Friday, 26 November 2021

The comedian, the sculpture, the pop song, the book....and the assassins!

One of the exhibits at the 'Summer' Exhibition at London's Royal Academy is a collection of eight little wooden models by the comedian, Harry Hill. They carry clues - Ford's Theatre, Dealey Plaza. 

Ah! I realised, fresh as I was from writing Assassins' Deeds. A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day. (Reaktion books) The little models all represent the sites of famous, or notorious, assassinations.

As I wracked my brains to identify them all, I could have saved myself some trouble by looking at the catalogue. The title of the piece is Abraham, Martin, John, Mahatma, Leon, Che, Malcolm and John. So Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and John Lennon.

Is Hill's poignant piece inspired by the 1968 pop song Abraham, Martin and John, which was a hit for Dion? That mourns the deaths, and celebrates the lives of Lincoln, Martin Luther King and JFK, and concludes with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Monday, 15 November 2021

Assassins' Deeds: the Czech edition


It's arrived! The Czech translation of my book 'Assassins' Deeds' (Reaktion Books). The literal translation of the Czech title, incidentally, is 'The Most Famous Assassinations in History'.

New ground for me here. I've been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Romanian, Estonian, and American, of course, but never before into Czech.

Sunday, 31 October 2021

How do real assassins measure up against Forsyth's Jackal?


It’s 50 years this year since Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel of assassination, The Day of the Jackal, was published. In my book Assassins’ Deeds: A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day (Reaktion), I muse on how closely real assassins mirror the character of Forsyth’s would-be killer.

The Jackal, whose real name we never discover, plans absolutely meticulously. He commissions a specially-designed super-thin rifle that can be hidden in his crutch as he pretends to be a wounded war veteran. He has long before selected the perfect window from which to shoot his victim. He chews cordite to make himself look ill and ease his way past security checks.

It is strictly business. He is going to kill his quarry, President de Gaulle, because he is being paid a lot of money. He is ruthless, murdering a number of people who get, or might get, in his way. And he fails, because the intended victim moves his head at the crucial moment and the Jackal’s shot misses.

One respect in which the Jackal was not typical was in his decision to try to kill his victim at a distance. Of 266 assassinations I analysed, only 19 were not up close and personal. Until the nineteenth century, stabbing was the favourite method, but even when firearms took over, it tended to be the handgun at close quarters rather than the sniper’s rifle.

Nor were hired killers of the Jackal kind very common – just 18 of them. Most assassins were activated by motives other than money – ambition, anger, fear, religion, ideology. Few assassinations were as well planned as the one Forsyth portrays, so mercifully, according to an American study I quote, more than four in five fail.

But the way the victim escapes in Forsyth’s novel does have a parallel in the real world. In 1800, a would-be assassin took a pot shot at King George III in a London theatre, but missed because the monarch bowed his head to acknowledge the cheers of the audience at the critical instant.

Many other similarities and differences emerge in the book.


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'.