History Weekends 2018: 5 minutes with Sam Willis and James Daybell

What links zebras to the Second World War? Why is the history of the orange all about Elizabethan spies and the gunpowder plot? How is the history of windows connected to Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar? At our York and Winchester History Weekends this autumn, historians Sam Willis and James Daybell will tackle some of history's biggest topics via engaging and entirely unexpected subjects…

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)

We caught up with Sam Willis and James Daybell to find out what we can expect from their talk – a live version of their hugely successful podcast, Histories of the Unexpected – at our York and Winchester History Weekends this autumn…

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Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

Both: Histories of the Unexpected is a journey of historical discovery that tackles some of the greatest of historical themes – from the Tudors to the Second World War, from the Roman Empire to the Victorians – but via entirely unexpected subjects. What links zebras to the Second World War? Why is the history of the orange all about Elizabethan spies and the gunpowder plot? How is the history of windows connected to Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar? You will never think about the past – or the present – in the same way. This a hugely entertaining experience that you’ll want to share.

Find out more about our York History Weekend 2018:

 

Audience members at York History Weekend 2017.

Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?

James Daybell: It was probably when, as a young boy, I discovered that I was related to a regicide, Walter Tirel, who it is thought was involved in the death of William II (Rufus) while he was hunting in the New Forest. While of course not the proudest moment in family history, it cemented from an early age a deep personal connection with the past.

Sam Willis: It was when I discovered that nobody understood properly how 18th-century ships fought in battle. I knew there was a gap here in our historical knowledge that I could not only fill, but also change the way in which people think about the past.

Q: Your podcast, Histories of the Unexpected, explores extraordinary stories and moments from history. Can you tell us something we might not expect about the past?

Both: Everything is linked together in unexpected ways. Who knew, for example, that the French Revolution is in fact all about the history of cats and the smile.

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

Both: The fact that the sinking of the Titanic and the bombing of Hiroshima are linked (you’ll have to come along to our talk to find out more…)

Find out more about our Winchester History Weekend 2018:

Audience at Winchester History Weekend 2017.

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

JD: Count Otto von Bismarck, Lady Penelope Rich and Oscar Wilde. The dinner party would combine historical hero worship and aristocratic bohemianism (if that’s not too anachronistic) with sparkle and wit. I’m not sure how we’d all get along, but it would be an evening of great conversation.

SW: My great-grandfather, my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandfather. I am far more interested in meeting my own relatives than in any famous figures from the past, not least because I’m intrigued to see if we share the same sense of humour as well as my love of mustard.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

JD: The present, because the past is a dangerous country.

SW: Any unspecified period in future, because only then can you understand exactly what is going on now.

Q: Which podcasts do you recommend for people interested in history?

Both: If you are really interested in history – and we can’t nominate our own Histories of the Unexpected podcast – then you should definitely listen to Dan Snow’s History Hit, Nina Ramirez’s Art Detective and the Chalke Valley History Hit podcast.

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Sam Willis and James Daybell will be delivering a live version of their hugely successful podcast, Histories of the Unexpected, at our Winchester History Weekend on Saturday 6 October and York History Weekend on Saturday 20 October. To find out more about their talk and to book tickets, click here.