Five More Great History Podcasts

I have posted about excellent history podcasts on a number of previous occasions. 

During the recent weeks of spending a lot more time at home, I’ve discovered a couple more that are interesting and enjoyable. 

‘That Was Genius’ 

Each week, Sam and Tom share an interesting story from history that fits into a chosen theme for the week. Not safe for listening at work or in the presence of children, it’s irreverent, sweary, and hilariously funny, I started at the introductory episode and subscribed before I got to the end of the second one. It has proven to be brilliant entertainment during the coronavirus lockdown. Having already listened to 37 episodes in the past two weeks, it’s fair to say I’m a fan. 

‘Cool Canadian History’.

I love history, and I love Canada. This podcast is the perfect opportunity for me to pursue both at the same time. The topics are varied and always interesting, and the host David Morris is enjoyable to listen to. 

’Dark Histories’ 

This is a British podcast which focuses on the macabre, spooky, and eerie events of history. The first episode is on Jack The Ripper, but the topics that follow are quite varied and are not limited to people or events of the UK. The material is well written and the podcast is easy to listen to. 

‘Aaron Mahnke’s Cabinet of Curiosities’

Another podcast, this one American in origin, that explores the inexplicable, the unsettling and the curious stories of history. Aaron Mahnke delivers two shows a week, exploring the history of people, events and objects with unusual and sometimes bizarre stories to tell. Some of the tales are coincidental, while others are more sinister. 

‘You’re Dead To Me’  

Hosted by Greg Jenner of Horrible Histories fame, this podcast offers a weekly discussion on a topic of history with the aim to make it interesting and relevant to the everyday person, including those who haven’t taken much of an interest before.  The guests are interesting, drawn from all walks of life, and deliberately not all academics.  I started at the introductory episode and have listened to half a dozen or so now. The topics have been varied and the quality has been consistently.  ‘You’re Dead To Me’ looks like a keeper. 

Five More Great #History #Podcast #Recommendations
#historical #ListenTo

Chalking One Up For Positivity

Who knew a few pieces of chalk and a positive message could make such a difference?

This is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. 

It’s cheerful, and simple, and sincere, and it’s just so beautiful. 

In the midst of these bleak and socially-distanced times, these messages are a delightful trend that is bringing heartfelt encouragement to communities. 

This story comes from ABC News, Australia. 

Chalking One Up For Positivity!
#StayingHome #StayingPositive #positivemood #PositiveVibesOnly

Image by Wortflow from Pixabay

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘King Lear’.

I have loved ‘King Lear’ ever since I saw a performance of the play in my teens and was completely transported by it.
I find it impossible to consider a parent being betrayed by their child without thinking of Lear, and am compelled to utter the quotation, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow!” at least once during every good storm I witness. 

‘King Lear’ is the story of a king with one daughter who actually loves him and two who are the most selfish, greedy, and deceitful women the kingdom had ever seen. The problem was that he was unable to tell which was which. And so, his story turns to tragedy. 

Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about being historically correct or pleasing the right people with this play, although it wouldn’t be right to show the king as being a bit of an idiot when it comes to his family relationships, so he was sure to stay safe by putting the blame on the king’s horrible daughters and their ambition to take what was not rightfully theirs. Loyalty and faithfulness were, after all, very important qualities and concepts for anyone living in Elizabeth’s England, and you couldn’t have people just seizing land and power that didn’t belong to them. 

It’s not just Lear’s elder daughters, either, that turn on their father. The Duke of Gloucester, faithful supporter of Lear, also feels the dagger of betrayal planted firmly in his back Edgar, by his bastard son, Edmund, who is seeking to take all that rightfully belongs to his brother Edgar. 

In all of this, there are valuable lessons to be learned about who to trust, how to discern who is really loyal to you, and the fact that some people are far more driven by greed and ambition than they are by familial love. Given that we live in a world where kids have been known to turn on their parents and even divorce them in some cases, and where families are divided and sometimes irreparably broken by disputes over money and property,  ‘King Lear’ is clearly a play that still holds relevance for us today. 

It is a beautifully crafted story, full of pathos and tragedy and heartbreak. The language and imagery is magnificent. The dramatic irony of Cordelia’s fall from grace and Lear’s subsequent fall from power at the hands of General and Regan is heartbreaking. Cordelia’s fate hangs in the balance right up to the end of the play while, it seems, the evil people win. That is another point of relatability for the audience: we don’t like seeing the evil people win, and we want to see them get their just desserts. It’s a theme that Shakespeare explores at length in this play, and he expertly positions the audience to keep hoping that Lear and Cordelia will win the day. 

It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy, however, that pretty much everyone dies and there are a few minor characters left to pick up the pieces at the end, so the audience has to be content with the poetic justice delivered to some and the beautifully tragic ending that comes to others. 

The fact that it doesn’t have a happy ending is one of the things I like about it. Life often involves less-than-happy endings, and it has always seemed to me that those who hope only for happiness are setting themselves up for an enormous struggle when adversity shows up instead. We can’t always have what we want, and Lear would have done well to remember that. Cordelia would have been better off if she had realised that not everyone who should recognise your integrity will do so, and that sometimes you need to play the game better than the cheats do in order to make them lose. 

Sure, I believe in happiness, but I know from my own experience that life is generally far more complex than being able to achieve happiness and simply stay there. We are constantly challenged to maintain a balance  between necessity and luxury, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, lest we be overrun by one or the other. Achieving that balance is the art of life. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.

It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would. 

Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.

The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.

Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play. 

Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it. 

That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not. 

Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.

The Best Maya Angelou Poems Everyone Should Read

I really enjoy the Interesting Literature blog. 
It’s well organised and curated, and has lots of excellent posts about all sorts of different literature. There are collections of poems or novels by theme, and various authors’ and poets’ “best of” lists. 

If you liked my Poetry Month or Classic Novels posts, you may well appreciate their posts as much as I do.  (If you missed them, you can find them easily by clicking on those tags on this post.)

This post about Maya Angelou’s poetry is a great example of the excellent content you’ll find at Interesting Literature. 

The Best Maya Angelou Poems Everyone Should Read

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: Richard III

I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites. 

At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined  to let the truth get in the way of a great story. 

Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes. 

Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it. 

Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action. 

My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.

The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art. 

It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.   

To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens

A beautiful vintage copy of Bleak House given to me by a friend as a birthday gift a few years ago, and the paperback copy I bought to replace my Penguin Classic edition which fell apart from overuse.

‘Bleak House’ takes Dickens’ readers off the streets and out of the factories of Victorian England, and immerses them in a complicated, old and bitterly fought legal case in which questions of inheritance, corruption and legality are explored. Dickens brings the court case to life through his characters who are, in one way or another, personally invested in the outcome. 

It’s far more than just a legal drama, though. It’s an epic tale of family, personal entanglements, deception, and even murder. Some characters know little of the past, while others know far more than they are willing to tell. 

I really love the way Dickens shrouds the past in mystery and develops an almost tanglible sense of intrigue in his storytelling in ‘Bleak House’. In contrast to ‘A Christmas Carol’, this is a much longer and more involved novel in which the development of both plot and characters is intricate and complex. It is written with Dickens’ typical satirical social commentary and acute insights into human nature. 

This is one of the best of Dickens’ novels, and sits at the top of my list of favourites alongside ‘A Christmas Carol’. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer is one of those unforgettable characters of literature: cheeky, imaginative, adventurous and downright naughty. That he is able to get away with his mischief time after time is what has endeared him to generations of readers.

This is my personal favourite among the books by Mark Twain and, I believe, his best. 

Fabulous reading for kids, teens, families, adults… this is a timeless classic that everyone should read at least once. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

You’ve got to hand it to the Bronte sisters: they certainly had a handle on brooding, emotionally charged stories that made powerful observations about human nature and psychology. 

Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ immerses the reader in the life of the young Jane, orphaned and unloved, and has them look on over her shoulder as she grows up, learning resilience and wisdom while finding her place in the word. The relationship between Jane and the reader is an intimate one, in which Jane tells her story and reveals her thoughts and feelings as if to a confidante. 

Whether or not you agree with her choices, Jane is a in independent and spirited woman in an age where that was not really socially acceptable, and her story is certainly a compelling read.

A Favourite Classic Novel: Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne

Winnie the Pooh and his friends have been dearly loved for generations by readers all the world over. The stories of friendship, loyalty and fun are delightful entertainment for children and grownups alike. 

Of course, Disney’s purchase of the production rights to the stories resulted in greater exposure to new generations, but it also gave the characters newly altered appearances and American accents. The movies and TV programs are fun, and I enjoy them immensely, but in my mind they are a different generation of a much loved family. 

I really love the original stories and the illustrations by E.H. Shepard that accompanied them. The books that I had as a child have been passed on to other children in my family, but I do have a lovely set of paperbacks on my own shelf that still have all those original illustrations. 

I also have a copy of the 80th anniversary edition of the book, complete with hard cover, dust jacket and colour illustrations, that is precious to me for a reason beyond the fact that it’s a book I love. This particular book was given to me by a family as a thank-you gift for teaching a number of their children and helping them get through senior high school English. I keep their ‘thank you” card inside the front cover to preserve the memory, although I doubt I will ever forget that beautiful gift and the kindness with which it was given.