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I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a podcast addict.

The list of podcasts I’m subscribed to currently exceeds eighty. Seriously. Not that I listen to every episode they all put out, and some of them are probably dead or at best wildly infrequent.

But there’s fairly continuous churn. I’m constantly dropping and picking up series as I discover new stuff or lose interest.

Here, then, are my five favourite podcasts that I picked up in 2016. Something on this list for most kinds of listeners and they’re all worth your time, at the very least for sampling purposes.

Crimetown
From the podcast empire that is Gimlet Media, this is by far – by far – my favourite true crime podcast amongst those I’ve tried. The genre exploded in the wake of Serial, of course, and I’ve found one or two other decent ones. But Crimetown is astonishingly good. It’s a hugely ambitious serialised documentary about organised crime, local politics and law enforcement in Providence, Rhode Island; mostly in the 1980s. It’s like a true-life audio version of The Wire. Full of recurring characters, interviews, archive recordings. Unmissable.

Liftoff
The place I get 90+% of my astronomy, space exploration etc news and info from these days. A highly accessible, all-encompassing bi-weekly update on all things space-related. Rockets, satellites, probes, planets, exo-planets, moons, stars and so on. A wonderful example of what podcasts can do: plugging a gap in TV and radio output through the simple mechanism of two guys who love their subject and know quite a bit about it talking about what’s going on and what’s caught their attention. If you like space stuff, of whatever kind, this is for you. (Part of the RelayFM podcast network, which has a heap of other geek-friendly shows you might want to check out).

Talking Politics
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I sampled quite a few politics-related podcasts last year. The only one I’m still listening to regularly is Talking Politics. It’s from Cambridge University, and it’s mostly just a bunch of folks talking about big picture issues (and sometimes specific events) in politics around the world. Inevitably, there’s an emphasis on British and US politics, but they talk about European stuff a lot and get into major developments elsewhere sometimes. Kind of non-partisan in that they’re more interested in understanding what’s going on than pushing specific agendas, but the individual participants do, of course, have opinions so possibly not for you if you’re allergic to the so-called ‘intellectual elite’.

2000AD Thrill-Cast
For those who don’t know, 2000AD is a legendary British sf anthology comic that started up in the late 1970s and – kind of miraculously – is still going. A truly formative experience for a big chunk of us Brits whose interests lay in that direction. Even those who don’t know it might have heard of Judge Dredd, it’s most famous character, right? This is their official podcast, loaded with interviews with famed writers and artists, talk about the comic’s history, key past and current stories and characters etc. etc. If you ever enjoyed 2000AD, you should listen to it. If you’re into comics, you should listen to it. If neither of those things apply to you … maybe not?

Imaginary Worlds
A podcast that looks at the culture surrounding sf and fantasy in all media. Sympathetic, smart and rarely obvious, it’s touched on a crazily wide variety of topics: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar: the Last Airbender, LARPing, D&D, fantasy maps, Godzilla, Batman … the list goes on and on. Invariably just as is interested in the people who consume and support the media as it is in the properties themselves, it’s a weirdly unifying approach to all of geek culture.

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As noted many times here, I’m a hopeless podcast addict. The rest of the world seems to be slowly catching up with my good taste, but frankly there are still too many of you out there who need to get on the bandwagon asap. Therefore I stubbornly keep proselytizing.

I’m not much of a binge watcher (or reader for that matter). I’ve got neither the time nor the inclination to gorge myself on exciting new TV shows. One episode a day is more than enough, and more than I can usually manage, no matter how awesome the show is. For the record, the closest I’ve got to binge-watching anything in years was Netflix’s Daredevil, and that took me about three weeks I think – which is not very close to bingeing at all, really. (Liked it a lot, for the record).

Podcasts are a bit different, though. When I happen across one that’s been around for a while, if I like it I tend to power through the back catalgoue pretty fast. That’s the joy of a medium you can consume while doing other things, I guess. So, here are some well-established podcasts that I discovered long after they launched and therefore was able to binge on. Perhaps there’s something here to tempt you?

I Was There Too. Conversations with supporting or bit-part actors from famous movies. Enormous fun, especially when you know the movie in question well. Lots of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, interesting snippets about acting, nostalgia for the movies of your (my) youth.

You Must Remember This. Still on a movie theme, but now with a hint of a historical flavour. As the podcast itself puts it, it’s about ‘the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century’. Mostly, it’s about the lives of the stars and the culture of their times, with bits of specific film history thrown in. It’s often fascinating stuff. The most recent season was entirely devoted to the Manson Family – their crimes and numerous connections to the film and music scenes of Hollywood. Extremely creepy – even disturbing – in parts, but enormously detailed and interesting.

The British History Podcast. Gliding on over to full on history now, and it doesn’t get much more full on than this. This might be the most bonkers (in a good way) podcast history project I’ve come across. The aim is to recount the entire history of Britain, and as of today we’re at episode episode 173 (173!) and haven’t even reached the 9th Century Viking invasions. Everything you ever wanted to know, and a huge amount of stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to know, about the early history of Britain is right here waiting for your ears to be applied.

The History of English Podcast. And continuing our smooth thematic links, here we’ve got history but now with added linguistics. The effort, research and knowledge that goes into this podcast boggles the mind. It’s the history of the English language, from its very earliest roots in prehistoric Indo-European to the modern day. It’s a mixture of historical narrative with heavy – and sometimes I really do mean heavy – doses of linguistics, phonetics, etymologies. For a writer, it’s utterly fascinating. Just as interesting for a reader, really. It does require your attention, though. The information is conveyed very clearly and carefully, but there’s a lot of it and it’s undeniably sometimes complicated and a bit arcane. But if you like words and language, listening to this is endlessly surprising and revelatory in a ‘So that’s why …’ sort of way.

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I’d probably have a whole other list if I did this next month, but I thought it’d be fun to rattle through my five favourite podcasts right now, off the top of my head. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, so there’s an absolute heap of deserving stuff I’m not mentioning, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And one other thing: these aren’t exactly recommendations. I’m entirely ignoring the question of whether these particular podcasts might appeal to anyone other than me. They appeal to me enormously, for sometimes personal or idiosyncratic reasons, and that’s all it takes to get them on this list … you have been warned …

In no particular order:

Revolutions – a great history podcast that’s working it’s way through a load of the world’s most significant revolutions, one per season. The British Civil War and American Revolution have been covered, now we’re deep into the big daddy of revolutions: the French. Each episode is reasonably short, the tone is accessible and very appealing. Full of fascinating details and wry humour. Great.

Let’s Talk Comics – there’s no particular shortage of interview podcasts relating to comics out there, and I listen to several, at least now and again. This one is frequent, well-produced and delivers pretty meaty interviews with a pretty wide range of people involved in the mainstream comics industry: artists, writers, publishers etc etc. Tends to take a life-story approach, and it’s always interesting to hear how people first got started in the medium, as both reader and professional creators.

Hello Internet – some folks will just not like this one, I suspect. It’s a fine example of the ‘two guys talking’ podcasting school. No specific theme, though many recurring topics, so its appeal depends entirely on how interesting or engaging you find the two guys and the subjects they choose to talk about. Me, I’m interested and engaged. These guys make their livings from their YouTube channels (in fact, they’re both quite famous YouTubers), and I find stuff relating to that fascinating when it comes up. One of them also has a highly distinctive and structured view of the world and of life that you may or may not always agree with (or even find palatable) but it makes for entertaining, thought-provoking and often amusing listening at times.

Wait, What? – my favourite comics-related podcast. I like it so much I pay for it, via Patreon! Another entry in the ‘two guys talking’ category, this time talking very specifically about comics. All sorts of comics. It’s sometimes meandering, sometimes tangential, sometimes doing a deep-dive into stuff I know very little about, but for whatever reason I always enjoy it.

TetZoo – and here we are at the quirkily unique end of the podcasting spectrum. What’s podcasting for if it can’t produce the kind of audio you just would never, ever hear anywhere else? This is a scientific podcast with a focus on tetrapod (i.e. anything with four limbs) zoology. I’ve got a lot of zoology in my educational background, so I can follow most of what’s going on, but fair warning: quite a bit of jargon is involved. However, because this is podcasting rather than radio, there’s also a lot of silly humour, cryptozoology, sf movie talk, running jokes, vaguely disorganised unprofessionalism. I really like it. Once again, it’s ‘two guys talking’, and it’s very like eavesdropping on them just having a rambling chat in the pub.

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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A quick post, prompted by my (very belated) discovery of a blog I really like, which connects to a podcast I also like to jointly deliver a World War II theme.

The blog first: World War II Today is one of those brilliant ideas that only the internet, and blog architecture in particular, makes possible. A day by day chronicle of WWII, presented in a ‘today, 70 years ago’ format with oodles of attention to detail and professionalism. Very cool. Obviously works best if you put it into your rss feed or some other subscription-like service, so you get a daily update. I love both the idea and its implementation. It’s a really remarkable achievement, I think.

The podcast second: The History of WWII Podcast is a staggering undertaking. A biweekly, or thereabouts, podcast delivering an enormously detailed narrative of … well, pretty much everything that happened during WWII. It melts my brain even to consider the amount of time and effort that’s going into this. I don’t even know how long it’s already been running for (I assume years), but it’s on episode 83 or so, and has reached early 1941. Japan and Russia and the US aren’t even really involved yet. This one could run and run. The early episodes are a little bit rough around the edges, but as time goes on they become more and more polished and well-narrated.

If, like me, you like your history, especially with a military flavour, these two are gems. That is all.

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A first for me at the weekend.  My first airshow, that is.  The Scottish National Airshow, at the National Museum of Flight, to be specific.  Been to the Museum before (it’s good, incidentally, should you ever be in the area), but never to the annual Airshow before.

Conclusion?  Airshows are good. But also that the banal predictability of male responses means that some bits are gooder than others. It’s kind of discouraging (but also kind of comforting, in a self-identity sort of way) just how much the psyche of so many average adult males, such as yours truly, responds in the same way as that of a twelve year old to certain stimuli.

We’ll get to the stimuli in question in a minute, but first some admittedly amateurish photos.

A Fairey Swordfish, for starters.  One of the most charismatic old-school aircraft there, imho, complete with (dummy, thankfully) torpedo:

And then these folks, the Breitling Wingwalkers. Watching them really is a bit like being transported back to the 40s or 50s or whenever this whole wingwalking thing was in its heyday:

And in many ways the oddest, vaguely surreal element of the whole day, a genuine Vietnam Vet Huey sitting in a field just outside Edinburgh, beneath by then rather ominous skies, waiting to do its thing:

It’s earned its retirement, that helicopter, since it apparently survived over 100 flights and well over 500 combat hours in Vietnam.

You can see much, much better photos of the Airshow than mine, of all these and many more aircraft, over here, by the way.

I don’t know how many fly-bys and displays there were in all – fifteen or twenty, probably – and pretty much all of them were in one way or another interesting, beautiful, cool.  Those wingwalkers, for instance (apologies in advance for mildly shaky, even more amateurish filming):

I mean, that’s a fairly remarkable way to spend your time, don’t you think? Standing on top of a biplane doing a loop. And the noise is kind of appealing, too. But noise, it turns out, is at the heart of an Airshow’s ability to make me twelve again. The wingwalkers, and the historical aircraft all appeal to the heart, or the mind, and are great to see, but if you want to hit a man-boy in the gut and put a big, stupid grin on his face you let loose the dragons (volume needs to be up to 11 to hint at the gut-punching effect for this next clip):

Honestly, when that Eurofighter was doing its thing, it was just like having a dragon set loose in the sky above you. I kept thinking of Smaug. It made every other plane in the show – no matter how cool, how interesting, how beautiful – seem like a housefly, or a droning bee, by comparison.

And apart from raw power, what else makes little boys, however old, stand still and take heed? War, of course. Cultural connections to war movies, and a sound that’s instantly familiar, even though I’d never heard it before in real life: that of a Huey taking off and chuddering away over the fields. The mood music on this one’s not mine, by the way; inflicted on us by the Airshow organisers:

I was struck by how powerfully evoactive that sight, and that sound were, in ways that none of the many WWII era aircraft on show could match.  It occured to me that, even though I’m British, the Huey’s intrinsically and powerfully sumbolic of its entire war in a way that not even the Spitfire is of WWII for me.  The sight and sound of a Huey calls up every film or documentary I’ve ever seen about Vietnam, as immediately and simply as if a button has been pushed.

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The Weather Gods have smiled upon us of late.  Or they’ve been trying to cook us in our own skins.  One or the other.  Either way: sunny; hot.

Hence, outings have been made.  Stuff has been done, under the sun.

One such bit of stuff was a Knights’ Tourney at Linlithgow Palace.  That, I’m afraid, means I have photos (not very good ones, me being me, but never mind that).

It’s a fine setting for a joust:

And the knights looked the part. Mostly, anyway; they would insist on taking their helmets off, which kind of diminished the effect if you ask me. I suspect it was an audience identification thing, much like that which requires Spider-Man and Iron Man to continuously unmask in their movies, whether it makes sense or not. Equally possible, I suppose, is that on such a hot day their skulls would be broiled if they stayed helmeted.

Anyhow, they charged at each other, as expected:

and managed to hit something more often than not.

And, though you’ll probably struggle to make it out in this photo, they caught rings chucked into the air on the end of their lances. Which was nice.

All in all, a pleasant time, so well done Weather Gods, well done Linlithgow Palace, well done Knights of Royal England.

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Welcome to 2013, everybody. Here’s hoping the year treats us all gently.

I’m still in indolent holiday mode, so I’m easing myself back into the posting habit with a fascinating curiosity for Moving Pictures on a Friday.

Were our distant ancestors who put their marks on the walls of the Lascaux caves and elsewhere 17,000+ years ago attempting something very, very clever? Specifically, were they trying to depict motion in static images?

This little film, which separates and then connects superimposed or juxtaposed cave paintings, looks pretty convincing to me. Further details are in the short New Scientist article where I found the film, but it boils down to this: cavemen may well have been pretty sophisticated and imaginative illustrators.

Makes them feel very close, somehow; as if what was happening inside their heads really was very much like what’s happening inside ours, in the ways that matter. It’s odd snippets of insight and information like this that make history – or, in this case, prehistory – magical to me.

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I’m a curmudgeon, so the profusion of Christmassy stuff that starts to pop up everywhere around the end of October/start of November turns me into a grumpy old man. But now it’s December, so as far as I’m concerned we’re all allowed to start getting Christmassy. Every year, around now, a market and funfair-type stuff pops up in the middle of Edinburgh, around the base of the Scott Monument. A visit is the official start of my personal ‘gearing-up-for-Xmas’ process.

Eat roasted chestnuts (nice but, of course, horribly overpriced).

Admire the Monument.  Is it the most gothically substantial monument to a writer ever erected?  Pleases me to live in a city that – not now, but once open a time – thought a writer could be worthy of such gargantuan commemoration.  (Though it’s true that the importance of Sir Walter Scott to Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s history goes rather beyond his literary contributions).

Note, in passing, that the Monument does not appear in The Edinburgh Dead because it wasn’t built until the 1840s, more than a decade after the year that novel’s set.  But Princes Street, beside which it stands, does, and the man himself makes a fleeting appearance.  In fact, I found a place for him in the book through one of the funnest little facts I uncovered in the course of research: turns out, he was a supportive patron of the legendary American bird artist John James Audubon, who – I never knew this before research – was in Scotland around the time of The Edinburgh Dead.  There was an exhibition of Audubon’s painting at a big gallery just a stone’s throw from where the Scott Monument now stands; in the novel, all the city’s great and good are at that exhibition, including the august Sir Walter Scott.

Gaze up at the wheel, and ponder a ride.

Jump on wheel, rotate up, and get a view of the city that’s usually not there for the getting: across the lofty shoulders of the Scott Monument, looking down and to the East.

That gandiose slab of stone pretending to be a building in the middle distance is the Balmoral Hotel, by the way.  Traditionally – I guess it might still be true, though I don’t know – the big clock you can just about make out up on its tower was deliberately set just a little bit fast, so that Edinburgh’s industrious folk would not be late for their appointments.

And, in departing, suitably freshened by the chill air, reflect on one final thought: Edinburgh + a cold clear winter’s day = some of the finest light to be had anywhere in the world.

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My undoubtedly fruitless quest to convince the world that podcasts are the future of entertainment, education and quite possibly all human interaction continues, with an all-history extra-full instalment.

History is the cream on the cake of my life.  Or something like that.  It’s a source of fascination, pleasure, thought-provocation, endless and limitless in its capacity to pass my time in a way that feels at least a little bit worthwhile.  I sincerely believe it’s an immensely fertile preoccupation for any writer, or wannabe writer, of speculative fiction in general and fantasy in particular.  There’s nothing like a few history podcasts to remind you that the real world has produced more strangeness, wonder, complexity and subtlety of event than any writer of the fantastic ever dreamed up.

So I thought I’d wheel out the creme de la creme, with some examples of recent history podcasts that tickled my fancy.

Annoyingly, I can’t find any easy way of linking to individual episodes for your downloading pleasure, so I’m going to be pointing the way to looong lists of episodes here, with some specific directions for where to find whatever I’m talking about in particular.  But that’s no bad thing, to be honest, because the podcasts in question offer rich, rich pickings for anyone inclined to some self-guided browsing.

First up: In Our Time, which I think I’ve mentioned here before, long ago.  It’s a BBC radio production, with every episode podcasted after broadcast.  It’s a fast-paced but serious exploration by academics of one topic per episode – anything from scientific theories to history to philosophy to literature.  That might sound a bit off-putting, but in the main it’s kept pretty accessible and informative.  Every so often, it delivers an eye-opening, entertaining introduction to something I’ve never heard of, never thought about, never cared about; you can’t ask for much more than that.

You can find the 43 most recent episodes right here, and there’s a ton of good listening there.  On the history side, a couple that particularly interested me, starting with Hadrian’s Wall, on July 12th.  Britain’s biggest and most dramatic ancient monument (makes Stonehenge look like a dinky little set of stone dominoes, really), and a lasting testament to the deep, deep roots of Anglo-Scottish … tension, should we call it?

And a bit more downward scrolling (passing along the way King Solomon, the Trojan War and Marco Polo, all of which are quite interesting in one way or another) will get you to Clausewitz’s On War, at May 17th, which I liked because I’d heard of the man and his book often enough, without ever knowing anything much about it.  This episode fixed that, although – as is sometimes the case – it left me wanting to know a good deal more.

But don’t let my picks guide your listening: there’s something there for almost anyone, I’d have thought.

Second up: Ideas, which is kind of, sort of, like a Canadian version of In Our Time, except that it’s done as more straightforward documentaries/interviews/think pieces.  Shares the characteristic of jumping around all over the map of human thought and interest, though, and therefore now and again throws up nice little historical items.

Again, list of recent podcasts is to be found here, and a modest little bit of scrolling will get you to three episodes called The Sword Brothers, Parts 1, 2 and 3, which deal with, in order, The Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights.

Just amazing: religiously inspired warriors founding and defending hospitals for pilgrims, crusading, terrorising – in the case of the Teutonic Knights – huge areas.  Full of fascinating details – especially part 3 for me, because I knew least about the Teutonic Knights before listening – and a great introduction to the crusading Orders in general.  A thing I never knew, and which I thought was cool: one of those three knightly orders survived all the way through to the present day, and still exists, more or less.  Crazy thing, history.

Third up: The Norman Centuries.  Another one I think I might have mentioned here before, but if so I can’t resist revisiting.  Everyone who takes an interest in history tends to acquire a particular affection for or interest in specific little bits of it, odd little corners of the human past that for one reason or another seem especially interesting.   For me, it’s the Byzantine Empire, and indirectly its competitors/opponents/allies.  Of all those competitors, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily is probably the most unusual, romantic and perhaps the least generally known.

While William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, was busy conquering England in the 11th century, other of his ambitious compatriots were doing the same to southern Italy.  The end result was a multi-cultural Kingdom that lasted far longer than it had any right to and during its lifetime challenged, sometimes humbled and often deeply alarmed the greatest powers of the age: the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

This is done as straightforward, relatively brief talks that build up into an extended narrative history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily from its origins to (presumably, because they haven’t got there yet) its end.  Helpfully, they appear in chronological order at that link, so you can start at the top and work your way down.  It’s easy listening, and really is an amazing tale of what a few well-armed and determined men could achieve at that time in history, if they had the bloody-minded ambition to fight for what they wanted.

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