Eunuchs had sung for centuries in the Byzantine church, but it isn’t until the 1550s that records of castrati begin to appear in western Europe. The first known to enter the Sistine Chapel choir was a Spaniard in 1562; Sixtus V authorised their recruitment for St Peter’s in a bull of 1589. By the end... Continue Reading →
William G, one of the two protagonists of Russell Hoban’s third novel Turtle Diary (1975), is walking home from work one evening. He notices a manhole cover for the first time. Its number is K257. At home he looks up K257 in a Mozart Companion and discovers that K257 is the Credo Mass in C.... Continue Reading →
Founded in the early 17th century, the west African kingdom of Dahomey was a bellicose, expansionist state. It is said the king’s primary duty was to ‘make Dahomey always larger’; one 18th-century king, Agaju, boasted that – whereas his grandfather had conquered two countries, his father 18, and his brother, who took the throne before... Continue Reading →
It is strange to think that after Harold was killed at Hastings the crown of England might have gone not to a man of Viking descent born in Normandy but an Anglo-Saxon born in Hungary. Edgar the Ætheling was the son of Edward, nephew of Edward the Confessor, who had fled - or been driven... Continue Reading →
If you stand outside the former Augustinian priory of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London before evensong, twice a month, you can hear the sound of late medieval London. It is the only active church in the country to have a ring of five bells cast before the Reformation – in this... Continue Reading →
By the autumn of 1895, Edith Lanchester was 24. Born into a prosperous middle-class family, she had studied at London University and Birkbeck and was earning her own living as a clerk at the Cardiff (New South Wales) Gold Mining Company. She was also was already a seasoned socialist campaigner whose ringing voice, it was... Continue Reading →
Around noon on 30 January 1889 Austria’s official newspaper Wiener Zeitung in Vienna reported that 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the fraying and fractious Austro-Hungarian Empire, husband of Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, had died that morning of a stroke. It was a lie. The following day, the court issued a clarification: Rudolf had died... Continue Reading →
We don’t know his real name. In ancient inscriptions it appears as Yhw, Yhwh, or simply Yh; but because Hebrew used a script which elided vowel sounds we don’t know how his earliest followers might have said it. He has come to be known as Yahweh, but Yaho, Yahu or Yah are also possibilities. Perhaps... Continue Reading →
Would Mary Shelley have conceived of Frankenstein without the work of Italian scientist Luigi Galvani? Looking back at its creation, she recalled long conversations with Lord Byron and her husband about Galvani’s ideas. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” she wrote. “Galvanism had given token of such things.” Galvani’s great breakthrough had come on 20... Continue Reading →
The way George Soper told it, it might have been a case for Sherlock Holmes. “The typhoid epidemic that broke out in the Summer home of Mr George Thompson at Oyster Bay was a puzzling affair,” he told the New York Times. It was 1906 and typhoid was rampant in the city; nearly 700 died... Continue Reading →
I'm absolutely delighted to have a new poem, The Pleiades, in the latest issue of Reliquae, from the Corbel Stone Press. It's one of my favourite poetry publications – beautifully produced and full of wonderful writing, much of it in translation – so it feels a real privilege to appear in it.
What’s in a name? Antwerp, it was said, derived from the words werpen and hand, meaning ‘throwing’ and ‘hand’. In this telling, a Roman soldier named Brabo cut off the hand of a giant, Druon Antigon, who stood on the banks of the Scheldt and demanded payment of a toll. Even in its foundation myth,... Continue Reading →
By 216BC, Hannibal’s Carthaginian army in the Second Punic War had already won victories against the Romans at Trebia and Lake Trasimene. But then came Cannae. According to Polybius, the Senate, terrified by Hannibal’s successes, sent eight legions against him. It was an unprecedentedly large force: some 80,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalry. It’s possible... Continue Reading →
Down the centuries Jewish people have been blamed for everything from the Black Death to the Russian Revolution. But rarely has such race hate found more cogent expression than in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols purports to be the verbatim transcript of speeches made by a secret council of Jewish leaders... Continue Reading →
It’s 1966 and 10-year-old Taeko has failed a maths test. Her mother, washing dishes in the kitchen, asks one of Taeko’s older sisters to help. The sister is horrified. “Is she alright in the head?” she asks. “Normally this is easy.” “But that child’s not normal,” her mother says, just as Taeko comes downstairs into... Continue Reading →
Really pleased to have a poem in the latest issue of Drawn to the Light.
Amelia Earhart, aged 40, disappeared with her plane and her navigator on 2 July 1937 on the longest leg on what was intended to be the first circumnavigation of the world by a woman in an airplane. How does that fact change how we read her life? She was, her high-school yearbook said, “the girl... Continue Reading →
In the late afternoon of 26 July 1533, Atahualpa, last true emperor of the Incas, was led out into the public square of Cajamarca a city in the Andean highlands, now in northern Peru. His conquistador captors, led by Francisco Pizarro, had just decided he must die. During the nine months or so of his... Continue Reading →
I'm delighted to have been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. As someone outside the academy, it means a lot. Huge thanks are due to the society's president, Emma Griffin, for her support and encouragement. It would never have occurred to me that I might be eligible.
Gone with the Wind, the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel – which, to say the least, valorises the antebellum South – was always controversial. When producer David O Selznick announced the production, his decision was widely condemned by civil-rights organisations such as the NAACP. African-American actors who took roles in the film were... Continue Reading →