Leo the Wise by Lars Brownworth – Kindle Mini Book

Its a mini-book so this is a mini-review.  Leo the Wise was the founder of the Macedonian dynasty of the Byzantine Empire. 
His life was fairly eventful, but it isn’t obvious from this account that anything he did was particularly wise, though he did just about manage to get the dynasty off on fairly firm footing.

Lars is mainly known as the first history podcaster, with his 12 Byzantine rulers being an inspiration to many.  This book has many of the virtues of that series.  By concentrating on a particular individual it has a strong story line.  It is very clear and easy to read.

The only problem with it is, for me at least, it is too short.  This might be personal preference – after all my favourite book is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall which is definitely on the longish side – but I think most people will get to the end of Leo the Wise thinking ‘Was that it?’.   But its cheap enough so there are no grounds for complaint.  If you stop for lunch on a long journey it will cost you less than a coffee and sandwich, and probably only last you slightly longer.

It will be interesting to see if this catches on as a format.  Maybe there will be Kindle owners who find the idea of downloading a cheap book the length of a magazine article that they can polish off fairly quickly appealling.

Another update….

I am not going to make a habit of posting updates on what I am up to, but I thought a bit of explanation of what is going on might be of interest to my small but perfectly formed band of followers.  First off, I am writing new stuff for this blog faster than I ever have before.  I have 5 (count them!) episodes written and recorded and ready to publish.  I have several more scripts written and ready to go.  I am hanging back on them because I am in the process of transferring the old ones to a new host.  I have been using Dropbox which is a great, and free, short term expedient.  But it didn’t support all the things I wanted so I have switched over to LibSyn.  It is taking me a while to transfer the old ones to the new host.  There is a limit to how much you can upload in a given month so I can’t do it all in one go.

The other thing that is holding me back is that I have just submitted the podcast to iTunes, and I am waiting anxiously to see whether or not they are approved.  I have a cunning plan for how I am going to promote the podcast if Apple doesn’t like what I am doing, but in the mean time I will be holding back on the new stuff.

Thanks for reading and/or listening and I hope I will catch up with myself and be getting some new stuff out soon.


I have been beavering away on this project and I have a couple more Gibbon’s lined up now.  I haven’t posted them yet because I want to catch up on the YouTube channel.  I now have a small but highly select group of followers, characterised by impeccable taste, keen judgment, surprising good looks and huge reproductive potential.
  Up until the last few weeks I have been able to treat this blog as pretty much a personal notebook as the traffic from the interwebs has been pretty close to zero statistically.  But now I have an audience I will have to try and up my game a bit.

It is extremely unlucky that I have ended up simultaneously at almost exactly the same point in time in the history of Rome as Mike Duncan.  In fact he is now a reign ahead of me.   I don’t suppose this is a problem for anyone else – though it does make mine look like a me-too.  But it gives me a problem because I know if I listen to Mike’s account he will influence me and I really will be imitating him.   So until I can get some more scripts written I can’t listen to the Mike’s podcast which is normally the highlight of my week.  As I am sticking to Gibbon’s text and Mike is no doubt going to do his own thing I am sure that the two narratives are going to diverge pretty soon.

I also intend to submit the podcasts to iTunes soon.  I am basically scared to do this because I think they may not be good enough and the rejection would be hard to bear.   But given that I am now getting some positive feedback I will bite the bullet and do it.

The Secret State by Peter Hennessy

Would Stonehenge survive a thermonuclear attack?

The intense heat of a direct hit would certainly be hot enough to melt solid rock, but Salisbury Plain is not a key military target.  It’s probably far enough out of the way to avoid the most severe consequences.

It would be unaffected by the ensuing gale force winds created by the enormous convection currents that would follow shortly after a nuclear attack.  It would not  be harmed by the nuclear winter caused by the clouds of dust the explosions had thrown into the sky blocking the sun.  Granite is impervious to the deadly radiation afterglow that would kill any living thing in an instant.  So, probably alone of all the man made artifacts in Britain, the chances are that it would indeed survive.  But everything else would be destroyed, destroyed so finally that barely a trace if anything at all would remain.

You really are a shining little ray of sunshine on this podcast, Colin, you are probably saying to yourself.  Well I am afraid that is the effect of reading the latest edition of The Secret State by Peter Hennesey.

Few countries can have made the transition from overwhelming strength to complete defencelessness so quickly and brutally as Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century.  The turnaround in the country’s fortunes would have been felt by everyone, but particularly by those in the class used to governing it.

Take for example Winston Churchill.  In the early years of the twentieth century he was overhauling the Royal Navy to run on oil, making it not only the biggest but the most modern fleet in the world.  Britain’s unstated policy at that time was to have a fleet large enough to comfortably defeat the next two biggest fleets in the world combined.  With a formal empire that spanned the globe and an even larger informal empire based on trade and industry, it must have been inconceivable that the whole edifice would crumble.

But two world wars later, and above all thanks to completely unforeseen developments in military technology, by the 50s Churchill was presiding over a country unable to even defend itself against a deadly attack.  Nuclear weapons of huge destructive capacity were combined with missiles able to cross continents.  A densely populated country like Britain made an ideal target.   And its political position made it an inevitable one.

With the advent of bombs many thousands times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the realisation grew that the next world war would mean the total elimination of Britain as a civilised country and there would not be any survivors.

We find the one time bellicose warrior reading  to his cabinet an article by Donald Soper about the risks nuclear weapons posed.  Donald Soper was a leading Methodist minister and a leading light of CND.  He would have been astonished to learn that Churchill was taking him so seriously.

It’s often only when you start organising something that the reality of it sinks in.  I imagine this was how it was for the officials charged with preparation for nuclear war. The Secret State describes the procedures, necessarily highly secret, set up to cope with the possibility of an attack that in all probability would result in Britain’s  total destruction.  It must have really brought home to the people involved just how real the threat was.

A bunker was prepared under Box Hill in Wiltshire.   From here it would be attempted to maintain control of what was left of the kingdom.   It was planned in the age of austerity and was suitably Spartan.  Only the Prime Minister had a personal lavatory.   Deep under the sandstone hills, it would have been impossible to destroy.  But it would have been easy to detect once any communication was attempted, and its existence was in any case probably known to the Soviets.  An attack on the hill would have fused the rock trapping the inhabitants for the duration of the conflict.  Indeed, trapping them almost certainly for ever.

The Queen would be got onto the Royal Yacht which would be located in a loch somewhere in Scotland.  The mountains might afford some protection. So with an intact monarch and her Prime Minister still alive, although beyond reach, there was some slim hope of keeping the state intact.   It was necessary to plan for the possibility of the United Kingdom surviving a nuclear war.  The reality was that in the event of a Soviet attack within days the island would be rendered both uninhabited and uninhabitable.  Any survivors would survive only for as long as there supplies of food held out.

The nuclear deterrent was not in fact much more than a way of avenging any wrong done.  Nuclear powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons continually on patrol with a deadly payload to unload at Russia in the event that the Prime Minister ordered it.  If the Prime Minister was one of the victims of an attack?  There were two successors nominated by him.

The other people with their fingers potentially on the trigger were selected by the Prime Minister personally.  Harold Wilson for instance selected the dependable Dennis Healey rather than the often tired and emotional George Brown, who was the deputy leader of the Labour Party.

In the event of a total elimination of the government, the Prime Minister when he first gets into office writes ‘beyond the grave’ instructions to the captains of the nuclear submarines.  These are sealed, and are only to be opened in the event of a total breakdown of the state.  These are never opened and are destroyed when a new premier takes over.

And so the last act of the British state would be to unleash destruction on its last enemy.  A futile gesture in every way.

Suppose a thermonuclear war had broken out and these procedures put into place.  Europe would have been rendered uninhabitable.  Many centuries later when the radioactivity had died down and when natural selection had produced a breed of people able to cope with radiation levels that would kill us,  the continent might be slowly repopulated.

The newcomers would encounter the remains of a long vanished and long forgotten civilisation.  When they finally reached the northern island that had once been Britain and which had been the target of probably more nuclear missiles per square mile than any other the chances are that here even all remains would be gone.  But maybe, just maybe, the stones of what we know as Stonehenge would somehow survive, mute witnesses to the total destruction of a civilisation that had once strode the globe but which now was not even a memory.

Dirty Tricks in On Line History Reviews

Like a lot of others, I love Lord of the Rings.  The plot revolves around the incredible lure of the ring.  It is evil but almost irresistible.  Its offers temptation tailored to the particular individual’s desires.  Amazingly Tolkien came up with this notion without the inspiration of the internet.

The web offers so many ways we can fritter our time away or worse.  The opportunity to be someone online that we are not in real life is one.  This could be very sinister indeed,  but like most things there is a spectrum.  Posing as someone you aren’t to con people out of money or take advantage of them is one end of it, but there are less serious but probably a lot more common ways of deceiving people online.

Every internet forum has people who are being much more strident than they would be in real life. And no doubt not every fact quoted is rigorously checked.  Some people go further and plug products and services they are affiliated with without making clear their connection.  And the potential for deception takes many forms.  When you have been writing a blog like this one for several years and had almost no responses, the temptation to quickly create a new Google account and to start posting some comments is a very real one.  I have managed to resist it, but it has been touch and go some days.

The world has been watching agog as the mysterious affair of Orlando Figes has unfolded before our barely believing eyes.  We now know the whole sordid truth.  A tale of academic bitchiness that sickens the heart.  The short version is that Orlando Figes, a leading historian of 20th Century Russia, has been posting damning reviews of his rivals online anonymously, while lauding his own work.  When caught out, at first he tried to use his substantial personal fortune to hire lawyers to sue his accusers.   Then he tried to blame his wife.  But now the truth is out.  He is now known as Filthy Figes.

I think the reason that we all find this story so fascinating is that all of us have a little of the Filthy Figes in us. Okay we feel the temptation but we somehow resist it.  But like Gollum, Figes has gone down the path we have avoided.  It is also see easy to understand.  I am sure what Goldmann Sachs got up to was very bad, but I have only the haziest notion of what it is they are supposed to have done and no concept of what was going through the minds of the bankers involved.  But slagging someone off behind their back thinking I wouldn’t get caught?  Er yeah, I can sort of relate to that.

Still, History Books Review readers can rest assured that I at any rate review books honestly.  And I don’t write any, so you can be sure I am not biased.