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A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down is brisk, curious and fun

In this Audible series, historian Greg Jenner persuasively makes the case that the story of “who gets to sit, and on what, and when, and why, is often a microcosmic glimpse into society’s rules”.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Are you sitting comfortably? Then why not begin this series from the public historian Greg Jenner on sitting through the ages, available now to Audible subscribers. “Every person we spoke to, without fail, laughed when we told them the idea for this series,” he says. “How on earth would we fill eight episodes with such a niche, mundane topic which we all ignore for a reason?” But Jenner persuasively makes the case that the story of “who gets to sit, and on what, and when, and why, is often a microcosmic glimpse into society’s rules”.

[See also: Armando Iannucci’s Why Time Flies is a delightful radio documentary]

Though we might think of sitting down as a passive act, or a kind of inaction (evident, as Jenner points out, in phrases such as “sitting around”, “sitting it out” or “sitting on the fence”), this light-hearted and energetic podcast explores how the act of sitting can be much more: an expression of wealth or power, or an invitation to conversation. Jenner describes himself in typically self-deprecating turns as someone who “mostly just sit[s] on [his] arse, at home, all day long, reading, writing, podcasting and writing stupid jokes on Twitter” – but listeners may know him for his popular history podcast You’re Dead To Me. (He has also worked as a historical consultant on the BBC’s Horrible Histories comedy television series, which gives you an idea of how often toilets will feature in the programme.)

Jenner brings on well-known experts – including the lexicographer Susie Dent, anthropologist Alice Roberts and the Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson – to discuss the earliest Neolithic seats, the thrones of Tutankhamun, and the reclining  ancient Greeks.

The tone is always brisk, curious and fun (Jenner chuckles along as he talks to his guests, or interrupts interviews to crack jokes), but remains informative. Jenner discusses typical home furniture through time, as well as ceremonial chairs, seats of power, Japanese toilets, classroom seating, sex chairs, wheelchairs and even the electric chair to explore the role that sitting down plays in every conceivable society from the ancient world to the present day. In what seems like a narrow topic, he finds an  endless variety of diverting avenues.

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A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down 

[See also: BBC Four’s Delia Derbyshire doc is a triumphant portrait of a brilliant woman]

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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism