Cognitive Science Talk Review: Dr Jerome Lewis’ ‘Music First: hunter-gatherer ethnography and the evolution of language’

Written by Toby Gay

On Friday 30 November, Dr. Jerome Lewis from University College London delivered a talk entitled ‘Music first: hunter-gatherer ethnography and the evolution of language’ in front of a packed lecture theatre in the Psychology building.

Before commencing, Dr. Lewis warned that although the lecture would be listed as a ‘Cognitive Science’ talk, he would be drawing heavily from other disciplines, namely Anthropology, Psychology and Archaeology, to support his argument. Indeed, his opening remarks could have been those of a Linguistics professor, as he pointed out the difficulty of defining ‘music’, placing it on the spectrum of ‘communication’, before distinguishing this latter term from ‘language’. After this densely theoretical introduction, Dr. Lewis transported his audience to West Africa, where he conducted his case study on a contemporary hunter-gatherer society called the Baka. From here on, the line of argument became slightly muddled, as he started focussing on the heavily gendered and yet incredibly egalitarian nature of this group which, admittedly, was fascinating.

Despite this, his presenting style and handling of multiple forms of media to demonstrate the lives of the Baka and the significance of their songs in cultural and practical settings were excellent. He continued in the same vein when answering questions on the possible connections between virtuosity in singing and prestige varieties in language.

On more than one occasion, Dr. Lewis had to reassert that he had found this group to be completely averse to notions of personal property or ambition, suggesting that all human beings share an innate psychological quality that attracts us to communal egalitarianism. An attempt was made to establish a link – through the material culture of honey containers – between today’s hunter-gatherers and their European predecessors 27,000 years ago, but this was not fully pursued. This was unfortunate for, as Graeme Warren of University College Dublin pointed out earlier this year:

‘We cannot reach back into deep time without the insights of archaeology. So if we want to understand hunting and gathering throughout time and space, we have to use archaeological approaches to understand what may be widespread among hunters and gatherers, or what may be recent developments overall. So, the two disciplines [Archaeology and Anthropology] need to work together’.

Dr. Lewis could improve his analysis by applying the above principle to his work. Unfortunately, however, as the cultivated soil in many parts of Europe is often more than 10,000 years old, much of the material culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors is lost, and establishing links with societies such as the contemporary Baka therefore becomes even more difficult.

In fact, the most famous archaeological site in England, Star Carr in North Yorkshire, provides evidence that our ancestors from approximately 8,000 BC led less nomadic lives than today’s hunter-gatherers. In addition, the plethora of skull-caps and projectiles apparently abandoned on the site suggests that its inhabitants enjoyed a surplus of resources. This would imply that this society was, by the end of the last ice age, starting to move away from the kind of egalitarianism which the subjects of Dr Lewis’s studies practice today.

Nevertheless, Dr. Lewis’s lecture was thought-provoking as well as highly entertaining. In light of the recent events regarding the Sentinelese, one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world, the talk was convincing in advocating the preservation of these societies with the objective of understanding the past, and possibly even the future of humanity.



Research Seminar Review: Emily Brownell’s ‘Concrete and Bricks: Materialising the Future in 1970s Tanzania’

Written by Carissa Chew

Although the 1970s have been somewhat overlooked in the historiography of Tanzania, the second decade of independence in fact constituted an important era of nation-building and identity formation. For post-independence Tanzania, the 1970s was a turbulent decade defined by mass rural-urban migration; the height of ujamaa; forced villagisation; the 1973 oil crisis; the relocation of the capital from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma in 1974; drought and famine; and the 1978-79 war with Uganda. On 9 October, as part of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History lecture series on ‘Space’, Dr Emily Brownell presented her research on the urban environment of 1970s Dar es Salaam. In this talk, titled ‘Concrete and Bricks: Materialising the Future in 1970s Tanzania’, Brownell proposed that an examination of urban building practices offers an insightful framework through which to discuss the tensions of nation-building in post-independence Tanzania.

From a distance, 1970s Dar es Salaam appeared to be a place of privilege. For many Tanzanians living on the rural peripheries, Dar es Salaam was an alluring and rich metropolitan centre. The hundreds of rural migrants who poured into the city to escape the rural development schemes, however, soon discovered that it was also a place of disadvantage, disparity, and urban poverty. Despite the influx of people into the city, money continued to be channelled almost exclusively into rural areas. After all, the state was explicitly anti-urban in its stance: ideologically speaking, ujamaa and urbanity were incompatible. As the city became more densely populated, therefore, its inhabitants found themselves struggling to survive. The slums expanded in size, many residents were forced to work several jobs to earn a living, and the growing urban poor found themselves desperately queuing for basic goods.

Against this backdrop, Brownell’s research explores urban life in 1970s Dar es Salaam by looking at the use of different building materials in the city’s architecture. Building materials, Brownell explained, were ascribed different statuses in Tanzanian culture according a modernity/tradition binary. Modern materials, such as concrete and bricks, were characterised by the quality of permanency. Traditional materials such as mud, wattle, and palm leaves, on the other hand, were defined by their impermanency (although they could in fact survive for decades). This distinction had its roots in the colonial era, when the racial segregation of housing was visually reinforced by the use of different building materials. Whilst Europeans and Asians had access to permanent building materials, Africans did not. In fact, the colonial authorities only granted liberal building regulations for African landlords on the premise that they used impermanent building materials, so that the poorly planned and overcrowded African settlements could be cheaply destroyed in the future.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, TANU’s rhetoric on housing echoed colonial ideas about permanent and impermanent building materials, as well as the European belief that permanent materials possessed ‘civilising’ properties. The African elite built their own permanent residencies during the 1960s, and concrete and brick came to be understood as cultural symbols of modernity and development. Throughout the 1960s, the majority of Africans in Dar es Salaam continued to build using impermanent materials, however, and for Julius Nyerere this appeared as a visual reminder of the inequality that colonialism had produced. In an attempt to eradicate urban disparity, Nyerere envisioned that all the slums would be replaced by concrete houses. Although this proved financially impossible, Nyerere nevertheless persisted with adult education schemes which oversaw the publication of pamphlets that informed residents of the best building techniques and advised them not to live in poorly built houses, which would lead to their ill health. This housing campaign included slogans such as ‘Aluminium yes! Makuti no!’.

Nyerere’s development plans, which included a new airport and a hydro-electric plant, demanded large quantities of cement. To overcome the expense of importing cement, TANU built the Wazo Hill Cement Plant, which was located just outside of Dar es Salaam, where a 25-year supply of materials was available. Nyerere sought self-sufficiency for Tanzania’s development, and hence the plant relied on a local labour force and proudly branded its cement products with the location ‘Dar es Salaam’. Various issues soon arose, however, given the lack of local expertise. For example, following the oil crisis, outages and stoppages became increasingly frequent and the African workforce became concerned that spirits were meddling with the machinery. In light of this, politicians concurred that a witch doctor should be brought in. To rid the plant of its bad spirits, the witch doctor performed a sacrifice, smearing the blood of an ox over the different machines. According to the account of the Yugoslavian worker, the ritual was immediately effective. The plant did not continue to run smoothly, however, and newspapers even began to spread rumours that expatriate workers had abandoned the plant or were trying to sabotage it. Despite the plant’s nationalisation in 1974, productivity failed to improve.

Given the problems of production, cement did not become as widely available as Nyerere had hoped. A black market for cement developed, but even for those families who could afford to buy cement, it could take years to obtain a large enough quantity for the building of an entire house. In this way, cement continued to be recognised as a symbol of privilege and was only available to the elite. By 1977, Nyerere had become disillusioned with the idea that cement was the solution to Tanzania’s problems. Reversing his stance on cement, Nyerere shamed people for using the material, accusing them of having an ‘unhealthy addiction to European soil’. In line with his belief that ‘third world’ countries should not simply adopt ‘first world’ technologies, Nyerere urged Tanzanians to end their reliance on foreign goods.

TANU began to search for a local alternative to cement, funding new research projects such as the building research unit at the University of Dar es Salaam and the inaugurate ‘build a better home’ campaign. Soon, a new ‘vernacular’ Tanzanian alternative was discovered: the burnt brick. With a brick factory under construction, TANU portrayed the burnt brick as the building block to a socialist utopia. For Tanzania, the brick seemed to offer an ideal solution to the cement problem, as it was a permanent and reputably ‘scientific’ material yet its production required little expertise. Using the brick, communities could become self-sufficient, building permanent residencies without relying on foreign products. Despite TANU’s excitement about the burnt brick, however, Brownell explained that the brick-building project was not a complete success. Cement continued to hold its cultural status, and brick manufacture had detrimental impacts on the environment, with the production of 25,000 bricks requiring the felling of approximately 70 trees.

By examining the urban landscape of Dar es Salaam at a material level, therefore, Brownell’s research highlights the important relationship between building materials and the struggle for national identity in 1970s Tanzania. TANU’s official discourse on permanent building materials reveals the persistence of colonial ideologies. The architecture of the city of Dar es Salaam is a visual reflection of the tension between modernity and tradition that is central to 1970s nationalist discourse. The construction of permanent housing alongside the impermanent slums is testament to urban inequality. The transition away from cement is a reminder of the contradictions in Nyerere’s nationalist rhetoric. Furthermore, the continued use of cement alongside burnt bricks is indicative of the reluctance of some Tanzanians to abandon their belief in the superiority of foreign technology, reminding us that the residents of Dar es Salaam did not share a single united vision of Tanzanian modernity.


Cover image: Chen Hualin’s 2011 photograph of the aerial view of Dar es Salaam




Research Seminar Review of ‘The Cartel: A model for socio-political organization in Archaic Greece’

Written by Lisa Doyle

This lecture by Professor Gunnar Seelentag took place on 17 October 2018. In what was quite an information-heavy presentation, Professor Seelentag informed us of his objective to understand the emergence and development of political institutions in seventh and sixth centuries BC, and the role the dynamics of competitive behaviour played in the process. His approach to this topic was to employ the socio-political model of cartel formation, in the hope that this model will explain various manifestations of institutionalisation in different fields.

He began with a description of the necessary building blocks needed for cartel formation, drawing on the theories of G. Simmel in describing decision-making situations where several participants influence each other and where competition is a means to make social connections. Seelentag argued that the socio-political environment of polis was home to such conditions. I would suggest, however, that this theory is applicable not only to the archaic polis, but indeed to many other civilisations and cities throughout antiquity.

Next, he explained the main traits of cartel-formation in Archaic Greece. Firstly, Seelentag made a point of emphasising the socio-political mobility of the time. However, when he moved on to clarify the criteria for inclusion into the cartel, things got a bit confusing. In an effort to explain these specific criteria, he claimed that they were fluid and subject to change. This gave off the impression that there were indeed no set criteria at all. This problem was also reflected in his description of the appropriate size of the cartel. His explanation was thus; when an individual is successful in entering into a cartel, he wants to secure his position in the group and close the circle after himself in order to limit the size of the cartel. But, in order for the cartel to maintain a competitive stance, it needs to be large, with the right amount of members. From my perspective, one part of this statement negates the other.

As he proceeded with his description of the traits of cartel formation, the primary sources Seelentag utilized seemed, at times, a bit random. His evidence ranged from Homer to Herodotus, Theognis to the Tomb of Megas. Although these examples seemed to illustrate his points, I feel there could have been more structure in how he chose to present his evidence. As his objective with this subject is to write a book, perhaps that will be a good opportunity to do so. For the purposes of this research seminar, however, the presentation was a little confusing.

As the discussion progressed from cartel formation, through to the structural instability of the cartel, and finishing with the signs for cartel co-operation, one came away with the impression that his theory may certainly be applicable to the poleis of Archaic Greece, but that it is not unique to Archaic Greece. Perhaps, in his development of this research, Prof. Seelentag will establish a more secure correlation with the archaic polis.


Image: View from Philopappos Hill in Athens — Acropolis of Athens

Review of ‘On Five Dollars a Day’ by James W. MacNutt

Written by Toby Gay

Rather like the 1957 guidebook with which the work shares its name, James W. MacNutt’s On Five Dollars A Day can be appreciated for being an exceptionally precise and intimate tool with which to explore over 20 European cities, albeit instead of the work of fiction it presents itself to be. Macnutt’s descriptions of towns like Istanbul bring to life the world of the late photographer Ara Guler, and of ancient artefacts such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, which are remarkably vivid, bearing in mind that the author has not visited them in 50 years. Combined with this, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places he visits, and his astute awareness of the contemporary political and social climates in each of the countries, make him a role model traveller.

    In West Germany, the author visits the notable and (still) war-torn cities of Bonn and Cologne, before reaching the infamous concentration camp of Dachau. Interestingly, he is immensely disappointed by the lack of clarity in the museum and how the ‘whole site had been cleansed’, with rooms repainted to cover the worst of the horrible conditions in which the Holocaust victims had been tortured and murdered. Surprisingly, this is true. It took another three years after MacNutt’s visit (May 1965) for the West German government to acknowledge the protests of former prisoners and reverse the refurbishments which had been made to the camp to house refugees in the post-war period. The now famous memorial sculpture by Nandor Glid was only erected at this time, more than twenty years after MacNutt’s compatriots liberated the camp. However, and despite MacNutt’s tainted observations after coming across a Neo-Nazi family in Lübeck, West Germany was remarkably quick to come to terms with its problematic past, introducing Stolpersteine to the streets of its cities and agreeing to pay reparations to Israel in 1953.

    However, as Jan Werner-Mueller pointed out in the Guardian in 2010, little has been done to come to terms with the crimes committed in East Germany, a state which existed from 1949-1990, and which the author visits in this book. While his anecdotes about being harassed by East German border guards and witnessing the stark contrast in living standards between the East and West are nothing new, the account of how he was spied on for the entire duration of his stay is fascinating. This account also helps bring to life the eerie quiet and disintegrating Big Brother society of East Berlin.

    Macnutt’s trip to Turkey proved to be less stressful, but just as interesting. With difficulty, he purchases a Turkish lira on board his ship from Turkey to Greece, a testament to the political tension between the two counties at that time over the expulsion of Istanbul Greeks in the early 1960s, and the struggle over the control of Cyprus. On arrival in Istanbul, the author mistakenly comments on the ‘middle phase of its history when it was called Byzantium’, but proceeds to enjoy various misadventures with the ethnically diverse locals, involving alcohol, money and masseurs. Due to economic migration and conflict in the Black Sea region over the last 50 years, Istanbul has now regrettably lost much of this diversity, making this work a valuable portal to the past.

    On the downside, Macnutt’s pedagogy often turns to pedantry as he concentrates on minor superficial details and information readily available in any rudimentary history book (or Wikipedia). He also turns to prudishness as he reacts to the sexual revolution unfolding around him in Belgium and Holland in particular.

    Nevertheless, Macnutt’s ‘first foray into fiction’ proved to be an immensely enjoyable read. It is confused, rather like the world it is set in, which is a telling reminder that the Europe of today is still a much safer and more stable continent than it was not just 2000, but even 50 years ago.





Review: ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ Series 1, Episode 1

Written by Martha Stutchbury 

BBC’S Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents aired this month for the first time since its 2017 debut and provides fascinating insight into the meaning behind Isaac Oliver’s famous portrait of the Virgin Queen, which shows her majesty’s garments adorned with eyes and ears, in a veiled reference to what the documentary refers to as a ‘the world’s first secret service’ – headed by the Queen’s ‘ruthless, cunning and loyal’ head of ‘spyery,’ William Cecil. It is because of Cecil’s network of informants, the documentary claims, that Elizabeth was able to remain on the throne for 44 years in such a politically and religiously tumultuous Europe. The first episode of this three-part mini-series from directors Durlacher and Jones outlines the increased threat posed to Elizabeth from 1570, when the Pope himself labels the monarch a heretic, effectively providing 40,000 illegally practising British Catholics with the justification for her murder. It is in this climate, the episode claims, that Cecil’s dedication is increasingly required to defuse assassination attempts on the monarch.

This episode focuses almost exclusively on Cecil’s involvement in neutralising the treasonous conspiracies of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots. This is a fascinating story, maximised in its treachery by the fact that both ‘villains’ are blood relatives of the Queen herself. The documentary follows Cecil’s interception of a coded letter addressed to ’40’ at the height of religious and political tensions under Elizabeth’s reign. The documentary gains pace upon the agent’s discovery that the desired recipient for the letter is the Duke himself planning to, we eventually discover, marry Mary and invite the Spanish to overthrow the monarch, with a view to establishing himself as King. When Elizabeth learns of this, and refuses to sign the death warrant of the Duke, her cousin, the programme highlights Cecil’s hierarchy-subverting determination to protect the queen, by addressing his secret role in the distribution of a news pamphlet to the public, publicising the details of the Duke’s treason and leaving Elizabeth with little choice but to sanction the execution of her kin.

Over-dramatisation significantly decreases the validity of the piece, and seems unnecessary to the viewer in light of the story’s already compelling narrative. In an attempt to construct theatricality from the archival footage in the documentary – cited as being chiefly from the British Library, the ‘Cecil Papers’ at Hatfield House, National Archives and the National Portrait Gallery, the principal characters of Cecil and Elizabeth are reconstructed by actors. Cameras trail the two figures in slow motion as they pass along shadowy corridors or smell flowers in the palace gardens (with this particular activity being depicted more than once). These scenes are often accompanied by feverishly paced violins, adding dramatic – and sometimes tiresome – weight to the documentary’s production.

There is also an unconvincing focus from the ‘resident historians’ of the documentary on portraits of the period. When considering a painting of Francis Walsingham – referenced in the programme as Cecil’s equally cunning ‘second in command,’ it is claimed by one camera-ready historian that: ‘If you look at those eyes…there is no mercy there’. Similarly, a portrait of Cecil in later life, after his dismissal from the Queen’s favour in 1587 for carrying out the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, is narrated with the same sensationalism: ‘Looking at the picture, you can see how devastated he would have been,’ one narrator claims as the camera zooms in steadily on the (actually rather passive looking) face of the ex-spymaster.

Nevertheless, the documentary’s visual representation of Cecil’s informant network is creative and revealing, with lines being drawn across the screen to indicate the relationship of one character to another in the spymaster’s system. It seems an accurate assessment when one historian claims that the Elizabethan culture of conspiracy is an ‘endless labyrinth,’ and the audience are enticed by Cecil’s attempt to decipher the ‘maze within a maze’ of Elizabethan treachery. The role of individuals within the network is explored to a satisfying degree within the programme’s one-hour framework. For example, the role of ‘Cambridge’s top mathematician’ in unpicking the coded messages delivered from Anthony Babington – the nobleman responsible for the plotting of Elizabeth’s assassination – who is also questionably described as a ‘sort of young, Elizabethan, Catholic playboy’ in the documentary. Additionally, Mary Queen of Scots during her house arrest, is depicted with a detail that is undoubtedly arresting for the audience. Such a focus on minor characters successfully highlights the delicacy and deep-rootedness of Elizabeth’s reliance on her spymaster for continued protection, and, in light of this, ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ is undoubtedly a compelling watch.


‘Series 1: Episode 1’ (2017) Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents. BBC 2, 23 October 2017

Image: Isaac Oliver, The Rainbow Portrait, (c.1600)

An invisible historical landscape: Barcelona’s Civil War tours

Written by Josh Newmark

Image: Albggt, Placa de Catalunya,, 04/11/2018

In a country which is often described as suffering from ‘historical amnesia’ towards its Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, Civil War tours of Barcelona bring history to life where it is otherwise inapparent. For those intrigued by the Spanish Civil War, the lack of much museum space dedicated to the subject is sometimes frustrating. I plan to write another time about the reality of Spain’s pacto de olvido, pact of forgetting, but let it suffice to say that there is generally little Civil War material to be found on display around the country. All that springs to mind is the excellent Peace Museum in Guernica (the historical but seldom-visited pueblo in the Basque Country); a powerful but art-focused exhibition on Spain’s 1937 World Fair exhibit in Madrid’s Reina Sofia gallery, centred around Pablo Picasso’s own Guernica; and the meagre little displays beneath Salamanca’s well-guarded Civil War archive. Neither does the landscape generally bear much overt testimony to the fratricidal past (earlier Francoist monuments and place names have often been replaced with ostensibly neutral ones). Yet the relative lack of an official guide to sites of Civil War history offers a subtler way of encountering history.

Lacking any visible plaque or monument, the Plaça de Catalunya today is not immediately perceptible as the site where armed anarchist workers successfully repelled the soldiers sent to subdue the city. Yet having the events of 19 July 1936 recounted dramatically, while standing within the space where it took place, the space felt suddenly charged with historical energy. It became apparent that a square or other public space may be built and policed by elites, but the people of the city can infuse it with their own meaning and character, and can appropriate public space as, literally, the people’s space. Being amid the apparent order of modern-day Barcelona and the Plaça de Catalunya today, while visualising the barricades and people-power of the counter-counterrevolution, the latent potential with which history can infuse a space was brought home to me. If this was, within living memory, the site of a popular resistance to fascism, and an ensuing revolutionary upheaval, it feels as if anywhere could be. Institutions, constitutions, and the social order crumble before historical possibility. And perhaps the startling sense of historical reality was actually amplified by the lack of any official monument that might formalise or even commodify it as a place of memory.

George Orwell plays a frequent role in the Civil War tour. Arriving in Barcelona a few months after the defeated coup, his Homage to Catalonia contains a vivid description of revolutionary Barcelona, of which he opined that:

There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. 

We were shown the Hotel Continental where he stayed upon arrival, presumably also the site where he was scolded for attempting to tip a bellboy in a society where tipping had been abolished as an artefact of social hierarchy. The attic where Orwell was posted overnight as a sniper during the May Days conundrum of 1937, in which Anarchist and Trotskyist factions violently resisted the attempts by Moscow-oriented Communists to rein in the social revolution and expel them from the Republican coalition, is also pointed out to us. With ordinary people going about their business and leisure up and down La Rambla, it is difficult to imagine George Orwell clutching a rifle and running for cover: another powerful reminder of the historical energy contained in the La Rambla in particular, and in any European street in general.

Walking in Orwell’s footsteps from June 1937 when, returning from the front line after being shot in the throat by a sniper, he had to hastily flee Barcelona to evade capture by Moscow’s agents, you realise that this is where his anti-Stalinist fables Animal Farm and 1984 were forged in the furnace of the European Civil War. Again, this space has not been overtly memorialised and commodified: it is central Barcelona au naturel – a historical landscape so startling and evocative in its very lack of choreographing as a historical landscape. Admittedly, largely unseen on La Rambla, is an unassuming plaque demonstrating the last place where socialist leader Andreu Nin was seen alive before Stalinist agents disappeared and murdered him. Nin was the leader of the Trotskyist POUM party for which Orwell ended up fighting and almost dying.

Probably the most visibly historicised site on the Civil War tour is the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. The walls of the Church there are visibly pockmarked. Our guide informs us that for years the Francoist dictatorship maintained that this was the site of an anti-clerical massacre of priests perpetrated by the revolutionary Left – one of many which did take place during the early days of War – in keeping with their narrative of the patriotic Crusade against godless Bolsheviks. However, the pockmarks are clearly not from bullets: they are from shrapnel. In January 1938, during the siege of the city, a Nationalist bomb exploded in the square; most victims were schoolchildren, some of them orphaned refugees from Madrid. A second bomb hit as survivors were pulled from the rubble. Forty-two died. Today a tiny, plain plaque marks the site. Otherwise, the pockmarked façade is open to being interpreted or simply ignored by passers-by. This place evokes a strong, unsettling feeling: children were massacred here, and their deaths denied by a falsification of history. Yet the space is not being used to teach a lesson or erect monuments against extremism and murder: it is therefore a place to reflect on the suffering of innocent children at the cruel decisions of adults, and how we have failed to properly address that particular legacy of the twentieth century.

José Colmeiro has interpreted the prevalence of ghosts in Spanish film and literature as a cultural manifestation of the country’s evasion to engaging directly with its recent past. While more recently the Civil War and Francoist dictatorship have been in the public eye as Parliament passed a decree to exhume Franco from the massive Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, Barcelona’s Civil War tours show how much the ordinary streets of Spain are haunted, almost invisibly, by that past. But this is not an entirely bad thing. Instead of a commodified or formalised historical site, with all the expected social conventions, farcical coercion of particular forms of remembrance and societal disdain for others that go with that, it is an opportunity to really reflect on European history, and the momentous events of the past that took place in our streets and within our societies and then faded into myths, legends, and official narratives.


Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967 [1938])

Colmeiro, José, ‘Nation of ghosts?: haunting, historical memory and forgetting in post-Franco Spain’, 452 Electronic journal of theory of literature and comparative literature, 4 (2011), pp. 17-34.

Ancient Invisible Cities by Dr. Michael Scott: Istanbul

Written by Toby Gay

Image: Photograph of Dr. Michael Scott as promo for BBC series, Ancient Invisible Cities

Dr. Michael Scott concludes his three-part series Ancient Invisible Cities with its strongest episode: Istanbul. Combining his typically smooth enthusiasm with the latest 3D scanning technology, Scott allows the visuals to do most of the work in revealing the stunning archaeological and architectural treasures of this multifaceted and secretive metropolis.

    Unfortunately, this more passive role means that the presenter sometimes neglects his role of describing the outstanding and dramatic history of the city, especially of the early Byzantine period. Instead of explaining the significant role the city played in the rise of the Silk Road (as the excellent Dr. Sam Willis did two years ago), and its vital, unique geography with the Golden Horn harbour, Scott heads straight for the jugular: the Hagia Sophia, which was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years.

    This is understandable, however, as the Hagia Sophia is such an incredible building that it was worth cutting all the customary preamble to focus on it. The 3D scanning, while awkwardly presented (‘You can’t do that in real life!’), is truly fascinating in how it uncovers the engineering masterstrokes it took to build the huge dome. The exquisite angels on the pendentive, now plastered over, are shown to be holding up this now very fragile and ‘bumpy’ centrepiece – quite literally holding up heaven. Even if he fails to tell the story of Constantine, and his reshaping of Byzantium into the Romanesque Constantinople (renamed as Istanbul in 1928), Scott does a wonderful job of bringing to life the character of Emperor Justinian – who built the cathedral.

    Sadly, Scott only discusses the Muslim amendments to the former cathedral after a 40-minute hiatus, by which time the audience, filled with information about beautifully preserved Christian mosaics and Roman aqueducts and forgotten colossal hippodromes and city walls, is unable to understand the complex architectural history of this World Heritage Site. The presenter makes up for this by exploring the city in virtual reality, a genuinely funny but also fascinating gimmick. However, Scott surely cannot be forgiven for spending so little time on the modern, Muslim history of the city, which started in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered it with the use of gunpowder – the first time the substance had been used in Western history. Despite indulging in a little of the local street food as a premise for exploring the remarkable success of multiculturalism in early-twentieth century Istanbul, Scott times this programme quite poorly, spending little time on the wonderful Muslim architecture and artefacts of the Sultan Ahmed mosque, and even less on the culturally-diverse domestic lives of the İstanbullu which are still influenced by the long history of the city.

    All in all, this is a programme well worth watching; the narrative succeeds in drawing a line between the ancient past and the current day, unlike its predecessors on Athens and Cairo. Although it is a little torn between history and archaeology, Muslim and Christian architecture, this can be put down to the magnitude of this great city’s heritage. At a time when the West and the East are threatening to pull Turkey apart over the Syrian crisis, along with the furore over the recent death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is reassuring to remember that this country and its cultural capital have endured it all over the last 1800 hundred years.

TV Review: ‘Julius Caesar Revealed’

Written by Daniel Sharp



The BBC’s recent documentary about Julius Caesar was a lively and entertaining re-evaluation of one of the classical world’s most famous figures. With Professor (and now Dame) Mary Beard as our guide, we are invited to consider the many ways in which Caesar, his achievements, and his actions have helped to shape the world since his death by assassination in 44 BC.

    Beard is always a joy and does not disappoint here. Whether spray painting Veni Vidi Vici on a wall or helping out at a caesarean section birth, she finds rather interesting angles to explore how Caesar has influenced the modern world. As she argues, his story has parallels with current politics. He was a populist, an outside candidate who stood against the ‘metropolitan elite’ of Rome, supported by the people more than his fellow establishment politicians. He kept himself in the public’s mind by having accounts of his conquests read out in Rome while he himself was far away and he kickstarted the phenomenon of the modern political sound bite: Veni Vidi Vici indeed.

    Caesar was therefore an opportunist politician, with an eye always out for ways to advance both himself and his career. And, indeed, he was a success in all respects, propelling himself to the heights of power, a Roman emperor in all but name for a few years before he was killed by those concerned by the amount of power he held. An opportunist, a populist, a great publicist – there are, indeed, modern parallels to be considered here.

    This wily political operator was also a brutal wager of war. His conquests in Gaul saw great savagery and massacres committed by Caesar and his men. One such massacre, it is argued in the documentary, could even be termed a genocide. War, however, was a means to an end for Caesar – a way for him to bolster his image and produce publicity. Caesar’s invasions of Britain did just this – though not successful by any stretch of the imagination, they nevertheless provided Romans with the reality of one of their own citizens being on the edge of the known world, essentially in an alien environment.

    When he was recalled to Rome by suspicious elites, Caesar pulled an audacious move, crossing the Rubicon with his army (whose loyalty to him was a key ingredient to his success) and marching on Rome, something which Mussolini would try to emulate many centuries later. This set the stage for his seizure of power, and he soon declared himself dictator in perpetuity, a move which alarmed his opponents and ultimately led to his assassination.

    How to assess such a man then? Beard suggests that in many ways he was distasteful, but that it is impossible to get away from the fact that of all the classical figures it was Julius Caesar, Rome’s most famous son, who shaped the world the most.

Historical attraction review: ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’

Written by Daniel Sharp



In the 1990s, a Japanese medium visited Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town. She sensed nothing at all until she entered a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house and felt a despairing presence in the room. Turning to leave, the medium felt a tug on her trouser leg and turned to see the ghostly apparition of a small girl named Annie. Annie was a girl who had lived in the house, but was left alone there by her mother when she caught the plague. Most distressing of all – Annie’s favourite doll had been taken away by her mother. The medium immediately ran to a shop and brought back a tartan Barbie doll for Annie to play with. The ghost was appeased and the feeling of despair dissipated. That doll is still there, along with a pile of other toys that visitors have brought from all over the world to leave for Annie.

As it is not the place of a History, Classics and Archaeology journal to pronounce upon such matters as the existence of the paranormal, I shall not judge whether the story of the haunting is true or not (though, as it happens, I am a confirmed skeptic). What is true, however, is that the sites in and around Mary King’s Close have had reports of hauntings since the seventeenth century, and it has a reputation for the supernatural – it was even featured on the paranormal television series Most Haunted in 2004.

What I can judge, however, is how good the Close is as a place to visit. It is now a tourist attraction and I recently visited with some family members. A tour guide, garbed in historical clothing, leads you underground and shows you the perfectly preserved rooms and houses which once made up Mary King’s Close. Prior to it being built over in order to construct the City Chambers, it was one of the busiest closes in Edinburgh. It was also one of the few named after a woman – Mary King was a burgess and successful businesswoman in the 1630s.

Indeed, it is a great place to visit. Yes, it is very touristy as these things generally are, but that does not take away from the fact that the tour guide is very genial and informative. It also does not get in the way of a ‘genuine’ historical experience – the Close and the houses within it are very well preserved. Annie’s house in particular was a treat to see as it is a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house, with some of the original floral patterning still visible on the walls.

One receives a huge amount of information about the history of the Close, with particular attention paid to the period of Edinburgh’s final plague outbreak, which killed an astonishing amount of people. Given the tightly-packed layout of the Close, it is not difficult to see how disease spread so easily – the Close was narrow, the dwellings tiny and crammed full of people, and human waste was thrown out onto the street with the traditional cry of ‘gardyloo!’. You hear of other stories of the inhabitants too, including the tragicomedy of a murderous encounter between a man and his mother-in-law.

In the end, ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’ is well worth visiting, one of those rare tourist attractions that pays real attention to the history of the place. So, the next time you are walking along the Royal Mile, think about the underworld that you are walking on top of – and if you visit, remember to take a doll for poor Annie!

Book review: Peter Clarke’s ‘Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000’

Written by Daniel Sharp



Peter Clarke’s history of twentieth-century Britain was first published in 1996 before being updated and republished under a new subtitle in 2004. It is this latter version which is under review here and which – as I read it recently in my spare time – astonished me with its depth and breadth of narrative and analysis. Hope and Glory stands as a remarkable achievement in historical writing. As part of the Penguin History of Britain series, it is simultaneously academic in depth and written for a popular audience and makes such a synthesis seem incredibly easy. Clarke is a distinguished historian, currently Professor Emeritus of Modern British History at Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy, and from the basis of this book, it is not hard to see why.

Hope and Glory is primarily a history of political, economic and social changes which took place in Britain throughout the last century. Clarke spins easily from the British film industry to the Suez crisis of 1956, from the leisure pursuits of the population to the Edwardian fiscal crisis, from the rise of the Labour Party to the decline of the Liberals. The writing is fluent, cogent and often funny with undertones of irony throughout. Take one instance for example: sections dealing primarily with Edward Heath and the second Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan premierships in the 1970s are entitled, respectively, ‘Tweedledee’ and ‘Tweedledum’.

Beginning with the Unionist government of Salisbury at the beginning of the twentieth century and taking us right up – through all of the prime ministers, political scandals and crises of this remarkable period – to the second premiership of Tony Blair, Clarke both narrates and analyses with scholarly flair the fortunes of the century’s major personalities, from David Lloyd George to Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. He also elucidates the economic and political motivations and impetuses of these actors with verve and style, and, though the economic analysis can be quite a drudge to read at times, Clarke never loses sight of the importance of human decisions and personalities in shaping historical events.

Though the emphasis is firmly on politics and economics, there are many sections dealing with cultural and social aspects of British life throughout the century – perhaps this represents the influence of Clarke’s wife, the eminent cultural historian Maria Tippett. Highlights of the book’s concerns with social and cultural change include its analysis of the BBC’s evolution, the changes in Britain’s religious affiliation and its often-penetrating asides on the century’s literature.

The fact that so much of Clarke’s scholarly rigour is worn so lightly is deceptive – the bibliographical essay at the end of the book is a testament to the depth of his reading and knowledge and provides a variety of historical writing with varying interpretations. In addition, the appendix detailing information on the century’s governments and election results is an incredibly useful tool to turn to. Finally, though last updated in 2004, Clarke’s analysis is prescient, for example in his discussion of Britain’s relationship with Europe which he states has produced seemingly ‘intractable’ issues. Indeed.

Overall, Hope and Glory is not only a brilliant read for the stylish writing, it is moreover a comprehensive and detailed account of twentieth-century Britain – that period of great change in the nation’s history.

A Review of ‘Napoleon the great? A debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski and Jeremy Paxman’ from Intelligence Squared

Written by Daniel Sharp


In 2014, the historian Andrew Roberts published Napoleon the Great, a biography of the Emperor of the French which argued forcefully that he deserves the appellation Roberts gives him in the book’s title. This is, of course, a controversial position – Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most divisive figures in history. Some see him as a bloodthirsty tyrant and usurper, others as an authoritarian but essentially benign dictator who carried on, consolidated and spread many of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In fact, Roberts’s admiration for Napoleon is an unusual position for a staunch British conservative to take.

To discuss the question of how Napoleon should be remembered by history, the debating organisation Intelligence Squared hosted Roberts and the eminent freelance historian Adam Zamoyski to square off against one another in 2014. The debate was moderated by Jeremy Paxman and is available through the Intelligence Squared website or YouTube channel. For anyone who loves a good historical punch up – and I may be preaching to the converted here – the debate is a thoroughly good watch: two fine historical minds with almost completely opposite viewpoints on the life, career and achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte going up against one another.

Even if the debate were devoid of intellectual significance it would be a pleasure to watch two such entertaining men, with Paxman in the middle, debating. During the debate witty repartee abounded – the two opponents may well have disagreed vehemently, but they could laugh at the expense of themselves and each other. One humorous highlight came when Roberts tried to dispense with the myth of Napoleon’s shortness, only to come undone when he revealed that he was the exact height of Napoleon (and, while filming a BBC series based on his book, had secretly lain on Napoleon’s deathbed on St Helena which confirmed this fact).

Thus, this debate is well worth a watch for the entertainment value alone. More significantly, however, the debate was full of lively disputation and intellectual fizzle. Both Roberts and Zamoyski gave an opening presentation, followed by an exchange between the two, after which the audience could ask questions. Finally, both men gave a closing presentation and the audience’s vote was revealed.

The vote, calculated in an oddly convoluted way based on pre-debate opinions and how much swing towards a motion was achieved by the debaters, showed a -6 percent swing towards Zamoyski’s side – victory, then, considering the pre-debate results showing that a large slice of the audience was undecided, but nevertheless most of the audience was for Roberts’s motion.

As someone with an ardent interest and a certain admiration for Napoleon, I was of course biased towards Roberts from the beginning. Nonetheless Zamoyski made some good points, including the personal failings of Napoleon and his (to me, only occasional) bungling of affairs. However, I think his arguments remained outweighed by Robert’s view – that Napoleon was a military genius who won 46 out of 60 battles; that he consolidated the best parts of the French Revolutionary ideals; and that his spread of Enlightenment thought and rationalism greatly benefited Europe. This is not to say that Napoleon was perfect – far from it – but imperfection and failings, political or moral (some of which were awful), do not erase his significant achievements. Watch for yourself – and revel in the debate.

So, had I been in the audience to vote, I would have voted for the motion, not just from pre-existing bias but on the strength – in my opinion – of Roberts’s case. Napoleon the Great? Absolutely.



Link to the debate:

Film review: The Death of Stalin

Written by Scarlett Butler



The film The Death of Stalin, adapted from a French comic of the same name, considers the power struggle which follows Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death and which rages whilst the Soviet high-ups are arranging the dictator’s funeral. The main rivals are the Minister for Internal Affairs, Lavrenti Beria, convincingly played as a sadist and a conniving toad by Simon Russell Beale, and the anxious General Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi. Initially Beria allies himself with the vain and wavering Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official successor, who is struggling to command respect from the politburo. Meanwhile, Khrushchev attempts to use the military influence of war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a general with a comical number of medals, and the Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, played expertly by Michael Palin, who contorts himself into following the Stalinist line. Stalin’s children look on, the spoilt but suffering Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the outrageously drunk Vasily (Rupert Friend), helpless and useless once the political machinations begin.

    The humour uses fear of denunciation and death to drive the comedy. Iannucci is an experienced ridiculer of ridiculous politicians and he adeptly builds a backdrop of terror created by the feverish Stalinist purges. Despite his death, Stalin is present throughout. Death itself as an ally of the state is prominent too. Stalin’s hapless replacement Malenkov aptly despairs, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember who’s alive.’ This driving fear of dissent and death crept closer and closer to Stalin in his final years. It led him to imprison his colleagues, his friends and eventually his family. Many of the politburo who survive beyond Stalin were meant by him to be disposed of eventually. Death enveloped Stalin himself on the 5 March 1953 in a horrifying spectacle. He lay dying of a stroke, entirely alone, in what Buscemi’s Khrushchev calls a ‘puddle of indignity’.

    The film is better at capturing the atmosphere of paranoia and scheming politics than offering any guide to historical events. With regard to accuracy, the characters are moulded into more comic or villainous types, but the humour tends to heighten what we know about these historical characters rather than wholly fabricating it. It seems clear that only sycophants, the power hungry and the ruthless could ever climb to the level of the politburo, and although Beria’s sexual crimes make him a particularly evil figure, none can keep their hands clean. Luckily for the viewer, negative character traits make for better humour.

    With regard to historical events, the film edits and compresses the history for the ease of viewers. For example, here Molotov is the one that just escapes execution, when in reality it was Beria who was about to be purged, blamed for not catching the Kremlin doctors, who were outed as Jewish spies in a show trial that year. Similarly, Stalin’s long held anti-Semitism, which reached a paranoid crescendo just before he died, is another unexplored area. In early 1953, Stalin planned mass deportations of Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberian Camps. He sadistically planned for the deportations to fall around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates Jewish delivery from total destruction at the hands of Haman. Instead, the film focuses on the better-known and less politically complex death lists. Lists of names, written to reach regional quotas that peaked in the terror of 1937-8. They were so quotidian to Stalin and his allies that on the 12 December 1937 Stalin and Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences, before breaking to attend the cinema. In focusing on this aspect of Stalinism, the film chooses to avoid other shadows lurking around the dictator’s death. In this film, these lists illuminate evils of Stalinism in symbolic and anecdotal scenes, apt for a satire, rather than trying to recreate an accurate portrait of the events. Certainly, the near surreal nature of Stalinist government, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, suits the black comedy genre, whilst the inclusion of many dark and difficult scenes addressing the brutality of this world ensure they are not soon forgotten.


  • Brackman, Roman. The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life. London: Frank Cass, 2001.
  • Bulley, Tony. Stalin: Inside the Terror. Directed by Tony Bulley. London: BBC, 2003.
  • Iannucci, Armando. The Death of Stalin. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Los Angeles: eOne Films, 2017.
  • Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Pan Books, 2010.