Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

Continue reading

Archives and History News: Jack the Ripper Museum Special!

It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.

The ripper ‘museum’

Continue reading

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?


Continue reading

Mad Max: Fury Road and two rules for making great drama (plus some other reviews)

Spoilers alert!

I recently saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I must say I wasn’t too excited at first. Another tired old remake/sequel/prequel I thought – why can’t Hollywood come up with something new and original? But in fact this movie is really original! It’s about 2 hours long, and 1 hour 45 of that is one mighty car chase, in which monster trucks race across the desert and they all try to kill each other. The bad guy is accompanied into truck-based battle by a lorry full of drummers and a dude playing a frenzied guitar solo on a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower, swinging around off the top of a truck on a bungee rope. Insane guitar dude was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I mean, what evil apocalyptic warlord wouldn’t want a flame-throwing guitar player to accompany him into battle?

Mad Max’s crazy guitar dude

Continue reading

Book reviews

I’ve been reviewing all the books I read this year. I was going to save this up until January, but that would make a monstrously long post. So here’s the top 5 books I’ve read in the last 6 months, and all the rest…



1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’m a fan of Hustvedt’s brand of psychological post-modernism, but I think this is her best book yet. Harriet Burden is a grandmother and widow of a rich, famous art dealer, and also an artist in her own right. She’s long felt that her gender and her husband’s status excluded her from the art-world fame she truly deserved, and now she’s devised an experiment. She will create the art shows, and get three male artists to pretend it’s their creation, see how the critics react, and later expose them for the hypocritical bigots they really are. Of course, things don’t actually work out like that. Although to a certain extent this is a satire on the art world, that aspect is not that important. The novel is presented as an edited collection of Harriet’s own diaries and notebooks, interspersed with reviews from critics and interviews with Harriet’s, friends, lovers, children and collaborators. It’s a regular polyphonic spree that explores gender, identity, the media, robotics, the internet age, neuroscience, memory, philosophy and art. How do we know who we are, and how can we control how others think of us? Are memories to be trusted? Do we become many different people over the course of our lifetimes? Do straight white men really get a free pass in life? Do women sabotage themselves and each other? There are no answers here, but there are jokes about Freud and footnotes on Heidegger. It is all incredibly highbrow and quite a challenging read in some ways. Yet there is also a terrific story, which builds an incredible sense of menace, mystery and tension. There are unexpected moments of pathos, fistfights, and a refusal to shy away from bodily functions. The language, descriptions and constantly shifting characters are so vivid that I found this truly a blazing world. The ending was so totally unexpected and yet so perfect that I actually cried, which drew some funny looks at 8.30am on the district line, I can tell you. I suppose this is not something that will appeal to everyone, but it’s definitely my book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to re-reading this to discover even more that I missed the first time round. Continue reading

Cinematic reasons to avoid Australia…

During the many years I have spent watching films, I have discovered an odd sub-genre that no-one else seems to have noticed: films that make you terrified of visiting Australia. To watch these is to be slowly suffocated by a creeping dread that leaves you in numbed, leaden misery for days afterwards. You may find yourself pulling the duvet over your head and desperately hoping that continental drift won’t bring this dreaded land any closer to us. Back off Australia, you’re close enough!

I have excluded both straightforward horror films and torture porn-type movies. I mean, once you’ve grasped the concept of something like the human centipede, is there really any need to watch it?

Before we get started, I just want to note that the real Australia seems like a lovely place and if I spend enough time watching Crocodile Dundee and Strictly Ballroom, I may find the courage to visit one day. Also, I know many lovely people who live in Australia, and as far as I know none of them are serial killers…

NB probably loads of spoilers…

Continue reading

Archives and History News: from Ireland to Nepal, Ukraine to Australia, and a debate about the European Union…

Good news for anyone doing genealogy research in Ireland – 40,000 records are going to be made available via a new website. The National Gallery of Ireland has digitised the catholic parish records dating from 1740s to the 1880s and the free website is going live in July.

Continue reading

How to be a Victorian gentleman

According to this article, men are having a crisis. They no longer know how to be a man. Should they be metrosexuals, lumbersexuals or – *shudder* – spornosexuals?  There is a great deal of nostalgia for an earlier age, when being a man was a simple matter of having a job and keeping a stiff upper lip, preferably with a moustache on it. But was it really any easier for Victorian gentlemen? Trick question! Of course it wasn’t!

Robert Downey Jnr, masquerading as the finest of all Victorian gentlemen – Sherlock Holmes!

So what did it take to be a ‘gentleman’ in the nineteenth century?

Continue reading

It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine! Nine apocalyptic novels

I love a good apocalypse, don’t you? But because they can sometimes be a bit harrowing I’ve rated them with some 50-shades style safe words:

Green: painful – but with a happy ending!

Yellow: approaching my pain threshold….

Red: make it stop!!!! Don’t read these if you’re feeling a bit fragile.

1 The Stand by Stephen King

‘Epic’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, but at a whopping 823 pages, this really is a massive book. To get some perspective on that, The Goldfinch is only 784 pages. In this novel, a weaponized flu virus  – nicknamed ‘Captain Trips’ – is accidentally released from a military research facility. It kills 99.4% of the world’s population in a fortnight. Then the Satanic Randall Flagg appears, walking down a dusty road in his cowboy boots, calling all the evil people to join him in – where else? – Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the holy mother Abigail brings all the good people together in Colorado, and the stage is set for humanity’s last stand. What I love about this book is the huge variety of characters from all walks of life, and how convincing they are as people. A pregnant teenager, a one-hit wonder rockstar on the run from an angry drug dealer, a deaf man beaten up and anxiously waiting to face his tormenters, unemployed loafers hanging out at the petrol station in small-town Texas, two criminals on a mad killing spree… All their problems look a bit silly after Captain Trips. What I didn’t like was the silly ending and that Mother Abigail is another of King’s awful ‘magic Negro’ figures. Oh Stephen!! Apparently there’s going to be a film version starring Matthew McConaughey as a heroic Texan. This is a travesty: I imaged the character much older and more normal-looking. I’ll still watch it though.

Rated: green

Continue reading

Archives and History News: archives lost through fire, looting and obsolescence…

So far, 2015 has not been a happy year for archives and cultural heritage.

There was a huge fire at the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow. It’s one of Russia’s largest libraries, and it’s pretty much devastated, with an estimated 1 million manuscripts burnt to a crisp.

Continue reading