Ask Mike


I’m acutely aware that another period of several months has passed since I last posted an update on A Blast from the Past. Truth is, I have a major book project in the works – but I am still working on numerous blog posts, some of which will begin appearing here very soon.

In the meantime, though, I’ve not been entirely idle. I’ve begun haunting AskHistorians, one of the few really credible and useful Reddit sites – a strictly moderated forum where users can and do post questions and get answers to a stunningly wide variety of queries from an equally wide variety of experts. The sort of questions that crop up on this subreddit say quite a lot about what really intrigues and engages the average reader of history – as opposed to, say, the typical university academic. And it won’t surprise you too much to know that the questions that have been engaging my attention concern very much the same sorts of topics that would make great posts for this blog. The attraction of dealing with them at AskHistorians, rather than here, is that it’s a far less formal forum – I can pick and choose which subjects to tackle, and then answer questions more quickly and, if I’m honest, with writing that’s several degrees less demandingly structured, phrased and thought through than I’d normally consider needful here.

To give you a taster of these topics – and hopefully help to keep you reading while I’m at work elsewhere – I’m going to post a sample of the most self-contained, complete responses on a new page on this blog, Ask Mike. You can see a tab linking to it at the top of the page.

Do take a look. I plan to update the page several times a month – the most recent responses will appear at the top.

The longest prison sentences ever served: redux

Prison walls

Who served out the longest prison sentence known to history? My extensive investigation – begun in 2010 but now comprehensively updated – answers that question [it’s Charles Fossard, of Australia, with an all-but-incomprehensible 70 years, 303 days]. It also takes a look at some of Fossard’s unwitting and unwilling rivals, and tries to go inside the cells, to hear from the prisoners themselves. Their stories are often brutal, occasionally pathetic, but always surprisingly compelling.

The full story – which includes numerous case studies, a state-by-state listing of the longest sentences served everywhere from Alabama to Wisconsin, a look at record stretches from elsewhere, some notes on extraordinary cases of protracted solitary confinement, and a listing of all 16 known cases of men who spent in excess of 60 years behind bars – can be read here.


A little bit of background: Envoi

Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

My parting shot, in the sidebar to this blog, is a quote from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer and librarian: “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.” This, to me, is a rather beautiful sentiment, and even hopeful. However, while it’s how Borges’s words are usually presented in compilations of quotations, and it turns them into something that can stand alone, it’s loosely translated. In fairness to the poet’s memory, here is the whole of his ‘Poem of the Gifts’ (1958), with the original words in their proper context. The translation is by Alastair Reid, and the poem is one that every bibliophile should know. It addresses the progressive blindness that began to afflict Borges shortly after his appointment as director of the National Library of Argentina in succession to Paul Groussac – who, strangely, was also blind. Continue reading