Pictures from recent discussion at the Hay Festival – HAY ON EARTH FORUM: MILLTIR SGWAR: THE NEXT CHAPTER – A SQUARE MEAL ON A SQUARE MILE – featuring myself, Sheila Dillon, Louise Gray, Ian Rasmussen, and Duncan Fisher https://www.hayfestival.com/p-20124-louise-gray-sheila-dillon-duncan-fisher-ian-rasmussen-and-bryce-evans.aspx

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Discount Voucher for ‘Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century’: receive 35% off when using the discount code ‘AVIAT20’ when ordering from bloomsbury.com

Receive 35% off when entering the code AVIAT20 when ordering via this url: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/food-and-aviation-in-the-twentieth-century-9781350098855/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

HHhH: The Way Ahead for Historical Fiction

Professional historians shouldn’t, and often don’t, like historical fiction. Why? Quite simply because too many liberties are taken by authors whose novels are set in the past. Plot placed above evidence. Imaginary dialogues. Too much artistic licence applied to real events.

Personally, I don’t mind a bit of artistic licence (within reason). Come on, we’re all grown-ups, after all. It is not as if historical fiction purports to be real history. It is quite acceptable, in my book, to suspend disbelief and enjoy novels like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), a book recently adapted for television, in which Franklin D Roosevelt loses the 1940 US election to the famous aviator and Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh. Consequently, in America – like in occupied central Europe – the state’s persecution of Jews intensifies. Yes it’s all a wee bit preposterous, but who cares?

The Plot Against America eBook: Roth, Philip: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

An all-too reverential BBC Radio 4 documentary during the week praised the historical fiction of the Scottish author John Buchan. Buchan has always omitted way too much of the malodour of the imperialist bigot for my liking, but the documentary made a good point: with the best historical fiction you shouldn’t be able to smell ‘the oil of the lamp’. In other words, a weakness of much historical fiction is that it’s so well researched that the story is compromised: the yarn comes second to the meticulousness of the detail. This is something that Buchan, to his credit, could never be accused of. It is something that, I must admit, I find overwhelming in some of the works of Hilary Mantel.

Witch wood.jpg

The smell of the oil of the lamp was a problem for me when reading Isabel Allende’s recent A Long Petal of the Sea (2020). As this review argues, it reads more like creative non fiction than a novel, crammed full of so many dates and details that it feels didactic rather than enjoyable. An additional criticism would be that it’s also just too ‘worthy’ – Allende is the daughter of the murdered Chilean president Salvador Allende and the book concerns refugees from Franco’s Spain making a new life in Chile. It’s therefore impossible not to empathise with the goodness, political soundness, suffering and humanity of the central characters and the legendary Allende senior even makes a cameo appearance. But the political worthiness of the book makes it feel like the details are being forced down your neck – and this isn’t a nice sensation, however much one identifies with the struggle the book portrays.

A Long Petal of the Sea

But I’m happy to say that I think I have found a way ahead for historical fiction and it comes in the form of HHhH, which I’ve just finished reading. I’m a bit late to the party here, because this book was published in 2013, but this imaginative re-telling of the assassination of hideous Nazi chieftain Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech resistance struck a chord with me because it is self-reflective.

HHhH By Laurent Binet

Periodically, the narrative will halt and the author himself speaks: he is increasingly obsessed with his tale (to the extent that it’s negatively affecting his own life); he is seething with jealousy when other books on the subject are published before his; and he admits that he is unsure of many details, that he has invented some scenes, and is lost as to how to resolve certain episodes central to the story.

The book also nods to other historical fiction which engages in alternative reality – like Robert Harris’s celebrated Fatherland

Fatherland by Robert Harris | 9780099571575 | Booktopia

– but instead of getting carried away with what might have been, HHhH stays tortuously faithful to the facts (as far as is possible). I like this, because despite what I’ve said about people being free to make stuff up to their heart’s content, I do have a limited tolerance for ‘What If?’ history, even if it does come in the form of novels.

Laurent Binet remporte le Grand prix de l'Académie française 2019 | Livres  Hebdo

Surely it is no accident that the author, Laurent Binet, is the son of an academic historian and also that a work that is so refreshingly self-reflective in its approach comes from the pen of a French person. It’s also funny and – unlike Isabel Allende’s Long Petal – manages to convey the justness and decency of an historical cause without being cloying.

Honestly self-reflective and faithful to events, but page-turning, readable, and driven by the history: the way ahead, I think, for historical fiction.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘A Perfect Brew of Narcotic Need and Capitalist Greed’: my Irish Times review of Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland – https://tinyurl.com/ya8c564j

review (2)

Leave a comment

May 18, 2020 · 11:37 am

The Imaginative Capabilities of the Unconscious – the Dream Archives of the #Covid19 Crisis

When ‘locked down’ and confined, the human imagination is capable of some remarkable imaginative activity.

On a recent episode of RTE’s always soothing ‘Sunday Miscellany’ radio programme, which I have listened to since I was a child, a contributor mentioned a couple of literary examples.

Primo Levi – when a concentration camp inmate in Auschwitz – relished the physically demanding task of retrieving water in the camp, for when he performed this task he would recite the feats of Odysseus. Another example is Molly Bloom of Joyce’s Ulysses; while the male characters are busy romping about the town it is in fact Molly – confined to the house for the entirety of the day – who provides the most vivid account of life and loves in the book.

An excellent historical example is that of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. When Speer was confined to post-war imprisonment in Spandau Castle in west Berlin, he would turn his walks around the grounds into a ‘walk around the world’: a methodically researched journey in which he tricked himself into imagining a rich and varied global landscape unfolding before him.

But what of the imaginative capabilities of the unconscious?

Last week I was emailed by a student support worker, who reminded me that I had spoken to a first year seminar group earlier this year about a remarkable book published in 1960s Germany – The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt – which is all about how people dream, or dreamt, under authoritarianism, in this case under Hitlerism in Germany. The book, summarised in this New Yorker article – https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/how-dreams-change-under-authoritarianism – is neither ‘serious’ history and nor is it heavy on the psychoanalytic theory, instead it’s somewhere in between. And it’s all the more readable for it.

The book outlines how dreams change under authoritarianism. How people’s unconscious reacts to their lived experience.

The student support worker told me that since the beginning of the current Coronavirus lockdown, she had been experiencing her most vivid dreams since she was a teenager. For years she had not been able to remember a solitary dream, but now the memorable and sometimes unnerving dreams and nightmares were coming thick and fast.

As a long-term author of a ‘dream diary’, I responded to her email by encouraging her to write down these dreams. I believe that ‘dream diaries’ – although recalling sometimes embarrassing or ridiculous themes – are valuable historical sources, as demonstrated by Charlotte Beradt’s book.

It seems apparent that she’s not alone. I have read several pieces on the enhanced vividness of dreams and nightmares since the start of the Corona crisis, the most recent being this one: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/19/last-night-i-was-james-bond-the-vivid-world-of-lockdown-dreams

The article contains the opinions of psychotherapists, who are debating why it is the case that dreams are becoming more memorable.

At this point, I’m not really interested as to the reasons why this is the case, but rather the small window of opportunity that we now have to record our dreams experienced during this extraordinary time as an historical archive.


This is because – as the Guardian article argues – humans have an amazing capacity to become accustomed to any situation, and the present state of vivid dreaming may not last long as we become more used to the new reality of lockdown.

That’s why it is important to point out a link to a project called Lockdown Dreams – run by a group of postgraduate psychoanalysis students – which is archiving all of this.

Here is the link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeCC8He0occzw-lpOSbjxw59LZwt-el1ic__LZvkh_lAn2TKQ/viewform?vc=0&c=0&w=1

Why not contribute?

If not for peace of mind, for posterity.









Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Time to reintroduce national kitchens

Since the outbreak of the CoronaVirus I have been in conversation with many people (via Twitter, email etc) about my research on wartime public feeding.

Many of these brilliant people take a far more active role than me in feeding people / nudging policy, but I’ve been an advocate of a better public feeding system for a while now, and now more than ever this is a priority.

Here’s how we can do it by learning from history:

But hang on, social distancing makes the large communal dining schemes of the war impossible now, right?

Yes, but the public feeding schemes of WW1 and WW2 weren’t exclusively about long-table dining.

They also pioneered the UberEats / deliveroo / meals on wheels type model.

I won’t drone on about the history, but here’s the point:

  • National Kitchens (WW1) and British Restaurants (WW2) are the best example of emergency feeding in recent British history.
  • They ran by central government providing ‘start up’ loans to local councils, who sourced sites and appointed a paid staff and manager for each.
  • Crucially, they offered cheap and healthy food – needed now more than ever in the context of panic buying, black marketeering etc. They had to adhere to a maximum price structure and offer meals that met nutritional standards.
  • This was not some sort of Soviet-style top-down drab dystopian vision. Sure, central government needs to provide the initial cash. But they were more of a national collaborative effort which involved nutritionists, local volunteers, and also much input from the retail trade (forms like Marks and Spencer etc).
  • The communal dining model is impossible now but the other model they used is viable – i.e. food prepared in big kitchens (schools, often) by trained staff (cleanliness and sanitation a priority), then distributed via courier system – vans, trams, and even (in the BLitz) underground trains.
  • The best way to replicate this today would be to utilise school kitchens to produce safe food in a controlled environment, food then transferred to van and motorcycle couriers (like UberEats etc) and delivered to the homes of the most vulnerable people.

Time, now more than ever, for the return of this form of public feeding.

Re-establish the Ministry of Food, and let’s get the ball rolling.





1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review of Peter Hennessy’s ‘Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties’, Irish Times, 12 October 2019


Leave a comment

October 18, 2019 · 1:00 pm

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library fellowship

I have been awarded a Harry S. Truman Presidential Library research fellowship by the Committee on Research, Scholarship and Education of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, Missouri, USA.
The Truman Library was the first of the thirteen presidential libraries in the United States of America. It is the library and resting place of Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the United States.
Truman – US President from 1945 to 1953 – most controversially sanctioned the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945 but is also famous for implementing the Marshall Plan and establishing NATO; in 2006 Kofi Annan gave his final speech as United Nations Secretary General at the Truman Library, urging that the world return to Truman’s multilateral vision.
I have been awarded the grant for research on my forthcoming book on the history of food and aviation at the Library, and I visit in December.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pan American Research Grant into the history of Airline Food

I am honoured to have been awarded the annual Dave Abrams and Gene Banning Pan American Research Grant for research in the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records collection at the University of Miami Libraries Special Collections in Coral Gables, Florida.

Image result for pan american abrams banning

The grant, generously provided by the Pan Am Historical Foundation, honours two of Pan Am’s most avid historians, Dave Abrams and Gene Banning. Abrams, a University of Miami graduate, joined Pan American Airways and worked for forty-two years as a meteorologist, navigator, and Director of Flight Operations for Latin America. He was instrumental in the formation of the Pan Am Historical Foundation after the company shut its doors in 1991, and in finding a home for the Pan Am’s archives and memorabilia. Banning was one of the longest serving pilots for Pan Am. His aviation days started with the infamous flying boats in 1941 and ended with Boeing 747s in 1978. An avid researcher, Banning was a guiding member of the Pan Am Historical Foundation from its inception and the author of Airlines of Pan American since 1927.

The grant has been awarded since 2008, and has resulted in a variety of articles, theses-related work, book chapters, and a wide array of research projects. As this year’s award winner, I will receive $1,500 to support my scholarly research using the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records collection. As part of this year’s award, Special Collections will be hosting an Abrams-Banning grant talk, an opportunity for me to share my research and discoveries to interested scholars and community members and answer questions about the project.

The Project: Pan Am, A Gastronomic History

Image result for pan american airline food

People today are generally dismissive of airplane food but, at the same time, ignorant of its history.

Pan-Am, once the largest international air carrier in the world, performed a pioneering role in airline food service.

Nostalgia for Pan-Am’s distinctive food service is now such that a Los Angeles film studio hosts a retro dinner on a stage set up to look like a Pan Am double-decker 747 at which patrons divest themselves of upwards of $200 to dine ‘airline’!

But this gourmet glamour was underpinned by both serious science and attention to the detail of fine dining culture.

Food tastes differ at high altitudes and in low humidity the sense of smell is less acute and the scent sharper; dryness of air and low air pressure ensures our taste buds are hindered, rendering seasoned dishes bland. Pan-Am led the way in scientific innovation around these problems, while maintaining high class dining rituals.

This research project explores the changing science and culture attached to food during Pan Am’s global reign, providing the first serious academic study to highlight the company’s gastronomic history.

Before the serious stuff starts I’ll also be checking out the TV series (below) for a few initial pointers!

Image result for pan american stewardess




Filed under Uncategorized

Images from Nottingham National Kitchen, 16 June 2017

My national project to rediscover the public feeding schemes of 100 years ago hit the road again last Friday, when over 100 people in Nottingham were fed for free from a menu 100 years old. We had a jazz band, we had music hall numbers, we dressed up and danced and ate. And all in a stunning Victorian venue designed by renowned architect Watson Fothergill http://www.watsonfothergill.co.uk/

The idea is to highlight how social eating is superior to the basic food bank model and how we can learn a lot from how the government did things 100 years ago. So we fed 100 people food from 100 years ago, including period dishes ‘wet nelly’ and ‘trench cake’.

The local television coverage of the evening is accessible here: https://nottstv.com/programme/social-eating-experiment-takes-locals-back-world-war-one-19-06-17/

The point was to rediscover social eating in an area of nottingham (St Anne’s) with a high food bank dependency and a very diverse demographic. The event was held in the city’s Pakistan Community Centre and involved some fairly diverse groups of people including a choir for children with special needs. We teamed up with Marsha Smith of Super Kitchen and ‘Pulp Friction’ (a Nottingham-based charity for young adults with learning disabilities) and the floor was run by Hospitality guru Dr Clay Gransden, ensuring the night provided an opportunity for young adults with learning disabilities to learn transferable skills for the industry (front of house, table service etc).

The entire project has now been nominated for the Royal Historical Society’s Public History Award 2017 and so was judged on the evening by Professor John Tosh (Royal Historical Society).

All the below images are reproduced by kind permission of Richard Mowberry:


Displaying 21-29-DSC_0143.jpegDisplaying 19-24-DSC_0131.jpegDisplaying 31-45-DSC_0227.jpegDisplaying 25-33-DSC_0155.jpegDisplaying 42-60-DSC_0372.jpegDisplaying 41-59-DSC_0370.jpegDisplaying 39-56-DSC_0345.jpegDisplaying 50-68-DSC_0113_pp.jpeg

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized