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A snoozy travelogue around British history

History is sticky.

Like molecular molasses, it spreads and drips over objects, buildings and sites and adheres on an atomic level. The events of the past remain, having seeped deep into the fibres of everything they touched.

History is sticky. We can’t see it. But we can feel it. We just don’t often give ourselves the chance, living our urgent modern lives. In Sleeping with the Past, I’m going to give the ‘sticky history’ theory the time of day. And night.

Join me as I go on an adventure across Britain, visiting places of importance and places important to significant people from our nation’s past. I won’t just be listening to tour guides and reading all about it – I’ll be getting up close and personal by spending the night. Sleeping in the very places where history was made, I’ll be listening out to hear what the walls would say if they could speak.

This isn’t a ghost hunt – more like a search for the real life behind what we learned in our history text books. The more life there was in a place, the more resonance is left behind, so I think it’s just as important to find out about the person who washed the king’s socks or what the archers had for breakfast on the morning of battle. Finding the emotion and the humanity behind historical landmarks – that’s what I’m setting out to do.

Sleeping with the Past

is one part personal journey to two parts historical investigation, with hot water bottles and a small cuddly dinosaur named Sidney.

Jenny Ryan is a professional quizzer. In 2015 she joined the hallowed team of Chasers on ITV’s teatime hit The Chase, beginning a campaign of crushing contestants’ dreams of a new kitchen or holiday to Florida. Nicknamed ‘The Vixen’ and ‘The Bolton Brainiac’ by host Bradley Walsh, she intimidates millions over their oven chips on a daily basis.

Before becoming a public-facing knowledge hound, she was a behind-the-scenes knowledge hound as a writer and researcher on shows including QI and The Weakest Link. Even further back you might have seen her on quiz shows like University Challenge, Only Connect and Mastermind. She’s used to grubbing about in the darkest recesses of libraries and the internet, seeking the juiciest, most obscure facts. So she thought she’d take a bunch of readers along on her researching and learning journey this time.

When she’s not quizzing, learning or writing out lists of UK number one singles or burial sites of kings (over and over again), Jenny can be found playing ukulele with her band Nanukes of the North, playing video games or watching cat videos on YouTube (over and over again).

Sleeping with the Past will be Jenny’s first book, and she is terribly excited about it.

It is the early 1990s. You can tell, because there are four of us in the back seat of a red Ford Escort and we’ve not been pulled over once since we left Bolton. In the front, there is a silence in frosty contrast to the sweaty summer temperature.

My father has decided to take one of his mystery detours. It was already going to be late when we arrived at the campsite, and now it will be well past sunset when we have to start pitching tents and heating beans on the stove. We will be universally grumpy and unmanageable, and my stepmother knows this. But my father cares not, because somewhere round here is what he terms a ‘site’.

It’s unquestionably a relief to get out of the car, away from perpetual elbowing and nudging from the step-siblings. Their eyes are rolling already. We trek to an overgrown megalith, and dad’s eyes widen. He launches into a monologue on ancient Britain, and impels us to place our hands on the stone. “You can actually FEEL the past! It vibrates with history!” he cries, eyes wide and pupils dilated like a druid on belladonna **.

“Can we go back to the car now?”

“Just give it a minute.”

“But nothing’s HAPPENING… there’s nothing to DO here… pleeeeeease can we go back?”

My stepmother joins in the eye-rolling. “Alright, off you go. Christ’s sake, Andrew. Kids aren’t interested in this stuff. See you back at the car.”

She was right about her kids. Not me. I linger. It’s not worth going back right now – the car doesn’t have air-conditioning. I try to follow dad’s instructions.

It is easier without the whinging. In the quiet, I close my eyes and lean on the standing stone. I think about how old it is, about who might have brought it to this place, about what it might have seen in the last millennium if it had had eyes and a memory.

For a brief moment, there is a vibration. Sort of. Something barely tangible happens. It feels as if the stone wants to tell me its story.

This was the moment I realised that history is sticky. It seeps into the gaps between the very atoms of objects, like a very fine treacle, and stays there. It builds over decades and centuries. When we say “Oh, if these walls could talk!” we actually mean “thank god they can’t…the things they’ve seen me do, I’d be arrested for emotional abuse of a brick structure.”

Thereafter it became a habit of mine to see historic places as tactile multimedia interactive installations, and more than once has earned me a stern glare or a pointed cough from a curator or steward (sorry, Caernarvon Castle in particular.) I like to lay hands on walls and windows and floors and wonder ‘what happened here?’ – which leads me to the question which set me off on this journey: do some historical events leave more behind than others? Are some buildings and sites ‘stickier’ with history than others?

** It turns out my father has form for this. When I first told my mum about the concept for this book she exclaimed, “Blood and sand! You sound just like your father.” and proceeded to recount a humiliating holiday incident in 1980 during which dad lay prone on Glastonbury Tor with his ear to the ground, insisting that King Arthur was speaking to him from within his tomb. Quite what King Arthur wanted with an ambulance driver from Bolton, we may never know.



Thursday, 14 December 2017

Here I am in Windsor. I'm currently waiting to hear if Her Maj will allow me to kip up at the castle for the book, and while here I'm being all villainous in a good old-fashioned pantomime. They sure work us hard here - we are doing 14 performances a week - so The Book is temporarily on the back burner. HOWEVER in the new year I'll update you with news which should mean you'll get the book a lot…

Why on earth are you doing this, Jenny?

Monday, 23 May 2016

How it all began: 

It is the early 1990s. You can tell, because there are four of us in the back seat of a red Ford Escort and we’ve not been pulled over once since we left Bolton. In the front, there is a silence in frosty contrast to the sweaty summer temperature.

My father has decided to take one of his mystery detours. It was already going to be late when we arrived at the campsite, and…

Hive Mind - Assemble!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Cor, we're already a week in. I'm immensely grateful to all those who have pledged so far, be they friends, family, or total strangers. It's a great feeling to know that people have faith in me and my project, although it's still looking like a huge mountain to climb. I'm already looking forward to a widely-promised funding surge when the mythical PAYDAY arrives (everyone who has assured me they'll…

Day One

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The day has finally arrived, and my campaign for Sleeping with the Past has gone live on the Unbound website.

It's really happening!

Earlier, I was in the middle of a Q&A session on Twitter, batting away such questions as "What is your favourite cheese?" (crumbly Lancashire), "What was founded in 1953 by Chad Varah?" (The Samaritans), and "Do you know Peter Kay?" (sort of, he was a family friend…

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