1 Book, 1 Film, 1 Podcast: History
Something you will likely have noticed about us human folk - along with, come to think of it, pretty much everything we share the Earth with - is that we don’t live in a vacuum. Every aspect of our lives, from the big ones, like our social and political structures, to the minute ones, like switching our bedroom light on, can be traced back to what came before us; discoveries made, attitudes held, causes fought for.
The moment a historian is born is the point at which they find that a substantial portion of their day is spent wondering ‘why?’ Why are there laws requiring us to send our children to school? Why are some countries democracies and others dictatorships? Why have minorities had to fight for their rights within society?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions aren’t just floating around. If you want a clear understanding of the hugely complex issues that keep us awake at night, you’ll need to delve into a sea of enquiry, evidence and, almost inevitably, conflicting opinions and narratives. Detective work is the historian’s vocation and, as challenging as it can be to build up an effective picture of exactly how past events played out, burrowing into bygone eras really is the only way to fully contextualise our societies and understand where we are now.
As well as an obsession with causality, your average historian will likely harbour something of an addiction to a good story. It’s no coincidence that in many languages the word for ‘history’ and ‘story’ is the same. Whether you’re studying the Tudors, the Roman Empire or Soviet Russia, you can expect to be plunged into a vibrant world of ideas and characters that will make Game of Thrones look bland. Despite history’s dastardly unfair reputation as a boring subject, once you get your teeth into an era or sequence of events, like a good book, it tends to be impossible to put down. So, to start you off on your quest for stories, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favourite history-based material.
Book: The Daughter of Time, 1953, by Josephine Tey
Perhaps a surprising choice given that TheDaughter of Time is a novel only loosely based on true events. But then again, whether fiction or nonfiction, stories are stories and this one is sure to get you excited about studying history. The plot begins simply; a bed-ridden police inspector looking to kill time starts reading about the life of the Plantagenet king, Richard III. He quickly becomes intrigued by his subject and begins to investigate the mysteries surrounding him, using a range of documents and sources.
The Daughter of Time superbly illustrates how closely the study of history can resemble detective work; historian as earnest truth seeker who lines up every bit of evidence in order to arrive at an accurate picture of the past. The props, theories and thought exercises that surround the historian’s vocation are a point of fascination for Tey and the story presents a microcosmic picture of how history itself is constructed.
Film: Adam Curtis’s documentaries
Curtis’s documentary series demonstrate just how expansive a subject history can be. These multi-part pieces probe profound questions surrounding humanity’s relationships with money, the media, war and everything in between. Curtis does nothing by halves and his works draw on multiple eras, cultures, and schools of thought to illustrate his elaborate, highly detailed pictures of our social moment.
Curtis’s arc-based epics, burrowing into the deepest corners of collective human experience, are a true homage to the documentary form and the dizzying heights to which ‘the archive’ can take us. Many of his documentaries, including his most recent, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, are available on BBC iPlayer and are well worth a watch for budding historians out there.
Podcast: Slow Burn
Produced by Slate, Slow Burn is riding the wave of the immensely popular genre that is the multi-episode deep dive podcast and has been hugely successful since it began in 2017. Each series takes as its base a well-known American scandal - they have ranged from the Watergate crisis to the 2003 invasion of Iraq - and guides listeners through how it played out step by step. While never waxing too academic and always remaining accessible, Slow Burn revels in the gratification of exploring an event from recent history in immense detail, and has listeners on the edge of their seat throughout each episode.
British History Online - British History offers numerous exciting sources and artefacts as part of its archives as well as breakdowns of various significant concepts within the timeline of British history, such religious history, parliamentary history, etc.
School History - School History is a site primarily for teachers with an expansive bank of resources on pretty much every topic studied on the UK History curriculum.
History Learning Site - History Learning site was set up by a history lover who sadly passed away in 2013 and has been maintained by his family ever since. It includes a wealth of information on a range of topics, with detailed timelines and event breakdowns.
History Rhymes - History Rhymes contains a wealth of brilliantly researched articles on an enormous array of topics throughout history. Whether you’re interested in the First World War, 19th century American history or the Middle Ages, you’re sure to find something that will quench your thirst for knowledge.