Podcast Brunch Club

Invisible Lives Covers History’s Forgotten Figures

by Jenna Spinelle on June 12, 2019.

An interview with Simon Shaw about Invisible Lives, a podcast that covers history's forgotten figures

From Hardcore History to Ben Franklin’s World, there is no shortage of history podcasts out there. But most tend to focus on the well-worn paths of history. Invisible Lives offers something different.

Created by veteran radio and TV producer Simon Shaw, Invisible Lives presents short vignettes on some of the figures that you probably did not hear about in history class. The series launched in May and its first episodes focus on computing pioneer Ada Lovelace and British military surgeon James Barry.

Simon is not a trained historian but describes himself as a “narrative-based packager of interesting information” based on decades of work for PBS and other stations. I talked with him about how he finds these stories, and why he believes they are important to tell.

How did Invisible Lives come about? 

Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated by history. Not so much the stuff we were taught in school but stories about interesting characters from the past who are rarely talked about. And that curiosity has stayed with me all my life to the point where I have a large collection of snippets I’ve salted away with the idea that one day I might do something about this overlooked area of history.

Now, having reached the joyous moment of not having to work for a living, I’m enjoying digging deeper and writing up these stories. Podcasting is a perfect outlet, I think, to unlock this cabinet of curiosities. Having admired masters of podcasting like Nate DiMeo on Memory Palace, I thought it was time for me to have a go.

How did you do your research if the people you are covering are not widely known?

It doesn’t take long to unpick fragments of information at the start of a research project. From snippets I read in books or online, I refine my subject matter then dig deeper into archives, respected authors, and if possible eyewitnesses; such as the guy I interviewed who knew Doris Hatt. Where things are not possible to confirm I mark the uncertainty with expressions like “historians cannot agree,” or “there’s a legend that suggests.”

All of the people you’ve featured so far are women. Is that intentional?

Women are lamentably overlooked in a lot of history. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their repression in society until relatively recent years. So I gravitate towards finding stories about remarkable women because there are more unreported accounts of interesting lives. And I like stories where women broke through stereotypical roles.

What do you hope listeners take from the show?

Hopefully new and surprising information. A bit of humor and pathos too. Overall I hope they enjoy them and will want to hear more.

What’s next for the show?

I’m keen to upload a new story every 10 days or so. And where appropriate I think it would be good to include a source interview for those who wish to dig deeper. As I go forward, I would like to collaborate with those unsung heroes who keenly record the history of their area to give them a chance to nominate narratives which have been overlooked. So I’m just beginning outreach to the UK’s history societies to let them know about the podcast and to solicit their suggestions. I’d love it if this could become a conversation with people, rather than me talking at them!

Jenna SpinelleAbout the author:
Jenna Spinelle is a writer and journalism instructor in State College, Pennsylvania. She is a leader of the PBC Virtual Chapter and hosts the Democracy Works podcast.


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