Monday, July 27, 2015

Hansard from before there was Parliament

Cobbett's Parliamentary
, vol. 1 (1806)
Hansard is the official report of parliamentary debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords (I work a bit as a reporter in the Lords). So it's a bit surprising to learn that the first speech reported in its first volume dates from before there was even a Parliament. To explain this odd fact, we need to understand a bit about how Hansard began.

For a long time, it was against the law to publish the votes and proceedings of Parliament. That was seen as a threat to parliamentary privilege. MPs might be less likely to speak openly in debates if their words were to be shared outside the Chamber.

However, there were those prepared to risk prison to publish anyway – because they thought it would be profitable and/or because they thought it was right to hold Parliament to account. As early as 1675, there were full transcripts of debates.

Some publishers went to prison, but while individual publications were stopped others continued undaunted. Four times in the 1700s the ban was reaffirmed in law. Publishers wriggled round these strictures by printing reports months after debates had taken place or while Parliament was no longer sitting, or by inventing satirical reports from imaginary Parliaments. Even with real debates, what reporting there was could be selective and inaccurate – which didn't help win over MPs.

Finally, in 1771, after a campaign by the radical MP John Wilkes, permission was given for the publication of verbatim – word for word – reports. Such reports became a regular feature in newspapers.

William Cobbett,
National Portrait Gallery
In1802, William Cobbett began to publish Parliamentary Debates, which compiled these accounts from different newspapers. In 1809, Cobbett employed a new printer, Thomas Curson Hansard, who took over the publication from 1812. Hansard made many improvements to the speed and accuracy of his reports, such as employing reporters directly rather than copying reports from elsewhere. In 1829, his name appeared on the reports – which is why they're known as Hansard today. Last week, Hansard published it's 3,000th bound volume of debates.

But before handing his publication to Hansard, Cobbett had seen another opportunity: to collect reports of Parliament from the more distant past. This he did over 36 volumes in – to use its full title – Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest, in 1066, to the year, 1803. From which last-mentioned epoch it is continued downwards in the work entitled “Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates”. Since the history and the debates make up one continuous work, Hansard reaches back to 1066, before there was a Parliament.

Cobbett tells us in his own preface that he compiled his history from
“the Records, the Rolls of Parliament, the Parliamentary or Constitutional History, and from the most reputable English Historians.”
Despite these exemplary sources, he also bemoans having had to work his way through an
“immense load of useless matter, quite unauthentic, and very little connected with the real Proceedings of Parliament”,
which included battles, sieges and even the entire contents of pamphlets. His history is, then, a distillation of earlier reports, concentrating on what was said, by whom, where and when.

Though the title of his history claims that it begins with the Norman conquest, the first date given is 1072, where he tells us that
“William I, at the instigation of the pope, summoned a national synod, to determine the dispute betwixt the sees of Canterbury and York about supremacy.”
We're told this happened at Windsor, but not what was said or how the matter was resolved.

Henry I
National Portrait Gallery
The next account, from 1106, is the first reported speech in Hansard. Speaking in London, William's son Henry I makes the case why he should be king and not his older brother Robert. But how accurate can that report be? Cobbett tells us the source for this account is the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (c. 1200-59), whose Historia Anglorum – a history of England from 1070 to 1253 – is thought to have been written between 1250 and 1255, or 150 years after King Henry gave his speech.

Note that Cobbett doesn't tell us what clinched Henry's claim to the throne over that of his older brother. The English barons and the church had complained of bullying behaviour under the previous king, William II. To gain their support, Henry agreed to sign the Charter of Liberties or Coronation Charter – the first time that a king stated that his powers were subject to the law.

Admittedly, those promises were largely ignored by Henry and his descendants for the next 100 years, but it set a precedent for events to follow. Henry's great grandson, King John, also found himself forced to agree concessions to the nobles, and in 1215 he placed his seal on Magna Carta – the great charter.

Historians argue about the significance of Magna Carta, but one thing it established was a Great Council, with representatives from the counties, cities and church, that would take charge of taxation and could – if it had to – stand against the king for the benefit of the country. There had been councils of nobles before, but always subject to the king.

Having agreed to Magna Carta, John then ignored it – and the barons turned to the French Prince Louis for help. There was war – with castles besieged at Dover, Windsor and Rochester. For a brief while, it looked like the barons might win and Louis become king of England.

But John died in 1216. The barons thought they would have more control over John's nine year-old son, Henry, than over French Prince Louis. Henry III was crowned king on the condition he agreed to the Great Charter. He reigned until 1272, during which time his council first became known as “Parliament” – meaning “to speak”.

In addition, a rebellion in 1265 by Henry's brother-in-law Simon de Montefort led to what's often referred to as the “father or Parliaments”. For the first time, it wasn't the king who decided who sat in Parliament. Instead,
“from each county four prudent and law-worthy knights”
were chosen by election. The right to vote was given to men who owned land with an income worth 40 shillings or more per year. For the first time, people in the country – if not a huge number of them – had some say in how it was run.

It didn't last, but we can see in that father of Parliaments – as well as in Cobbett's accounts from the reigns of Henry III and Edward I – the beginnings of Parliament as we know it today. In Cobbett's account of 13 January 1223, we have the first recorded speech of a non-royal person in Hansard, from the king's councillor William Briwere. We can see decisions being made by agreement not decree, and – as in 1279 – that the church dared not speak against decisions made by Parliament. We can see the king using Parliament to give his decisions – such as his verdict on Llewellyn – extra weight and authority. We see government referring to precedent, basing their actions on how things have been done before.

So these earliest entries from Hansard give us a sense of the changing terms of power, the early, faltering steps towards the Parliament we know today.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I'm in the Guardian

Spotted by the Dr, me and Dr Marek Kukula feature in The Guide in this morning's Guardian newspaper.

Samira Ahmed will grill us about the science and ethics of Doctor Who (and the chapter of our book devoted to the Time War) on Wednesday night at Conway Hall at 7.30 pm. Tickets from

Monday, June 29, 2015

HG Wells and the H-Bomb

This Sunday at 6.45 pm, Radio 3 will broadcast the new documentary I've produced with brother Tom, HG and the H-Bomb. It's a pick of July's radio and telly, according to those nice people at BBC History Magazine. Blurb as follows:

HG and the H-Bomb
Sunday Feature

Samira Ahmed unearths the extraordinary role of HG Wells in the creation of the nuclear bomb 70 years ago - and how a simple, devastating idea led to the world we know today.

In his 1914 novel The World Set Free, Wells imagined bombs that destroy civilisation and lead to a new world order. But his "atomic bombs" - a name he conceived - are grenades that keep on exploding.

How did this idea become a reality? Samira discovers the strange conjunction of science-fiction and fact that spawned the bomb as Wells mixed with key scientists and politicians such as Lenin and Churchill. Churchill claimed Wells was solely responsible for the use of aeroplanes and tanks in the First World War. Thanks to Wells, Churchill was also ahead of many in writing about the military potential of nuclear weapons - as he did in his 1924 article for the Pall Mall Gazette, "Shall We All Commit Suicide?"

In London's Russell Square, Samira retraces the steps of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard who conceived the neutron chain reaction. Amid the bustle and noise of the capital in 1933, he suddenly realised how to exploit the potential of nuclear energy and - because he'd read Wells - the devastating impact it would have.

But what could he do? How easy is it to keep a secret in the scientific community, with war looming? Once a dangerous, world-changing idea exists, is it possible to contain it?

To find out, Samira speaks to nuclear physicist Dr Elizabeth Cunningham; Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill's Bomb; Professor Lisa Jardine; Andrew Nahum, chief curator of "Churchill's Scientists" at the Science Museum, London; and Michael Sherborne, author of HG Wells - Another Kind of Life.

Readings by Toby Hadoke
Presenter Samira Ahmed
Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier
A Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 3.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Black holes and explosions

Two new things! First, the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out today. As well as interviews with Ingrid Oliver and David Warner, it includes my chat with chief special effects blower upper Danny Hargreaves.

I was inspired by this short clip on the BBC's official Doctor Who site of Danny blowing up the head of a Cyberman for the serious, scholarly purpose of supporting British Science Week. We talk physics and chemistry and the Kandyman.

Also, those luminous lovelies at Big Finish have put up cast details and released Tom Webster's gorgeous cover for my new Doctor Who adventure, The Black Hole - which is out in November. Despite the best efforts of Rufus Hound's especially distracting moustache, people have noticed his hat. Whatever can it mean?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Yuri Gagarin's autograph

The Dr asked me to write something for the blog she runs exploring the archives of the Croydon Airport Society. She chose a booklet, "Soviet Man in Space" that she thought was my sort of thing. And it is - especially when its cover boasts the autograph of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space.

Read my post, Croydon Calling: Soviet Man in Space.

Unrelatedly, I was recently interviewed by Will Barber for The Consulting Detective site about The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Time and Space

A couple of very good books read recently.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North is near-on impossible to put down. It's about a bloke called Harry August who, when he dies, lives his life over again - but remembering everything that happened before. He can change small things - such as going into different professions or marrying different people - but the big stuff like the Second World War or his mum dying young from cancer is rather set in stone. And Harry's not alone, either - there's a whole network or "oroborans", looking out for each other and passing messages to one another forward and backward in time. Including a message from the future that the end is coming, and increasingly quickly...

It's one of those books that starts with a brilliant, ridiculous idea and plays it out perfectly logically, but then adds ever more thrilling developments. To say more would only spoil it, but gosh it is good.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield is packed full of fascinating detail about the counter-intuitive nature of working in Earth orbit. For example, there's this moment in November 1995, when Hadfield was on a space shuttle that docked with the Russian Mir space station. It was an extremely complicated bit of orbital mechanics, but they docked successfully - and three seconds early.
"Only we couldn't get the hatch open. On the other side, they were kicking it with all their might. But the Russian engineers had taped, strapped and sealed our docking module's hatch just a little too enthusiastically, with multiple layers. So we did the true space-age thing: we broke into Mir using a Swiss Army knife. Never leave the planet without one."
Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (2015 [2013]), p. 191.
But the book aims to find life lessons from Hadfield's experience that we can all benefit from, so there's lots of home-spun advice about why it's good to sweat the small stuff and to be prepared. An example is Hadfield learning "Rocket Man" on the guitar on the off-chance that he met Elton John (which he did) and was invited to play something with him (which he wasn't).

I found Hadfield's drive and goal-orientation a bit wearying, but he's an extremely amiable, likable guy - and quick to recount his own failures and mistakes, such as that time one of his colleagues got a face-full of his nail clippings. He's also got a very accessible style, coolly acknowledging the weirdness and danger and randomness of his day job. And it's hard to not like the guy responsible for the first ever music video recorded in space.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Marek says "no"

Here's Dr Marek Kukula - my co-author on The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who - on Doctor Who: The Fan Show answering questions about science, and saying no to Steven Moffat.