“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

Podcasts: Part Two

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Last month I reviewed four of my favourite podcasts, and now I’m back with another four. Let’s get going!

podcast 5Podcast: Flash Forward
Number of Episodes: 15+
Release: Every other Tuesday

As humans, we seem to spend an awful lot of time worrying about the future. Will we be successful? Will we be happy? Will we survive? In Flash Forward, every episode sees host Rose Eveleth conjure up a possible future for humanity. The show combines snippets of drama as we hear the future played out as if it’s happening, and masses of interesting information, as she speaks to experts about whether the future she’s envisioned could ever become a possibility.

Episode topics covered recently include a future where everyone wore lie detectors all the time, a future where we’d eradicated mosquitoes, a future where everyone knew their date of death, and a future where paper is no longer used and everything’s digital. Some of the ideas are realistic and could happen; others are from the deepest realms of impossible science fiction, but are no less interesting to discuss. It’s actually on it’s second season, but the first isn’t available on iTunes and I haven’t got round to listening to it yet. It also has another name; Meanwhile in the Future. The first season includes such futures as what would happen if Earth gained a second moon, if a robotic overlord banned all human weaponry and

Rose is a very chipper host, keenly interested in her subject, and the interviewees she gets are no small bones, all being important in their fields. There is such a mix of tones and emotions at play here too, but she navigates them with serious skill. Any episode is worth listening to, but to start off I’d go for “My Everything Pal” or “Love at First Bot”.

podcast 6Podcast: Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast
Number of Episodes: 100
Release: Wednesdays, but currently on hiatus

There are so many people in this world that I’d love to sit down and have a chat with. While I still can’t really do it, someone who can is Richard Herring. His podcast (RHLSTP) is smart, irreverent, hilarious and pure bliss. His guest list is one that other interviewers can only dream of, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting opposite him, they’re going to get the same treatment. Herring is capable of asking really important questions, getting to the heart of who someone is and what drives them, and where they think their careers are going, but mostly he just wants to make cock jokes and talk about seventies television. That’s not a complaint.

It’s currently on hold, and will be back this month, but over the last 100 episodes, guests have ranked from up-and-coming comedians like Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe and Roisin Conaty, to really high-profile guests like Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Harry Shearer. While the guests are generally pulled from the world of comedy, there have also been academics (Mary Beard), TV presenters (Louis Theroux) and fellow podcasters (Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann). While a lot of it seems to be Herring asking people if they’d rather have a hand made of ham or an armpit that produced sun cream, he nonetheless always gets a great interview.

Particularly wonderful episodes include Stephen Fry (for which the podcast got noticed by the mainstream press when Fry admitted to recently attempting suicide), Armando Iannucci & Graham Linehan (if only for Linehan’s Bob Dole anecdote), Louis Theroux (which contains a lot about Jimmy Saville), and Miles Jupp (who is distraught at Herring’s obsession with Balamory). Frankly, if you’ve ever liked anyone in comedy, chances are they’re in here somewhere.

While I’m a bit too young to have been able to appreciate Richard Herring the first time round – indeed, I didn’t know he had a lot of success in the nineties until I started listening to this – it’s clear that the rest of the comedy industry worships him and he seems to be on good terms with all his guests. They’re really good fun, but if you’re listening in public, be prepared to get some odd looks.

podcast 7Podcast: Serial
Number of Episodes: 20+

If there’s ever been a podcast that changed the nature of the genre and showed people what it was really capable of, it’s Serial. Everyone else has already talked about how wonderful this is, but in case you’ve been living under a rock with limited Internet access, here’s what you need to know.

Serial is the brainchild of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer who was asked to look into the case of Adnan Syed. He was arrested in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a student in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed pleaded his innocence, but was given a life sentence in 2000. He is, as expected from this verdict, still in prison. Koenig looks into the case and begins to see that things aren’t as simple as they seem, so week by week goes back and visits the locations, speaks to the people who were involved at the time (although she wonders how much anyone can remember after 15 years) and talks directly to Syed himself. Koenig fishes up evidence, theories, information that was missed or ignored during the trial, and tries to piece together what really happened.

It’s hugely compelling, and I’ve already forced so many of my friends to listen to it. Not one of them was disappointed. It isn’t a spoiler at this point to say that when the series finishes, Koenig doesn’t give us an answer. She has presented to us all the evidence, and we can make up our own minds. The thing that makes this particularly compelling? In my social circle, we can’t agree on whether Syed was innocent or guilty. With our own backgrounds and ideas, we’ve chosen our own answers, for better or worse.

There is a second series, but it’s about a completely unrelated story, and while I haven’t listened to it, everyone I know who has says that it doesn’t compare at all to the first. So, please do listen to the first series of this, but then don’t feel an obligation to continue. It’s simply incredible listening.

podcast 8Podcast: No Such Thing As A Fish
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Friday

One of the greatest shows on TV is QI, simple as that. John Lloyd, the brains behind it (and, frankly, every excellent British comedy show of the last forty years) has declared it more a way of life than a show, and so it has expanded in many directions, including books, websites and clubs. A podcast was a logical step. Hosted by four of the QI researchers (the “elves”) – Dan, Anna, Andy and James – every week they take a bizarre fact that they’ve discovered and for about thirty to forty-five minutes discuss them and any other facts they’ve found related to each core fact. Prone to tangents and base humour when the opportunity arises, this is nonetheless one of the smartest and funniest podcasts ever.

The hosts have great chemistry, and while Anna and James are primarily researchers, Andy is an improv comic, and host Dan is a stand-up. They’re all blisteringly intelligent though, and can dredge up facts off hand about any topic, no matter how far from the original point they go. They also occasionally record the shows in front of a live audience (and I can tell you first hand, they are hugely entertaining evenings, having been to one myself) and now have their own TV show, No Such Thing As The News, which is in the same format, but with a more topical edge.

With over 100 episodes now, and that’s without including the special short episodes they did with information about each country taking part in the 2014 World Cup, there’s plenty to be getting on with here. They also occasionally turn up with a special guest, including Victoria Coren Mitchell, Simon Rich or John Lloyd himself. It’s the best way to learn without realising you’re learning.

More podcasts next month!

Podcasts: Part One

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Hello! So here’s something I’ve never reviewed before: podcasts! I’ve been fairly late to the podcast game, not getting into them until late 2014 but then devouring them by the score over last year. I’ve decided to share my favourite podcasts here, perhaps at the start of each month, and give you a brief precis of what they’re about. Some you’ll have heard of before, others perhaps not. So, let’s crack on with the first four.

podcast 1Podcast: Thinking Sideways
Number of Episodes: 150+
Release: Every Thursday

Thinking Sideways is a newer podcast for me and it specialises in tales of the unexplained. Basically, wherever there’s an unanswered question or a mystery that has never been solved, this podcast will step in, give you the facts and try to come to a conclusion that explains the puzzle. The hosts are Steve, Devin and Joe, three smart and funny (the best descriptors for a podcaster, I find) Americans who claim to have no formal training in investigation, but are simply interested in the world. I confess that I haven’t listened to many of the episodes yet, but what I’ve heard so far is brilliant. Each week, we are introduced to a new mystery and one of the team runs through all the facts we have about it, with the second half of the podcast dedicated to potential theories.

Episodes have covered everything from what happened to the Mary Celeste, where the Voynich Manuscript comes from and what it means, how the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion was achieved, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, and the suspicious deaths of Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Episode lengths range from twenty minutes to over two hours, although most are about an hour long. If there’s ever a question you’ve wanted answered, then this is the podcast for you.

If you want a flavour of the podcast without committing right away, the “Santa Claus” episode just a quarter of an hour long and gives you an idea of what to expect. I also highly recommend “Taman Shud”, about a man who was discovered dead on a beach with no identification and all the labels cut from his clothes, and, because it’s me, I also suggest “Agatha Christie Disappearance” for suggestions on what really happened to her.

podcast 2Podcast: The Allusionist
Number of Episodes: 35
Release: Fortnightly

This podcast is hosted by Helen Zaltzman, who most of you probably know better as one third of Answer Me This, a podcast I’ll cover another time. Helen is obsessed with language and grammar, and this podcast is her pet project to delve deeper into its murky waters and pull up something shiny. Each fortnight, she selects a topic related to language and explores its history and usage, and fills your brain with trivia you never knew you needed. Most episodes include an interview with someone related to whatever she’s discussing.

There’s an episode for everyone here, and they’re only ever 15-20 minutes long, but she packs so much into that short space of time. These are bite-sized nuggets of joy; both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting. Helen is potentially the only person who could make a discussion on the use of spaces between words interesting. Some particularly good episodes include: “The Writing on the Wall”, which talks about the display signs used next to objects in museums; “Crosswords”, which goes into detail on how to make a good crossword and how to write cryptic clues”; and “Toki Pona” in which she and guest Nate DiMeo try to learn one of the world’s smallest languages in just a few hours.

While usually light-hearted, a few episodes take on a more serious tone, such as “Pride”, which deals with the usage of that word in the LGBT community, or “Step Away”, which tries to argue for a better term than “step-parent”, which conjures up all the connotations Disney have imbued it with over the years. You can dip in and out of the series in any order; you’ll find yourself wanting to listen to them all anyway.

podcast 3Podcast: Stuff You Should Know
Number of Episodes: 800+
Release: Tuesday and Thursday

Have you ever wondered if lethal injection is really humane? Do you want to know who gets to name the continents? Do you have questions about pinball, maggots, werewolves, AIDS, collective hysteria, electricity or anything in between? Well, Stuff You Should Know has you covered. Josh and Chuck are on hand twice a week with a new topic that they’ve researched and want to tell you all about.

They are excellent hosts. Josh has a very soothing, sleepy voice that gives you the impression of a wise man imparting his knowledge interspersed with dry quips, and Chuck is there keeping him awake with more of his own facts and jokes. They can take any topic and make it interesting because, frankly, all topics are interesting. It’s going to be a long time before I make it through all the episodes, but the thirty or forty I’ve listened to so far have been wonderful. They’re great for commuting, as you feel your time isn’t wasted – you’re learning and becoming a better person all the time! To give you an example of the variety here, in the last month alone they released episodes about cats, labour strikes, the Big Bang, kin selection, tornadoes and lead. Episodes typically last half an hour to an hour.

It’s impossible really to suggest an episode to start with, so just think of a topic you’re interested in and have a rummage. If you do want to just dive in and try something at random, I suggest “What makes us yawn?”, “How Royalty Works” or “How Jim Henson Worked”. Their medical-based episodes are also particularly great.

podcast 4Podcast: Kraken
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Sunday

I always feel Kraken ought to be better known than it is. Hosted by four guys – Mazin, Craig, Joel and Ian – each week they take a topic and share their opinions on it, with the second half of the episode dedicated to a related question, in search of an answer or at least something sensible. The thing they discuss can be a film, a book, an article, a person, or something a bit more bizarre, but generally comes from the field of “culture, technology and that”.

The related questions are always interesting and bring up so many issues regarding things that aren’t even related, as well as those that are. This is a podcast that enjoys a tangent. Some examples of related things and questions include “Amy Winehouse / Do we kill our celebrities?”, “Game of Thrones / How far is too far?” and “Adventure Time / Are we becoming a culture of children?”. Sometimes they’re far more simplistic, such as, “Christmas / What do you want for Christmas?” or more recently, “Brexit / In or out?” There are also occasional episodes that have a twist, such as one in which they play Dungeons & Dragons while discussing games, or a recent episode about William Shakespeare which was recorded while in the audience of a play, a gimmick that treads the fine line between being hilarious and ambitious, to simply being impossibly rude. It leads to a very tense episode in which you wonder at what point they’re going to be thrown out of the theatre.

The four guys all have their own voices and opinions. Mazin seems the most level-headed but is plagued by strange dreams, which become the focus of an episode themselves at one point. Craig has given up on films entirely and doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Joel is obsessed with the power of stories and will throw this into the conversation whenever possible. And Ian usually hasn’t seen or read whatever they’re talking about, but if he has, will invariably deem it “alright”. Good episodes to start on are “London / What’s the worst thing about living in a city?” and “Swearing / Do words have power?” If you want to see just how strange it gets, look for the episode “A stick / Is this the greatest stick?” Later episodes are generally better than earlier ones – once they’ve established the template for an episode – but they’re all worth a go. Even if you don’t know about the topic they’re discussing, odds are it won’t matter. Soon they’ll be arguing that chicken should be free or plague pits are thrifty instead of racist. Just listen and laugh.

I’ll be back on this next month with four more podcasts.