Random history from my month of July

By Kevin O’Sullivan

At the beginning of the summer, tired of trying to remember all those good things I’d seen/heard of and intended to include in our monthly recommendations, but just didn’t quite get around to, I had what I thought was a clever idea. I’d start a list, include everything that sparked my interest in the course of one month (July), recommendable or not, and come autumn I would have an interesting image of my media and reading habits, and how history crosses their paths over the course of four weeks.

Looking back over my hand-written notes, digital lists, and a number of bookmarked web pages, what I’ve collected strikes me as an interesting reflection of our interaction with the waves of media that wash over us. Some things stick, and not always the ones you might imagine. You might think that it would prove a very personal, and a very idiosyncratic list. And you’d be right. You might think that its voyage would be very difficult to track, would make quite an egocentric piece, and be of little interest to anyone else. And you’d be sort of right. But it’s now autumn and what I’ve collected feels like a Friday piece, so read on through my notes at your peril and I’ll let you be the judge.

  • Leadbelly’s false history. [Explanatory note: This was from an article in The Word detailing how the back-story of American blues musician Leadbelly was greatly exaggerated by marketing men in order to heighten his appeal among white audiences. Good ideas never grow old, etc.]
  • ‘Folk’ music as an invention of the Victorians. First reference to folk music not until 1843 and didn’t enter dictionary until late C19th. [From a podcasted interview with Rob Young, author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (about 11.55 in). Young revealed that the term ‘folk music’ was, in fact, largely an invention of the Victorians. ‘Ploughmen are not sitting out there in the sixteenth century thinking about going to the folk club tonight.’]
  • Italian painter Caravaggio killed someone. How he was killed himself.
  • Libraries ‘Old Spice’ Ad (via Notes from the Field).
  • Obituary of Hawaiian navigator. [Pius Mau Piailug, a Micronesian who navigated by ‘the stars, the feel of the wind and the look of the sea’. In 1976 he sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti (2,500 miles) in an open canoe to see if his predecessors could have navigated their way across the open Pacific.]
  • Top journalism articles of all time. [How can one even measure such a thing? I’ve tried, to no avail, to find the link to this. Edit: found the link while enjoying a quick afternoon cup of mint tea.]
  • Check ‘Outside Edge’ column in the Financial Times of 31 July and its claim that ‘theological debates … can easily turn lethal when intertwined with the interests of the state’.
  • Professionalisation of history made it impossible to write long-ranging histories – see Economist review of Adam Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor Roper.
  • Native American Lacrosse team.
  • What happened to all that enthusiasm and idealism of the 1960s when it was commodified and packaged by marketing managers and advertisers in the following decade? Surely it couldn’t just die? [I can remember making this mental note after watching the final parts of All You Need Is Love – a seventeen-part series made in the 1970s that documents the history of popular music.]
  • Finally, and this may have something to do with the month that was in it, and some post-World Cup withdrawal symptoms, at the top of my bookmarks came Refait, a dramatic video recreation of the penalty shoot-out from the France v Germany semi-final in 1982, spliced with images and commentary from French television.

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