Is America still haunted by its past? New edition of BBC’s ‘World Histories’ magazine explores the question

The publishers of the very popular BBC History magazine, a monthly publication which investigates all aspects of history and the past, recently launched an exciting new companion magazine entitled World Histories, and issue no. 7 of this has just been published in the UK.

The magazine, which in its launch issue promised to provide what the editor called ‘Fresh Perspectives on Our Global Past’, more than delivers on this objective in the new seventh issue (issue no. 7, December, 2017/January, 2018).

BBC-HISTORY-WORLD-HISTORIES_NO-7

A key feature of the new issue is a focus on the question ‘Why is America still haunted by its past?’ Four articles are provided to try and answer this challenging question, covering some key moments in U.S. history: one article, by Adam IP Smith, covers the American Revolution and the Civil War (making important historical links between the two), while the second article, with contributions by three U.S. historians, explores how America continues to wrestle with issues of race, religion, liberty and equality.

The third article, by Benjamin Houston, provides discussion of the 1992 LA riots, which have been described as the worst domestic insurrection in U.S. history. A fourth piece on America, penned by Rosalind Rosenberg, revisits the life of Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a lawyer, priest and feminist, who became a champion of racial and gender equality after her grim experiences of growing up in the racially segregated U.S. south.

For those with a deep interest in American history, the latest edition of World Histories will be a must-have purchase. As the editor of the magazine observes, all nations are to some extent defined by their past – ‘but the United States seems to have a particularly complex relationship with its history’.

New York Times on Sputnik

Elsewhere in the new issue, the reader will find articles on global relationships, the first Greek expedition to Britain and the Arctic, the launch of Sputnik by the Russians in 1957 (a truly momentous event which, according to Mark Shanahan, marked the start of the ‘space race’ between the USSR and USA), and the myths and realities of the Aztecs. There is also an important piece on the Nazi quest for the supernatural, by Eric Kurlander. The latter article is based on his new book Hitler’s MonstersA Supernatural History of the Third Reich, which was published this year by Yale University Press and has received high praise from the critics. In Kurlander’s estimation, the ideology of the Nazis partly found inspiration in Nordic mythology, paganism and occult beliefs. He argues: ‘One cannot understand the history of the Third Reich without understanding this relationship between Nazism and the supernatural’.

Bowie in Berlin

Similarly, for those with an interest in the musical and cultural history of the 20th century, Des Shaw offers an intriguing discussion of how the historical, cultural and social landscape of the city of Berlin helped shape one of the late musician David Bowie’s most important albums, Heroes, which he recorded in the German capital in 1977.

According to Shaw, the sense of foreboding that arose from Bowie recording so close to the Berlin Wall had an impact on the music that Bowie was creating. Bowie was attracted by the air of danger and intrigue that seemed to grip the German city in the mid-1970s. Moreover, the album’s title track has arguably come to be seen by music aficionados as something of a rock classic.

As with the previous issues, the new seventh issue of World Histories also contains a ‘Briefing Section’ where leading expert opinions are given on some of the historical issues behind today’s news, including a piece by Alex von Tunzelmann on the image of Che Guevara 50 years after his death, and some thoughts by Niall Ferguson on the impact of social networks today and their historical ancestors.

With plenty of other articles and news items, the new edition of World Histories is well worth consideration. Retailing at an eye-watering price of £6.99, it might be financially challenging for some students, but it is arguably still a bargain for all those who have a fascination for our global past.

The December, 2017/January 2018 issue of World Histories is on sale now.

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

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‘Fighting for our Rights’: Kingston’s role in the British disability rights movement

The town of Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey and its surrounding neighbourhoods is a community blessed by a rich, diverse and fascinating heritage, with much of the area’s history being relevant to Britain’s wider past and, thus, its impact on present-day society is hugely significant. One shining example of this is how residents of the Kingston Borough played a key role in the development of the disability rights movement in Britain.

Kingston_centre_for_independent_living logo

In 1967, a local organisation called the ‘Kingston Association for Disabled People’ was set up to enable people with disabilities who lived in the Borough to campaign for greater independence and, fundamentally, to be able to receive the right support so that they could take control of their own lives. The organisation was also created to empower people with disabilities to have a voice. It was renamed as ‘Kingston Centre for Independent Living’ (KCIL) in 2001. Significantly, from a historical perspective, the formation of KCIL locally reflected the growing influence of campaigns for disability rights nationally. The first noteworthy piece of disability legislation in Britain was the 1944 Disability Employment Act, which introduced into law the idea of ‘reserved occupations’, where certain, albeit relatively low-key, jobs were set aside exclusively for people with disabilities so that their morale could be boosted.

The creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 under Clement Attlee’s Labour government provided an essential foundation for disabled people, particularly those on low incomes, to gain better quality health care. The NHS extended rehabilitation services to people who became disabled following industrial accidents, not only servicemen and women.

Disabled_and_proud (US protest)

In terms of social attitudes towards people with disabilities, progress towards an equal future was gradual but significant. Inspired by the civil rights movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and also by U.S. disability rights protests (see photo), disabled people in Britain were greatly motivated to take direct action against discrimination, poor access for wheelchair users and broad inequality. New theories about how to achieve greater inclusion and community cohesion took precedence during the late Twentieth Century.

The ‘social model’ of disability argued that people with disabilities faced immense barriers to equality because society itself restricted disabled people from achieving was a direct critique of the previous ‘medical model’ which claimed that the problems disabled people faced were essentially ‘their own fault’. The social model of disability continues to be incredibly influential in Britain and across the world, helping environments to become adapted so that everyone can be part of a more inclusive society.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the most substantial legislative achievements for people with disabilities in Britain. Grassroots, user-led organisations such as KCIL played an instrumental role in challenging both the government and society as a whole to view the disability community in a much more holistic, compassionate and inclusive way. The 1981 Education Act paved the way for children with ‘special needs’ (an emerging term of vocabulary at the time, which reflected this new change in direction) to become more integrated into mainstream education, with extra support, if desired, by their families.

In the same year, the inhumane Victorian system of asylums, which were built and provided by the state from 1815 as a form of institution to separate those with mental health or learning disabilities away from society, were finally abolished. As a result, tens of thousands of people left the asylums and moved into their own communities to be supported. In addition, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal, of direct payments was not as efficient as initially  and was an important step forward in the ongoing campaign for full disability rights in Britain.

Disability

Consequently, the role that KCIL played in actively campaigning for greater social and economic justice for people with disabilities locally also influenced progressive change nationally. KCIL also successfully lobbied Kingston Borough Council to establish an independent living scheme which became one of the first of its kind in the UK. The introduction of ‘direct payments’, a form of welfare whereby local authorities provide cash payments directly to disabled people so that they can pay for support themselves, was made available to all eligible people who requested them by a mandatory duty on local councils in 2003 under New Labour. A 2005 article published in the academic journal Social Policy and Society acknowledged that the uptake of direct payments was not as efficient as initially expected, but nonetheless the authors concluded that ‘direct payments have the potential to make a major contribution to social justice for disabled people by enabling the principles of independent living to be put into practice’.

Kingston Museum

In 2017, KCIL collaborated with disabled people and those working with the disability community to collect stories regarding disability rights in the Kingston Borough.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project involved conducting oral history interviews with 23 prominent local people to celebrate this fascinating history. The interviews form part of Kingston Heritage Service’s permanent archive and can all be accessed via http://www.kingstonfightingforourrights.co.uk/

Overall, as someone who is on the Autism Spectrum, I know all too well that the struggle to achieve a fully inclusive and just society for people with disabilities is far from complete. However, it is the work of KCIL and many other grassroots organisations across Britain who have helped to attain substantial social reform for the wider disability community. Hopefully, innovative projects such as ‘Fighting for our Rights’ will help to inspire future generations of disability campaigners to achieve more progressive change.

Joe Fautley is currently studying for an MA in History at Kingston University. He volunteered to help researchers on the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project during the summer of 2017. 

More information about the ‘Fighting for Our Rights’ project is on public display at Kingston Museum from now until 22nd February, 2018.

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

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The Big Con: Throwing some light on the role of conspiracy theory in history

I recently gave a talk on the role of conspiracy theory in history, and tried to address the very difficult question of why so many people appear to believe that ‘secret’ forces are at work in the world, and allow themselves to be seduced and conned by the claim that there is no such thing as ‘accident’ in history. One of the conspiracy theorists I covered in the talk was the former footballer and Green activist David Icke, author of books such as And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995) and Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster (2002).

David Icke

By coincidence, in the very same week that I delivered my talk, Icke (pictured right) was touring the UK with his latest special stage show, where he presents his controversial theories about the past and the present. This new tour, which also functioned as a book-launch, included a session in Edinburgh and a big event at the Troxy Theatre in London’s East End.

However, his latest tour/book launch did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. Two days after the London event, Icke was banned by Manchester United football team from holding ‘An Evening with David Icke’ at their Old Trafford stadium in Manchester. In a statement, Manchester United said: ‘The booking was made by a junior member of staff who was unaware of Icke and his objectionable views. The event has been cancelled’.

The decision to cancel Icke’s event came after complaints had been made by the UK’s Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and also from the Labour MP Kate Green. Predictably, in comments made on his own Twitter account, Icke said Manchester United was ‘a disgrace’ for cancelling his show ‘on the say-so of ultra-Zionist hate group and freedom-destroying Labour MP’.

For those unfamiliar with Icke and his work, there is quite a disturbing history attached to him. Icke (b. 1952) is infamous for writing a series of long and turgid conspiratorial books which have become best-sellers among those drawn to such views. Each book ranges across a variety of topics and there is considerable use of a very selective version of history and key historical events. Coincidence in history is radically downgraded, and replaced instead with purpose, design and ‘plots’ as the most important factors in interpreting the major events of the past. Some of this ‘history’ has become notably strange. In particular, Icke has claimed that ‘interdimensional reptilian aliens’ operate behind the scenes, brainwashing and controlling the world’s governing elites and shaping history for particular ends.

Icke’s obsession with ‘reptiles’, however, as I explained in my talk, was the result of a more coded language that he subsequently adopted when there was an outcry over one of his earliest books. In The Robots Rebellion (1994), Icke had made uncritical use of the Czarist anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), which claims that the world is subject to manipulation and control by a secret ‘cabal’ of Jewish elders who meet annually. In the second edition of Robots Rebellion, this material was carefully edited out, but Icke’s general claim of a grand conspiracy at work across the globe remained. His books and sell-out talks have repeated this ‘global’ thesis ever since, in ever more bizzare and elaborate ways.

David Icke and Protocols

More importantly, though, in recent years Icke has returned back to his earlier obsession with the Protocols, and now talks more boldly and explicitly about the book and about ‘Rothschild Zionists’ more generally. He has evidently decided that sufficient time has now elapsed since the huge row caused by The Robots Rebellion in 1994, and that it is now ‘safe’ again to push some classic conspiracy ideas about ‘Zionist’ puppet-masters and ‘secret’ forces operating behind the scenes. In a recent radio interview, for example (available on YouTube), Icke put forward a detailed ‘history’ about the role of the Protocols and even linked the book to Allen Dulles and the American CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Dulles was supposedly a ‘front man of the House of Rothschild’. Icke’s version of the history of the Middle East would also have left a professional historian tearing their hair out.

As I pointed out in my talk, conspiracy theory, or ‘conspiracism’, has had a long and ugly history, with roots that can be traced right back to at least the time of the French Revolution, and to extravagant ideas about Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati. But it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that conspiracy theory really began to grow and gain ground, and the Protocols was a classic example of such thinking.

Protocols

In the early 1920s, the book was printed and distributed widely by the ‘Britons Publishing Society’, an extreme rightwing and highly anti-Semitic publishing group in the UK, created by Henry Hamilton Beamish (1873-1948). The Britons Society also exported many copies to other countries, and Hamilton, along with sympathisers and supporters of the Britons, helped translate and promote the Protocols in all corners of the world, including in the Middle East and Africa. The book was also taken up by the famous American motor manufacturer Henry Ford (1863-1947) in the USA, and by Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, especially by the Nazi movement’s main ideologue of ‘race’, Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946).

And the book did not disappear after the Second World War and the Holocaust. In fact, it has been reprinted on many occasions ever since, and there are now numerous versions available today on the internet. Indeed, in recent years, the Protocols has been used by conspiracy theorists to ‘explain’ a diverse number of historical events, ranging from the death of Lady Diana in 1997 to ‘9/11’ in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003. The Financial Crash of 2008 was also (apparently) deliberately engineered by the secretive Elders of Zion to undermine the West and bring about a ‘New World Order’, with a ‘One World’ dictatorship policed by the United Nations from New York.

Frankly, the fact that David Icke is himself utilising the basic tenets of the Protocols once again speaks volumes about the man.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

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Today (16th Nov): History at Kingston Seminar Series: ‘Lizards and Lies’

History at Kingston

Thursday 16th November 2017

JG5002, Pen Rd. campus, Kingston University

17.00-19.00pm

History Research Seminar Series

Dr. Steve Woodbridge will be speaking on:

‘Lizards and Lies: The role of conspiracy theory in modern history’

Reptilian-illuminati

There has been a huge growth in all kinds of conspiracy theory in recent years, and the role of accident or happenstance in history has been downgraded and replaced by claims that there is ‘purpose’, planning and manipulation behind everything that occurs – that we are being controlled by ‘puppet-masters’.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, will argue that the conspiratorial mind-set is not new, and that there is quite a historical lineage to recent conspiracy theory. He will suggest that scholars need to take the more recent growth of conspiracy theory very seriously, as it has increasingly had a disturbing impact on the very nature of historical study.

All are welcome to attend! Free refreshments will be provided.

 

 

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Launching the League: The foundation of the League of Nations Union in Kingston

There are times in history when the global will very much influence the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.

Woodrow Wilson-1920

The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War. He said he looked forward to a new world of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the League and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.

In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to recent research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.

In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer. Thus, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’. This comment received a round of applause from the audience.

Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.

Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.

Sidney Pocock

Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons).

Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.

The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the local Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’. According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU.

Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.

League of Nations cartoon image

It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.

The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period is, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of the 1920s – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939.

Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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When Food was Scarce: Memories of a Female Control Officer in World War One

While there has been a growing amount of scholarly and other research on the lives of women in Britain during the Great War, there is still much to investigate, especially in relation to particular types of occupation held by women on the Home Front. One rather neglected profession remains that of food distribution, and one woman’s career in Surrey offers a fascinating case study in relation to this.

In January, 1921, the Surrey Comet newspaper published a profile and interview with Mrs. Bumstead of Surbiton, in which she recalled her experiences as the local Executive Food Officer in Kingston-on-Thames during the First World War.

According to the newspaper, Mrs. Bumstead, who worked as the Executive Officer for food distribution for just over three and a half years in Kingston, was the only female in Britain to hold a post of this kind, and she undertook her duties ‘with remarkable efficiency’.

Leave_end

Mrs. Bumstead had moved to wartime Surbiton in 1916, and felt she must ‘take up some public work’. She was appointed chief clerk to the Executive Food Officer at Kingston, Dr. H. Beale Collins. On his retirement after six months, Mrs. Bumstead was appointed as his successor and, as the Surrey Comet put it, she ‘found herself in a unique position as the only woman Food Officer in the country’.

In the interview, Bumstead told the Comet that, prior to taking up her duties, she had accumulated wide experience of public official work, having been appointed as the Superintendent of the Scattered Homes for children under the Reading Board of Guardians, a position she had held for five years. She said she was the first woman to be appointed to such a post. She had also worked in a similar capacity for Willesden Board of Guardians. She thus brought a wealth of organisational experience to her new Kingston position.

Food poster WW1

As the newspaper argued, Mrs. Bumstead rendered ‘very effective service to the community’ during a very difficult period, both during and just after the war. The British government had been forced to introduce quite stringent food rationing in the later stages of the war, and the impact of the German U-Boat submarine campaign had made the availability of certain food-stuffs in the British Isles even more difficult in 1917-18. There were a number of occasions when Mrs. Bumstead had to personally intervene and sort out certain situations and placate discontented members of the local community concerning food matters.

Her responsibilities included, for example, the supply of margarine to retailers in Kingston, but things did not always go to plan during wartime. She recalled that, on one occasion, just before Christmas, 1917, ‘a great crowd of women’ came into the town from surrounding districts and, having failed to to obtain their usual supply from Kingston’s retailers, the angry women had gone ‘as a body’ to the local Food Office and confronted Mrs. Bumstead, saying they were going to ‘help themselves’ to the several tons of margarine being stored there in readiness for distribution the next day.

Mrs. Bumstead, however, quickly took action: she dispatched one of her assistants to fetch the local police and, in the meantime, met the enraged crowd at the door of the depot, blocking their way and daring them to proceed further. Faced by such an unexpected ‘outburst of passion’ by Mrs. Bumstead, the crowd apparently fell back, and the arrival of the local police ‘prevented any further danger of violence’.

Breadline in World War One

According to the Comet, the pressure on Mrs. Bumstead during these difficult wartime months was so great that, for six weeks on end, she never left the depot office for a minute from morning to night, and it was often 10.00pm at night before the day’s work was completed. As well as margarine, restrictions were also placed on jam, sugar, tea, lard, cheese, bacon, tinned meats of all kinds, and butcher’s meat, the control and distribution of which all came under the overall responsibility of Mrs. Bumstead. Queues for bread also became a regular sight in wartime (see the photo above of a typical breadline), adding to the tensions.

Yet, using tact and skill, Bumstead was able to gradually build up good relations with many retailers in Kingston and, she said, she managed to work ‘in harmony’ with traders and win their confidence. She spoke in the highest terms about Kingston’s shopkeepers, who were ‘always loyal’ and ‘most helpful’. As she recalled, it was only on a very few occasions that she had found it necessary to ‘take proceedings’ against any of them.

Looking back on her wartime experiences as Food  Control Officer, Mrs. Bumstead said she had ‘nothing to regret’. While it had been a strenuous time, on the whole she had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ her work. Shortly after the war, she had been offered, and had accepted, the position of Food Controller for a much wider area, embracing large parts of Surrey and Middlesex. But, when it was decided to close all the Food Offices in the aftermath of the conflict, her new position came to an end.

For historians, however, the case of Mrs. Bumstead offers some great insights into both the topic of gender on the Home Front in the Great War and the huge challenges involved in maintaining a fair distribution of food under very trying wartime circumstances.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

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Historian sets up TV company to counter misleading portrayals of great women

British historian Bettany Hughes, who is well-known for her writings about the ancient past and for her television documentary appearances, has helped set up a TV company in order to counter what she has called the ‘misleading’ portrayals of great women in history.

Bettany Hughes presenter

Hughes, whose work has included acclaimed books on Helen of Troy, the city of Istanbul, and on Greek philosopher Socrates, has carved out a reputation as one of the UK’s leading public historians and also as a highly-skilled documentary writer and presenter. She told the British press that the new TV company, which she has helped set up with three colleagues, is called Sandstone Global and is part of an attempt to ‘write women back into history’ and counter the ‘super-sexualised’ portrayal of female heroes of the past.

Speaking to the London Evening Standard newspaper, Hughes said that too many important women have been portrayed as ‘sexpots’ and their real achievements and talents have often been overlooked. She cited the examples of Queen Boudicca, who was a great strategist possessing more than just ‘nice hair’, and the Roman empress Theodora, a dancer who arguably became the world’s most powerful woman in the sixth century.

Hughes explained that she would not be trying to ‘shove women back into history where they don’t belong’, but the TV programmes made by Sandstone Global will give a more balanced story of the world and its history, including a fairer depiction of female characters who, in previous television and film productions, have been excessively sexualised: ‘I got so sick of sitting on panels talking about the need to make films that put women centre stage, write those stories back into history, and tell stories in a different way that I suddenly thought, “Change won’t happen unless you change things”. So four of us have set up a TV and film production company. What is really fascinating about these strong female characters from history – Boudicca, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy – is these are women who had a real impact on the world and the men and women around them, but history has recorded them as being overtly super-sexualised creatures. We remember the Roman description of Boudicca that she had flaming hair down to her hips and flashing eyes. But she was a real strategist’.

Elizabeth-Taylor-as-Cleopatra

Indeed, Boudicca, noted Hughes, galvanised huge numbers of troops that gave the seemingly better-organised Romans a real military challenge: ‘So she’s not just got nice hair’. This is something that has often been overlooked or simply ignored in previous portrayals of Boudicca, especially in Hollywood mass entertainment films, where the emphasis has tended to be on the ‘glamour’ and personal relationships of such women. A classic example of this kind of treatment was Cleopatra (1963), an epic American film which starred Elizabeth Taylor (see picture above).

Having a more realistic and balanced approach in movies and documentaries, informed by better use of historical evidence, is clearly needed. In fact, Hughes is already putting this approach into action. She told the Standard that, in her new 8-part TV series on Rome, Eight Days That Made Rome (which starts on the UK’s Channel-5 on 27th October), she will show how empresses had ‘a real chance’ to wield political power: ‘In the series I’m making sure that women are part of the story and they’re not just sexpots’.

The new series will explore eight defining moments that, in Hughes’s view, contributed to the Roman Empire’s emergence as a superpower, starting with the Roman Scipio’s famous and decisive victory over the large army of the Carthaginian General Hannibal in 202 BC.

Hughes has become one of the UK’s most familiar historians to the general public through her TV presenting, is a popular guest at Literary festivals and other events, and has certainly been very busy in recent months: British TV viewers are currently enjoying her excellent 3-part series on SocratesGenius of the Ancient World, which is being transmitted on BBC-4.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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