I returned to Budleigh on Sunday at an hour when only the seagulls were abroad. This time it was to see Dr Sam Willis (him off the telly) and Professor James Daybell lead a session called Histories of the Unexpected.
It was, they explained, a method of tackling history through ideas or objects. Rather than studying a topic in a linear fashion, it was more a spidergram approach. Their main example was dust. Apparently dust can corrode, it can change things, it can change humans (as we are permanently shedding skin particles which are the main constituent of dust). The dustbowl phenomenon in the American mid-west was touched upon. How dust can be feared, as in the 1920s Tutankhamun ‘curse’ and the worry that plague may reactivate during dusty excavations for the building of Cross-Rail. How little boys were sent up chimneys to clear them of coal dust. This morphed into a section on what gets put up chimneys. That they are a conduit from the earthly to the supernatural world. That cats were bricked up to ward off evil. That chimneys can be considered an archive in themselves. A rare map from the 1600s has recently been found in a Glaswegian chimney. Half-burned letters to Father Christmas are often found, depicting the changing hopes and fears of generations of children.
You get the picture.
The most fascinating story, for me, was the link between the Gunpowder Plot and oranges. A Catholic plotter was imprisoned in the Tower and given an orange. He used the peel to make a rosary, kept the juice to write in invisible ink on the paper the fruit was wrapped in and bribed the guard with the flesh to get his message out!
There were also wonderful ramblings on beards and why windows were put on the sterns of 18th century warships.
It was conducted in rapid fire delivery and a bit, ‘Let me show off about how much I know,’ at times but completely fascinating and I loved it.
You can follow more Histories of the Unexpected on the following link, as podcasts, or on Twitter. There’s a book coming out next year and it would make a brilliantly entertaining television series.