Merlin by Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers #HistorialDesertIslandDiscs

As we head towards the last bank holiday of the summer and the start of a new academic year, the History Department at the University of Reading ‘Historical Desert Island Discs’ series comes to magical end with our Professor of all things Magical, and Astrological, Anne Mathers-Lawrence and her choices of music for Merlin… 


Merlin ended his career by being imprisoned inside a cave (or tree) forever.  That might make him a hero for the self-isolating, or even a consoling figure, since isolation caused by the coronavirus is not likely to last so long.  These suggestions start in the period during which he became famous and move on to more modern evocations of magic.  The idea with all of them is that they can evoke other worlds.

Music by a prophetess of the 12th century, contemporary with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s revelations about Merlin:

An early musical homage to Merlin –  by Purcell and Dryden, from ‘King Arthur’, this is the ‘Cold Song’ and is about the magical summoning of the Spirit of Winter:

The ‘Witch’s Aria’ by Rob Lane, from the BBC TV series Merlin, is successfully scary:


cameron photoJulia Margaret Cameron, Vivien and Merlin (1874)


This lament by Guillaume de Machaut might suit those dealing with misfortunes:

More recent evocations of magic and magicians include, this one by Buffy Sainte Marie from the 1960s.  It’s called ‘God Is Alive and Magic Is Afoot’:

To cheer things up, there is Queen’s ‘A Kind of Magic’:

And Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’:

Finally, I’d have to finish with ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane (I like this version particularly, but am open to suggestions):


Despite being unable to escape from imprisonment Merlin retained his visionary and prophetic powers, so would have no need of a crystal ball.  However, he would presumably miss being able to see the sky and read the stars, so this ‘book of astrology’ might cover both book and luxury item:

BL book

You can find out more about Professor Lawrence, her research and teaching here.

Professor Lawrence’s The True History of Merlin the Magician is coming out in paperback April 2020.


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1986 Teenage Girl by Amy Gower #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

We are delighted that our penultimate #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs is by Amy Gower. This fictional account inspired by her PhD research into teenage girls’ experiences of secondary school between 1970 and 2000 (see end of page). 

We’ve had the Desert Island Discs from some of the most famous people throughout history, including MPs, Presidents, dictators. But what might a teenager in 1986 have chosen as some of their top picks…?

Amy J17 header (2) (1)

It’s 1986, and here are my Desert Island Discs, starting with one of the most popular songs of the year:

  1. The Bangles – Manic Monday (on TOTP, 1986)

Seeing as I’m a teenager, I spend most of my time in school. School is mostly interesting and I work hard, but this doesn’t always help after school when you have to find a job. My older sister left school two years ago with a few O-levels and couldn’t find a job, so she had to go on the dole until she got a place on the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). I worry I won’t be able to get a job after school, but the careers teacher said if I work hard, I can stay at school for sixth form and do my A-levels, although that still doesn’t help me work out what to do afterwards… I was only 10 when Ghost Town came out, and my sister was still at school, but she always says that the song reflects her experience of boredom.

  1. The Specials – Ghost Town

Apart from going to school, I see my friends, go to the cinema and youth club. I watch a lot of tv with Mum, like Dallas and Eastenders. We always watch the Wogan Show, which is when I first saw Grace Jones last year. She performed Slave to the Rhythm entirely under a black and white striped mask and cape, until she took them off right at the end and had the most amazing purple eyeshadow.

  1. Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm (live on Wogan show, 1985)

Me and my sister get to take over the tv on a Thursday evening and put Top of the Pops on. All singles these days have to be released with some kind of dramatic music video, with special effects or a cool dance routine, like Ultravox or Five Star. And then you have the really weird ones, like the Spitting Image songs, and the Young Ones single with Cliff Richard. Some people are getting really inventive with it now. Peter Gabriel used animation for his Sledgehammer video – the dancing chickens were a bit creepy though!

  1. Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer

I share a room with my sister, who is three years older than me. We are having a war over the posters on our walls at the moment: she has posters of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet on her side, because she loves Simon Le Bon (yuk), whereas I like George Michael and actors like Jason Donovan from Neighbours. I’ll take Duran Duran – Rio to the island just because it’s her favourite!

  1. Duran Duran – Rio

At school everyone is in different groups. You have the clones, they wear all the latest fashions and like mainstream music, and although they customise their clothes with patches and things, they end up looking mostly the same. There are other groups, like the casuals, the goths who listen to The Cure and worship Morrisey, but I don’t really fit into any of these groups. I like The Cure but I also like Toyah and A-ha, and am friends with people in lots of different groups. But I am happy to not be the same; I like being an individual.

  1. Toyah – Don’t Fall in Love (I Said)

My sister went to a Red Wedge gig in the spring. She saw The Style Council and the Communards, I was SO jealous, but really she went to see Billy Bragg. She said the bands were good, but she kept getting bothered by boring old people from the Labour Party. She is going to vote Labour next year anyway (good job too, or our Dad might have disowned her!). I like some of those bands doing the Red Wedge tour, but I think I’d only go to see Everything But The Girl – Tracy Thorn has a lovely voice and I like her spiky hair, although I don’t think my mum would let me have it…

  1. Everything But the Girl – When All’s Well

I think the 1980s have so far been two extremes. Unemployment has been a big worry for people my age, and school hasn’t been very helpful so far in telling us what to do. But at the moment, I’m having a pretty good time and making the most out of being a carefree teenager. It’s my 16th  birthday soon, and I need to tell the DJ some songs I’d like to play. Madonna is pretty popular across all the social groups, so it’s bound to get people on the dancefloor.

  1. Madonna – Papa Don’t Preach


I don’t think I will find the Bible very interesting on the desert island; Mum and Dad still make us go to church at Easter and Christmas, but I mostly switch off and think about the roast waiting for us when we get home! I also would rather not have the Complete Works of Shakespeare. We read Richard the III at school and it was soooo boring, but I did like Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedict were really sharp and funny. When it came to the luxury item, I couldn’t decide! I thought maybe roller skates, but they’d be hard to learn on the sand, and then I thought about one of those new Nintendo Entertainment Systems that has just come out in America, you can play Zelda, Mario, and all sorts of games on there. But I’ve decided to take take one of those new mobile phones so I can talk to my friends whenever I want; talking to my friends is one of the most important things to me, and I’d really miss laughing with them about last night’s Young Ones or gossiping about the teachers.

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The Bangles circa 1986


This fictional account drew inspiration from my research for my PhD project into teenage girls’ experiences of secondary school between 1970 and 2000, in particular oral history interviews conducted as part of this project, diaries held by the Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Library, London, and Just Seventeen magazine, especially the 1987 Bitter-sweet Dreams collection of readers creative writing. For more on teenage girls and popular culture, see She-Bop: The Definitive History Of Women In Popular Music by Lucy O’Brien and for more on education, moral panics and girlhood, see Girl Trouble by Carol Dyhouse.


Amy is also part of the University of Reading Research Cluster in Gender History

If you are interested in gender history more broadly, you can find our Gender History Cluster blog here

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Sigmund Freud by Sigmund Freud and Dr Melani Schroeter #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

We are delighted that our colleague Dr Melani Schroeter from the Department of Languages and Culture has colluded with Sigmund Freud himself to present his Historical Desert Island Discs … 

We are honoured to host Dr Sigmund Freud in today’s edition of Historical Desert Island Discs. Dr Freud’s thinking and writing has fundamentally changed the way in which we view ourselves and others as human beings by offering us a theoretical framework and terminological inventory for describing what goes on – and what at times goes wrong – in our minds and emotions. He and other scholars of his time, such as C.G. Jung and A. Adler have practically added a whole new dimension to our perception of humanity. Freud proposed as material for analysing and treating patients’ mental health issues not least dreams, associations and their own talk, at times reflected and reframed back to them by the therapist as part of ‘the talking cure’.

Dr Freud has kindly agreed to participate in a slightly unusual set-up for which we put up a comfortable sofa on our desert island which looks a bit like this:


Dr Freud will lay down on the sofa and we will be playing a number of songs to him with the aim of triggering a response or any kind of free association which will hopefully give us some food for analysing the founder of psychoanalysis himself. Here we go:

1) Basket Case, Green Day

Dr Freud, what do you think about this song?

Is this supposed to be music? Anyway, he makes himself sound as though he could do with some talking cure. Maybe he is just seeking attention, what with all that harsh noise.

2) The Rolling Stones, 19th Nervous Breakdown 

As a doctor, my professional ethics prohibit me from joining in such kind of patient-despising. I have spent a lifetime arguing that psychological problems are real problems and I am not going over this again.

3) The Doors, The End

Urgh, it’s gloomy. This song obviously refers to my theorising around children’s tabooed desire for their parent of the opposite sex and the urge to destroy the competing parent of the same sex. I would have never put it into such crude terms, though. Seeing that it is such a torturously long song, they could  really be a bit more elaborate. Also, haven’t you moved on beyond the heterosexual framework in the meantime?!

4) The Kinks, National Health 

Do they suggest regular sexual activity should become a public health recommendation? I never thought about that. My focus was very much on the individual, I never considered it in terms of public policy. Very interesting. Imagine I had got that out by the time the Nazis came to power!

5) Chad Mitchell Trio, Ballad of Sigmund Freud 

I take no responsibility for the fees that psychoanalysts charge these days. Maintaining my six children was not exactly a walk in the park for me for many years. I cannot help these guys with their envy-problem.

6) Third Eye Blind, Palm Reader

Aha, hm, hm … typical case of resisting therapy. And of course I made it all up – what did he think blue sky ground-breaking theorising is all about?!

7) Carly Simon, Floundering

Would you leave my daughter Anna out of this, please. She has done a great job continuing in her father’s footsteps. Nothing to do with Electra, no, I really don’t think so. Are you criticising me for some of the nonsense that gets associated with my intellectual heritage? The spiritualist self-searching post-modern psycho-whimsiness came well beyond my time as you know.

8) Ultravox, Vienna

Aaaah, Vienna. Oooooh, Vienna. Yes, I do miss it. I was born in Vienna and spent 82 years of my life there before having to take up exile in London when it became clear that the Nazis who had decided that Jews were to blame for everything were really going to do us harm. I often wonder whether the Berggasse 19 still looks recognisable to me. Not sure I would really want to go back after Austria had got thoroughly messed up by the Nazis, and I don’t know how anyone would be able to trust it again. But don’t we all long to revisit the places of our past?

Thank you, Dr Freud.

Programme Editor’s postscript: The godfather of psychoanalysis seemed rather guarded. He seemed surprisingly uptight and not engaging with the associative triggers that we provided for him to open up to letting us scrutinise his inner workings.

Nevertheless, we are going to be generous and let him have one of the antique figurines he loved collecting for a luxury item – Eros would probably be appropriate. The same goes for the book; The Complete Works of his acquaintance Arthur Schnitzler – contemporary fellow doctor-turned-author and Jewish Austrian citizen who wrote psychoanalysis-inspired novellas featuring dreams and desires.



Melani teaches mostly language and linguistics across the German Studies curriculum, and also contributes to linguistics teaching and supervision of undergraduate and postgraduate students’ research beyond the German language. You can find out more about Melani and her approach to research at the University of Reading here and her staff profile here 

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Richard Nixon by Dr Dafydd Townley #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

After a short hiatus we are back with #HistoricalDesertIland Discs to see you out of lockdown (hopefully) and on into the summer. Today Dr Dafydd Townley presents the eclectic musical choices of Richard Nixon… 


Richard Milhous Nixon (1913 – 1994) was the 37th President of the United States between 1969 and 1974. Famed for being the only president to have resigned from office as a result of his involvement in the Watergate crisis, Nixon was also on the winning ticket for four presidential elections, (1952, 1956, 1968 and 1972) and narrowly losing a fifth in 1960. Here, we look at the former Congressman, Senator, Vice President and President, and his suspected choice of Desert Island Discs.

California Soul by Marlena Shaw

The President was always a California man. Born in 1913 and raised in Yorba Linda, in a house that his father built, he moved to Whittier, California after his family’s ranch failed. Brought up a Quaker and living in a modest household, Nixon’s early years shaped the rest of his life. He called his mother a saint, and while recognising that he lived in near poverty, he later claimed that his childhood was a happy one. After excelling at school, especially at debating, he attended Whittier College, graduating in 1934. He finally left California to study at Duke University School of Law. He would go on to represent the State both in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate between 1947 and 1953 before being elected as Vice President. After he resigned from the presidency in 1974, Nixon returned to California and lived in coastal San Clemente with his wife Pat.

You’re So Vain by Carly Simon

After serving in Navy during the Second World War, Nixon entered the world of politics. He had a meteoric rise within the Republican Party, briefly serving as Representative and Senator before becoming President Dwight D Eisenhower’s Vice President. Nixon had ambitions of his own for the highest office and ran for the presidency in 1960 where he narrowly lost out to John F. Kennedy. Key to his loss were the televised debates. The first debate was crucial. Nixon refused the offer of makeup, and the combination of a recent illness and the brightness of the studio lights, caused him to sweat profusely. While many listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had edged it, those on television thought that the suntanned Kennedy looked at ease and more presidential. The experience never left Nixon, and he ensured that he prepared fully for further televised appearances using make-up and having handkerchiefs to mop his brow and upper lip off camera. He would never take part in a presidential debate again.

Winner Takes It All by Abba 

After losing the 1960 election, Nixon’s star began to wane. He was envious of the Kennedy campaign and the wealth it had been able to draw upon in the campaign. He ran for Governor of California in 1962 but lost to Pat Brown. Nixon appeared to be in the political wilderness.

Some conservatives, such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, encouraged him to not give up hope. Nixon, after founding a law firm, decided to run for the presidency for a second time in 1968. The fragmented nature of his opponents, the Democratic Party, and Nixon’s promise to bring a quick end to American involvement in the Vietnam War, gave Nixon victory.

Hands Across the Ocean by The Mission 

During the Eisenhower administration, Nixon had established himself as an expert in foreign relations. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, created a new era in US foreign policy. Labelled as détente, the policy allowed Nixon and Kissinger to engage and negotiate with communist China and the Soviet Union, allowing greater trade between them, and providing the foundation for several arms limitation treaties. This had only been possible because Nixon had established himself as a staunch anti-communist during his congressional and vice presidential years. His reputation allowed him to avoid criticism from conservatives and he became the first president to visit both communist China and the Soviet Union in 1972. Détente was a success, and led to many observers to claim the Cold War was over. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, saw an end to détente and a resumption of geopolitical rivalry.

Crazy by Seal

Nixon had promised to end US involvement in the war in Vietnam through a process known as Vietnamisation. To help bring the communist North Vietnam to the negotiating table, the Nixon administration adopted the Madman theory. Nixon wanted his opponents to believe that he was irrational and volatile and prepared to use nuclear weapons in the war in the South East Asia. The theory was partly based in fact – Nixon struggled with insomnia during his time in the White House, and the combination of prescribed sleeping pills, anti-depressants and his favourite tipple of Blue Johnnie Walker whisky, made him often incoherent and unhinged in the later hours of the day.

Know Your Enemy by Rage Against The Machine 

Despite his efforts to end the war in Vietnam, the years of the Nixon administration were marred by protests from anti-war groups. Nixon felt that such groups were unpatriotic and failed to understand their motivations. In May of 1970, students at universities around the country had gone on strike in opposition to Nixon’s extension of the conflict into Cambodia. At 4am on May 9, as protestors conducted an overnight vigil on the National Mall, a sleepless Nixon travelled to the Lincoln Memorial with his valet and a handful of Secret Service agents. He spoke with dumbstruck students at the memorial, telling them that he understood just how they felt. But the truth of the matter was that he didn’t. While he later claimed that he was trying to educate the students on his government’s policies, it also gave him an opportunity to learn why so many Americans opposed the Vietnam war.

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley 

On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley visited the White House. While the thirty five year old singer was arguably in his prime and not quite in the overweight stage of his life, his visit was not musically motivated. Presley had written to Nixon to over his services in the administration’s efforts against youth drug use. Presley believed that communist forces had used the drug trade to brainwash the youth of United States and that it was his duty be a part of the effort to end such subjugation. Nixon believed that those who were protesting against US efforts abroad were drug takers. To him, narcotics, violence and anti-American activity were all connected. Sometime later, as a way of thanks for his offer, Presley received a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Agency).

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker 

Nixon’s presidency is tainted by the Watergate Crisis. The scandal, surrounding the administration’s attempts to illegally gain information on Nixon’s political opponents through bugging and wiretapping, became more than just the infamous break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington DC. Although there is no proof that Nixon was involved in the burglary, it is clear from the White House Tapes, that Nixon was at the centre of a cover-up and, when that was discovered, the cover-up of the cover-up. Nixon used his executive powers in a failed attempt to hide damning evidence of the conspiracy. After two years of fighting the press, courts and Congress, Nixon finally resigned in August 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him a month later. Nixon refused to admit that he did anything wrong, although when interviewed by David Frost in 1977, he apologised to the nation.


Nixon would be at home with the Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare. His choice of an additional book – the collected series of his own autobiographies – would be driven by the pride and vanity of a man who saw the world with himself in the centre. An American football fan all of his life, his luxury item would have to be a TV that worked on a Sunday and on a Monday evening so he could have watched the games each week.



Find out more about Dafydd and his work with The Monroe Group and at the Rothermere American Institute

Follow him on Twitter at

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Fanny Anne Kemble by Professor Emily West #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

Well, we took a short break from posting our Historical Desert Island Discs for a week or two either side of the bank holiday. But here we are, our historians are still mostly in lock down so we are back and kicking off with our Americanists. The one and only Professor Emily West kicks off with Fanny Kemble…


Fanny Kemble

Today’s guest is the nineteenth-century British actor and writer Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble (1809-1893).  Born into a prominent theatrical family in London, Kemble is mostly remembered among historians for her unhappy marriage to the US slaveholder, Pierce Butler. Kemble famously gave up her life on the stage to live as a ‘plantation mistress’ in the lowcountry coastal area of Georgia in the late 1830s, with Butler and their two young daughters. When the marriage failed, Kemble and her daughters left the plantation and Butler filed for divorce in 1847. Kemble subsequently published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1863, during the US Civil War. She also returned to acting, first in the US, and then following her return to England.


Often celebrated as an abolitionist due to her antipathy towards slavery and her sympathetic views towards enslaved women, Kemble held a complex relationship with the slave regime. Although she empathised with women who bore a heavy workload while also enduring pregnancies and childbirth, she also held characteristically racist views that were common to the era. Kemble was a public critic of slavery but also a private beneficiary.  She centred herself as a victim of the regime in a way that belittled the suffering of those held in bondage even as she struggled to cope with the patriarchal conventions of her era. As such, Kemble’s life reminds us that gendered and racial oppressions take multiple, varied, and intersecting forms.

Kemble has chosen the following Desert Island Discs:

1. Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (1938)

Kemble’s first acting role was in 1829 at the Covent Garden Theatre, where she played Juliet to critical acclaim. This music would have reminded her of a happy, fulfilling time in her life. Version recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2009.

2. Ray Charles, Georgia on my Mind (1960)

Recorded by the native of Georgia, Ray Charles, and a decade later by James Brown, this song would have evoked mixed emotions for Kemble, reminding her of the beauty of the Georgian landscape, but also of her marriage’s breakdown. This version was recorded in 1976.

3. Aretha Franklin, Respect (1967)

While Kemble wished her husband, Pierce Butler, would simply respect her, she failed to hear the voices of her enslaved people requesting the same thing. This version was recorded in 1991.

4. Dolly Parton, D.I.V.O.R.C.E. (1969)

Feeling isolated and alone in the slave South, Kemble may well have taken comfort from the music of Tennessee singer and fellow actor, Dolly Parton. Sadly no video, but Parton’s fans have helped us out on youtube.

5. Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive (1978)

Divorce in the nineteenth century brought shame and stigma, especially in the conservative slave South. So turning to this divorcee dancefloor classic would have brought Kemble a brief moment of pleasure.

Incidentally, for Gaynor’s new, 20 second ‘handwashing’ version on TikTok, see: Hand-washing

6. Nina Simone, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free (1967)

Simone’s version of this classic song became an anthem for Civil Rights activists in the US, but the lyrics are also relevant to Kemble’s enslaved people, whom she often failed to understand. This version was recorded at the Montreux Jazz festival, 1976.

7. Rhiannon Giddens, Julie (2017)

Kemble would have benefitted from listening to this poignant song, where Giddens imagines a conversation between an enslaved and white woman during the US Civil War, as the Union troops approach their plantation.

8. Ranky Tanky, Good Time (2019)

Times certainly don’t feel good at the moment, but Gullah people from the Georgia and South Carolina sea islands (where Kemble lived during her marriage) have always used music and verse to provide hope, dignity and self-respect. Charleston band Ranky Tanky celebrate lowcountry culture and the musical traditions of their ancestors in this unique part of the US.
For more on the life of Fanny Kemble, see Catherine Clinton (ed.), Fanny Kemble’s Journals (2000). Perhaps Kemble would choose this book in addition to the Bible and works of Shakespeare (which of course, she loved)? Kemble would have enjoyed knowing that people are still interested in her.

Hating isolation, Kemble would not have enjoyed life on a desert island one bit. It would also probably remind her of how isolated and unhappy she felt on her Georgian plantation. For her luxury items, she would need a pen and paper to continue writing her journals and to jot down imaginary correspondence with her wide literary and theatrical social circle.


You can find our more about Professor Emily West and her research on US slavery in the US South, especially the lives of enslaved women, the relationships between enslaved spouses, family under slavery, and affective ties between enslaved people and free people of colour at the University of Reading here here 

To hear more from Emily, see her video made at the National Slavery Museum in Liverpool Here

You can also follow her on Twitter @emilywestfahey



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