“If I had Oswald’s skull sitting on my desk, looking at me, Yorick-like, with its three-finger sword-slash cut, it would be a potent reminder that for all our romanticising of ancient times, these people could be pretty thuggish.” – Author Max Adams talks about ‘The King in the North’

The King in the North ( The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria) – A Book by Max Adams from Lonely Tower Film & Media on Vimeo.

“Bede saw Oswald as the torchbearer of God’s will and England’s destiny; and while I attempt a more modern analysis of Oswald’s role in English history, there is little doubt that his conversion on Iona and triumphant return to reclaim his kingdom from exile was a profoundly significant moment in both British and European history.”

WHAT: “The magisterial biography of Oswald Whiteblade, exiled prince of Northumbria, who returned in blood and glory to reclaim his birthright.

A charismatic leader, a warrior whose prowess in battle earned him the epithet Whiteblade, an exiled prince who returned to claim his birthright, the inspiration for Tolkein’s Aragorn.

Oswald of Northumbria was the first great English monarch, yet today this legendary figure is all but forgotten. In this panoramic portrait of Dark Age Britain, archaeologist and biographer Max Adams returns the king in the North to his rightful place in history.”

WHO: “Max Adams is an archaeologist, historian and traveller, the author of twelve books and numerous articles and journal papers. Born in 1961 in London, he was educated at the University of York, where he read archaeology. After a professional career which included the notorious excavations at Christchurch Spitalfields, and several years as Director of Archaeological Services at Durham University, Max went to live in a 40-acre woodland in County Durham for three years. He wrote and presented two feature documentaries for Tyne-Tees Television and made thirty short films as the ‘Landscape Detective’.”

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria’?

Oswald was a king of Northumbria during one of the most obscure periods in British history. Most readers won’t, I think, be able to give him much context out of their general knowledge. So I thought what he needed was the most detailed and evocative historical setting possible. That setting is rooted in the geography of the North – open country; the sea; the legacy of Hadrian’s Wall and Roman forts.

And then, one has to understand how a kingdom of Northumbria emerged in the late 6 th century; how it became so dominant among the competing warrior kingdoms of Britain. Our principal historical guide is Oswald’s fellow Northumbrian Bede, whose purpose was to explain how God’s hand came to convert the Northumbrian kings from paganism; how they united (in Bede’s view) the peoples of England under a universal church. Bede saw Oswald as the torchbearer of God’s will and England’s destiny; and while I attempt a more modern analysis of Oswald’s role in English history, there is little doubt that his conversion on Iona and triumphant return to reclaim his kingdom from exile was a profoundly significant moment in both British and European history. In his life and times we see the birth of nations and of a European Christian state – but also, I think, the plainest possible model of how state politics and religion work together to forge royal power in medieval Europe.

If you could ask Oswald one question, and tell him one thing, what would they be?

As an archaeologist and historian of the landscape of power, I would want to know how he knew what was his – an odd question, perhaps. But in a period of no written deeds, this prince in exile, who leaves his homeland at the age of 12 and returns as a grown man and proven warrior in his late 20s, and yet seems to have a very good immediate grasp of how to deploy his control over the Northumbrian kingdom. He is able to hand vast estates over to his Ionan Christian protégés – landed estates with an income and known boundaries. How that knowledge was transmitted is an enduring question that I would love to understand better. And what would I tell him? Do not underestimate your enemies! After eight years of rule he was cut down on the battlefield of Maserfield by a pagan Mercian warlord; dismembered and his body parts mounted on stakes.

Oswald was killed at the Battle of Maserfield. What would have happened if he had
survived?

Who can say? Historians are hopeless at prediction. In the manner of such dynasties, there would very likely have been a civil war between his son and his brother (as there ultimately was, it seems, when his brother Oswiu succeeded him). But I doubt if he would have instituted the crucial reforms through which his brother cemented the place of a literate, European church at the heart of British royal politics. Had Oswald killed Penda at Maserfield, on the Welsh border in 642, in all probability Northumbria would have crushed the emerging Mercian state and imposed Christianity on its kings; and Wessex might not have emerged as a later English powerhouse.

The women around Oswald were forces to be reckoned with. Which one should everybody have heard of?

The 7th century is conspicuous for the number of outstanding, politically active women who played key roles in the emergence of the British kingdoms. In the ‘fictive family’ of the warband, they played the part of peace-weavers; but also of inciters to action. They brought substantial wealth and power into a royal marriage and maintained political interests as well as being powerful patrons of religious establishments and of their own collateral kin. We know little of Oswald’s mother, Acha, but we know she managed to get her young family safely away from Northumbria after her brother Edwin killed Oswald’s father. She established key relations (and sponsors) for her children with both Pictish and Dalriadan kings. Another northern force, St Hild, was a heavyweight ecclesiastical entrepreneur – the founder of Whitby Abbey, who oversaw the most important political event of her day, at Whitby in 664.

But It’s Oswald’s brother Oswiu’s wife, Eanflæd, who is the outstanding figure, I think. She was the daughter of King Edwin, Oswald’s uncle and rival. Exiled after her father’s death in 633, she was taken to Paris where she was introduced to the sophisticated, bloody politics of the Frankish court. She returned to Northumbria to marry Oswald’s brother, Oswiu – a purely political alliance – and with him set about deploying their huge estates to found monasteries under the rule of their various relations: cementing Oswald’s legacy and investing working, rational capital into the landscape for the first time since the end of Rome. Reading between Bede’s lines, she was a shrewd, wise, thoughtful operator. The fact that England has, ever since, been a Christian state with a literate ‘civil service’ is at least as much their legacy as it is Oswald’s. Eanflæd shows how women (and she stands for many) of noble birth exercised ‘agency’ in a warrior’s world.

Your travel agent offers you: A day and a night living and studying with the Venerable Bede*; A passage on one of Benedict Biscop’s trips to Rome**; OR A season living the holy life on Iona with Columba.*** Which do you choose?
*You may ask the scholars anything, but you may not take any notes away with you.
**Sorry, but the ticket doesn’t allow you beyond the pomerium (you can’t go into the city).
***Columba insists you take a vow of silence so that you don’t distract the brothers from their
work. You can listen and observe only.

That’s easy: I would go to Iona to see how Columba ran his island empire and spiritual domain. The glimpses that we get from his hagiographer Adomnán of how the monastery functioned, backed up by various, not entirely satisfactory, excavation campaigns make me want to know much, much more: how Iona was connected so far afield (to Gaul and the Mediterranean world beyond) by trade, by ecclesiastical links and the shared language and culture of the church; how their economy functioned; how they dealt with great secular lords and maintained diplomatic links across the North of Britain and Ireland.

And I’d want to know if Columba was really the huge personality that comes across in his Vita. Naturally, I’d have to learn Irish and vastly improve my Latin to be able to eavesdrop on their conversations. But what a place to learn – both on the edge of the known world and at the same time the beating heart of Early Medieval life and politics – it would be like being a Westminster AND Vatican AND UN insider – and at the same time living on a jewel in the ocean.

Scottish and Welsh identity have both gone on to inform contemporary political outlooks.
Why hasn’t Northumbrian Nationalism ever gone beyond the occasional display of a gold and red bumper sticker?

There’s a huge contrast in attitudes both North and South of here. Scotland presents a self- consciously nationalist in outlook – flag waving and caricaturing of its own history. Wales offers a vision of cultural and linguistic vibrancy that has outgrown its nationalist movement. Then there’s Yorkshire – also very proud of its geography and historic identity – not wanting independence from England because it thinks it IS England. When you ask Northumbrians about their identity they put a finger to their lips and ….Ssshhh…. I think that is a function of the last thousand years of being ‘other’ – a border territory fought over by competing interests and, quite frankly, happy to be left alone to enjoy its quite pleasures of landscape, sea and space. I doubt if all that many drivers of cars with Oswald’s banner on their bumper sticker could quite say what it means – or where the image comes from.

Can you read Bernard Cornwall’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ series without tutting or rolling your
eyes?

No, not really. I should say that I admire any attempt to evoke the period through fiction – it’s thoroughly merited both artistically and intellectually as a thought experiment in animating a world otherwise known only in stilted snapshots. If I were brave enough I’d try it myself. But I have not yet been very convinced by many ‘Dark Age’ stories – although I thought Nicola Griffith’s Hild was a fascinating and worthy novel. It’s much, much worse when those complex works are translated onto the screen. The fact that Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie is the most realistic screen portrayal of the period says it all…

If you could possess one item described in your narrative, which would it be?

Like most archaeologists, I don’t possess any ancient artifacts of my own – they all end up on museum shelves. But I fancy if I had Oswald’s skull sitting on my desk, looking at me, Yorick-like, with its three-finger sword-slash cut, it would be a potent reminder that for all our romanticising of ancient times, these people could be pretty thuggish. I might just have it tested for its DNA, though – curiosity would be hard to resist…

The people who inhabit both ‘The King in the North’ and ‘Britain in the age of Arthur’ had a strong belief in magic and the supernatural. Are you ever inclined to think there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our modern philosophy?

Absolutely. Just look at a Bruegel painting of people in 16th century Flanders going about their eccentric lives. In The First Kingdom, which was published in February of this year, I’ve tried to explore more of the sense of alternative consciousness that archaeologists sense, but find it hard to describe. It was a world both pragmatic and wonderful, in which the rules that governed behaviour both in this world and the next are at one and the same time comprehensible in their own context and a little alien to us, with their capricious gods and dread omens. But reckon that if you went to live with them for a while, the bigger culture shock would be in coming back to the present – equally weird, wonderful and eccentric, when seen from another perspective.

What are you currently working on?

Having, as it were, now completed an early medieval trilogy, from the end of the Roman Empire (The First Kingdom) to the Viking Age (Ælfred’s Britain), I’m stepping back a little and taking a look at our oldest and most persistent technology, with a book about the history of humanity and its relations with wood. The Hand that Wields the Axe will tell the story of technology and creativity through the tools, wheels, boats, art, machines and buildings that have accompanied the great human adventure from the African Rift Valley to the end of the Wood Age in the 18 th century. I’m enjoying the trip…

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“I wanted to show children that they should be open to those differences and celebrate them. It’s what makes us unique and special.” – Author Peter A. Johnson talks about ‘Bog: The Ogre In The Cellar’

“Key Stage 1 classes certainly understood Bog!”

WHAT: “Bog is an ogre who has been alone for years. Jacob is a schoolboy who has heard stories about a mysterious creature that lives down in the school cellar. The rumours have been told for years. But are they true? No one has ever been brave enough to find out, that is until now.

Take a walk deep into the school cellar with Jacob, a brave little schoolboy, as he comes face to face with what all other children have feared the most.

Peter A. Johnson and illustrator Faizal Razalli have teamed up to create a rich, vibrant and heart-warming story. This rhyming storybook is a must for every child in love with picture stories and for those who have a curious mind, just like Jacob.

The story opens up conversations parents can have with young, tiny minds about inclusion. Every page in this book has been lovingly created to draw the attention of young readers. Each detail is something to be admired. If you love books created by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, you will enjoy this read.”

WHO: “Peter A. Johnson is a children’s author born and bred in Greater Manchester. He has been a primary school teacher for 10 years and has taught various age groups during his career. At Salford University, Peter studied Performing Arts and Media Production and has always had a creative flair. This creativity feeds into the stories that he writes.”

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Bog’?

Bog is a character anyone can relate to. At some point in our lives, we have all felt different from others or felt like an outsider, even if only for a short time. Bog was forgotten and lonely through no fault of his own. I wanted to write about a character that was an outsider but throughout the story, gradually reveal to the reader, and the lead character Jacob, that although we may all have our differences, deep down we all have something loveable inside us. I wanted to show children that they should be open to those differences and celebrate them. It’s what makes us unique and special. This book shows children that it’s ok to be different like Bog and opens up conversations about inclusion.

When and how did you first ‘meet’ Bog?

Whilst I was teaching at school, I read out a short story to the class that I had written, just to support the lesson. I had no intention of writing a ‘story’, however, after I had finished the teaching, I mentioned to the class that I’d written the story. The children were surprised as they thought it was something I had read from another author. I knew in that moment I needed to start to share my stories to a wider audience. I went home and pieced together all the good parts of a story that I loved as a kid. A damp cellar, a scary monster hidden away in the darkness, and a curious boy in search of the truth. Before I knew it, Bog was created.

What kind of young readers will also want to meet Bog?

The book really works well for ages 4-7. Being a teacher, I was fortunate enough to be able to read it to lots of children of different ages and ask them for their opinions. It appeared that the same year groups kept coming back time and time again with such positive feedback and wanting to know more. Key Stage 1 classes certainly understood Bog!

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of the
process?

As a debut author, the process was a steep learning curve. I am proud with how I handled it all. All the preparation I did paid off. I sold over 450 books in the first week, and out of 33 million books currently available on Amazon, mine reached 700 in the world, which is something I never expected. When I think about it now though, I wish I would have given myself a little more time from starting the book to its release. I put unnecessary pressure on myself. The closing stages, prior to release, were stressful to say the least. Waiting in hope that the book would arrive from the printers in time for release day was a nerve-wracking time, but when they arrived I wasn’t disappointed. I am so proud with how the book has turned out.

What’s next for Bog and you?

Bog the ogre is set to become a series and the sequel, “Bog the Ogre Goes to School”, is currently being illustrated. The next book focuses on Bog struggling to find what he’s good at and his journey to finding his special talent.

In the meantime, I have another book due for release soon called “The Manchester Bee”. There are no fictional stories out there about the iconic Manchester Bee symbol and this is a story that celebrates everything we love about this region. The culture, the music, the people, and places. There are lots of references in there for parents and beautiful artwork for young eyes. There has been quite a buzz in anticipation of the story being released as it is an original idea about a much-loved icon.

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“I am currently working on a follow up. But I can say no more than that at the moment.” – Author Paul Lay discusses ‘Providence Lost’

“I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.”

WHAT: “England, 1651. Oliver Cromwell has defeated his royalist opponents in two civil wars, executed the Stuart king Charles I, laid waste to Ireland, and crushed the late king’s son and his Scottish allies. He is master of Britain and Ireland.

But Parliament, divided between moderates, republicans and Puritans of uncompromisingly millenarian hue, is faction-ridden and disputatious. By the end of 1653, Cromwell has become ‘Lord Protector’. Seeking dragons for an elect Protestant nation to slay, he launches an ambitious ‘Western Design’ against Spain’s empire in the New World.

When an amphibious assault on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1655 proves a disaster, a shaken Cromwell is convinced that God is punishing England for its sinfulness. But the imposition of the rule of the Major-Generals – bureaucrats with a penchant for closing alehouses – backfires spectacularly. Sectarianism and fundamentalism run riot. Radicals and royalists join together in conspiracy. The only way out seems to be a return to a Parliament presided over by a king. But will Cromwell accept the crown?

Paul Lay narrates in entertaining but always rigorous fashion the story of England’s first and only experiment with republican government: he brings the febrile world of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate to life, providing vivid portraits of the extraordinary individuals who inhabited it and capturing its dissonant cacophony of political and religious voices.”

WHO: “Editor of History Today. Author of Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate.”

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Providence Lost’?

‘Providence Lost’ plays on the loss of the English Puritan settlement of Providence Island to the Spanish in 1640, but also alludes to the fact that a later venture into the New World – Cromwell’s Western Design – was perceived. by the Protector in particular as a withdrawal of Good’s support and guidance – His providence. And Milton, as always, is in the background.

Was Cromwell as good a statesman as he was a soldier?

Cromwell was a fine cavalry commander, aggressive and brave, though he only fought on home territory (Britain and Ireland). As a statesman, he became the first commoner to become Britain’s Head of State, through an alliance of soldiers, parliamentarians and religious figures. He was held in high repute abroad. The Protectorate depended entirely on this one man.

The framers of the US Constitution relied heavily on the ancient classical learning and tradition, Addison’s “Cato” was a particular favourite. To whom were those concerned with ideas about English constitutional structures during the interregnum looking for their inspiration?

Venice was an important model for Classical Republicans. ‘They wish to make me a Duke of Venice,’ Charles I warned, with some prescience. The Republicanism identified with Milton was rooted in Classical texts. The most famous work of political philosophy of the times, along with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, is James Harrington’s Oceana, explicitly modelled on the Venetian constitution and addressed personally to Cromwell.

Why did the Protectorate gamble so much of its credibility on the Western Design? Why did they need to reduce Spanish power in the West Indies? Wasn’t Cromwell fishing with a golden hook?

I am not sure the Western Design was that great a gamble. The Protectorate had a powerful and battle-tested army and navy. And the potential riches – of the flota, the mines of Potosi etc – were enormous. But they had become used to winning and were ill-prepared for tropical conditions. A classic case of hubris followed by nemesis.

What’s the most important thing to know about the Protectorate?

The most important thing about the Protectorate, as a consequence of its existence, is that Britain remains a constitutional monarchy.

There are many players entering, exiting, and waiting in the wings during the drama you chronicle. Were any of them both great AND good?

I think John Lambert, who should have succeeded Oliver Cromwell, was a brilliant soldier, arguably even better than his boss, and a serious political thinker. He was also a fine gardener. His firm, unyielding principles meant that he lived out most of his life in captivity.

(God forbid) Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum is on fire and you only have time to save one item. What is it? If there was one item you could add to the collection, what would it be?

The Dunbar Medal.

Could the Protectorate have survived without Cromwell, or was some form or Restoration inevitable?

Had the succession gone to Lambert, or indeed Henry Cromwell, it might have succeeded. Had Cromwell taken the crown as Oliver I and accepted hereditary succession, the House of Cromwell may well have survived.

If you could ask Oliver Cromwell one question, other than whether or not he liked pineapple, what would it be? If you could tell him one thing, just to see his reaction, what would it be?

I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.

What are you currently working on? (Is it that much-overdue biography of Richard Cromwell?)

I am currently working on a follow up. But I can say no more than that at the moment.

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“The biggest lesson has been to trust in the strength, power and resilience of young carers.” – Playwright Matt Woodhead discusses ‘Who Cares’

“We want to find those unidentified young carers, get them the support they need and tell them – You are not on your own.”

WHAT: “There are an estimated 700,000 young people caring for a loved one in the UK. One third of these young carers come from low income families. Many do not have access to essential technology such as wifi/laptops/smartphones to help them do school work or manage their caring responsibilities.

On 9th February 2021 at 14.15, award-winning ‘​Who Cares’ ​will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This gripping verbatim production is based on 2 years of interviews with young carers and offers a rare insight into their lives of young carers in Salford. The show was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the House of Lords and it embarked on two national tours.”

WHO: “Matt Woodhead is the co-artistic director of LUNG. Who Cares was produced by The Lowry and LUNG in partnership with Gaddum.”

LISTEN TO THE SHOW: Here!


Why ‘Who Cares‘?

Oh my days, there are SO MANY reasons why! There are an estimated 450,000 young carers in the UK who are hidden. This means they are caring for a loved one behind closed doors, unknown to services. They literally aren’t
receiving any support. Who Cares is for them. The show has been on two national tours, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and it’s just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. We want to find those unidentified young carers, get them the support they need and tell them – You are not on your own.

What’s the one thing (is there a one thing?) that individuals can do to support a young person caring for a loved one in the UK?

You’re spot on – there are so many things people can do to support a young carer. One third of young carers are from low income families. We want to get vital technology to these teenagers who need things like laptops and phones to fulfil their caring responsibilities. RIGHT NOW, we are trying to raise £5,000 to support young carers who are facing digital poverty.

The show has played at the Fringe and the UK House of Lords, which crowd is tougher?

I completely filled my pants at the thought of both audiences! Fringe theatre goers were scary coz I got the fear it was going to turn into Mean Girls. Decision makers at the House of Lords was terrifying coz it was like we had one shot to make some political change. It was totally fine though. On both occasions the young people and the power of their stories swooped in and saved the day.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of this creative journey?

So many things!!! I think the biggest lesson has been to trust in the strength, power and resilience of young carers. Who Cares is based form 200 hours of interviews with Antonia-Rae, Ciaron, Kerry and Paige. Their voices are at the
heart of this play. These young people spoke their truth and it’s such a powerful thing.

LUNG specialises in verbatim scripts. What are the particular challenges of that method of writing?

If I had a pound for every time I went into an existential tail spin about making verbatim theatre, I’d be loaded. For me, the thing that keeps me up at night is whether the people whose story is being told are happy. With Who Cares it’s been so important that Antonia-Rae, Ciaron, Kerry and Paige have been involved in every step of the process. Casting, reading drafts of the script, choosing the songs in the show – you name it, they did it. A lot of challenges that verbatim theatre sometimes throws up have been resolved by giving autonomy over to these young carers. This has been the key to making the play so artistically exciting.

Verbatim scripts often focus on important stories, stories that involve a lot of heartache. Are there any lighter moments to be had along the way?

Even in some of the darkest moments in life, I think it’s human to find joy. There are so many light moments in ‘Who Cares‘. As well as focusing on the reality of caring for a loved one, the play gives an insight into the day to day drama of being a teenager. There is everything in this play from the crush of the morning school bus to failed dates at Nando’s.

How have the original contributors responded to seeing their lives on stage?

Ah it’s been amazing. Antonia-Rae, Ciaron, Kerry and Paige all did speeches when the show was performed at the House of Lords. For me it was so humbling and incredible to see these young carers not only standing up for their rights, but for the rights of young carers across the UK. I don’t want to steal their thunder though… If anyone wants to hear what they made of the play, check out the BBC Broadcast, they do a fantastic segment at the end…

What should be the one thing that people know about ‘Who Cares‘ before taking their seats?

This is real life. These are real stories. This is happening right now.

You’ve been a script reader for Leeds Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre; The Papatango Playwriting Prize. What are you looking for? What’s the thing most likely to set off an alarm bell or make you shout ‘NEXT!’ in you head?

For me it’s all about the story and the voice. Andrea Dunbar wrote her first play in the back of an exercise book. It’s not about having a polished script that is beautifully formatted. I think for writers, the main thing is having a story you are burning to tell. A story that can’t wait another second longer to be told. That is usually the most powerful thing.

What’s next for LUNG and ‘Who Cares‘?

LOADS. We are not slowing down. We have a sexy, high quality recording of the show and education resources to accompany it. This will be rolled out nationally in the autumn for schools to access for free. If any teachers or services that support young carers would like more information, click here!

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“How do you Quantitatively ease bitcoin?” – Author Dominic Frisby discusses Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Change Our Future

 

“I’m not sure that there were bananas in Ancient Babylon but there was a cryptocurrency based on bananas a few years back. Not sure if it still exists. It might have gone pear-shaped.”

WHAT: “Death and taxes are our inevitable fate. We’ve been told this since the beginning of civilisation. But what if we stopped to question our antiquated system? Is it fair? And is it capable of serving the needs of our rapidly-changing, modern society?

In Daylight Robbery, Dominic Frisby traces the origins of taxation, from its roots in the ancient world, through to today. He explores the role of tax in the formation of our global religions, the part tax played in wars and revolutions throughout the ages, why, at one stage, we paid tax for daylight or for growing a beard. Ranging from the despotic to the absurd, the tax laws of the past reveal so much about how we got to where we are today and what we can do to build a system fit for the future.”

WHO: “Dominic Frisby is perhaps the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He writes a weekly investment column for Moneyweek about gold and finance and has also written for publications including the Guardian and the Independent. He speaks at conferences around the world on the future of finance. Frisby hosts various podcasts, performs stand-up comedy and is a recognized voiceover artist.”

MORE? Here!


Why “Daylight Robbery”?

Like many everyday expressions – Nosy Parker being another – the expression is thought to have its roots in a tax, in this case the Window Tax. Window Tax was introduced in 1695 to help fund William of Orange’s conflicts abroad. It lasted over 150 years. Like all taxes, it had many unintended consequences, the worst of which was that it made people ill. The urban poor of the Industrial Revolution suffered most. They lived in large tenement buildings, which, having many windows, proved heavily susceptible to the tax. Landlords – on whom the tax fell – simply boarded up the tenement windows to reduce costs. The numerous epidemics of disease in cities during the Industrial Revolution – typhus, smallpox and cholera, in particular – were made worse by the cramped, damp, windowless dwellings.

By the nineteenth century, opposition to it was everywhere. Charles Dickens fumed that, ‘Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window-tax.’ Campaigning against it went on for decades. Pamphlets were handed out, songs were sung, speeches were made. Only in 1850 was a motion finally put before Parliament to repeal it, and legend has it that, as the matter was debated, MPs cried ‘Daylight robbery!’ The idiom has lived on as an expression for outrageous charging

You catalog the ways in which armed conflict drives innovation, consolidation, and overreach in the realm of tax as the competing governments scramble to spend on their militaries. Is it intellectually consistent to be anti-war and pro-tax?

The short answer is yes. Every single war in history has been funded by a tax of some kind – either during or after the event. Rulers, whether emperor, king, or government, start wars and taxes pay for them. The most effective means to limit war is to limit taxation.

There are plenty of idealistic, pro-large state, high taxation progressives who are anti-war in principle. But in practice, if a government decides it wants to go to war, in a democracy, there’s not a lot the people can do about it. Iraq is a recent example. The country did not want that war. Tony Blair did. Taxation made it possible. Limit taxation, you limit the size of government – and you limit its ability to do harm.

The Emperor Vespasian famously stifled and suppressed the labour-saving devices presented to him by an inventor, perhaps delaying the Industrial Revolution for centuries. You’re standing behind Caesar when the inventor has finished his pitch. The Flavian eyes turn questioningly to you, his visitor from the distant future. Knowing what you know, what do you advise the supreme ruler of the known world about the costs and benefits that big technological disruption and innovation bring? What do you advise Vespasian to do?

I would have advised him to stand aside and let the innovators do their thing. I’m not sure he would have listened, however. Rulers don’t always want their people getting rich, however – it makes them less easy to rule.

Vespasian, by the way, gave Rome a urine tax. Urine was used for tanning, laundering, and brushing your teeth (!). Collecting it proved so lucrative that Vespasian enacted a tax. Portuguese urine for some reason was the most prized. When criticized Vespasian held up a gold coin and said “the gold is clean.” That’s where we get this idea of clean and dirty money from, so the story goes)

Are there any good taxes, or at least is there such a thing as a least bad tax?

Much as we anarchists may dream of a society with no taxes, the reality is that there has never been a civilisation without taxation. The lower and simpler they are, the better, in my view. The evidence of history is that the civilisations with the lowest taxes (and thus the greatest levels of freedom) are the most innovative, inventive and prosperous.

Milton Friedman described Land Value Tax as “the least bad tax” and I would agree. It’s transparent, simple, clear, easy to administer, hard to avoid or evade, but also hard for a government to overtax. It’s the most natural way to keep the relationship between government and citizen in balance.

Why do crypto-currencies matter to the taxman?

Money beyond the control of government means an economy that is hard to tax and regulate.

Furthermore, government can’t levy the inflation tax. That is it can’t debase the currency. How do you Quantitatively ease bitcoin?

Blockchain currencies are best adapted for transactions involving non-physical, non-tangible products and services. Are there any examples of the kind of real-world tangible commodities – goods that would have been familiar to the Babylonian inventors of currency – that are being successfully traded in cryptocurrency?

I’m not sure that there were bananas in Ancient Babylon but there was a cryptocurrency based on bananas a few years back. Not sure if it still exists. It might have gone pear-shaped.

If you had to put a Dollar, Euro, or Pound Sterling on the first big currency* to switch to blockchain technology, which would it be (and which SHOULD it be)? *one that you don’t have to scroll too far to find on XE.com

Probably one of the Scandinavian currencies. I wouldn’t rule sterling out. We will all soon have wallets with the central bank.

There are examples of small states being big successes (the book spends a lot of time examining post war Hong Kong). Could Scotland, with its fondness for big government, be one of them?

I’ll say! Scotland has the potential to be the richest nation on earth on a per capita basis. If you look at the richest nations on earth per capita (Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Qatar etc), they all have populations of about 6-7m or under, and are either financial centres or have oil. Scotland has the triple.

Which of your projections and predictions are accelerating or decelerating as a result of the COVID crisis?

Remote working has become totally normal. I’m amazed at the speed this has happened.

Covid has obviously killed travel.

What are you currently working on?

I am working a musical based on my Dad’s book ‘Kisses On A Postcard‘ about his time as an evacuee in WWII.

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“No way could I resist a day in the Library of Alexandria. I would go straight to the book, On the Ocean, written by Pytheas.” – Author Barry Cunliffe discusses The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe

“Alexander the Great … did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.”

WHAT: “Barry Cunliffe here marshals this vast array of evidence – both archaeological and textual – in a masterful reconstruction of the lost world of the Scythians, allowing them to emerge in all their considerable vigour and splendour for the first time in over two millennia.”

WHO: “Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe CBE FBA FSA (born 10 December 1939), known as Barry Cunliffe, is a British archaeologist and academic. He was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2007. Since 2007, he has been an Emeritus Professor.”

MORE? Here!


Why the Scythians?

The Greeks considered the Scythians to be one of the four great peoples of the world (equal to the Celts). They were right and yet, in the West we hardly hear about them and they rarely feature in general books. They led a very distinctive lifestyle focussed on mobility, which contrasts to the sedentary existence of most European societies, reminding us that pastoralism is a valid economic strategy and worth of consideration alongside agriculture. More to the point they had a significant impact on China, India, the Near East and Europe – they were world players.

Did the Scythians leave a lasting legacy?

There greatest contribution was their skill as horsemen. The Scythians developed the idea and practice of cavalry which became so important in European warfare. Their animal art was another major contribution. In Europe, it influenced Celtic art and from there ideas penetrated Scandinavia and reappear in medieval Irish art.

How have Scythian studies fared since the end of the Cold War?

Archaeologists have always found it easy to work together across political boundaries but the end of the Cold War meant that collaborative fieldwork and excavations have become much easier with Germans, Italians and British working with Russian collaborators. A good example of working together was the brilliant exhibition, Scythians warriors of ancient Siberia, held in the British Museum in 2017 and all the seminars and informal meetings around it.

The Scythians left no written record, but do examples of their oral culture remain? Are there words or even phrases we could learn in the hope of engaging a time-travelling Scythian in conversation?

Scythians have left practically no trace of their oral culture except in one instance. Out of the melee of nomadic horsemen existing on the steppe, deriving from the Scythians, were the Alans, some of whom settled in the central Caucasus. They were still recognised as Alans as late as the 13th century. Their descendants are the Ossetians who have a wonderful oral tradition reflecting their past glories and whose language still has echoes of Scytho-Sarmatian.

What advice do you have for modern travellers wishing to trace the physical reminders of the Scythians – where should they go, how should they travel, who should they try and meet?

As a largely nomadic people, the Scythians have left no monuments other than their burial mounds (kurgan) which can be seen in Ukraine, southern Russia and the Altai Mountains. By far the best museum collections are housed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kiev, Ukraine. In the UK we have very little but a small collection from burials in the Crimea is housed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

If you could own one item described in the book which would it be and why?

I am a firm believer that rare artefacts should be in public collections where they can be enjoyed by everyone. My favourite piece is the gold beaker from Kul’-Oba, in the Crimea (now in the Hermitage Museum). It was probably made in a Greek workshop somewhere on the Black Sea coast for a Scythian client, and shows a number of Scythian warriors, possibly blood brothers, relating to each other. Its a reminder of comradeship.

What do we know about the Scythian princess buried alongside Philip of Macedon? Does her presence help explain why Alexander the Great didn’t go to war with Scythians?

The Scythian princess buried alongside Philip II of Macedon in Vergina, is a reminder of diplomacy in the Ancient world. She died at about 30 and was cremated. Her bones show that she had seriously fractured her left leg, possibly in a riding accident. Her greaves (leg armour) were modified to fit her crippled leg. It is quite possible that she was the daughter of the Scythian king who ruled the western part of the Pontic steppe and was given to Philip to ensure friendship between the two leaders. That said, Alexander the Great, Philip’s successor, did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.

What’s the most important thing we don’t know about the Scythians?

What don’t we know? Lots! One fascinating area is the meaning of Scythian animal art involving jumping stags and predators. The images are so prevalent that they must have been of great importance to Scythian belief systems. We can speculate but it is no substitute to hearing a Scythian explaining his world view.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

Oh – that’s so difficult. I’m no fan of house parties so Hadrian is at the bottom of the list. Caesar, I find fascinating particularly his brilliant grasp of the geography of Gaul- the landscape across which he was fighting. I would love to hear him explain his proposed lines of advice to his officers. But that said, no way could I resist a day in the Library of Alexandria. I would go straight to the book, ‘On the Ocean‘, written by Pytheas, the Greek who explored the Atlantic and circumnavigated Britain. The book no longer survives and all we have of it are a few quotes in later works. It gave a first-hand account of western Gaul and the British Isles in about 320 BC and he may even have got to Iceland.

A month in the saddle with a Scythian band or a long weekend at Fishbourne Roman Palace?

No competition – a month in the saddle with the Scythians is a must. I spent a memorable afternoon riding across the Mongolian steppe a few years ago -nothing but the grey-green grass and the blue sky. Complete peace and calm and time to put life in perspective. All I would ask is for a more comfortable saddle!

What are you currently working on?

My new book ‘Bretons and Britons: The Search for Identity‘ is now in proof and will be out next year. I’m currently writing about the Sahara and how the communities around it periphery communicated across the sea of sand.

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“Sheep breeds are like vernacular buildings, each region has its own unique sheep with their own unique traits.” – Author Sally Coulthard discusses A Short History of the World According to Sheep

“I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go.”

WHAT: “An addictively free-ranging survey of the huge impact that the domesticated ungulates of the genus Ovis have had on human history.”

WHO: After studying Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford University, best-selling author and designer Sally Coulthard has spent the last twenty years designing, making and writing about homes, craft and outdoor spaces.  She sees no boundary between the rules that govern good interior design and those which are needed to craft a spectacular studio or glorious garden. 

Keen to make good design accessible, she’s written over twenty books about restoring houses, designing interiors and outdoor living.  From garden styles to craftsmanship, creating workspaces to building sheds, Sally’s books inspire, encourage and equip readers to take on projects of their own. 

Sally is a passionate advocate of rural living and regularly writes about nature and her experiences of smallholding deep in North Yorkshire countryside, including her ‘Good Life in Country’ column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine.”

MORE? Here!


Why sheep?

A while back, I read a fascinating article about how the Vikings would have never conquered huge swathes of the Western world without sheep. Not only did sheep provide food and clothing for the marauding hordes but, crucially, they provided the fleeces needed for their ships’ vast, woollen sails. And it got me thinking, what other cultural or historical events have been shaped by this unassuming creature?

As I started to poke around, I soon found at that many key aspects of human history have sheep at their centre – medieval wool wealth and wars, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the success of the Romans, the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution – sheep have clothed us, made us rich, impoverished others, helped us colonise countries, decorated our homes, changed our rural landscape, altered our diets, helped scientific breakthroughs and much much more….

Sheep are obviously the plucky heroes of your narrative. Are humans the boo-hiss villains of the drama?

It depends on how you look at it I suppose. Sheep have been exploited by humans for over ten thousand years and we’ve changed their bodies, temperament and natural habitats to suit our needs. So yes, we’re the exploiters. And yet, sheep have benefited in a way. Human interference has meant that a wild creature, which had a limited range, now lives on every continent apart from Antarctica. The world has around a billion sheep, and over a thousand different breeds and cross-breeds. There’s no danger of sheep going extinct any time soon and so, in a way, they are winners at least in the evolutionary sense. Welfare wise, I’m not so sure.

Are sheep as unintelligent as we like to think?

Absolutely not. We underestimate sheep all the time. Far from being dim, sheep have been shown to be able to recognise at least fifty different faces, distinguish between facial expressions such as happy and sad, navigate through complex mazes and remember how they did it. One Cambridge University professor, who has spent years testing sheep with learning tasks, concluded that you’d struggle to tell the difference, in terms of intelligence, between a sheep and a monkey. And that, in many cases, sheep actually learn more quickly that their simian friends.

What’s your go-to mutton or lamb recipe? Is it an accident that there is no mention of rosemary in the book?

Ouch. Hard question on the back of an answer about sheep intelligence. Still, I have no problem with eating sheep, if they have had a high welfare life. We have a small flock here and, many times, we’ve eaten our own ‘lamb’. The Moroccans and Greeks are the masters of mutton and lamb recipes – often adding plenty of fragrant spice and sweet fruit, slow cooking, or chargrilling. There’s a fantastic recipe in Tessa Kiros’ ‘Falling Cloudberries‘ book, for Leg of Lamb with Oregano and Lemon. Hours of slow cooking leave you with a melting, lemony unctuous dish – perfect for a meal with friends.

Which item or artefact described would you most like to own in order to show off to dinner guests?

I’m slightly obsessed with scissors. I recently bought myself a pair of Viking scissors – just touching and holding them makes me think of whoever would have forged and treasured them a thousand years ago. And so, to answer your question, it’d probably be the bronze ancient Egyptian shears in Chapter 3 – such amazing craftsmanship and decoration, with so much of the symbolism lost in time. It’s interesting that scissors still hold such superstitions for people – such as never giving a pair to a friend or, if you do, the receiver has to ‘pay’ for the scissors with a small coin or token.

If you could totally, undisputedly, dude-she-really-knows-her-stuff-edly master one of the skills you chronicle which would it be?

I’ve never had a go at sheep-shearing. It looks really difficult. I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go. Love a practical challenge. Failing that, my knitting skills could do with a polish.

Let’s say that you decide to create the shepherding equivalent of a mixtape, a mixed flock of the breeds that most speak to you. Which are you including and are you being practical or aesthetic?

Sheep breeds are like vernacular buildings, each region has its own unique sheep with their own unique traits; the pretty Herdwicks in the Lake District, for example, or the Hebridean sheep with their remarkable horns. I love that variety and long may it last. I’d create a flock that represented all the different counties – to show that variety and adaptability – real characters like a craggy, tough little Soay sheep, a Welsh badger face, a long-haired, lustrous Wensleydale, a crazy-horned Isle of Man Loaghtan and a teddybear-faced Southdown. Too many to choose from. One of each of the 50 or so native breeds, please.

The pastures green of the early chapters morph (almost overnight) into the dark, satanic mills of the early industrial revolution, so much of which was built with child labour. At the time there were those (such as William Pitt the Younger) who advocated in favour of child labour, justified it as an economic and even moral necessity. Were you ever (even a little bit) persuaded by their arguments and what do you think are the lessons modern society needs to learn from that problematic era?

The past is a different country and so it can be difficult to judge historic events through modern sensibilities. Taking child labour, for example, we need to see the context – at the time, most families wouldn’t have had a choice that a child had to be a productive member of the family if they lived in poverty (which most people did). That said, we can’t be value-less when we look back at history. Rather than blame the parents who had to send their children to work, for example, I think it is important to analyse the kind of society which put profit before human wellbeing and whether that’s who we want to be now. I think my politics sometimes creep through into my books – it’s hard not to get angry about people being thrown off their land to make way for sheep farming or to feel ashamed about Victorian attitudes towards poverty, welfare and social class. We enjoy plenty of modern privileges thanks to past injustices – what we shouldn’t do is to try justify it or celebrate it.

Sheep have a past. Do they have a future?

Hope so. It depresses me to see how large-scale, intensive sheep rearing is causing all kinds of ecological problems across the planet while, at the same time, small scale sheep farmers can’t sell their wool for more than it costs them to have the sheep sheared. It’s all part of a wider discussion about agriculture and mixed farming, and where food security and sustainability fits into all this. It’ll take a wiser person that me to come up with the answer.

What are you currently working on?

Lots of projects on the go – still writing my monthly column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine, about my adventures on our North Yorkshire smallholding, and have a new book about earthworms coming out in time for Christmas (it’s fascinating, I promise). In spring 2021, a new book about the history and folklore of flowers – called ‘Floriography’ – and then a big history book out later in 2021, called ‘The Barn‘, about farming and rural life over the past three hundred years.

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“I don’t eat eel. That’s a principle. I don’t think you should hunt and eat endangered animals.” – Author Patrik Svensson discusses Ålevangeliet

“I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters.”

WHAT: “Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature.”

WHO: Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. Ålevangeliet (The Gospel of Eels) is his first book.

MORE? Here!


Why eels?

Because it’s a remarkable animal. Just think about the life cycle of an eel. They’re born in The Sargasso Sea, in the Western part of The Atlantic Ocean. They drift with the currents all the way to Europe. They go through metamorphoses, they become glass eels and then yellow eels. They find their place to live in freshwater and then they stay there. They live a lonely, quiet passive life at the same place for 20, 30 or 50 years. When suddenly they get this urge to return to the place they came from. They become silver eels. They stop eating and only now develop their sexual organs, and they swim all the way back to the Sargasso Sea, where they disappear down in the depths to breed and then die. That’s a remarkable story in itself. But the eel has also captured me because of the scientific history.

There are so many prominent scientists who have tried to understand the eel, and so many things we still don’t really know about it. I’m first of all interested in telling stories and I think that natural science is full of great stories if you just know where, and how, to look for them. And this is especially true about the eel. I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud to Rachel Carson. In that way, the story of the eel is also the story of remarkable people making remarkable efforts in the name of science. It’s the story of one of human nature’s most enduring urges, the urge to understand life around us, to understand how things work, and in the end where we ourself belong in everything.

As well as being a natural history, Ålevangeliet, is a deeply personal narrative – a chronicle of your memories fishing for eels with your father and of that bond between you. When did you first think about writing this story, making this pilgrimage into your past, and when did you know for certain that you would complete it?

I wanted to write about my own experience of the eel from the beginning, mostly to try to come closer to the subject in a way. I fished for eels with my father during my whole childhood. Late summer nights down by the stream, under the shadows of the trees. And I have very strong and vivid memories from that place and from those nights. That was also where my father told me about all the mysteries surrounding the eel, and about the Sargasso sea where all the eels came from, this almost fairytale place far from anything I could even imagine.

A life long fascination started right there. And when later in life I learned that there actually is a term, “the eel question”, that’s been part of the scientific history for ages, it was as if my own story, and my own origin, connected to something much larger. That was also when the two separate stories in the book – the scientific history of the eel and my own story about my father and the place I came from – started to connect, they reflected each other in some way, and I understood that they both had to be part of the story.

There are several recipes for eel mentioned in the text. Which is your go-to family favourite and what’s the recipe?

I don’t eat eel. That’s a principle. I don’t think you should hunt and eat endangered animals.

European eels, Anguilla Anguilla, are listed as critically endangered. Does this mean we should all stop catching and eating them? What’s the best ethical substitute for eel meat?

Yes, we should all stop eating eel. The fishing is probably actually not the biggest problem for the eel. They are threatened by a lot of different factors, from toxins to climate change to power plants. But as I said, I don’t think you should eat endangered species.

There are some big-name scientists featured in the book, Aristotle, Freud (who spent a surprising amount of his early life dissecting male eels in the hope of finding their testes), Darwin, and Rachel Carson. If you could ask any of them any one thing, what would it be?

I’m very inspired by Rachel Carson. Her ability to write about nature and animals in a very scientific way, based on deep knowledge and understanding, but also with a sense of wonder for natures creations, and with the language of a poet almost. I don’t know what I would ask her, I would just love to hear her talk. I think she was a kind of voice that we really could need today.

Ålevangeliet has been translated into 33 languages and counting. What is your advice to an author whose work is about to be translated? Get involved or leave it be? Are there particular passages you always want to be treated with particular care?

I think it’s very good if you can have a dialogue with the translator. There’s always lots of references, meanings, metaphors, that can easily get lost in translation. But in the end, you also have to let go, especially of course if it’s a language you don’t understand. All the translators I have met have been extremely professional and devoted. At some point, you just have to put your trust in them.

How has the book and its message been received in those countries most resistant to sustainable fishing quotas and practices?

I have only met readers who have shown a great understanding of how serious the situation is for the eel. The official assessment from IUCN and others is that the population of the European eel has gone down more than 95 per cent since the 1970’s and it’s now listed as critically endangered. That’s really all that has to be said to understand that we can’t continue to threat the eel, and the ocean, the way we have. I also use to talk a lot about the bigger issue here, the mass extinction of species, scientists who believe that the number of species on earth could be halved in only a hundred years. That’s a dramatic and extremely urgent problem that I think people only now are starting to fully understand.

Would you want to be reincarnated as an eel? Which part of the lifecycle would you most enjoy?

No, I would not. But if I had to I guess I would be very curious about the migration of the silver eel. The travel back to the Sargasso Sea, disappearing in the depth where they supposedly breed and die. No man has ever seen eels breed, no one has even seen an eel in the Sargasso Sea, neither living or dead. That’s one of the mysteries that still remains of the eel.

The book has been an incredible success. When Netflix comes calling which actor will you want to play your father?

Haha, well isn’t the more interesting question who would play the eel? But you know what, the perfect actor for my father would actually be Stellan Skarsgård. He’s from the same area of Sweden as me, and he was also my father’s favourite actor.

What are you currently working on?

When it comes to that question I’m afraid I’m as secretive as an eel.

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Has the body of Richard III been found? “Not proven.” – Author Michael Hicks discusses Richard III, The Self-Made King

“All depended in the last resort on Richard’s success in maintaining his reign and to defeat his enemies which disastrously failed to achieve.”

WHAT: “The definitive biography and assessment of the wily and formidable prince who unexpectedly became monarch—the most infamous king in British history.”

WHO: Professor Michael Hicks, historian of Late medieval England, especially the nobility and the Wars of the Roses, who has written about all the Yorkist kings.

MORE? Here!


Why Richard III?

Richard III’s was one of briefest of English kings and was thoroughly defeated, destroyed himself and left almost no achievements to his credit. His significance is negative and inadvertent. He did mean to destroy its dynasty, to restart the Wars of the Roses, or advance the Tudor dynasty, but that what he did.`

Richard was king for barely 26 months. Was that time enough to build a lasting administrative legacy beyond the black legend?

No.

There was not time to assess whether his initiatives were successful or (eg) financially sustainable. The Tudor regime did not generally continue Richard’s regime and indeed often deliberately dismantled them. All depended in the last resort on Richard’s success in maintaining his reign and to defeat his enemies which disastrously failed to achieve.

Did Richard’s time on the throne offer any clues as to what he might have done had he not died at Bosworth?

Yes.

Richard certainly sought centralised control (eg constableship and northern borders), sought to rationalise administration (eg the heralds) and reform his finances, and to was always proactive, trampling over the legitimate aspiration of his principal supporters. How successful his initiatives were to be and financially sustainable they were is uncertain.

Richard was 32 when he died. Edward IV was 42. Their brother George, Duke of Clarence was 28. These were very young men to be at the centre of things. Is this relevant to an assessment of their decisions, successes, and failures?

Edward IV began to a victorious general, but did assert himself as ruler until 1467. Clarence and Gloucester were not really competent in their teens. They did mature, but both were exceptionally assertive. The errors in young Edward and of Clarence continued to dog their footsteps.

Can you personally sit through a production of Shakespeare’s History plays without tutting?

Yes.

Apart from the brilliance of the drama, Shakespeare consistently proclaims in Tudor interpretation that has dominated to five hundred years. Regrettably, we lack a contemporary Ricardian counterpart.

A minor medieval lord like Richard seems like a strange focus for such devotion. Why are Ricardians so …err… motivated and passionate?

The Ricardians rightly see the Tudor interpretation as overdrawn – nobody could be so wicked – and were free to fill the gaps that the earliest historians thought self-evident. Richard’s cause has been splendidly promoted, publicised and proclaimed by events as the Quincentenary and reburial of the bones. Public debates since 1980 have consistently found Richard more sinned against than sinning. If the Tudor tradition so rejected wholesale, as Ricardians have always argued, there were enormous to opportunities to re-interpret and to question such orthodoxies at the deaths of the princes.

The whole topic of duke and king has been enormously enlarged. The belief that Richard was misjudged, the apparent mysteries of his life, and defence of the underdog have been combined with some inflated estimates of Richard’s achievement and hero worship. Richard’s defeat has allowed scope for speculation to what might be been.

Has the body of Richard III been found?

Not proven.

There are strong reason to identify the supposed bones of Richard III were found in the right place, with right injuries, and with same distorted spine as Richard’s, but the DNA is not right and there are discrepancies with what else is known, Perhaps will be explained, bu tit has not been is yet. Actually, to my surprise, the precise identity of the remains was not material.

Richard’s wars with Scotland included a brief occupation of Edinburgh. How long was he in the city for? Where did he reside? Did he capture the castle?

Not more to week. Edinburgh was not sacked and the city council left not operational, so it may not surmised that Richard encamped outside, He did not capture the castle.

If you could ask Richard one question what would it be? 

Did Richard really believe that Edward’s precontract made the rightful king?

Would you trust his answer?

Probably not. But Richard was certainly capable of convincing himself.

What are you currently working on?

I am editing Richard’s inquisitions post mortem {with Dr Gordon McKelvie).

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“There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything.” – Author Paul Cartledge discusses Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

“Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.”

WHAT: “In 480 B.C., the mighty Persian king Xerxes led a massive force to the narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae, anticipating no significant resistance in his bid to conquer Greece. But the Greeks, led by Leonidas and a small army of Spartan warriors, took the battle to the Persians and nearly halted their advance.

Paul Cartledge’s riveting, authoritative account of King Leonidas and the legendary 300 illuminates this valiant endeavour that changed the way future generations would think about combat, courage, and death.”

WHO: Professor Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge & Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture

MORE? Here!


Why Thermopylae?

I hate the word, usually, but it conveys the point I wish to make: ‘Thermopylae’ – just that one name – is one of the ‘iconic’ battles in world history: i.e., if you consult one of those ‘Greatest World Battles’ compilations, it invariably is featured. This is partly because it really was in its own immediate circumstances – August 480 BCE, a narrow pass in north-central Greece, at the start of a potentially world-shattering amphibious invasion of mainland Greece by the forces of the mighty Persian Empire under Great King/Emperor Xerxes – an important (but far from decisive) military confrontation), but *mainly* because of what has been made of the battle/made out of the battle subsequently – at first by the Spartans (then leading the rather shaky and feeble Greek Resistance to Persia) and then by any number of historians and/or moralists preoccupied with ‘last stand’ heroics or nostalgia therefor, and, more recently, by filmmakers (“The Three Hundred Spartans” (1962); “300”, (2006).

Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.

Was there any way in which the forces led by King Leonidas might have won (militarily speaking) the battle?

Absolutely no way whatsoever. The points of sending *any* sort of Resistance force to Greece south of the kingdom of Macedonia (already a vassal province of Persia) and the region of Thessaly (where the four main cities had ‘medized’, i.e., decided they’d be better off submitting to Persia than resisting) were i. to delay the Persian advance on its main immediate target (the city of Athens) ii. to liaise with the Greek Resistance fleet based at the northern tip of the island of Euboea and iii. ‘show the flag’, i.e. demonstrate to both allies in the Resistance and to those Greeks who were wavering over whether to resist or not that it was both possible and worthwhile to resist.

The Resistance intially sent a force north of Thermopylae as far as the vale of Tempe but quickly discovered that that line of defence could easily be turned, hence the decision to focus on the Thermopylae pass (c. 1 km W-E, already fortified for earlier, local reasons). It was unfortunate for the Resistance that Thermopylae coincided with major Greek religious festivals – one of them all-Greek (the Olympics), the others local – since that reduced the numbers of available troops; although not even a 10-fold increase (from the actual 6-7,000 troops under Leonidas) would have enabled the Resistance to resist successfully! Xerxes had anything from 80-200,000 land troops (a motley crew admittedly – Herodotus our main source includes a sort of Catalogue of Xerxes’ muti-ethnic forces; we can’t be certain of ANY numbers for Persian forces on land or sea) at his disposal, so it was only a matter of time before he forced his way through. It took him 3 days.

King Xerxes I of Persia notoriously misunderstood the Spartans grooming ritual – not understanding that the warriors combed their long hair out before the battle as their way of preparing to fight to the death. What was the biggest misconception about the Persians held by the Greeks?

See above on uncertainty over the numbers on Xerxes’ side. Greeks were generally not good on big numbers at the best of times – they used the same word for ‘10,000’ to mean ‘millions’ or ‘countless’! – but Herodotus will not have been alone in thinking Xerxes had over 5 million (sic) men under him on land – so many that they drank whole rivers dry etc. They were of course therefore pretty worried about facing his troops in open pitched battle, though the victory of the Athenians (and Plataeans) at Marathon ten years earlier (490) will have been a considerable encouragement. Historians today reduce Herodotus’s figure even as low as 80,000 (George Cawkwell) but most of us would say 100,000 plus.

You shut your eyes and you picture the face of Leonidas. What springs to mind, the statue unearthed in 1926 on the Spartan Acropolis, pictured above, or the face of Gerard Butler?

Good question! For me, the former every time, but then I’m a historian and archaeologist who’s lived in (modern) Sparta for over a year and spent many many hours in the Sparta Museum, where ‘Leonidas’ normally resides!
Actually, ‘Leonidas’ (unearthed at the foot of the Acropolis, amid theatre debris, though originally he’d been on what passes for an acropolis in Sparta) cannot be an image of the real king Leonidas (reigned c. 490-480), for several reasons: i. on style he belongs in the 480s, before the battle, and Spartans didn’t then commission ‘portrait’ statues of living kings ii. he wasn’t originally a free-standing, isolated sculpture but part of a sculptural group affixed probably to the pediment of some sort of religious structure, probably a temple, and he probably represented some sort of (mythical) figure or ‘hero’.

The nicest story I know of Butler’s Leonidas comes after a recent final of the NY tennis Open won by Novak Djokavic, a friend of GB, when GB joined him in a unison cry (from the movie) of ‘This is Sparta’. Sadly, it’s on
youtube:

You illustrate how the Spartan form of education influenced the British public school from Thomas Arnold to Kurt Hahn. Is there another aspect of Spartan civilization you’d like to see given a dust off and resurrected into modern civic life?

There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything. I suppose one possible but by no means novel lesson would be the value, the overriding value in the time of COVID-19, of community. The Spartans, of course, took to an extreme the general ancient Greek notion that the community was far more important than any individual member (they didn’t even have a word for ‘individual’), so that they even treated individuals as dispensable in a way that we today find morally indefensible. But it’s hard to believe that without the Spartans’ taking the lead there would have been much of a defence put up against the Persians in 480, and especially not at Thermopylae. And it took a special sort of communitarian courage to take the lead in the way the Spartans did.

The modern city of Sparta has been described as the most conservative city in Greece. It’s never had a left-wing mayor and it was one of the few cities that voted in 1974 to retain the monarchy. Laconia was the region with the highest proportion of “yes” votes in the 2015 bailout referendum. Is that a coincidence?

Yes, when I was first working in Sparta in 1970, which wasn’t all that long after the end of the Civil War (1946-9) in which most – but not all (see American archaeologist-historian Kevin Andrews’s brilliant memoir, ‘The Flight of Ikaros’) – Spartans and Laconians had fought on the royalist side, my much more liberal Greek friends referred to Lakonia (the region) as ‘Vlachonia’ meaning something like ‘stupid Lakonia’ (the Vlach- bit refers to the Vlachs, or Wallachians, a non-Greekspeaking transhumant pastoralist people from NW Greece – see JK Campbell Honour Family and Patronage on the related Sarakatsani people, 1964). But there were also Spartan anti-Nazis (a friend of mine’s brother was killed resisting their occupation), and there were Spartan/Laconian Communist partisans 1946-9. And in the 2000s at last Sparta had its first woman bank manager (I think partly German-educated. The ancient Spartans were paradoxically rather more liberated on the ‘woman question’.) The current and recently elected Mayor of Sparta, Petros Doukas, is not especially rightwing but most Spartans and Laconians probably are, and sadly that includes members of the Extreme Far Right ‘Golden Dawn’ party, now thankfully in eclipse.

Why are Laconians so prone to be rightwing? Until the recent transformation of communications (when I first went 50 years ago, it took 6 hours to reach Sparta by road from Athens – now it’s 2 hours) Sparta was very cut off from ‘metropolitan’ Greece. And within Laconia itself there were some sharp divisions – e.g. the Taygetos and Parnon mountain areas vs the plains, and the whole Mani district, the central-southern prong of the Peloponnese with its separate identity and history and self-identification – none of which tended in a liberal direction. ‘King’ Constantine self-exiled and then after the overthrow of the Colonels (1967-74) was refused re-entry to Greece, which only increased the monarchist-royalist fervour of the ‘Restore Constantine and the monarchy’ lobby that had its base in … Laconia (at Gytheion in the Mani).

What’s the one thing that we don’t know about the battle that you wish we did?

Why the Phocian detachment which Leonidas had purposely placed in the Anopaea flanking back pass failed to realise they were being bypassed by a crack force of elite Persian ‘Immortals’, and so failed to alert Leonidas that he was about to be pincered? And/or why Leonidas posted this clearly incompetent detachment of locals and did not put a Spartan in command of them?

If you could possess one object associated with your narrative what would it be?

A shield – either of a Spartan or of a Perioecus. Other items of offensive or defensive equipment were worn for individual reasons, but the shield (hoplon) – as an apophthegm (witty saying) preserved by Plutarch tells us – was worn for the line as whole.

Does the battle of Thermopylae still matter?

It couldn’t matter more. Not, obviously, because it was a defeat but i. because of the sort of (heroic) defeat it was and could later be made out to be for propaganda purposes and ii. because of the context – in the Graeco-Persian Wars, which was a battle of civilisations as well as a geopolitical conflict. What if … the Persians had won either the Battle of Salamis (480) or Plataea (479)??

What are you currently working on?

Having just finished the last-minute corrections to my forthcoming (May 28) ‘Thebes’ book, I am putting the final touches to a book I am co-editing with a former PhD student, Dr Carol Atack: it is the first, ‘Antiquity’ (c.1000 BCE to 550 CE), volume in a 6-volume Cultural History of Democracy (part of a Bloomsbury series). My main (pre)occupation, as it has been since the end of 2014, is co-directing and co-editing with Prof Paul Christesen (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA) ‘The Oxford History of the Archaic Greek World’. ‘Oxford’ = O.U.P. (New York), ‘Archaic = c. 800 BCE-c.500/450 BCE. ‘Greek’ = Hellas, the Greek world of the Med and Black Seas. ‘History’ = archaeo-history, i.e. the c. 35 ‘essays’ are mainly written by archaeologists, using mainly archaeological data. Submission date, for the in toto c. 1.25 million words, is the end of 2020, publication 2021/2, at first in hard copy (6 volumes?), then online.

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