Friday, 24 September 2021

A historic object returns to Iraq. What does this have to do with Noah's Ark?


A 3,600 year old clay tablet telling part of the Epic of Gilgamesh is being returned to Iraq after being looted from a museum during the Gulf War in 1991.

The epic is a fascinating tale, written perhaps a millennium before the Book of Genesis. It recounts how human beings had become so numerous the noise they made was unbearable, and the gods could no longer sleep.  So they decided to ‘exterminate mankind.’ 

To achieve this, they ‘turned daylight to darkness’, and summoned up a storm and a half. ‘For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world.’ Then on the seventh day, the storm subsided, and the sea ‘stretched as flat as a roof-top.’ And mankind was ‘turned to clay’.

But not quite. One of the gods had a soft spot for a man named Utnapishtim and had tipped him off about the impending catastrophe. So he and his family had commissioned a boat and escaped. With them they took samples of ‘the beast of the field, both wild and tame’, as well as the ‘craftsmen’ who had built their vessel.

For anyone who knows the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible, much of this will sound rather familiar. For the full story, see my book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books).

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

My history of assassination: 'Assassins' Deeds'. Two American professors say it will be 'the definitive treatment of its subject for years to come'! How kind!


'As Withington observes in
 Assassins’ Deeds, his detail-rich study of the form from ancient times to the present, more often than not the best-laid plans of would-be history-changers go unrealized, as the new tends to replicate the old and the iron law of unintended consequences does its grim work. . . . Impressively researched and engagingly narrated, Assassins’ Deeds will likely stand as the definitive treatment of its subject for years to come.'

So write Jerald Podair, Professor of History and Robert S. French, Professor of American Studies, Lawrence University.  The full review is here:

Assassins' Deeds is published by Reaktion Books. It tells how assassins have been killing the powerful and famous for at least 3,000 years. Personal ambition, revenge and anger have encouraged many to violent deeds, such as the Turkish sultan who had nineteen of his brothers strangled or the bodyguards who murdered a dozen Roman emperors. More recently have come new motives like religious and political fanaticism, revolution and liberation, with governments also getting in on the act, while many victims seem to have been surprisingly careless – Abraham Lincoln was killed after letting his bodyguard go for a drink.

So do assassinations work? Drawing on anecdote, evidence and statistical analysis, Assassins’ Deeds delves into some of history’s most notorious acts, unveiling an intriguing cast of characters, ingenious methods of killing, and those unintended consequences. 

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Reflections from 66

 I was there. At Wembley the day England beat West Germany in the World Cup Final. What I think I am seeing now is the best England team since that day. It may lack individuals as outstanding as some from the years in between - Bryan Robson, Gerrard, Rooney, Gascoigne, but as a team it has cohesion, and the squad has depth that allows an impressive manager to rest players and to adjust selection to the differing challenges posed by different opponents.

Some parallels with 1966 strike me. (The structure of the tournament was the same then, except there was one game fewer - no round of the last 16. If you qualified from the group you went straight into the last 8.)

1. England did not concede a goal until the semi-final.

2. England started slowly, but improved as the tournament went on.

3. The toughest game until the semi-final was the first in the knock out stage. Against Germany this year. A narrow 1-0 win against Argentina in 1966 after the Argentines had had a man controversially sent off. 

4. England won both semi-finals 2-1, beating a very good Portugal side in 1966.

5. In 1966, England played all their games at Wembley. This year they have played all but one there.

6. In the finals, they met probably the best team in the tournament excluding England. In 1966, it was West Germany, with England coming out winners 4-2 after extra time, amid controversy over 3 of the England goals. The first came from a free kick taken while the referee seemed to be still ticking off a German defender. The third was the famous 'did-it-cross-the-line?' shot from Geoff Hurst, and play should have been halted before the fourth, as there were spectators on the pitch.

And so to tomorrow. Good luck, England!

Friday, 18 June 2021

The story of the only British prime minister to be assassinated + the murder of Cambridge's first professor of history

Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. Here's the story of how he was gunned down in the Houses of Parliament in 1812. And here too is the tale of how Cambridge University's first professor of history was murdered in The Hague. I was in conversation with Andy Lake of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire about my book, 'Assassins' Deeds'.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Do petrol cars have a future? I was asking the question back in 1973

With the UK government planning to end the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030, not surprisingly people are asking whether this is the end of the line.

But back in 1973, as oil prices went through what then seemed like the roof, they were posing the same question. In those days, I was industrial correspondent for ATV in Birmingham, working mainly on 'ATV Today'. Here's my report from what was then Britain's biggest car factory at Longbridge. Dateline: 26 November 1973.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Assassins' Deeds - my podcast interview with BBC History Magazine

Very interesting to be interviewed about my latest book
Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion Books) by Rachel Dinning of BBC History Magazine for their podcast.

We ranged over: 

what was history's first assassination?

when and where were the powerful and famous most at risk of assassination? 

how negligent were targets about their own safety?

do assassinations work, and what unintended consequences have they had?

what are assassins' favourite methods?

how many victims were not the assassin's first target?

what kind of people become assassins? 

what are history's strangest assassinations?

who was the world champion at surviving assassination attempts?

what were the ethical arguments put forward in favour of assassination and who advanced them?

the murder of Wat Tyler, of Mary, Queen of Scots' husband, Lord Darnley, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the assassin who nearly killed Hitler, women assassins

You can hear the podcast here

Friday, 5 March 2021

It was 50 years ago the other day. I was there as Radio Humberside's first sports editor in 1971

Back on 25 February 1971, the day BBC Radio Humberside opened in Hull's Chapel Street (pictured), I was there as its first ever sports editor. 

In this interview with Humberside's David 'Burnsy' Burns, I talk about the promotion battle Hull City were caught up in when we went on air, a goal for Grimsby Town by Matt Tees, actor Tom Courtenay, broadcaster Paul Heiney, and decimalisation.