At first glance, the new Audible series A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down doesn’t seem too promising. Podcasting prides itself in making room for niche or unlikely interests — this has always been part of its charm. But a series on sitting? In eight parts? Is there really that much to say?
It turns out that, yes, there is — and we are in safe hands with its presenter Greg Jenner, a public historian, author and host of the popular BBC Sounds podcast You’re Dead to Me. Jenner, who is also a consultant on the children’s TV series Horrible Histories, has long perfected the art of livening up potentially dusty subjects. Here he concedes that the theme of his pod might seem bizarre and that his interviewees were sceptical too. But, he adds, “Every single one of them was still talking enthusiastically an hour later.”
And so A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down examines how we sit, why we sit, and the symbolic and hierarchical properties of sitting in different places. We learn about the language of standing and being seated — you “stand” for parliament which is a “seat” of power — and are introduced to the seating arrangements in classrooms, sports grounds, courtrooms, government institutions, theatres and Victorian music halls.
The series, which spans centuries and takes us from the Colosseum in Rome to the House of Commons to Montgomery, Alabama, yields stories of triumph and injustice, of social progress or lack of it — “Because when we sit we aren’t just taking a load off,” Jenner explains. “We are often adhering to all sorts of cultural rules built up over centuries, or we’re trying to defy them. The story of who gets to sit and on what and when and why is often a microcosmic glimpse into society’s rules about power, politics, gender, race, age and so much more.”
Jenner is nothing if not thorough, talking to a vast array of experts, among them academics, politicians, journalists, commentators, lexicographers and the former Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who hails the wheelchair as a symbol of freedom while decrying the inadequate provision for them in spaces such as theatres and the House of Lords.
There is moving commentary, too, from Professor Mark Allan Jackson at Middle Tennessee State University as he discusses sitting as a symbol of segregation and protest for African Americans who, for decades, were banned from white spaces. “[There’s] the whole idea of control and sitting,” he says. “You can’t sit at the lunch counter, you can’t sit in the jury box but we will make you sit in the electric chair.”
Along with its unusual subject matter, Jenner’s series is notable for its excellent writing, which is irreverent, illuminating and sharply funny. You can imagine this seemingly niche podcast translating easily into a book or TV series, such is its wide-ranging nature. You might even say it was bottomless.