5 ways to get your culture on at home

From building your own museum to top notch sofa friendly courses – we’ve got you covered

Right now the vast majority of us are in self isolation and social distancing ourselves from others. But just because you can’t leave your house and visit a museum, gallery or class, doesn’t mean that you can’t get your culture on!

In fact, the cultural world is at your fingertips and you can access it all from your sofa. Learn a new skill, uncover archives and explore the worlds best museums. How? Well to get you started we’ve popped together 5 of the best ways to get your cultural fix right now

1.Build your own museum

Yes. You read that right. Your own museum.

Art Steps is a really easy to use app (it’s free for those wondering) that not only allows you to create your own museum but also to explore other self made galleries from around the world.

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Example of an ArtSteps digital exhibition. Pot plants optional!

I stumbled across the app about a year ago when I used it to create an online museum of my work for a job interview (why yes I am that extra, thank you for asking) and I’ve been hooked ever since.

It’s kind of like if museum nerdom and sandbox gaming had a baby. What I’m saying is the possibilities are endless.

You can create anything you want. An exhibition you’ve always dreamt of, a retrospective you missed (or let’s be real, one you saw but kind of knew could be better). Hell, you could even create an online museum for a loved one. Stuffed full of their favourite artwork or goodies from a much thumbed through era, all for them to enjoy from the comfort of their sofa. The perfect pandemic gift.

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Just to give you an idea of the ArtSteps interface – seriously it is stupidly easy to use

2.Google Arts and Culture 

Look I know it might seem obvious, but I swear, Google Arts and Culture is so severely underrated it is ridiculous.

From street view tours of the worlds most incredible museum galleries, to exploring endless retrospectives of different work and diving into high res art work. You could spend the whole isolation period on this site and still never get bored. Seriously there are over 500 art institutions to digitally walk around – and that’s just the art galleries!

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Sure it might look like I’m sat on my broken sofa in London, but I’m actually on a private tour of the Musee Dorsay

But the real jewel in the Google Arts and Culture crown has to be it’s archives collections.

Many were created to tie in with a major anniversary of history week and contain the highlights of museum digitised archives and collections from across the world, along with specially made videos.

It’s an ideal way to really delve into a subject matter and not only read about it, but really get hands on (admittedly through a screen, but still, it’s bloody fantastic!)

Here are some of my favourite collections:

3.Delve into the archives

Speaking of archives, one of the many (many) great things the internet has given us is access to archives from across the globe. Now admittedly you used to have to order most archive resources but that’s not the case now.

This is 2020 and you better bet your bottom dollar that top quality shit is digitised.

If you’ve never tried out accessing archive records, now is a great time to learn how. After you’ve used Google Arts and Culture to get a feel of how to use archived resources, check out The National Archives and start searching for whatever takes your fancy.

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Study like a boss

They have over 32 million records from 1000 years of history, with some of that digitised (or described). 

You could test out archive digging by searching for your family history, an area of local history you’ve always been interested in or something more broad, like passenger lists from The Titanic or military records.

If you’re stuck, check out National Archive Discovery, which has some great archive collections, or their always fantastic blog, for inspiration.

4.Visit your local library at home 

Most libraries are now shut, but you can still borrow e-books, audio books and sometimes even magazines from the comfort of your sofa.

If you visit you’re local libraries website, then they’ll probably have a link to an online library like RBdigital, BorrowBox or Libby.

All you need to do is pop in your library card details and as if by magic you can download all the literary gems you might like to your phone or tablet.

Plus it’s all for free! 

Now, as with any library, there aren’t infinite amount of books, so there may be a waiting list for what you initially want, but it’s also a great chance to explore types of books that you might not normally read.

Because as the old adage goes:

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5.Learn!

Everyday is school day, even when the schools are closed and even when you haven’t been to school in like…er, actually lets not get into how long it’s been since I graduated.

One of the best ways to spend isolation has got to be by learning a new skill or immersing yourself into an era of history you’ve always wanted to know more about.

My personal favourite place for online courses is Future Learn, which has some amazing free courses (as well as many that you need to pay for access to) 

They’re put together by leading academics and universities, so there can be no quibbles over their quality. I’ve done their  Tudor History course, which I can definitely recommend (it takes place over six weeks with five hours a weeks work). Oh and they even have a course on Covid-19, so you can become an expert and dispel all that BS you find on WhatsApp and Facebook.

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Oh did I mention Suzanna Lipscombe teaches the Tudor History course?

The Open University also has over 1000 free courses that you can choose from. With a ton of amazing introductory history courses, as well as some for languages. Courses vary in length from one hour all the way up to thirty. So you can find something to fit whatever free time you have right now.

Plus the courses give you a certificate at the end, which is a handy way for you to show off all that new knowledge you’ve learnt. 

I don’t know about you but I’m really excited to put all this into action, escape my sofa and explore a world of knowledge. 

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Me when isolation ends

Death Omens: A magical mystery tour through weird British history

Britain is a very superstitious little island. Every single country and county has different superstitious beliefs passed down from families, sometimes for generations.

My Nan would tell me that seeing a solitary magpie would mean bad luck was coming. There is even a weirdly jolly if somewhat morbid rhyme for it:

“One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold

Seven for a secret,

never to be told.”

So, if I see one lone magpie I have to follow it until I find another one, or I am convinced I’ll have bad luck (seriously, I once spent an hour hunting for a second magpie. The fear is real) In some parts of the UK, instead of following the magpie, you salute it (which tbh  feels like the laziest form of meaningless superstition).

So whats the deal with magpies? Well, the magpie has long been associated with death and bad luck in the UK as far back as the 16th century, with some version of the rhyme being almost as old.

Historically speaking, death was a much more common occurrence before the age of medicine and more understanding around the mechanics of our own biology, so people looked to nature for ways of foreshadowing coming troubles. Which gave birth to many of the superstitions we still have today.

This continued to be backed up through the centuries, particularly when we hit the Victorian era, thanks to the their obsession with the occult. In fact almost everywhere you go in the UK, you’ll find a new or slightly different centuries old death superstition.

So lets embark together on a magical mystery tour of Britain’s fascination (and fear) of death and the symbols that may just herald its arrival…. starting with: 

1. Birds

There’s so many ways death can announce itself but none more so than birds!

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Once more, the good old magpie crops up here, with the belief that if a magpie taps on your window that’s a sure sign death is on the way. The bird is trying to warn you.

And much like my Nan, the Victorians were particularly superstitious about magpies, with the belief that seeing one solitary magpie is a very bad omen, gaining a lot of traction in this era.

There’s also the belief that hearing an owl screech three times or landing on your bedpost meant death was going to pay a visit.

And of course, crows have long been known as a deathly omen, linked to witchcraft and satanism since the Medieval age.

In fact both owls and crows are closely associated with death in Celtic folklore often being ambassadors for the gods of death and the underworld.

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So if you see this….RUN

And it’s not just live birds that will get you. One old wives tales, which came about during the 16th century’s outbreak of witch trials, warned that if a bird happens to fly into your window/wall and die, then thats a very good indication that you can expect a  fatality within the week.

2. Animals

Ah, man’s best friend. Because of dogs supposedly close connection to humans, it was thought that they could sense trouble coming for their owners. With one belief citing that if a dog continued to howl by your bedroom window at night you could expect to die pretty immanently.

But not all dogs are friendly in folklore though (well, if you count friendly as predicting your death…)

In Wales there’s the legend that if you see Cwn Annwn, a white dog with glowing red eyes the size of a calf, then you’re predicted to die within a matter of days. These dogs are said to belong to Gwyn ap Nud, Lord of the Underworld. You can hear their bark before you see them, and terrifyingly they get quieter the closer they get to you.

Meanwhile, over in Scotland, they aren’t fond of black sheep or any kind of black animal. The colour black has been associated with Satan by them since the 15th century. The birth of a black lamb would foretell misfortune and bereavements, and if two lambs with black faces were born then you’d be said to lose your flock by the end of lambing season.

Black cats are good or bad luck depending on which part of the UK you’re in. Obviously, Scotland believed a black cat crossing your path was a sure sign death was coming to someone in your family. And, black cats were associated with witchcraft, so were seen as a very bad omen.

This kind of superstition is sadly still prevalent today, with black cats actually being the least likely to be adopted from rescue shelters.

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Which makes no sense, because Salem taught us that black cats are the best

3. Household Items

During the medieval era, it was a tradition that brooms shouldn’t be used during the month of May. Because if you did use a broom, then you were inviting death into your home. Similarly, if your broom fell over of its own accord, then that meant death announced itself to your household. So basically don’t clean.

Umbrellas were also frowned upon. With the Victorians believing that umbrellas being opened inside the house meant a member of the culprit’s family would be murdered! This is an interesting one in that it spread across the western world and to this day, its commonly seen as a sign of bad luck to open a brolly indoors (even if most people don’t know why/how its bad luck)

And if you thought that you could escape death omens when sleeping..think again.

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To be fair, sleep hasn’t been safe for a while

4.Dreams and Doubles

Dreams were seen as a precursor and warning of impending bad luck or a bereavement. If, in your dream you saw your doppelgänger, the devil or a solitary crow this meant death was coming for you. They made it personal.

The double as a death omen has been around for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth I was rumoured to have seen her doppelgänger reclining in her bed looking pale and lifeless a few days before her own passing!

In Celtic folklore there’s a legend of a fairy creature known as a ‘Changeling’ who should steal children and replaced them with doubles who became sickly and died within days. This explanation meant parents could hold on to the belief their children were alive with the fairies somewhere.

Dante Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, 1864
Dante Rosetti’s doppelganger masterpiece, How They Met Themselves, 1864

5. Funeral Processions

As you’ve probably noticed, the Victorians feature heavily in the world of folklore and death omens. They had a curiosity around death and the supernatural. With one popular and very much believed death omen was around funeral processions.

If you saw a real life funeral procession going on you should not cross paths in front of it or you risked inviting death into your family.

There was also the belief that if you saw a ghostly funeral procession this foreshadowed the end of your life. So, to keep yourself safe you had to turn and walk away from the procession, disrespect be damned!

There was also the legend of Corpse Candles, flickering lights that seemed to hover. These were seen by folks from their window or out walking. They were said to lead the souls of the dead to their resting place. With corpse candles, heralding an oncoming bereavement. And if you were very unlucky, the corpse candles would come towards your house, foreshadowing a death in the household.

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An example of the Corpse Candle.

It’s funny to think of how we dismiss these old omens nowadays. This has come with more of an understanding of how our bodies work and fighting back against many diseases that today we don’t even register but used to kill in great numbers.

There’s still a few that are held onto which have been passed down in families, inexplicably followed almost automatically. We don’t want to give up on these small beliefs and our desire to understand the unknown… and why should we?

This was interesting, where can I find out more? I thoroughly recommend the book A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey, there’s a chapter around folklore in Death & Burial, but the entire thing is a fascinating read.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Mother of Modern Tarot: Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith was a gifted artist who had a love of the occult. She illustrated the worlds best known tarot cards, as well as books by Bram Stoker, WB Yeats AND she contributed artworks for the women’s suffrage movement!

And yet, her works are often overlooked; she even gets omitted from her own tarot.

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Pamela… WHAT A BABE!

A Well Travelled Lady!

Pamela (known as Pixie to her mates) was born in Pimlico in 1878, her family then moved to Manchester before heading to Kingston, Jamaica when she was 10.

Pixie became engrossed in Jamaican culture and folklore, something that would influence her work throughout her career, she even wrote and illustrated a book of Jamaican folk tales, called Annancy that’s still in print today!

In 1893 her family moved to Brooklyn and Pixie went to the very fancy Avant Garde Pratt institute to study art and illustration.

Sadly she had horrific health issues throughout her three years there and thus never graduated.

BUT Pixie was a ridiculously talented student; even without a degree she immediately started getting paid work as an illustrator (which as any one who has ever done art degree will tell you, is stupidly impressive!)

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You betta weeeeerk!

One of Pixies first paid gigs was working with Bram Stoker (Y’know that goth bloke who wrote Dracula)

This proved to be a really enriched and satisfying partnership, with Pixie illustrationshis book on famed Shakespearian actress Ellen Terry and then his final book The Lair of the White Worm.

Pixie had a knack of partnering her work up with equally amazing writers; WB Yeats (imaginatively titled) The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats

A Change of Scenery

Sadly Pixie’s beloved mother passed away in 1896 and needing a change Pixie joined a travelling theatre group as a set designer (as you do)

This period really influenced her artwork with grand theatrics, bold prints and colours galore.

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Everyone loves a lovvie!

While doing all these varied projects our girl still found time to support women’s suffrage.

She provided artwork to the cause in America, coming up with bold and simple designs that got the message across.

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One of Pamela’s Suffrage Artworks

Her friendship with Bram Stoker and W B Yeats led Pixie to becoming a member of the occult loving group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1901.

The group, made famous by Alistair Crawley, had a fascination for all things occult, supernatural and weird.

And it’s this world of all things creepy that would influence Pixie in her most famous work!

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Oooooooh SPOOKY!

The Raider Waite Smith Tarot

Arthur Edward Waite was a fellow member of Golden Dawn and he took an interest in Pixie’s artwork; see he wanted to created a new tarot deck that would help bring tarot into the mainstream; he reckoned Pixie was the artist for the job!

Quick explanation of what tarot is for those of you unfamiliar: Tarot cards are a deck of usually 78 individual cards used for foretelling and insight. You have the main arcana made up of 22 cards and a set of minor arcana split between wands, swords, pentacles and cups. Each card has a different meaning and by grouping cards selected at random you can compose a story or reading for yourself or another person.

ANYWAY!

Pixie was given free reign to re vamp tarot and she really sunk her teeth into it.

She came up with a set of theatrical cards that really refined each one’s individual meaning. The most astonishing feat is Pixie was able to create the entire deck, almost 80 individual pieces of art in just 6 months!

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The Waite-Smith Tarot. All of these designs are from Pixie

Waite wrote a book to accompany the set and it was first published in 1909 by publishing house Rider.

The deck went on to become the most popular and recognised tarot deck in the world, it’s just referred to usually as the Rider Waite Tarot, often omitting Pixies name.

WHICH IS A FUCKING TRAVESTY!

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FUCKING FUMING BABES!

As so many of these stories do, Pixie’s had a bit of a shit ending. She moved to Cornwall and died in obscurity as a pauper in 1951.

And yet, in such a short space of time Pixie had an incredibly diverse and interesting career that spanned across multiple art forms.

It’s a travesty that she isn’t recognised for her work, particularly with bringing tarot into the mainstream and giving the cards new life.

That was interesting, how can I find out more?

Well if you fancy reading some of Pamela’s work her storybook Annancy Stories is still in print. And if tarot has peaked your interest Macus Katz and Tali Goodwin have written an interesting guide on the Waite Smith Tarot that includes more of Pamela’s history and influences.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The rock & roll pioneer we forgot

Queer muscian, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is FINALLY getting her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and you know what?

IT’S ABOUT BLOODY TIME!

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This lady is a damn queen! 

Rosetta was a singer/songwriter who rose to fame in the 30’s and 40’s by fusing gospel with seriously funky rhythms; helping give birth to Rock & Roll.

Sadly her contribution often gets forgotten by mainstream audiences.

Some critics argue this is due to her music not being solely rock & roll as it fused gospel with it…and totally not because she was a black woman…

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no comment

But I would argue that there is tons of irrefutable evidence that Rosetta’s pioneering sound, left its mark on future groundbreaking musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others.

So lets give the nice lady her due and discover how Rosetta came to forge rock & roll!

In the beginning, there was Rosetta

Rosetta was born in 1915 Arkansas, close to the Mississippi. She was singing gospel music AND learning to play the guitar by the age of 4 (basically a born over achiever)

Realising her daughter had a heck of a talent Rosetta’s mother took her to Chicago to join the evangelical Church of God in Christ ( a church famed for it’s musicians) when she was 6 years old.

Rosetta was in heaven! Here she could play music everyday; honing her skills as a singer and experimenting with electric guitars.

It was this electric experimentation that led to Rosetta developing distortion techniques that gave birth to Blues Rock.

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Rosetta doing her thing!

Rosetta Births Rock & Roll 

When Rosetta was 23 she left the church behind to break out into showbiz and was quickly signed up by Decca Records, where she recorded her ridiculously unique blend of gospel, sensuality and infectiously melodic guitar.

It was the uniqueness made Rosetta into one of the 30’s and 40;s most popular club acts.

Her gospel sound in a seedy cabaret setting was scandalous at the time. This meant that Rosetta was snubbed by religious circles who thought her music evil and her mere act of playing guitar a sin.

Rosetta didn’t care. 

In fact she didn’t care so much that in 1944 she recorded what many music aficionados now believe to be the first Rock & Roll song.

Strange Things Happening Everyday, charted at number 2 in the R&B Chart(then known as the Race Chart) and you can hear how their guitar and piano arrangement influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard and basically anyone who picked up a guitar after her.

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YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN! 

The Later Years and Lady Love

In the late 40’s Rosetta met fellow gospel singer and rumored lover Marie Knight.

The ladies took their act on tour…which again proved to be controversial (so nothing new for Rosetta…) see two women touring alone with no men (!) was unheard of, not matter how ideal it sounds.

Sadly this wonderful partnership didn’t last. During one gig poor Marie’s mother and two small children were killed in a house fire.

Marie was devastated and moved away from Rosetta and started focusing on her solo music.

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Rosetta and Marie in happier times

After she and Marie parted ways Rosetta hatched an amazing plan.

She’d have a public wedding (sadly to an arsehole of a bloke -which we will get to-) and a concert afterwards; obvs charging tickets for the whole

It all took place in the Griffith stadium in Washington D.C and it was packed to the gills! For those who couldn’t make the day, a recording was released pretty much immediately.

Though the publicity was huge, it didn;’t last for long. Mainly becuase Rosetta’s new husband, Russel Morrison terribly mismanaged her career.

Oh yeah and he was also a cheating bellend. Nice one Russ.

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Fucking Russ

Rosetta moves the fuck on

By this time, Rosetta was due a revamp.

Blues legend Muddy Waters did an incredible tour with Rosetta in the mid 1960’s and they performed a gig in Manchester at a disused railway station.

The concert could have been a disaster though as the heavens opened when it was meant to start.

Rosetta was not having that though. She changed her opening number to ‘Didn’t it Rain?’ arriving on the platform by horse and carriage while it was pissing it down and plugging her guitar in with no worries about it electrocuting her live on stage.

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Rossetta, aged 47, giving no fucks about deadly electrics

After an entrance like that…Rosetta obviously blew everyone away

Not only that, but she influenced a whole new heap of musicians who’d been in attendance, including Morissey, a couple members of Joy Division and some of the Buzzcocks….so you know, barely anyone important…

The groundbreaking gig was broadcast on UK TV and was cited by critics as a significant cultural event…E246F1F3-590C-466F-A93B-BEC80D898980

You can view her incredible performance here. Try watching this without bouncing around in your seat. Her energy is just incredible!

She plays an amazing guitar solo, then quips with the audience… Pretty good for a woman ain’t it? UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE MILLENIUM!

Rosetta’s Recognition

In the early 1970’s Rosetta had a stroke that stopped her from performing, and a few years later she had her leg amputated because of issues with diabetes.

Rosetta never really recovered from this and she passed away in 973 after suffering another stroke at the age of 58. She was just about to get back in the recording studio.

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Same 😭

Heartbreakingly Rosetta was buried without a gravestone, because her family just couldn’t afford one and her funeral was sparsely attended.

Rosetta remained an obscure figure until the turn of the century when her music was rediscovered.

In 2007 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and a concert was held in 2008 to raise money to get Rosetta a gravestone.

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A memorial Rosetta deserved

In 2008 January 11th was declared ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day’ by the State Governor of Pennsylvania; she was finally getting recognition she so richly deserved.

Then on December 27th 2017 Rosetta was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influencer.

It’s 40+ years late, but they got there eventually, we wouldn’t have rock n blues without this amazing woman. wooohoooo

Rosetta had the most incredible voice. It’s hard describing it if you’ve not heard her (and seriously we encourage you to seek her out if you haven’t) but her voice is just so joyful and amazingly rich and sumptuous, AND it has magical healing powers. No joke!

What I love about her songs are the underlying message of hope and cheer, she’s telling us ‘Yeah stuff is difficult and a bit shit, but we are gunna carry on anyway and make the fucking best of it!’ So she’s my go to for days I need a good kick up the arse.

This was interesting where can I find out more?

There’s a wonderful documentary on Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Mick Csaky on Youtube, we highly recommend it. https://youtu.be/FKK_EQ4pj9A

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Lore of Murderous Mermaids

Society has been obsessed with these fancy fish ladies for thousands of years, and we’re going to look at some of the legends that gave birth to these aquatic marvels.

Just incase you haven’t come across The Little Mermaid and its ilk; what is a mermaid? Well, a mermaid is a creature with the top half of a lady and the bottom half of a big ole fish. The modern name for mermaid comes from the old English Mer, meaning sea and Maid, meaning a young lady; thus mermaid (which way sounds better than ‘sea-young lady’)

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Lookin’ Good! Via Giphy

Nowadays one thinks of mermaids as pretty, nice sea folk, with amazing hair, a talent for singing and an adorable habit for falling in love with random Princes. Well… that is not the case, Disney lied to you.

Historically mermaids were associated with bad omens, shipwrecks and of course:

DEATH BY MUCH BLOODY VIOLENCE.

So, let’s start things off by looking at the concept of merfolk as deities.

The Ancient Babylonians had a mergod called Era who was depicted as half man, half fish. He was the god of the sea (handy that being part fish and all) the Syrians decided to copy the Babylonians and created their own merged, Derketo. 

Derketo was depicted in the more traditional way of top half of a lady and bottom half of a fish. This idea was in turn nicked by the Ancient Greeks, who came up with the idea of Sirens. 

Siren’s in Greek mythology often get cited as a starting point for the more recognisable mermaid mythology.

Half female, half bird creatures, they morphed into sexy fish fancies, luring sailors to their death on the rocks by singing sweet songs and flashing their knockers.

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The Fisherman and the Syren, by Frederic Leighton, c. 1856–1858. Via Wikipedia

Now for the scary bleak stuff!!! Mermaids ain’t all cuddly folks, for example; they appear in One Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales) and are described as having;

‘moon faces and hair like a woman’s, but their hands and feet were in their bellies and they had tails like fishes’

Nice!

Some of these tales included whole underwater societies;  in Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman, the protagonist, Abdullah, gains the ability to breathe underwater; in doing so he comes across a mermaid society that basically functions as a proto communist society…so obvs he decides to hang out with a load of half fish commie chicks.

The Japanese also got in on the mermaid fun (just in a fully nightmarish way!); creating Kappa; who had human like faces….with the rest of their body a mix of monkey, fish and turtle.

The Kappa liked tricking humans into becoming their own fish food by pretending to be nice and friendly, maybe invite you to play some Sudoku, followed by ALL OF THE DEATH. They were particularly partial to a nice, crunchy, small child.

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OHSHITOHSHITOHSHIT! Via Giphy

But it wasn’t just Japan coming up with half fish nightmare fuel.

Mami Wata is an African water spirit who appears as a sexy lady or the more traditional part lady part fish. It’s said that Mami Wata steals men from their homes forcing them to become her lovers, she can also be responsible for killing those who don’t give her offerings that please her. She likes mirrors and combs FYI if you ever run into her.

The Russians also joined in the ‘what the fuck, why; party…but being Russia they kept their mermaid lore nice and miserable.

Rusalka are the spirits of young women who had violent deaths, usually by drowning. They appear as shimmery spirits in the water and lure men and young children to their deaths dragging them underwater with their long treacherous ghost hair.

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Witold Pruszkowski “Rusałki” 1877 Via Wikipedia

But mermaid lore wasn’t just for the ladies! Scotland has a cracking legend about Mermen. The Blue Men of the Minch (AKA storm kelpies) who live off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. They had blue skin and really bad tempers. For a laugh (and general sea boredom) they enjoyed fucking about with humans; they’d stop you In your little fishing boat, ask a bunch of riddles and if you got them wrong, they’d tear you to pieces….literally…because they’re fun like that.


In Medieval times it was just accepted as fact that mermaids were real, there’s even an account from the 1400’s of a mermaid being rescued in Holland after getting stuck in a dike.

They moved her to a local lake to recover, teaching her how to speak Dutch and do basic household chores to pass the time, the residents later converted her to Catholicism (yay?)

Now most of us Westerners know mermaids because of Disney.

The Little mermaid has a special place in the hearts of many a girl, but on a recent re-watch (for research) I found myself screaming:

‘SHE’S ONLY 16 TRITON, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING LETTING HER MARRY SOME FUCKBOI PRINCE!

So for me it’s an allegory of really bad parenting.

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You’re gunna fuck it all up Ariel. Via Giphy

This was based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Little Mermaid published in 1837.

Hans’ tale is a bit bleaker, because at the end our mermaid doesn’t get her Prince and so, after having her tongue cut out, she dies and becomes foam on the waves. A pretty wanky death. Ah the good old days where everybody was dead or at least maimed by the end of a fairy tale.


So….with all that historic mermaid lore, the question is: are mermaids real?

Well – No. Historians and anyone with half a brain deciphered that in all likelihood mermaid sightings were just your average curvaceous manatee, being viewed from a distance. Honestly being stuck at sea for months and MONTHS on end would make a manatee look pretty fucking appealing to me to.

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Sexy manateeeeeeeeee. Via Giphy

Mermaids have had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years (sadly not manatees though).

They are on your Starbucks mugs, on the big screen (like that live action remake of The Little Mermaid NOBODY asked for), all over glittery stationery, T-Shirts and in story books.

Plus there’s still the odd ‘sighting’ of a mermaid. In Israel in 2009 dozens reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay and playing around in the waves. The local town offered $1million for proof of the mermaid, but they got bugger all.

There was a more recent one in 2012 Zimbabwe where workers were scared off by mermaids while carrying out maintenance work on reservoirs. The government decided to carry out religious rites on the site and brewed a batch of traditional beer for them. It worked and the boozy mermaids left them to it.

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Up for boozin’. Via Giphy

So there you have it, we’ve only lightly touched the tip of the mythos behind mermaids. It’s a pretty complicated backstory, DRENCHED IN THE BLOOD OF MEN, which always makes for a fun family friendly read. Have you got any mermaid lore to tell us? Drop us your mermaid tails (geddit?) in the comments or on the socials!

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Hedy Lemarr: the sex symbol that gave us wifi

Hedy Lamarr is a goddess, she was a sultry screen siren who was famous for being one of the first to portray a woman having an ORGASM on-screen! Before the sodding film censorship boards nixed all the fun stuff in the 30’s…

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Eat it bitches! Via Giphy

Hedy wasn’t just a Hollywood starlet though, she was also a badass inventor who gave the world frequency hopping which gave us the how-did-we-live-without-it Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. Honestly I think I’d be dead without them by now, having been eaten by bears after getting lost in IKEA.

Some people (they’re mostly dudes) claim she didn’t really have much of a hand in it and they put her name on the invention patent as she was a well-known celeb. To these people I say;

‘BOLLOCKS YOU CHUFFING BUM BAGS!’

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She ain’t bothered. Via Giphy

Hedy was born in Austria in 1914. In the 1920s she was discovered as an actress and worked in the European film industry.

One of her most famous early roles was in Ecstasy (1933) where she portrayed a bored young housewife who gets it on with a big-buff-sexy-worker-man. She appeared nude in the film, but was tricked into doing this by the director (What a fucking surprise). This is also the film where she’s shown having a delightful orgasm on screen.

During her time making these European films, Hedy was trapped in a shitty marriage to an Austrian Arms dealer 15 years her senior.

He was a gross, controlling asshat and you know, A FUCKING NAZI ARMS DEALER, so Hedy decided to ditch the git. Hedy disguised herself as a maid and fled the country running off to Paris where she met Louis B. Meyer, of MGM studios. Louis then whisked her off to become a Hollywood film star.

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BYE BITCH! Via Giphy

Hedy lamented only being given roles where she was a sexy, almost mute figure in most of her films; she was getting really really bored. So she decided she’d invent cool stuff on the side.

Hedy was totally self-taught, she’d had no formal training but she did have a brilliant mind and an eye for detail.

She dated the rather eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes for a while and he’d ask her advice when he was building planes. Hedy (being a fucking smart cookie) gave Howard a whole heap of drawings and research which she’d gathered using techniques from birds and told him he should start to go about making his planes more aerodynamic. SMART!

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POW! Hitting you with knowledge… and cheekbones! Via Giphy

Her biggest breakthrough idea was based on a torpedo guidance system. You see, during WW2, torpedoes were radio controlled and this created huge problems because the signal could be easily jammed making the torpedo fly off course faster than your drunk Aunty Irene at your cousins wedding.

Hedy (having been married to an arms dealer) had knowledge of how these torpedoes worked AND how they were jammed. So she came up with the idea of frequency hopping to make the signal harder to jam.

This meant that the torpedoes could hit shit more accurately and thus blow up more Nazi’s. HUZZAH!

Hedy then asked her good mate, composer and fellow genius, George Antheil, to help her come up with a machine that could hop between frequencies.

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She’s smug because she KNOWS she’s smarter than you. Via Giphy

George made a neat gadget from a tiny self-playing piano mechanism that synched up with radio waves. Each new note = a new radio frequency. Undoubtedly genius! BUT, this nifty gadget is why some argue Hedy gets too much credit for frequency hopping.

I’d disagree. After all Hedy came up with the idea and understood the musicality behind the theory of frequency hopping.

Anyway, Hedy and George both patented the idea in 1942 and gave it to the US navy as part of the war effort. The idea wasn’t immediately picked up by the Navy (dumbasses) and it was left in a pile marked TO DO until 1962 when they finally utilised the system in their fleets.

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That’s morse code for ‘ABOUT FUCKING TIME!’ Via Giphy

I cannot express how incredible and important this invention was.

Frequency hoping is the Grandmother of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS and without it we could not watch amusing videos of cats all day instead of working!

Hedy and George were recognised by the National inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 when they were posthumously inducted. Took their fucking time with that one…

THANK YOU HEDY, WE LOVE YOU!

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A truly smart, sassy & sessy lady. Via Giphy

This was really interesting, where can I find out more? I’m glad you asked babes. Richard Rhodes book: Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (bit of a fucking mouthful) is a great read if you’re interested in the technical side of things.

Hedy also has a bonkers autobiography called Ecstasy and Me, which is mostly fabricated bollocks from the ghostwriter, but is a great trashy read.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Pride: Get to Grips With Some Bona Gay Slang

It’s the third and final article on our Pride series (don’t worry there’ll still be plenty more on LGBTQ history to come!!!!)

Now being gay used to be illegal so a secret language developed that helped all the queers identify each other in a public space without fear of being arrested or having the shite beaten out of you by police.

That secret language was called Polari….lets dive straight in

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Get excited bitches! Via Giphy

Polaris origins are a mish mash of Italian, Cockney rhyming slang, Romany and Yiddish. It started developed within the fairground, seafaring and theatrical communities in the 30s and 40s before being adopted by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of socially identifying each other.

If you saw a sexy geezer in your local drinking hole all you had to do was slide over to him and drop a bit of Polari to see if he was also a ‘friend of Dorothy’ For example:

‘Ello dish, nice basket you’ve got for me.’

This translates as: ‘Hello sexy, I like the bulge in your trousers!’

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She knows… Via Giphy

If he was into it he’d probably ask if you were looking for trade… ie THE SEX!

It sounds gloriously camp and theatrical (because it was) and was very much a part of the working class gay haunts in London.

Gay men embraced and played up to the theatricality of the language, both protecting themselves and expressing themselves with a way of communicating that was just for them.

It was popularised in mainstream culture by two comic characters Julian And Sandy in the popular radio sketch show Round The Horne.

Played by Kenneth Williams (him off all the Carry Ons) on and Hugh Paddick. They’d revel in salacious gossiping with the straight man host Kenneth Horne.

SANDY: “Don’t mention Málaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.”

HORNE: “Portuguese man o’ war?”

JULIAN: “Well I never saw him in uniform…”

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Ba-dum tish! Via Giphy

It died out in the 70’s after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Also gay men had to remind everyone else that not all of them were theatrical and camp queens. It is not ONE SIZE FITS ALL or rather one stereotype fits all, so Polari fell out of favour.

So many gay slang terms still used (not always in a good way) come from Polari, like camp, mince, drag, butch (applied to masculine lesbians) and cottaging.

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Yes we are!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Via Giphy

Want to have a go? Here’s some choice words for you to try out. Give us your best Polari!

Basket – The bulge in a dudes trousers.

Bold – Daring

Bona – Good

Buns – Bum

Butch – masculine

Camp – Effeminate

Chicken – A Young Man

Dolly – Pretty

Dish – A sexy man

Eek – Face

Fantabulosa – Wonderful

Fruit – An older gay gentleman

Naff – Not available for fucking

Omi – Man

Omipolone – A camp gay man

Polone – a lady

Riah – Hair

Slap – Makeup

Trade – SEX

Troll – Walking

Vada – To look at

So to use a classic Julian & Sandy line:

‘How nice to vada your dolly old eek’

would basically be ‘Nice to see your pretty face!’

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🏳️‍🌈 Via Giphy

This was interesting, where can I find out more? 

This brilliant short film, set in the 1960’s shows us two men having a conversation in Polari https://youtu.be/Y8yEH8TZUsk

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

How the Harlem Renaissance woke America

The Harlem Renaissance was a game changer. as a much a cultural awakening for the African American community as for the United States as a whole.

Thrusting black voices into pop culture, creating a new crop of black artists and cultural icons and most importantly; fostering a pride that hadn’t been allowed to exist before.

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A 1928 copy of Negro American Magazine, fearing civil rights campaigner, Erma Seweatt

The first generation of people born free had a fight on their hands. Removed from the shackles of slavery, they were still oppressed and persecuted in their own country.

So, it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that throughout the 1920s and 30s many chose to leave the Southern states and instead head for Northern cities like Chicago and New York, where things were a whole lot more progressive.

Faced with these new bright lights, they didn’t back down. Forming communities and using art, literature, theatre and music to express themselves, their history and their future.

Strange Fruit

One of the most acclaimed artists to come from the Harlem Renaissance is the one and only Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday .jpg

Billie came up during the renaissance and it was here she grew her voice. Famed for touching upon subjects other singers shied away from; perhaps her most iconic song is Strange Fruit.

Recorded in the late 1930s, Strange Fruit deals with lynching. Blunt and unflinching it soon became a protest song.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Though Billie feared repercussions for performing the song, she felt compelled to continue singing. After all it was the the truth, not just for her, but for everyone in America.

Strange Fruit became a stalwart Billie Holiday number for her – yet her record company refused to print it.  Strange Fruit .gif

Remember this was the 1930s. The civil rights movement was just a seed. Such public protests were unheard of and tended to end with, well, lynching. But Strange Fruit couldn’t be contained, eventually being released as a single by Comodor.

Strange Fruit remains a protest strong and a vital reminder of this dark time in Americas history. But it’s still banned by some.

When English singer, Rebecca Fergerson, was asked to perform at Donald Trumps inauguration, she agreed…if she could sing Strange Fruit. You can guess what Trump said.

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He said no (because he is a wanker)

Shuffle Along

In an era when ‘one black per bill’ was the theatrical norm, musical Shuffle Along high kicked in and smashed every existing idea of what African Americans could contribute to theatre to shittery and back.

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The chorus of Shuffle Along taking a break from ass kicking

Now I know musical theatre doesn’t seem like the tool with which groundbreaking cultural change occurs

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Much rainbow, such social change

But forget what you think you know. Shuffle Along contains absolutely no technicolor dreamcoats, no needy scarred blokes living below opera houses and no jazz hands (ok fine-maybe some jazz hands)

Produced and written by an all black team and starring a black cast, Shuffle Along shook shit up when it made its debut on the early 1920s, with many of the cast enjoying their Broadway debut (including the incredible Josephine Baker!)

The musical revolved around a mayoral election (of course!) but the politics wasn’t confined to the stage. Shuffle Along 2.jpg

Shuffle Along took off, engaging with theatre goers from all backgrounds. It proved to Theatre bigwigs that even with a cast and creative team who comprised of waaay more than ‘one black’-the public didn’t care; they wanted to pay to see the show. In fact they wanted to see more shows led by African American casts and creatives!

Bigger than that (and it’s a pretty big biggy) the huge popularity of Shuffle Along led to the 1920s desegregation of theatres. For the first time, black theatre goers didn’t have to watch from way up in the gods; at Shuffle Along they could sit up at the front.

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See, isn’t musical theatre great!

The Cotton club

For all the groundbreaking being done uptown, racism still existed in Harlem as it did across America. One such hot bed was popular night club, The Cotton Club.

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Ok it looks fun…but trust me its not!

As it’s name suggests, the cotton club wasn’t a haven for any form of equality, with the clubs owner, gangster Owen ‘the killer’ Madden wanting his club to ooze ‘stylish plantation’ and insisting on only playing ‘jungle music’ for his all white patrons.

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Surprising that someone with the middle name ‘killer’ is also a cock

But there was light! For all the Cotton Clubs racism, it’s all African American workforce was tenacious and somehow managed to turn the clubs stage into one of modern jazz’s early breeding grounds.

Acclaimed musical pioneer, Duke Ellington, served as the Cotton Clubs band leader during the late twenties. There He formed one of history’s greatest jazz orchestras and soon their music took over Americas radio stations.

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Duke Ellington

After Duke left for far greener (and less racist) pastures, a new bandleader was appointed-the equally groundbreaking, Cab Calloway. Cab brought drama and flair to the clubs music, in addition to call and repeat scatting that can be seen in still iconic tracks like Minnie the Moocher.

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Now those…those are moves.

Yet despite the acclaimed music on stage, the Cotton Club remained determinedly segregated. So it’s perhaps no bad thing that it was forced to close during the Harlem race riots of 1935.

The seeds of civil rights

1935s Harlem race riot effectively ended the renaissance. Much like the Cotton Club, Harlem was a hive of contradictions. Whilst it’s art celebrated the community and was applauded at the highest levels, many of Harlem’s occupants were essentially living in slums.

Things were uneasy. And After rumours ran rife that a young Puerto Rican teen had been beaten to death for shoplifting, the riot was sparked.

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Police arrest a man during the 1935 riot

The renaissance art left its impact though. It lay a groundwork of pride and built a clear community voice that would be developed when the civil rights movement started to emerge following WW2.

The music, theatre and talent of this era would become forever synonymous of black culture. Whilst WW2 waged on and civil rights waited, the renaissance artists work served as a lingering reminder of everything that could be and one day would be achieved

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