As long time readers know, I spent most of my 20s training to be a historian. In fact it was what I was certain I wanted to do since High School. And then right about my mid-20s I realized somehow it just didn’t fit. Or wouldn’t fit for me. But that was a professional decision. History remained my guiding passion and my prism for much of my understanding of the world. Which brings me to the subject of history podcasts. I’m not a big podcast guy — despite having my own podcast. This is probably because I’ve been blessed for many years with a commute that is only a few blocks. So I’m not a huge podcast listener, though I’ve listened to more since the pandemic. But when I find one I like — really always a history podcast — well, I really go all in.
Early in the pandemic I started listening to something called the History of Singapore podcast. Unfortunately, it only seemed to run for a single season. But I loved it. In addition to the history of Singapore being fascinating and compelling in itself the show provided a fascinating perspective on the decolonization movements of the mid-20th century.
Then sometime last year I discovered The British History podcast. And man, it is so good I cannot say enough good things about it. It starts literally in prehistory and then navigates through the history of the whole island of Britain. It’s currently right around the Norman Conquest and it’s been running for I think about a decade — almost 400 episodes.
Now, did I say I love this podcast? Well, I do. It’s put together by a guy named Jamie Jeffers. Jeffers isn’t a historian — or rather, he’s not trained as one. He’s a former lawyer. He quit lawyering to do the podcast. One of my guiding principles in journalism is that the stories you tell should be interesting. In fact, let’s up that. They should be entertaining. Where possible it should be fun. We are a story-telling species. We can do statistics and social sciences and all the rest. But our deepest paths of understanding are through stories. And stories have characters.
What I like so much about Jeffers’ work is that it’s just wildly addictive and entertaining while also being very sophisticated as history. Much of the spine of Jeffers’ narrative is political history — kings, battles, dynasties, invasions. But he’s no less focused on the social and cultural history of the different eras he’s covered to date. He’s deep into the historiography and works through a lot of the primary sources himself. He also gets deep into the recent contributions of archeology to our understanding of the British past. And at various points in the show’s history he’s done interviews either with historians of the field or archeologists who’ve worked on some recent big finds.
One thing I particularly like is something that I often look for — especially because I tend to be most interested in eras in which the surviving sources are relatively scarce or challenging. Really gifted historians can work a discussion of the challenges and lacunae of the sources into the narrative itself. That can really be a mess. But some can pull it off. And he does.
But as much as anything he’s just a very gifted story teller. And like I said, we’re a story-telling species. He mixes in some popular culture and a leavening of humor. But never so much as to get grating or distracting from the work at hand. I’m not listening for a stand up routine. I want to go deeper into the foreign worlds of a past I don’t know. But if you can manage that balance — and he does — it’s really kind of magic.
So all this is for me to tell you you should check out the British History Podcast. But more specifically I’m telling you this because a few weeks ago I did a special episode of my podcast in which I did a lengthy interview with Jeffers’ and his producer/wife (she goes by “Zee”) in which I started by gushing a bit and then talked to them about the history of Britain, how they put together the podcast and something we could share notes on, which is running an independent media operation. If you’re a regular listener to The Josh Marshall Podcast you may already have heard it. But if not you can listen to it here.