Sunday, 21 July 2013

Horrible Histories

I just wanted to say how much I've been enjoying the Horrible Histories series! It's absolutely incredible. I used to read the books by Terry Deary when I was a child - the Rotten Romans, the Terrible Tudors etc - but it's only been in the last few years it has been successfully adapted to the small screen. I've been watching the latest series and I'm hooked, mainly because I learn so much in each episode. In half an hour, kids can learn about the Roman emperors, the Cold War, Brunel or Oliver Cromwell. Last week in ten short minutes, I learned that Queen Victoria was afraid of bishops and pirates in the c18th used to race captured monks on their ships. 

I listened to an interview with the historical researchers on the show - yes, they look for the obscure, the amusing, the violence ,but they also highlight some of the lesser known figures from history and turn this into an amusing and educational sketch. This morning, I watched a skit about Mary Anning, a woman from Dorset who collected fossils in the early nineteenth century. She made several discoveries but was unfortunately barred from the Geological Society of London because of her gender. In 2010, she was recognised as one of the top ten female pioneers of science. A fascinating woman, and I learned this from a kids programme. The great thing about Horrible Histories is that it appeals to people of all ages, anyone can learn something from it and I will continue to champion it even after it's forced off the air!

History LIVE!

Yesterday I drove to Kelmarsh Hall in Northampton for the History Live! festival, the best weekend of the year! Organised by English Heritage, there are numerous events covering British and international history from the ancient world to the c.20th century. Re-enactors flock from across the world to this festival to take part in battles and demonstrations. During the day, I watched re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Tewkesbury (the War of the Roses), a demonstration of WW1 tactics and weaponry, a medieval joust an assault on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, men fighting in the gladiatorial arena, and a D-Day drop with allied soldiers parachuting into the parade ground. A range of fantastic events! The joust was particularly good, as the men go all out - it looks easy but it takes a great deal of skill riding the horses and aiming the lance, as well as you know, not getting smacked in the face. A couple of years ago one of the riders told me his armour cost £15,000 (!) so clearly, it's not just a hobby for these guys.

The weekend is a great example of Public History. It's about engaging people of any age, through visual activities, through fun and education. Each event had a narrator telling the audience what was going on, what weapons were being used and what happened at that time and after. History by the experts, with few compromises. What could be better?

It's incredibly inspiring not only to see the passion of the re-enactors but how much children enjoy the various events. I saw little boys and girls dressed as Romans running after Gladiators, sword and shield in hand, others playing Victorian games or cheering their favourite knight in the joust. I'm really passionate about bringing history to a public audience, particularly children, and English Heritage do it so well.

The best day out of the year.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Adventures in the Deep South

On the 24th July, I will be heading to the Deep South for a month and a half - I begin my journey in Charlotte, North Carolina, and fly out of New Orleans at the end of August. This will be my first trip solo, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the historical sites of Charleston, Savannah, the antebellum trail and of course, New Orleans...I'm taking a travel diary (it's easier to write stuff down rather than typing it on my phone) but I can't wait to experience the culture, the food, and hopefully chat to as many people as possible about the history of the South and what has shaped their consciousness. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction - my favourite era in American history changed the nature of that country for ever.

Here's to Summer 2013...

Indian Skywalkers

This is a really interesting article about the history of the Mohawk people, and how they helped to build the dramatic skyline you see in New York today. Several Mohawk construction workers were on hand to finish the spire on top of the new World Trade Centre, a fitting tribute to their ancestors' role in not only building the original building, but also the first skyscrapers in that beautiful city.

This story caught my eye because I have already written about this subject before. A few years ago, I wrote an app about the skyscrapers of New York and stumbled across this incredible story. Here is what i wrote:

One group of Americans have become particularly associated with building skyscrapers in New York. The Mohawks, an American Indian nation from the Northeast, came to be known as “Indian skywalkers”, a testament to their bravery and skill when building infamous sites such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler, the Rockefeller Center, the George Washington Bridge and the Henry Hudson Bridge. A large population of the Mohawks, or Caughnawagas, live on the Caughnawaga reservation near Montreal. Generations of Mohawks have worked on skyscrapers since the early 1920’s, often emigrating from their reservation in Canada. Indeed, their efforts have become synonymous with the industrialisation and growth of modern America. In 1886, the Dominion Railroad Company wanted to build a bridge over the St Lawrence River near Montreal, and since it was through Mohawk land, the tribe demanded that the company hired some of their men as construction workers. A company spokesman noted that it “was impossible to keep them off”. Their reputation for ironwork (and excellent balance) grew, and twelve Mohawks were trained and employed by the company. They became known as the “fearless wonders”. Some young men were keen to learn ironwork for a chance to prove their bravery and skill, particularly on construction sites hundreds of meters from the ground. Many left to pursue careers as steelworkers in the cities, and by the 1920’s, most travelled to New York or Chicago. Mohawks often took the most dangerous jobs, including riveting, working in small groups with members of their kin. In the 1950’s, over seven hundred Mohawk families were located in Brooklyn. Ten years later however, improved transport routes between Canada and New York meant that Mohawk ironworkers could commute to the city, and hundreds returned home. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, many Mohawk steelworkers rushed to help survivors, and helped to disassemble what their ancestors had constructed. For many Mohawk tribesmen, steelwork and ironwork has become a tradition. 

Stunning '3D' pictures of WW1 soldiers

This article includes some fascinating images of soldiers during World War 1. The way in which they flicker from side to side makes it easier to imagine standing in trench or supporting that wounded comrade...