Saturday, 22 October 2016

How storms changed the course of history

See my article on History News Network's website -

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Great Fire of London + 350: when things go wrong, blame foreigners

350 years ago this autumn….more than 80 per cent of the City of London was destroyed or damaged by the Great Fire of London, so what has that got to do with Brexit?

Well, the fire started on September 1 in a bakery making ship’s biscuit for the Royal Navy, but oddly the man responsible for burning down most of the city did not want to admit it was his fault.

So instead the authorities arrested and hanged a French watchmaker from Rouen. Virtually no one in government believed he was responsible, but it was easier to execute him than to stand up to popular prejudice.

The London mob also attacked other French people as well as citizens of the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden. Many people with overseas accents were taken into custody for their own protection.

It was a disturbing example of a recurrent theme in English history: when things go wrong, blame foreigners.

For the full story see London’s Disasters (The History Press).

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Brexitwatch: the 8th possibility

On October 9, I tried to work out why Theresa May (or Theresa Mayhem as she is increasingly called) had morphed from (allegedly) anti-Brexit during the referendum campaign to fanatically pro the most extreme form of Brexit just a few weeks later. I offered seven possible explanations -

An 8th has now occurred to me. Perhaps she is following the orders that Rupert Murdoch gave her during their secretive meeting in New York in September.

*A mention for my book Historia mundial de los desastres (A Disastrous History of the World) in one of Venezuela's leading periodicals -

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Battle of Hastings

950 years ago today.....the Battle of  Hastings.
In that hilarious book, 1066 and All That, 1066 was selected as one of the only two ‘memorable’ dates in English history. And rightly so. The Battle of Hastings marked one of its cleanest breaks with an entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class removed to be replaced by Normans imported by William the Conqueror.
And yet the battle itself was a desperately close-run thing. The army of the English king Harold was exhausted and depleted, having had to race up north to defeat another claimant to the throne, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and then race back south again.
Even so, the Norman cavalry could at first make little impact on the Saxon shield-wall, and when William was knocked off his horse, a rumour swept through his army that he was dead, and some leading commanders called for a retreat.

William had to win the battle, while a draw would have been good enough for the English, so there followed a race against time to gain a decisive victory before dusk brought an end to the fighting. For the full story, see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, the History Press.
* Here's a short video I made on the battle -

Monday, 10 October 2016

Storm god = top god

When you think of how terrifying and awesome storms can be, it is not too surprising that in ancient religions the top god was often the storm god whether it was Zeus brandishing his thunderbolt, Thor with his magic hammer, or Indra riding his multi-tusked elephant.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture features some of the fascinating stories surrounding them - such as of how a wicked giant stole Thor’s hammer and demanded the hand of a princess in marriage as the price of its return. Thor disguised himself as the bride, and managed to escape detection at the wedding ceremony in spite of eating an ox and eight salmon. Then he grabbed the hammer and killed the giant.

The Maoris told of how the sky god made love so endlessly to the earth goddess that their children could never get out of her womb. Eventually one of the young gods managed to prise them apart, but this upset the storm god Tawhirimatea who had been quite happy inside his mother, and now became an unruly presence on land and sea.

Some rulers tried to imitate their storm god – such as a pre-Roman king of Alba Longa in Italy who declared he was more powerful than Jupiter. When it thundered, he ordered his soldiers to bang their shields to drown out the noise. He is said to have been struck dead by lightning.

Storms also play an important role in the Bible. A fearful rainstorm generates Noah’s flood, the mother of all hailstorms is one of the plagues of Egypt, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish after a storm at sea, and Christ calms a tempest on the Sea of Galilee. 

For more, see Storm: Nature and Culture published by Reaktion Books.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Brexitwatch: What is Theresa May up to?

During the EU referendum campaign, British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed to be supporting Remain, though her participation was so discreet as to be almost invisible. And yet just three months later, she is supporting the most extreme and damaging form of so-called ‘hard’ Brexit – rejecting the European single market that buys almost half of the UK’s exports.

Why? There are a number of possible explanations:

1. Ms May is a liar. She was always a supporter of hard Brexit and was just pretending to support Remain because she was afraid that backing Leave would damage her ambition to be Prime Minister.

2. Ms May genuinely supported Remain but has been won over to hard Brexit by arguments advanced by the Brexiters since the referendum. As no credible arguments for hard (or any other sort of) Brexit have been put forward, this seems unlikely.

3. Mrs May, like Boris Johnson, is not much interested in arguments about EU membership. She just wants to be Prime Minister, and will say or do whatever she thinks necessary.

4. Mrs May was afraid the Brexiters might ruin her first Tory Party Conference as PM, so she adopted David Cameron’s approach – cowardice and capitulation. In fact, she still believes in Remain, or at least staying in the single market, and at some convenient point in the future, thinks she will somehow pull the Tories back to this position. Good luck with that one. Look how it worked for Cameron.

5. Mrs May is engaged in a softening up exercise, conjuring up the most disastrous picture of Brexit imaginable, so that when she comes up with something that damages the country a bit less, Remainers will be pathetically grateful and go along with it, instead of continuing to argue that the referendum was (as indeed is the case) advisory and not binding, unfair, won on the basis of a pack of lies, indecisive etc

6. Like Boris Johnson, Mrs May believes Britain can have its cake and eat it, remaining in the single market while ripping up the rest of our agreements with the EU on freedom of movement, EU law etc. This is hard to believe as virtually every important person in the EU has made it clear this is a non-starter, and in spite of (presumably) months of looking, the Brexiters have not found anyone of substance who says the opposite, 

7. Mrs May, like the Brexiters, has not the faintest idea what to do. I am far from sure, but I think this is probably the most likely explanation.

Monday, 26 September 2016

The millionaire who made a fortune out of Brexit

Just watched BBC-2’s Brexit; A Very British Coup. The duplicity of the Brexiters is clear to see.

The Tories, like Gove, Johnson and Fox, are under orders to have nothing to do with what their party supposedly sees as Nigel Farage’s irresponsible and incendiary campaign. But in fact, they are in touch with him the whole time, and when a story starts running that if Boris gets to be PM, he’ll offer the UKIP leader a seat in his cabinet, the blonde bombshell does nothing to deny it.

As for Labour Brexiter Gisela Stuart, she says she considers Farage so loathsome, she will never share a platform with him. But when it becomes clear that his anti-immigrant approach can save the Leave campaign, she, er, shares a platform with him.

Another Brexit campaigner is the hedge fund boss, Crispin Odey. The Leave vote sent the pound plummeting – bad news for the rest of us because it cut the value of our homes, savings, pensions, wages etc by 10 per cent or more. But it was good news for Mr Odey. He made £200 million out of sterling’s collapse. Another example of how Brexit was a blow for the rich elite against ordinary people.

But perhaps the most revealing moment in the programme was when disgraced former defence secretary, now leading Brexiter, Liam Fox was asked what would happen after a Leave vote. It was plain he neither knew nor cared. And doesn’t it show?