The jacket cover of Peter Hennessy’s new work describes the author as ‘the UK’s leading contemporary historian’, a reputation soundly based on a string of highly regarded books such as Cabinet, The Hidden Wiring, Whitehall and The Secret State, as well as on his high profile as a media presenter and commentator.
In the conclusion to Alcohol in World History, Gina Hames observes that the influence of alcohol has been ‘omnipresent in human history’ (p. 134). It is undoubtedly the case that, while not the dominant psychoactive substance in all human cultures, alcohol has played a more pervasive and significant role in the history of human thought, ritual and economy than any other drug.
During the long 18th century imported foodstuffs came to play a central role in the everyday experiences of British people. Women sipped tea in parlours and drawing rooms, while men walked out to coffee houses, taking snuff as they strode, before returning home later to enjoy a dinner of savoury dishes and sweet delicacies laced with sugar and spice.
At the centre of this rich, provocative book is a body of water and a steampunk contraption. In the 19th century, the Mississippi River loomed large in the American imagination; a waterway of immense power and possibility which sliced through the North American continent.
Whatever the medievalists might say when they think you’re not listening, 20th-century European history is hard, and post-1945 history can be the trickiest bit. The decades after 1945 are much less precisely understood, in historical terms, than the decades before. They are more subject to unchallenged platitudes and uninformed controversy: they are surrounded by white noise.
Popular views of the US civil rights movement remain focused on the post-war South.
At first sight this looks like another of those increasingly common commodity books, some of which are intended to be global in scope, and which include studies of chocolate, sugar, cod, salt and many others (digestible or not!). As Riello points out, commodities are a good way to tell a global story since many of them have been traded throughout the world for centuries.
University library shelves on both sides of the Atlantic groan under the weight of synoptic studies of the era of FDR.
A sure sign of the ageing process is when events that are part of your own memory start appearing in works of history. And so it is now the case with the 1980s; for one’s students, ‘Thatcher’ is a person of whom they have no firsthand knowledge, just a figure whom many of their lecturers and supervisors are prone to paint as the devil incarnate.