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Books interview with Sam Willis and James Daybell: "Everything has a history. And we mean absolutely everything"

Sam and James talk to Ellie Cawthorne about their new book, which tells the eye-opening stories behind ordinary objects and everyday occurrences – from chimneys to dreams

Historians Sam Willis (left) and James Daybell. "We challenged ourselves to write the histories of things we weren't necessarily even sure had a history," says Willis. (Photo by David Hampton for BBC History Magazine)
Published: September 6, 2018 at 7:16 am
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Sam Willis is a historian, author and broadcaster who has presented several TV programmes for the BBC and National Geographic, including The Silk Road. Sam's 14 books include The Struggle For Sea Power and The Spanish Armada.

James Daybell is professor of early modern British history at the University of Plymouth and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of eight books, and has appeared on a number of historical programmes on the BBC.

Your new book, Histories of the Unexpected, is based on your podcast of the same name. What is the concept behind it?

Sam Willis: It's deceptively simple. Basically, we believe that everything has a history. And not just every object – we mean absolutely everything, whether it's emotions, holes, clouds or the itch. In the book and podcast we challenged ourselves to write the histories of things that we weren't necessarily sure even had a history. It was a bit of a professional challenge between us; a game. Can you write the history of dust? Or snow? Or mountains?

James Daybell: We also wanted to highlight how everything links together in unexpected and often rather magical ways. For example, the history of the hand links to scrofula and the royal touch, the history of clouds is actually about miasma and cholera, and – believe it or not – the history of the bubble is all about the French Revolution.

Want to read more articles from our October 2018 issue? Find the full issue here, including:
Princess Margaret attends the premiere of Captain Horatio Hornblower, Leicester Square, 1951. (Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)

The book covers 30 different topics, and we wanted each chapter to lead on to the next. Some of our topics naturally flowed into each other, but some needed some extra wizardry to connect together. How do clocks link into needlework for example, or how does rubbish connect to snow? It’s a bit like a massive game of six degrees of separation. The clever thing (well I think it’s clever anyway!) is that the whole book comes full circle. So we end with the history of the signature, which then links back to the very first chapter, on the hand.

Where did the idea for the project first come from?

SW: I was leading a tour around HMS Victory, explaining all about the ship and the battles it had fought – the standard things you might expect. But round the back of Victory's stern is an amazing window. It's like a conservatory plonked on the back of a tank. Someone asked me why the window was there. I have a PhD in naval history and have written countless books on the subject, but I had no idea. So I looked into it. I began by researching the history of the window, but then I realised that it's actually more complex than that: you can only explain why there is a window on the back of a warship if you understand the history of looking – and looking through windows – in the 18th century. Unsurprisingly, no one has written a history of looking through windows on 18th-century warships! When I suggested the idea to James, I was worried he would think I was totally off the wall. But he replied: "I know exactly what you're talking about, because the history of oranges is all about the gunpowder plot!"

When you've picked a topic, where on earth do you start?

SW: We begin by opening the box of our heads and rummaging around inside. We're trained very differently as historians, and we discovered that if we took any theme or subject, we had completely different things to say about it. When you have two historians coming at the same thing from two contrasting perspectives, you begin to realise that there is a mind-blowing complexity to history. This is a really good way of exposing that.

JD: It's all about intellectual curiosity. For example, if you think off the top of your head: what is the history of lions about? Well, I had just been on holiday in Sweden, so for me it was all about 17th-century Swedish leader Gustavus Adolphus – known as the 'Lion of the North' – and the sinking of his ship Vasa, adorned with a glorious pouncing lion as its figurehead.

SW: I meanwhile had just been reading about The Wizard of Oz, and how the cowardly lion is a hugely complex commentary on the state of America at the time. So for me, lions were all about the US economy at the turn of the 20th century. And then I got sucked into the history of hunting lions, pet lions and the symbolism of lions on shields. It sounds quite scatter-brained but it's actually all linked together.

What were your favourite topics to research?

SW: I think the one I'm most proud of is 'the lean', because I really wasn't sure how we were going to do it. We began with leaning buildings. If you think about the Shambles in York – a narrow medieval street with all the houses leaning over each other – there are no straight lines anywhere. Contrast that with 19th-century Paris, where everything was perpendicular. This architectural shift was all to do with the fear of the medieval; a fear of superstition and disease. Then we moved on to the history of the human lean, which was all about walking sticks and the way that disabled sailors were depicted in cartoons. And then we took a look at the Hollywood lean, starring James Dean. That was really very cool.

Believe it or not, the history of bubbles is all about the French Revolution

JD: One of my favourite topics was bubbles. For me, bubbles are all about childhood, so we started by looking at a wonderful collection of bubble blowers – lovely little collectible pipes that people would blow bubbles out of – in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. But we also wanted to think outside the box a bit. So we moved on to the concept of people living in a bubble. This got us thinking about early monasticism, the Oxford bubble and the Westminster bubble. Somehow, we eventually ended up at 18th-century ornamental hermits – people who would live in an aristocrat's garden, almost like a precursor to the garden gnome.

SW: Another has to be the history of chimneys. Of course, it's about chimney sweeps and architecture, but everyone knows that. Much more interesting is what you find up chimneys. Let me tell you, it's extraordinary! Shoes, cats, semi-burnt letters to father Christmas. Someone even found an incredibly rare 17th-century map of the world stuck up their chimney. They are basically archives, so go and look up your chimney!

The book doesn't just churn out a series of bizarre facts, does it? There's some serious history in here too.

SW: Yes, we certainly didn't want it to be a frivolous miscellany. It's thoughtful history that deals with some light-hearted subjects but also some very serious topics. For example, you can't write about the history of hair without acknowledging scalping, or the collections of hair left at Auschwitz.

JD: Yes, it was very important to us not to shy away from some of the darker material. While researching the chapter on needlework, for example, we learnt all about memory cloths made by women who had lived through Apartheid. They stitched their life stories into fabric as part of the reconciliation process, creating a wonderful but incredibly harrowing record of what they lived through.

The chapter on needlework also led us to the material archives of the Foundling Museum. When mothers abandoned their children at the Foundling Hospital in the 18th century, many left their babies with little scraps of fabric that could be used to identify them later on. Several thousand examples still survive and they are wonderful, emotional pieces.

Why do you think this is a fresh way to write history?

SW: A lot of popular history is presented in a fairly predictable way. We've both written standard narrative history before, but with Histories of the Unexpected we wanted to mix things up a bit.

Essentially, we wanted to tap into the mind-blowing complexity that scholars and professional historians have achieved. They use all sorts of different approaches, methodologies and research techniques, and we wanted to find a way of conveying the latest and most exciting research while still making it fun.

History is a much more creative process than it’s often taken to be. People think it’s just about regurgitating stories, and remembering facts and dates. But it’s not – the way to be a great historian is to think creatively about the past. I’d like people to realise that writing history is an art form.

JD: Another thing we're really passionate about is making history enjoyable, and accessible to as broad a range of people as possible. As a historian, one of the biggest dinner party conversation stoppers is when people say: "Oh, I hated history at school." So it's been really heartwarming to hear from people who have read the book or listened to the podcast, and suddenly see history as something incredibly vibrant and exciting.

SW: When people complain to me that they didn't like history at school, I turn around and say: "Well, have you ever thought about the history behind your moaning?"

You already have more Histories of the Unexpected planned. What topics do you want to cover next?

JD: Oh, now that's a big question. We currently have a list of about 200 subjects. I read Moby Dick this summer, so I want to do the history of whales next. Or eyes – that's all about surveillance. Handwriting is another one. And cows. I recently heard about someone getting their husband's ashes ground into tattoo ink, so tattoos are definitely up there too. Or what about teeth?

SW: Or saliva? How about spitting?

JD: Nice – we'll put spitting on the list.


Histories of the Unexpected: How Everything Has a History by Sam Willis and James Daybell (Atlantic, 480 pages, £18.99) James and Sam also discuss Histories of the Unexpected on our podcast historyextra.com/podcasts


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