Sam and James talk to El­lie Cawthorne about their new book, which tells the eye-open­ing sto­ries be­hind or­di­nary ob­jects and ev­ery­day oc­cur­rences – from chim­neys to dreams

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

The lat­est re­leases re­viewed, plus Sam Wil­lis and James Day­bell dis­cuss their book on the his­tory of ev­ery­thing

Your new book, His­to­ries of the Un­ex­pected, is based on your pod­cast of the same name. What is the con­cept be­hind it? Sam Wil­lis: It’s de­cep­tively sim­ple. Ba­si­cally, we be­lieve that ev­ery­thing has a his­tory. And not just ev­ery ob­ject – we mean ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing, whether it’s emo­tions, holes, clouds or the itch. In the book and pod­cast we chal­lenged our­selves to write the his­to­ries of things that we weren’t nec­es­sar­ily sure even had a his­tory. It was a bit of a pro­fes­sional chal­lenge be­tween us; a game. Can you write the his­tory of dust? Or snow? Or moun­tains?

James Day­bell: We also wanted to high­light how ev­ery­thing links together in un­ex­pected and of­ten rather mag­i­cal ways. For ex­am­ple, the his­tory of the hand links to scro­fula and the royal touch, the his­tory of clouds is ac­tu­ally about mi­asma and cholera, and – be­lieve it or not – the his­tory of the bub­ble is all about the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

The book cov­ers 30 dif­fer­ent top­ics, and we wanted each chap­ter to lead on to the next. Some of our top­ics nat­u­rally flowed into each other, but some needed some ex­tra wizardry to con­nect together. How do clocks link into needle­work for ex­am­ple, or how does rub­bish con­nect to snow? It’s a bit like a mas­sive game of six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion. The clever thing (well I think it’s clever any­way!) is that the whole book comes full cir­cle. So we end with the his­tory of the sig­na­ture, which then links back to the very first chap­ter, on the hand.

Where did the idea for the project first come from? SW: I was lead­ing a tour around HMS Vic­tory, ex­plain­ing all about the ship and the bat­tles it had fought – the stan­dard things you might ex­pect. But round the back of Vic­tory’s stern is an amaz­ing win­dow. It’s like a con­ser­va­tory plonked on the back of a tank. Some­one asked me why the win­dow was there. I have a PhD in naval his­tory and have writ­ten count­less books on the sub­ject, but I had no idea. So I looked into it. I be­gan by re­search­ing the his­tory of the win­dow, but then I re­alised that it’s ac­tu­ally more com­plex than that: you can only ex­plain why there is a win­dow on the back of a war­ship if you un­der­stand the his­tory of look­ing – and look­ing through win­dows – in the 18th cen­tury. Un­sur­pris­ingly, no one

has writ­ten a his­tory of look­ing through win­dows on 18th-cen­tury war­ships! When I sug­gested the idea to James, I was wor­ried he would think I was to­tally off the wall. But he replied: “I know ex­actly what you’re talk­ing about, be­cause the his­tory of or­anges is all about the gun­pow­der plot!”

When you’ve picked a topic, where on earth do you start? SW: We be­gin by open­ing the box of our heads and rum­mag­ing around in­side. We’re trained very dif­fer­ently as his­to­ri­ans, and we dis­cov­ered that if we took any theme or sub­ject, we had com­pletely dif­fer­ent things to say about it. When you have two his­to­ri­ans com­ing at the same thing from two con­trast­ing per­spec­tives, you be­gin to re­alise that there is a mind-blow­ing com­plex­ity to his­tory. This is a re­ally good way of ex­pos­ing that.

JD: It’s all about in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity. For ex­am­ple, if you think off the top of your head: what is the his­tory of li­ons about? Well, I had just been on hol­i­day in Swe­den, so for me it was all about 17th-cen­tury Swedish leader Gus­tavus Adol­phus – known as the ‘Lion of the North’ – and the sink­ing of his ship Vasa, adorned with a glo­ri­ous pounc­ing lion as its fig­ure­head.

SW: I mean­while had just been read­ing about The Wizard of Oz, and how the cowardly lion is a hugely com­plex com­men­tary on the state of Amer­ica at the time. So for me, li­ons were all about the US econ­omy at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. And then I got sucked into the his­tory of hunt­ing li­ons, pet li­ons and the sym­bol­ism of li­ons on shields. It sounds quite scat­ter-brained but it’s ac­tu­ally all linked together.

What were your favourite top­ics to re­search? SW: I think the one I’m most proud of is ‘the lean’, be­cause I re­ally wasn’t sure how we were go­ing to do it. We be­gan with lean­ing build­ings. If you think about the Sham­bles in York – a nar­row me­dieval street with all the houses lean­ing over each other – there are no straight lines any­where. Con­trast that with 19th-cen­tury Paris, where ev­ery­thing was per­pen­dic­u­lar. This ar­chi­tec­tural shift was all to do with the fear of the me­dieval; a fear of su­per­sti­tion and disease. Then we moved on to the his­tory of the hu­man lean, which was all about walk­ing sticks and the way that dis­abled sailors were de­picted in cartoons. And then we took a look at the Hol­ly­wood lean, star­ring James Dean. That was re­ally very cool.

JD: One of my favourite top­ics was bub­bles. For me, bub­bles are all about child­hood, so we started by look­ing at a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of bub­ble blow­ers – lovely lit­tle col­lectible pipes that peo­ple would blow bub­bles out of – in the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum of Child­hood. But we also wanted to think out­side the box a bit. So we moved on to the con­cept of peo­ple liv­ing in a bub­ble. This got us think­ing about early monas­ti­cism, the Ox­ford bub­ble and the West­min­ster bub­ble. Some­how, we even­tu­ally ended up at 18th-cen­tury or­na­men­tal her­mits – peo­ple who would live in an aris­to­crat’s gar­den, al­most like a pre­cur­sor to the gar­den gnome.

SW: An­other has to be the his­tory of chim­neys. Of course, it’s about chim­ney sweeps and ar­chi­tec­ture, but ev­ery­one knows that. Much more in­ter­est­ing is what you find up chim­neys. Let me tell you, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary! Shoes, cats, semi-burnt let­ters to fa­ther Christ­mas. Some­one even found an in­cred­i­bly rare 17th-cen­tury map of the world stuck up their chim­ney. They are ba­si­cally ar­chives, so go and look up your chim­ney!

The book doesn’t just churn out a se­ries of bizarre facts , does it? There’s some se­ri­ous his­tory in here too. SW: Yes, we cer­tainly didn’t want it to be a friv­o­lous mis­cel­lany. It’s thought­ful his­tory that deals with some light-hearted sub­jects but also some very se­ri­ous top­ics. For ex­am­ple, you can’t write about the his­tory of hair with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing scalp­ing, or the col­lec­tions of hair left at Auschwitz.

“Be­lieve it or not, the his­tory of bub­bles is all about the French Rev­o­lu­tion”

JD: Yes, it was very im­por­tant to us not to shy away from some of the darker ma­te­rial. While re­search­ing the chap­ter on needle­work, for ex­am­ple, we learnt all about mem­ory cloths made by women who had lived through Apartheid. They stitched their life sto­ries into fab­ric as part of the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process, cre­at­ing a won­der­ful but in­cred­i­bly har­row­ing record of what they lived through.

The chap­ter on needle­work also led us to the ma­te­rial ar­chives of the Foundling Mu­seum. When moth­ers aban­doned their chil­dren at the Foundling Hos­pi­tal in the 18th cen­tury, many left their ba­bies with lit­tle scraps of fab­ric that could be used to iden­tify them later on. Sev­eral thou­sand ex­am­ples still sur­vive and they are won­der­ful, emo­tional pieces.

Why do you think this is a fresh way to write his­tory? SW: A lot of pop­u­lar his­tory is pre­sented in a fairly pre­dictable way. We’ve both writ­ten stan­dard nar­ra­tive his­tory be­fore, but with His­to­ries of the Un­ex­pected we wanted to mix things up a bit.

Es­sen­tially, we wanted to tap into the mind-blow­ing com­plex­ity that schol­ars and pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans have achieved. They use all sorts of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, method­olo­gies and re­search tech­niques, and we wanted to find a way of con­vey­ing the lat­est and most ex­cit­ing re­search while still mak­ing it fun.

His­tory is a much more cre­ative process than it’s of­ten taken to be. Peo­ple think it’s just about re­gur­gi­tat­ing sto­ries, and re­mem­ber­ing facts and dates. But it’s not – the way to be a great his­to­rian is to think cre­atively about the past. I’d like peo­ple to re­alise that writ­ing his­tory is an art form.

JD: An­other thing we’re re­ally pas­sion­ate about is mak­ing his­tory en­joy­able, and ac­ces­si­ble to as broad a range of peo­ple as pos­si­ble. As a his­to­rian, one of the big­gest din­ner party conversation stop­pers is when peo­ple say: “Oh, I hated his­tory at school.” So it’s been re­ally heart­warm­ing to hear from peo­ple who have read the book or lis­tened to the pod­cast, and sud­denly see his­tory as some­thing in­cred­i­bly vi­brant and ex­cit­ing.

SW: When peo­ple com­plain to me that they didn’t like his­tory at school, I turn around and say: “Well, have you ever thought about the his­tory be­hind your moan­ing?”

You al­ready have more His­to­ries of the Un­ex­pected planned. What top­ics do you want to cover next? JD: Oh, now that’s a big ques­tion. We cur­rently have a list of about 200 sub­jects. I read Moby Dick this sum­mer, so I want to do the his­tory of whales next. Or eyes – that’s all about sur­veil­lance. Hand­writ­ing is an­other one. And cows. I re­cently heard about some­one get­ting their hus­band’s ashes ground into tat­too ink, so tat­toos are def­i­nitely up there too. Or what about teeth? SW: Or saliva? How about spit­ting? JD: Nice – we’ll put spit­ting on the list.

His­to­ri­ans Sam Wil­lis (left) and James Day­bell. “We chal­lenged our­selves to write the his­to­ries of things we weren’t nec­es­sar­ily sure even had a his­tory,” says Wil­lis

His­to­ries of the Un­ex­pected: How Ev­ery­thing Has aHis­tory by Sam Wil­lis and James Day­bell (At­lantic, 480 pages, £18.99)

The Ma­haraja of Jaipur on a lion hunt, in an im­age from c1780. Li­ons are just one of 30 un­usual top­ics placed un­der the spot­light in His­to­ries of the Un­ex­pected

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