Interviewing the AH Community: Ben Kearns

Questions from Gary Oswald

Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.

This week it's Ben Kearns, the host of the 'Alternate History Show' Podcast.

Hello Ben, so first of all thanks very much for agreeing to talk to us.

Hi-and thanks for having me as part of your blog-I’m a big fan of SLP-and it’s great to (sort of) follow in the footsteps of the likes of Turtledove in doing these interviews.

For those of our readers who don't recognise your name, you're the host of the Podcast 'The Alternate History Show'. How did you first get into Alternate History?

It’s a long story (which is handy for these purposes) and I stumbled across it by accident, but in short, I have Richard Nixon and Oswald Mosley to thank for it. My journey towards discovering AH actually started in the summer of 2007, when I’d just graduated from Uni. While I was studying I had free use of a website called Athens, which allows students to access academic material for free. Although I graduated in June of 2007 my free access didn’t run out until Dec 31st for some reason-and being a recently graduated student with the need for frugality that comes with being in that position (especially at a time when we were about to hit the 2008 crunch), I figured it made sense to take advantage of that. Although back then I knew the basics, I’d always wanted to find out more about the history of the UK and the world more generally, so decided to download some work on the history of the UK and US in particular (to contextualise, this was around the time Tony Blair was leaving office after dominating politics since I was at school-and George Bush was gearing up to do the same stateside). About a year later, around the time of the 2008 US elections I saw Justin Webb (BBC’s Washington correspondent at the time, if I remember rightly) being interviewed on TV. He made a throwaway quip to the affect that you could ask him just about anything on any US presidency (including Millard Fillmore’s) but he was notoriously bad at forgetting his keys.

Since I always remember where I put my keys (by putting them in the same-or similar places all the time) I had the crazy idea of going one better than Webb by studying the lives of every US president within the space of a week-I’d probably had a couple of drinks by then and often get randomly weird ideas in that scenario. Anyway, I stuck to my guns the morning after and by the following week, I wouldn’t say I’d grasped all there is to know, but if I had attended a pub quiz where the subject was US presidents, my knowledge would have got me by I reckon. Anyway, after all this learning about the UK and US I kept on coming back to a few figures whose reputation (as I saw it) could’ve been markedly altered had things panned out differently, or had they made smarter choices. If not for Watergate being discovered, it occurred to me that Nixon could’ve been primarily remembered for opening up relations with communist China and winning the 1972 election in a landslide. And likewise, Mosley was highly thought of prior to leaving Labour to form the doomed New Party (and eventually the BUF)-had he not done so, he could’ve become Labour PM and been credited with establishing the NHS. I googled the ‘Nixon without watergate’ scenario to find out whether anyone else had a similar idea-and spent a lot of my free time in the following year looking up alternate scenarios-and reading James Chases work on the election of 1912. From there, I was hooked, basically.

What about the genre appeals to you?

I’d say its the collection of infinite historical characters we all know and love (or love to hate) and the endless possibilities regarding what they could have done had the cards fell differently if that makes sense. Also, there’s something comforting about the idea that we as a society (and politicians/higher-ups) can shape history in different ways-and something equally as comforting in the knowledge (from Dystopic AH in particular) that things could’ve gone a lot worse. I also like to think as I get older, AH will play its part in preventing me from adopting the tendency of looking back at the past with rose-tinted glasses. I also love the idea of assessing the impact of various seemingly small changes.

As an example, I reckon Alternate History fans in the future will have an absolute field day with Covid for this reason-a lot of people are speculating on what aspects of our lives the pandemic will change permanently-and whether these changes are just an acceleration of trends we would’ve seen developing anyway. So it’ll be interesting to see how much change in the coming months/years Alternate Historians (and Historians generally) will actually attribute directly to the pandemic.

What exactly prompted the creation of 'The Alternate History Show'?

In short, I do Voiceover/radio work on a daily basis and had the idea of establishing an Alternate History podcast kicking around in my mind for a while. Eventually (when I had a bit more time to do it), I decided to go for it.

I though you might have done radio work before, you have a very natural style on the Podcast.

Yes, my passion for radio actually predates my passion for AH by quite a long stretch. In short though, I became involved in radio at school age and ended up studying radio broadcasting at College/Uni-and consequently have a few papers saying something to the effect of “this guy knows what he’s doing on the radio, honest”! Since then I’ve mainly been doing Voiceover work and local radio gigs.

Podcasts are an incredibly popular medium at the moment. What advantages do you think the format gives you?

That’s an interesting question. Obviously podcasting (in comparison to radio generally) has the advantage of not being time specific. As an alternative to Alternate History online communities/stories though, I’d say it’s much easier to consume a podcast while driving/going to the Gym/doing humdrum daily activities, than it would be to read a book, or in particular to access the kind of quality online discussions you get on sites like The Sealion Press forums, Alternate Timelines, AH Online or I also want to use the podcast to reach out to those who may have thought about history going differently from time to time, but might not have considered the idea of AH as a genre in its own right.

Your episodes tent to be long and detailed looks into a specific topic such as Brexit or the Beatles and the various 'what if's surrounding them. I know you take listener suggestions but what's the kind of thing you're looking for when you're deciding if a topic can sustain a whole episode?

Basically, if a listener gets in touch and sells the idea of doing an entire show on a specific subject, I’ll consider it! For example, last year Alex Wallace came up with the idea of doing a show about War Of The Worlds. I was unsure at first, but he’d clearly thought of things/angles to discuss-and had the idea of inviting Scott Washburn (author of a War Of The Worlds sequel book) onto shoot the breeze with us. So, the more you pitch an idea, the more I’ll consider it!

Of all the scenarios you've discussed so far what's the one that you find most interesting personally?

That’s a difficult question, though I’d say in all probability the most wide-ranging episode (and definitely one of my favourites for that reason) was the episode on Nuclear War/power, recorded in December 2019. Anyway, I’m gonna be optimistic and say my favourite episode is yet to be recorded.

On the podcast you talk about the plausibility of counter factional scenarios buy you also discuss narrative Alternate History fiction. How important is plausibility and well worked out historical thinking to you in terms of AH Fiction?

When reading AH fiction I do like to imagine myself living a day to day life in that scenario, so the more plausible it is from a historical perspective the easier it is to do that I suppose. And I do believe generally, it’s important to learn what didn’t happen in history-and AH is a great guide for that, so the scenarios must be credible enough to have plausibly happened in order to properly learn lessons from them. That said though, obviously if an AH story scores 10 out of 10 for plausibility, but ain’t that interesting, there’s little point in reading it, so I’d say plausibility is like salt and pepper have too much and it gets overpowering.

You normally have guests on your shows to chat with about the scenario. Among others, you've had on Alex Wallace and Colin Salt, both of whom I've interviewed before, and Tom Black, who founded this company. What's your selection process like and what qualities do you think make for an interesting guest?

I refer back to my last point for this question-to be a good guest on the show, while knowing your history textbooks backwards is undoubtedly useful, you need a bit of passion/creativity-and the ability to not sound like Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-much like Alex, Colin and Tom in other words. As you know though Gary, the AH community is pretty much all about people who know their onions-and have the ability to get creative with that knowledge. Aside from that however, it helps if you have some degree of expertise in other fields as well as AH-for example, last year I made contact with an member who is a medical student. While at first glance history and medicine aren’t compatible on the face of it, if you consider all the assassinations that did/didn’t take place, along with medical breakthroughs that have impacted on historical figures-and not forgetting the timely reminder of how pandemics have impacted on history, you can see that medical knowledge can be very useful to an Alternate History discussion. I also have a few friends who work in journalism who could, if asked, wax lyrical on the impact of something like the Eliza Armstrong case on the laws surrounding sexual consent in the UK, or even the reporting of journalists-and their contribution to World War II.

What's up next for the Podcast? What are your plans for the future?

We’ve got some exciting stuff to come, in March we’ll be doing a special episode on all things Israel/Palestine post 1948. Moving forward, I plan to do an episode on US politics in 1960 entitled ‘1960 and all that’, I aim to record an episode on the Hanoverians in the next few months and I’m itching to show off my enthusiasm for all things to do with the English Anarchy in the 12th century, subject to finding a guest to discuss it with.

The history of Zimbabwe also interests me the more I learn about it-and I have a feeling I’ll be getting round to doing an episode on that in the coming months-and I may have to do something on the Eliza Armstrong case-and other lesser-known events. I don’t want to be too niche though-so expect the occasional show on the Russian/American revolutions etc sometime. Finally, once Covid is better under control (and isn’t reported on everyday), expect an episode on the Spanish Flu.

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