I write books.
But when I’m not writing, I read a lot, and when I read it’s almost always history. The history that I like best is the stuff that no-one else is interested in – I’ll never knuckle down to George Washington or Henry VIII if I can curl up with a strange old book about a forgotten island in the Pacific or social banditry in Brazil. So I tend to stumble across stories that I love, but which are too small, too odd or just too fragmentary to tell my publishers about.
They know much better than I do what is marketable, and inevitably what sells isn’t always what I find fascinating. So I created A Blast From The Past to write about these small, strange stories. Because they’re eye-opening, and because they offer insights of their own into the world we live in. Because I think they ought to be better known. And because I hope you’ll like them too.
The ground rules
My aim is to make every single essay on this site the most complete, most balanced, most compelling account of its topic that you can find online. That’s what gives me a reason to write. Hopefully, it’s also what gives you a reason to read me.
For the most part, what I try to do here is to explore subjects that you won’t have come across anywhere else. To do that, I read widely and learn from the work of some great academic historians. I try to spin their analytical work into an interesting narrative.
Every so often, though, I come across something that nobody has looked at properly before. Then I do what I love best of all, and engage in some heavyweight original research of my own. So A Blast from the Past contains a handful essays that I’m especially proud of, about things that you simply couldn’t find elsewhere, even in the dusty journals that are my usual haunts. You can find these special stories grouped together in the category cloud under the heading Investigations.
About the author
I’m probably in love with my subject just a bit too much. I read history at Cambridge and went on to complete a PhD at King’s College London back in 1990. Since then I’ve enjoyed an eclectic career as a journalist, magazine publisher, teacher, and author, in the course of which I’ve written five (and counting) heavily-researched popular histories: Tulipomania, Batavia’s Graveyard, Thug, Satan’s Circus and The First Family – if you really want the full story, go here. Oh, and I live in London with my wife and daughter in a house stuffed with approximately 4,000 books, about a third of which I’ve actually read all the way through. I don’t know why people always ask me about that, but they do.
About the blog
A Blast from the Past has been around, in various incarnations, for quite a while now. The earliest material on this site dates back to 2006, when I took up a longstanding invitation to write for the Charles Fort Institute. The material I produced for them was pretty varied, but some of the history content has been gathered and republished here.
I began writing ABFTP regularly from the spring of 2010, and things really took off early in 2011 when one of my early essays, The Emperor’s Electric Chair, was named “Post of the Year” by History News Network‘s then-influential Cliopatria Awards. That attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, which was looking for someone to lead a new history blog it was setting up on Smithsonian Magazine‘s popular website. I agreed with them to write a regular weekly post for the new blog, which we called Past Imperfect, and continued to do so (not always weekly, I admit) until the Magazine decided on a change of direction in 2013 and shut down all its blogs.
Since then, I’ve reverted to publishing here. I probably could place my stuff on other sites that would pay me for it, but only at the expense of a certain editorial freedom. The Smithsonian was a fantastic site to work for, and they let me write about anything that interested me, but even they baulked at posts that ran past 4,000 words. I’ve found that the sort of stories that inspire me increasingly demand more space than that.
What all this means is that about two thirds of the material here can also be found on the Smithsonian’s site – including Lost in the Taiga (or as the Smithsonian more effectively if less poetically titled it, For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II.) This essay proved to be by far my most popular to date; thanks in large part to the Smithsonian’s reach, it went viral in a quite incredible way. To date (summer 2016), it’s been read by somewhere north of 20 million people, and inspired almost a quarter of a million Facebook posts, 300,000+ Pins, thousands and thousands of comments and Tweets, two documentaries, and one incredibly beautiful suite of music.
Other posts have gone viral too, and often they’re ones I’d never have predicted would have popular appeal: The Old Man of the Lake, The Loneliest Shop in the World, Tamám Shud, An Abandoned Lifeboat at World’s End, Slavery on the Steppes, and, most recently, The Twopenny Hangover.
To leave footprints in so many places that I didn’t even know I’d been to is a powerful incentive to keep blogging. So I will.
If you would like to contact me, you can do so here.
Coming … eventually