‘It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here’ – The Sunday Times

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…

”Tis the Season to Stop Fighting’ – The Wall Street Journal



For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

Continue reading…

‘How to Fake It in America’ – The Wall Street Journal

Peter Arkle

Peter Arkle

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to make fun ofDescartes’ influential idea that the human mind (“the ghost”) is utterly separate from the body. But it was the English rock band The Police who popularized the expression, making it the title of their classic 1981 album. Today “ghost in the machine” shows up everywhere. It has become a metaphor for the assorted forms of fakery that are constantly revealed in the mashup of modern culture.

The anger directed at Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January reflected the country’s disgust with performers who fake it. The mere hint that a singer is no more than a dancing puppet can create a scandal—or even end a career. As the disgraced front men of the 1980s pop act Milli Vanilli will attest, you can’t pretend to perform and keep your Grammy. Continue reading…

‘Writers on Writers: Amanda Foreman on Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, and ‘Philomena” – Variety

Image from Variety.com

Image from Variety.com

Last year, I was one the judges for the Man Booker literary prize. It didn’t matter that I am not a novelist. The experience of great writing is a universal pleasure. All writers feel a thrill when they encounter a work that has been beautifully crafted. I felt it while watching “Philomena.”

On one level the story is a straightforward biopic: a working-class woman spends a lifetime looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Yet, behind the apparent simplicity of the film lies a rich layer of theatrical craft. The writers took two potential problems — the circuitous nature of the story and the missing voice of the son — and turned them into virtues. Continue reading…

‘A Hairy Issue: Beards Through History’ – The Wall Street Journal

Image by Thomas Fuchs

Image by Thomas Fuchs

There is a reason you may be seeing more beards these days on TV or the street. It has nothing to do with a resurgence of Victorian aesthetics, a mass outbreak of folliculitis or the conquest of the U.S. by hipsters.

The embrace of cheek-fuzz is actually part of a world-wide hair-a-thon to raise money for cancer charities. No-Shave November and its Australian-born cousin, Movember, are annual events that invite participants to forswear their razors for a month. The point, as the No-Shave November website puts it, is “to grow awareness by embracing our hair, which many cancer patients lose, and letting it grow wild and free.” Continue reading…

‘Survival in Pre-Civil War South: 12 Years a Slave Honored at the Lotos Club’ – The Huffington Post

By Regina Weinreich

The subject of race was addressed head on at a luncheon celebrating the film “12 Years a Slave,” easily the film of the year in an awards season gathering momentum. “I’m a black man, as if you didn’t notice, and part of the global identity of slavery” said director Steve McQueen on a panel led by Amanda Foreman at the Lotos Club on Tuesday. The director was seated between two of his stars Chitwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and in front of guests who included the luncheon’s host George C. Wolfe, Geoffrey Fletcher, Spike Lee, Thulani Davis, Walter Mosley, and many more of the city’s cultural and industry elite, but the context of McQueen’s remark was an answer to a question about his being a British citizen making art of a particularly American experience, and embarrassment. With family from the West Indies, he pointed out, we are all part of a diaspora, and that understanding makes the horrors of plantation life witnessed in his powerful movie all the more dreadful, and close to home no matter what your color or ethnicity.

Others attending included the actors Tovah Feldshuh, now in “Pippin,” and Nikki James, Tony winner for her work in “Book of Mormon.” James, soon returning to “Mormon,” and slated to play Eponine in the coming revival of “Les Mis,” said she had read for the part of Patsy, the love object of the cruel, psychopath plantation owner played by Michael Fassbinder. While James acknowledged that it is always a disappointment when a part goes to someone else, she admired Lupita Nyong’o’s work as Patsy, especially as this is the young actress’ first film and she was chosen fresh out of Yale. Beaten and tortured, Patsy picks cotton by day and prays for death by night. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Solomon (Ejiofor) leaves the plantation, a free man at last, but he leaves her, a soul mate, behind.

In many ways, the story of Solomon Northrup, based on his memoir of the same title, who, as a free man was kidnapped and sold into slavery, has a happy ending. He does return to family and loved ones. But Patsy as a character is emblematic of the huge numbers that never lived free lives. Despite the relief of seeing Solomon with a grandson named for him, the searing images of where he has been are unforgettable.

One of the movie’s producers, Dede Gardner (she’s partners at Plan B with Brad Pitt who plays a heroic role both in the film as a Canadian abolitionist, and beyond, getting the film financed and green lit) noted that one of her jobs was protecting the film, fighting the fear that the subject is not commercial, is too difficult in its most extreme violent moments. Gardner is clearly building a career with fine films that have this edge. Her current project is a movie of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. As in matters of race, the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, pose questions of conscience and humanity that we are all only beginning to address.

‘The Bad Idea of Daylight-Saving Time’ – The Wall Street Journal



Every November, a great theft is perpetrated against hundreds of millions of innocent people. They are robbed of an hour of afternoon sunlight by the government decree that divides the year into standard and daylight-saving time. The switch to standard time occurs precisely at the wrong moment, when the days are already growing shorter.

The arguments used to justify the DST arrangement always employ the language of cost, savings and safety. But, as the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once observed: “At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

It was in the 14th century that humanity was liberated from relying on the sun or water for telling the time. In place of sundials and water clocks came the wonder of mechanical devices that worked independently of cloudy days and freezing weather.
The oldest working clock in the world is said to be the hourly clock in Salisbury Cathedral in the west of England. Designed in 1386 to strike a single bell on the hour every hour, it was built with one purpose in mind: to bring people closer to God by reminding them of service times. For the medieval peasant and noble alike, time wasn’t the handmaiden of money but an expression of religious faith. Continue reading…

A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman


books0703gallagherWinner of the Fletcher Pratt Award for Civil War History

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

The New York Times Top Ten Books of 2011

Named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune, The Economist, Nancy Pearl, NPR, Bloomberg.com, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly


Though with the North we sympathize
It must not be forgotten
That with the South we’ve stronger ties
Which are composed of cotton
Punch, 30 March, 1861

It is said that the closeness of siblings can be measured by the intensity of their fights. During the first one hundred years, Britain and the US were almost always arguing about something. Trade, maritime rights, and boundary disputes were the chief tinderlights; a spark from each had the capacity to send troops running to the barricades. Much good such martial spirits did for the belligerents. The war of 1812 ended ignominiously for both sides: the British Army suffered a stunning defeat at New Orleans, but not before it had seized Washington and set fire to the White House.

American anglophobia, already high, increased after 1812. It was positively unhealthy to be suspected of pro-British leanings. Every decade saw some fresh dispute. During the 1840s the quarrel centered on territory, in the 50s a friendly discussion over colonial ambitions in Central America turned into sour recriminations. Yet the two countries were each other’s best customers.

Southern cotton and Northern wheat fired up British factories and fed her workers. In return, manufactured goods and financial investment poured in to a hungry economy that was increasing faster than its population. (Between 1840 and 1860 America doubled from seventeen to thirty-two million.) The South grew richer and more genteel, while the North grew bigger and more powerful as artisans turned into workers, and entrepreneurs became bankers or industrialists. A vast network of railroads, partly financed by British capital, connected the North in a lattice of commerce. By 1860 an English oak dining table could be unloaded in New York on Monday and set for lunch in Chicago on Wednesday.

Read more here
Read an excerpt from Chapter 22 of A World on Fire, ”Crossroads at Gettysburg,” pages 486-497
Read the comprehensive bibliography for A World on Fire here.

“History as a Cecil B. DeMille epic…One puts down A World on Fire with a sense of awe.” —The Boston Globe

“Thrilling narrative on a grand scale.” —History Today

“[A] remarkable book…an extraordinary cast.” — The New York Times Book Review

“[A] magisterial history.” —Newsweek

The New Yorker – 1 August 2011
Over There” by Hendrik Hertzberg
Amanda Foreman’s “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” (Random House; $35) broadens the scope. Her story is more than an eye-opening corrective to American insularity. It is an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.

The Wall Street Journal – 25 June 2011
When Cotton Wasn’t King” by Michael Burlingame
Amanda Foreman’s well-researched and highly readable “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” examines why the British government never did recognize the Confederacy. Ms. Foreman, the author of the best-selling biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” (1999), is such an engaging writer that readers may find this 958-page volume too short. She supplements the traditional scholarly approach to British-American relations with an array of testimony from dozens of British witnesses to and participants in the Civil War. Their diaries, letters, reminiscences and newspaper reports provide insights into the war that differ from similar accounts by Americans, who perforce could not achieve the detached perspective of foreigners.

Guardian – 27 November 2010
A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman“” by Jay Parini
Amanda Foreman leapt into public view with her Whitbread-prizewinning portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, in 1999, proving herself a storyteller of lavish gifts, a writer with an eye for the telling biographical detail who could also portray society at large – in that case the world of late-18th-century aristocrats in Britain and France. More than a decade later, she has delivered a massive work of considerable artistry, which tells the complex and riveting tale of British involvement in the American civil war.

More reviews here.

Virtual Book Signing – 2 November 2012
Abraham Lincoln Book Shop – Chicago, IL
Host Daniel Weinberg speaks to Amanda Foreman about her book A World on Fire.

The New York Historical Society – 8 November 2011
The Civil War: Great Britain’s Role

Ohio University – 31 January 2012
The George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions
Amanda Foreman speaks to an audience at Ohio University about her inspiration for writing A World on Fire.

C-Span – 15 July 2011
BookTV: After Words
Amanda Foreman discusses her book A World on Fire with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner.

CBS Boston – 8 July 2011
NightSide: Amanda Foreman, Author of “A World On Fire” Discusses The American Civil War

The Oldie – 7 June 2011
Oldie Literary Lunch
Amanda Foreman speaks to an audience of The Oldie magazine readers about A World on Fire and the discovery that led her to the subject while she was researching for Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

C-Span – 26 March 2011
The Lincoln Conference, Washington DC
Britain’s Response to the Emancipation Proclamation

Video: http://www.c-span.org/video/?298687-2/britains-response-emancipation-proclamation

5 x 15 – 18 April 2011
Amanda Foreman @ 5 x 15