Wednesday 19 June 2024

My 'History of Fireworks'. the secret is out!

The Niagara Pen Centre has broken the story! My new book A History of Fireworks (Reaktion) is out soon

Here's the entry from the Reaktion Books Catalogue:

'An illumination of the glittering history of fireworks.

This book illuminates the glittering history of fireworks, from their mysterious beginnings to the dazzling big-budget displays of today. It describes how they enthralled the world’s royal courts and became a sensation across the British Empire. There are stories of innovations like ‘living fireworks’, fiercely fought international competitions and the technology behind modern showpieces viewed by millions. Practitioners say fireworks are an art, and they have inspired artists from Shakespeare, Handel, Dickens and Whistler to Katy Perry. But Withington also covers fireworks’ practical uses – rescues at sea, attempts to control the weather – while not ignoring their dangers, accidents or efforts to make them safer.'

It's available to pre-order from Reaktion or Amazon

Thursday 6 June 2024

D-day and my dad

On this day 80 years ago, my father Brian Withington was one of the thousands of brave men who stormed the
Normandy beaches on D-day.

Friday 31 May 2024

The true history of Brexit: the deluded election

This is part of what my gift from the future, The New Oxford History of England. Brexit 2015-50 had to say about the 2024 General Election:

'It has gone down in history as the 'Deluded Election'. Both the Conservatives and Labour ruled out increases in any of the major revenue-raising taxes - income tax, national insurance and VAT. With public services severely strapped for cash, this begged the question 'how are these services going to be saved from collapse'?

Both parties based their 'plans' to avoid this breakdown on growth in the economy. Neither had any satisfactory explanation of what would be Plan B if this growth was not achieved.

Bizarrely, the one policy guaranteed to deliver economic growth, reversing Brexit, was not only rejected by Labour and Conservative, but all mention of the damage leaving the EU had caused Britain was avoided. 

So fanatical was this Brexit omerta that Labour and Conservative candidates were not even allowed to discuss rejoining the Single Market, despite the fact that leading Brexit campaigners, including Boris Johnson himself, had promised that the UK would remain in the Single Market after leaving the EU.

And all this against clear evidence that by 2024 most people realised Brexit was a bad mistake, while only a tiny minority believed it had been a good idea.'

Monday 29 April 2024

I-Spy Turin: memorial to a forgotten front

In the old days before we had the EU, European countries used to fight wars with each other. We know a lot about the horrors of the Western Front in the First World War, but there were other equally dreadful theatres we hear much less of.

The war memorial in Turin, pictured above, commemorates soldiers killed in one of them, the conflict between Austria and Italy, much of which was fought on the Alpine Front.

Italy entered the war late, in 1916. Having been an ally of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it switched sides to join Britain, France and Russia. Austria and Italy would lose a million men - 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians - many of them in the mountains. One war correspondent said conditions there were worse even than 'in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders'.

In addition to the cold and the usual hazards of war, there were avalanches, sometimes set off deliberately as a weapon, sometimes triggered accidentally by artillery, and sometimes occurring naturally. After heavy snow in December of 1916, avalanches buried 10,000 soldiers in just two days.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

I-Spy Paris: war memorial to the Tsar's troops

In 1916, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia sent 20,000 Russian troops to help France fight the Germans on the Western Front. Above is the memorial in Paris to the 5,000 who were killed.

Tsarist Russia was part of the Triple Entente with France and Britain, lining up against the Central Powers of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. 

Tsar Nicholas would be killed by the Bolsheviks as the Russian Empire collapsed. The First World War also brought an end to the German Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismantled.

Thursday 29 February 2024

The true history of Brexit Britain: the real coalition

 I've been busy with the glue and paste and I've manged to piece together another section of the New Oxford History of Brexit Britain written some time after 2050. Read it ONLY HERE:

When people talked about ‘the coalition’ in the 2020s, they invariably meant the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that ruled from 2010 to 2015, but the real coalition in British politics was the one between two ostensibly bitter rivals, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. And although, the Labour Party was an enthusiastic participant, this coalition was fiercely conservative, resolutely blocking the changes that Britain needed, to solve its deep-seated, long-standing problems.

The Labour-Conservative coalition obstinately defended Brexit even when most British people had long ago realised it was a terrible mistake, and that it had been imposed on them by a political process that could most kindly be described as ‘unsatisfactory’, and which had effectively been ruled illegal.

The Conservative-Labour coalition also fought like tigers against any reform of the undemocratic ‘First Past the Post’ voting system, which constantly awarded virtually absolute power to politicians most voters had rejected.

So more than 63 per cent had voted against the notorious Conservative government of 2015 that implemented the disastrous Brexit referendum, while more than 56 per cent had opposed Boris Johnson’s vacuous ‘get Brexit done’ regime in 2019, and in the three supposed Thatcher 'landslides' of 1979-1987 she never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote. But Labour also benefited from this undemocracy, with Tony Blair gaining his first ‘landslide’ in 1997 with only 43 per cent of the vote, and his last election victory in 2005 with just 35 per cent. In other words, nearly two-thirds of voters opposed him.

As the 21st century progressed, there was more and more agonising and hand-wringing from Labour and Conservative politicians about how voters were ‘alienated’ from the political process and about how dangerous this was. Yet it seemed to occur to few of them that constantly imposing on the British people governments they did not want would surely cause ‘alienation.’

As we now know, this fierce conservatism over Brexit and the electoral system would have severe consequences for both parties, and, sadly, for the people of Britain.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

I-Spy Turin! Roman remains + thank you Stanmore!

The Palatine Gate (above) is pretty much what is left of Roman Turin. The northern entrance to the old city, it has been, as you might guess, substantially restored, with extensive works during the 15th century. It was due to be demolished in the 18th as part of a major redevelopment, but an architect and engineer saved it. Fortunately - because it is one of the most impressive sights in the city, and you can see it free. You might even get a nicer day than I did.

* Belated thanks to Stanmore & District u3a for hosting my talk on my book Assassins' Deeds. A history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day (Reaktion books)There was a good audience who asked some interesting questions.