s merchant on its outskirts.Rossi Zhiguli

Catriona Kelly on shadows of St Petersburg’s past

The present and the past are intertwined and it doesn’t matter if what people remember about the past isn’t true – it’s got significance for them now. I’m going between lots of different layers, because that’s what people do in their conversation.

Catriona Kelly selfieMy guest in this programme is Catriona Kelly, who is Professor of Russian at the University of Oxford. Catriona appeared in one of the very first editions of the programme in early 2008, when we talked about her monumental history of childhood in twentieth-century Russia, Children’s World. That interview is still available here.

I visited Catriona in Oxford last month to talk to her about her latest book, published in January by Yale University Press. St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past presents a multi-faceted portrait of a great city that has undergone decades of transformation since the late 1950s and examines how layers of shared memories of the past have left their mark on the present. What interests Catriona is less the official memory enshrined in St Petersburg’s monuments and museums, but rather memories of everyday experience – where people lived, what they ate, how they travelled, what they did at work – the little things that give life shape and meaning.

Nab. reki Karpovki smokeThe books is based on interviews, archival research that takes in literature, art and memoir among many other sources, and personal experience – the sense of the city gained over time from wandering around, camera in hand photographing a rubbish skip, a dog walker or schoolyard graffiti, alert to the changing texture of everyday experience (all the photos on this page are from Catriona’s collection). This fascination, Catriona confesses in this interview, even extended to surreptitiously collecting discarded supermarket receipts to see what they reveal.

This interview is in two parts. In the first part, we talk about Catriona’s early experiences of the city as a language student in the late 70s, what her book sets out to do, and the lingering sense that, despite many improvements in daily life since the end of Communism, something is missing.


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.

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.

Inventing Ruritania – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy: Inventing Ruritania

I recently interviewed Serbian-born, London-based writer, poet, and academic Vesna Goldsworthy, whose books include a  collection of poetry, The Angel of Salonika, and a memoir entitled Chernobyl Strawberries, which one reviewer described as “suffused with a longing complicated and deepened by the eradication of the Yugoslav state”.

I met Vesna to discuss Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, another book which contemplates the identity of South Eastern Europe, in this case the construction of the Balkans in the British literary imaginary – “a gently ridiculous proxy” as Vesna calls it  (typified by the fictional kingdom of Ruritania) for the real Balkans; a repository for the qualities of a region which by turn attracted, fascinated and repelled the British; a place that could be turned into farce and pastiche, or depicted as a place of potential menace, where European identify dissolved into something irredeemably alien and eastern.

To listen to the podcast [22:45], click here.

To find out more about the book, visit Vesna’s publisher’s site here.

“These are a few of my favourite popes…”

ten popes who shook the world

Yes, the title of this post is admittedly a little misleading – the popes in the podcast (popecast?) are not necessarily the favourites of my guest, Eamon Duffy, but those who he thinks have had the greatest impact on history – The Ten Popes who Shook the World.

Eamon’s popes range from Saint Peter to John Paul II, and along the way take in reforming popes and reactionaries, and sometimes complex men who combined both instincts, faced with the challenges of establishing and shaping the church.

With over 260 candidates to choose from, I bean by asking Eamon how hard it had been to come up with a list of just ten pontiffs. To listen to the podcast, click here.

Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity, Cambridge University, and fellow and former president of Magdalene College. He is the author of many prizewinning books, among them Fires of Faith, Marking the Hours, and Saints and Sinners, all available from Yale University Press.

Food adulteration is nothing new

HorsesWith horse meat cropping up all over the place in food in the UK at the moment, I went back to the interview I recorded in 2008 for Princeton University Press with Bee Wilson about her book Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Ersatz Coffee.

As the book makes clear, (justifiable) concern about what’s in our food is nothing new: complaints about adulterated bread date back at least as far as the Middle Ages, and the Victorians had to contend with fake tea, ersatz coffee and cheese coloured with red lead. In this interview, Bee says:

Adulteration is a universal in history – it’s always been with us and it’s always going to be with us in some form or another. But it only seems to have become endemic in modern industrialized cities coupled with a particular kind of state. You would have editorials written in the Times between about the 1820s and the 1860s quite regularly saying things like, if a gentleman wants to sell chicory and call it coffee, that’s his business, no one should intervene…

Listening to the BBC lunchtime news today, I was surprised by just how phlegmatic shoppers interviewed on Camden High Street were about not knowing what was in the food they were eating; the prevailing attitude was, if the food’s cheap, you’re naive not to expect some corners to have been cut along the way. Where, I wonder, is the dividing line between corners cut and horses minced?

To listen to the podcast click here.