One of the programmes we watched this week was something originally from 2007, but repeated this summer - A Tudor Feast. It was a one hour standalone programme, and the main presenters have gone on since to do several serieses about farming in various historic programmes (including Wartime Farm which we watched last year (post) and Tudor Monastery Farm which we're watching at the moment but I haven't yet written about). In fact it was slightly odd watching this, because we're watching something 6 years newer so both Ruth Goodman & Peter Ginn looked jarringly younger than in the other programmes!
The premise of the show was to cook a Tudor feast using only authentic recipes and ingredients, and only the techniques the Tudor cooks would've had available to them. So it was (like the $TIME Farm serieses) a mixture of pseudo-re-enactment and documentary. For instance all the people involved were dressed up in Tudor clothes, as well as explaining how to do things Tudor style. The programme was filmed in Haddon Hall, which still has Tudor era kitchens (I think they said those hadn't been used in 400 years, presumably new kitchens have been built at various points over the years). And they picked a specific period where they have some records of the occupants of the house at the time - the 1590s. So as well as the modern recreation we got shown a list of the food used for a feast during that time.
One of the things this programme made clear was why this food was luxury food and only for the nobility. Some things were conventionally expensive - like cinnamon, because it came from far away, or gold because it's rare. But much of it was expensive because it required a lot of labour to make. For instance one of the centrepiece items they put together was a marchpane dessert. This was basically marzipan, that was then gilded and decorated. Which sounds quite simple, but the recipe started with sugar (already conventionally expensive) that had to be ground into powder by hand. Then grind your almonds. Then finally make the marchpane with these two and rosewater. That's hours of work, probably carried out by the mistress of the house or trusted servants under close supervision. And you haven't carefully iced or gilded it yet, let alone constructed the decoration.
Another of their centrepiece items was a peacock pie - not a bird one eats nowadays. The programme was concentrating on the food prep - the "downstairs" side of the feast - but they did discuss the taste of things a bit. In particular Goodman mentioned that peacock is often said not to be a good eating bird, but she's liked it when she's tried it. This pie looked like a conventional pie until the very end stage - and then (having taken great care to select a good looking peacock and to take his skin off in one go) they put the peacock skin over the pie, with a support structure (not sure quite what, twigs? wire?), to look like a peacock once more. When that was served up they put something burning in its mouth, following a period suggestion, so it looked very spectacular when carried to the table.
They also showed us how the table was set and discussed proper manners ("courtesy", the word etiquette wasn't in use yet). Where you sat was determined by social status, and top table got the most impressive dishes - the centrepieces I talked about above (and others like a boar head with an apple in its mouth), the better meat, the better cutlery and tableware etc. People were given napkins, which I didn't realise were a thing that went back that far. But instead of putting it on one's lap or tucking it into one's neck it was to go on the left shoulder. There it was conveniently placed to wipe your hands (most food was cut up with the knife then eaten with the fingers) and to clean your lips. Food was served not in courses like we would today, but in what were called "removes". Instead of everyone getting their own portion of the current dish, a variety of dishes would be set out on the table and you'd help yourself to what you fancied that was near you. There'd probably be 2 or 3 removes - this feast they did two, one of primarily savoury things and one of sweeter things. Choice was part of the conspicuous display of wealth that was the point of a feast - poorer people didn't tend to get a choice in what they ate.
I enjoyed this programme (like I do everything I've watched from this team). Lots of little bits & pieces I didn't know before, and sometimes you don't really realise what things were like till you see them done even if you've read about them. I'm now curious what peacock tastes like ... and I rather like the idea of a centrepiece at the dinner table of a fire breathing bird containing a pie! Not quite enough to buy a turkey with its skin on for Christmas dinner, however ;)
Other TV watched this week:
The Bridges that Built London with Dan Cruickshank - one off programme telling the history of London's bridges across the Thames. Interesting, but got a bit woo-woo at times towards the end.
4,000-Year-Old Cold Case: The Body in the Bog. One off programme about the discovery and investigation of a body in an Irish bog. This particular one was dated to 4,000 years ago, most across north-west Europe are from about 1,500 years later. They tried to present a theory for how & why these people were killed & buried - got a bit Discovery Channel (they Solved The Mystery and Proved The Theory), and a bit unclear how general their idea was but nonetheless interesting.
Episode 1 of Shipwrecks: Britain's Sunken History - Sam Willis talking about shipwrecks around Britain or involving British ships, their impact on history and our culture.
Episode 3 of Tudor Monastery Farm - part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.
The next chapter of the history of Plantagenet England returns to the chronological discussion of the politics of the era, and Prestwich starts by reminding us that Edward I had presided over a 20 year span of peace and prosperity. This had now come to an end in part because Edward's main advisers during that period had died, as had his first wife. The next couple of decades covering the end of Edward I's reign and the start of Edward II's were to be characterised by war and political crises.
- The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
- Philip IV (the Fair) ruled France from 1285 to 1314.
- Edward I died in 1307.
- Edward II reigned from 1307 to 1327.
- Edward III born 1312.
Political Crises, 1294-1311
The political problems at the end of Edward I's reign stemmed from war - the financing thereof, and the rationale for them. Edward I had wanted to lead a Crusade, but this turned out to be infeasible - in part because of the breakout of wars nearer home. In the first four years of this period there were several conflicts: 1294 war broke out with France (meaning that Gascony needed defending), there was a significant Welsh rebellion in 1294/5, there was a campaign against the Scottish in 1296 and finally Edward lead troops to Flanders in 1297. Prestwich says that in total this cost £750,000 (in the money of the time), which is an astonishing large sum - for reference the total value of the Church's wealth in England at this time had been assessed at £200,000.
So during these years the Crown was trying to raise money any way it could. Direct taxation (via grants of taxation by Parliament) were the least controversial of the measures taken. The Church was also taxed heavily, until this was forbidden by the Pope in 1297 (and even then it continued because the King threatened to remove royal protection from any cleric who didn't pay a fine which matched the amount they would've been taxed). The Crown also did things like seize all coin held by churches to "check for clipped and counterfeit coin" - most of this didn't make it back to the churches concerned. Twice attempts were made to seize all the wool in the country, and for the Crown to then sell this itself - cutting out the merchants and keeping all the profits for themselves. The first time this was abandoned and instead customs duties payable on wool were raised significantly (generating £110,000 over the 3 years till 1297). The second wasn't officially abandoned, but wasn't particularly well carried out and relatively few sacks of wool were actually seized.
In previous years Edward had also relied on an Italian banking family, the Ricciardi, for loans but they were bankrupted in 1294. In part this was because they were caught in the middle when the Anglo-French war broke out, with neither King happy with them - and Italian depositors started to worry and withdraw their funds, so the Ricciardi's bank collapsed. This left Edward I with no co-operative bank to help fund his wars on the promise of future payment.
Taxes and Crown expenditure weren't the only issues bubbling to the surface by 1297. There was also the issue of military service - the feudal lords were not feeling co-operative with the King, and were starting to refuse feudal summonses. In some cases they were bullied into providing troops (for instance to go to Gascony) by threats to call in their debts, in other cases there wasn't anything to provide leverage. The subject of whether the King should be pursuing these wars was also controversial - the wars in France and Flanders were unpopular, because the Scottish were causing trouble in the north and the barons felt this was where military effort should be focused.
So in 1297 matters came to a head. Whilst those who lead the opposition among the nobility and the clergy had personal grievances as well they were almost entirely acting in what they believed the country's interests to be rather than their own interests. The key difference between this crisis and that of 1258 (discussed a couple of chapters ago, post) was that the conflict was based not on deep seated grievances with the way the country was being run but was instead almost entirely about the current wars. The terms King and nobility (and King and Church) agreed to in the end were not radical, and didn't inhibit the King from ruling the country himself (unlike in 1258). The grievances that were not related to the wars were related to the King's enforcement of Forest Law - at times in places where it was not traditional - so one of the things he promised was to carry out an inquiry into this. Another promise was a reiteration that taxation should only be imposed by assent, and that in addition it should be for the common profit (rather than the King's gain). The documents didn't really go into details of how this was to be ensured.
The aftermath of this crisis wasn't peace and tranquillity. Conflict rumbled on until 1301, with Edward trying to wriggle out of the promises he'd made about Forest Law and the nobility refusing (although not always successfully) to grant taxes till this was done. From 1301 to the end of Edward I's reign in 1307 things calmed down. In part this was due to the opposition leaders dying, or marrying into the royal family, or in the case of the leading churchman (Winchelsey) being summoned by the new Pope (an ally of Edward's) to answer charges against him. The Scottish war also provided political peace in England - it was a popular war being in defence of the realm rather than a foreign adventure. So taxation for this war was less objectionable than for the Flanders campaign in 1297.
Edward I's personality was also an important factor in both the relative small size of the 1297 crisis and the increasing stability after 1301. He was a formidable man, and Prestwich recounts a couple of stories of the time of men dropping down dead when confronting the King or the like. He wasn't loved by his subjects, and common criticisms were about his stubbornness and his wilfulness. Prestwich says that in Edward's youth he had been compared to a leopard - fierce and brave like the lion (leo) and unreliable and deceitful like the pard. But he was a feared and respected monarch, and this held the country together.
Edward II was to be a very different sort of King. Prestwich very quickly dismisses the speculative idea that better training might've made Edward II a better King with the point that Edward II had been given opportunities (like the 1301 Scottish campaign) to prove himself and learn to be King. But he hadn't demonstrated any capability (or desire to do more). Prestwich says the most politically significant facet of Edward II's life before taking the throne was his developing friendship with Piers Gaveston. Edward I disapproved, probably because Edward II was asking for too many favours for Gaveston, and had sent Gaveston into exile in early 1307. One of Edward II's first acts on taking the throne was to reverse this.
The reaction of the country at start of Edward II's reign was guardedly optimistic - a generous tax was granted despite the failure of the invasion of Scotland (not quite started when Edward I died, and abandoned shortly after). But even in early 1308 there are signs of political argument taking place within the nobility. A group of magnates signed an agreement that "things" had been done that were contrary to the King's honour and they should work to rectify them. It's unclear now whether this is magnates loyal to Edward II protecting his interests from more radical magnates, or whether it's a veiled attack on Gaveston and these are magnates loyal to the memory of the old King. But either way there was clearly some dissension within the nobility. Edward II married Isabella of France (the 12 year old daughter of the King of France) in January 1308, and was crowned in February of that year. There was some attempt to demand the delaying of the coronation until Gaveston was exiled again, but it didn't succeed. However Edward II's coronation oath added a clause to "maintain and preserve the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen". The precise meaning of this is debated by historians, Prestwich says it probably meant different things to different people at the time too. The clause was very shortly afterwards used to bully the King into exiling Gaveston again.
Prestwich spends a bit of time talking about the hostility towards Gaveston and the nature of the relationship between Edward & his favourite. He comes down on the side of this not being a homosexual relationship - although admits that no-one will ever know. On the "yes" side for this are some insinuations at the time about how Edward loved Gaveston more than his new Queen. But on the "no" side are that this wasn't as widespread a rumour as it would surely have been if it were true. Prestwich also cites Edward's children with (and early affection for) Isabella and an illegitimate son, and Gaveston's own daughter, as evidence there was no sexual relationship between the two men - but I don't see that that rules anything in or out. Edward did after all have an incentive to produce an heir which might overcome a distaste for sex with women, and he could also have been bisexual.
But modern desire to know what was really going on aside, the nobility of the time had other reasons to dislike Gaveston whether or not he was sleeping with the King. He was extravagant and arrogant, so he spent the King's money and rubbed everyone else's noses in the fact. He mocked the other members of the court, and was known for a waspish tongue. Gaveston caused no problems during his exile, but on his return in 1309 he was back to irritating the nobility at large.
Matters came to a head in 1310, and this crisis is more like that of 1258 than that of 1297. The King was deemed to've frittered away his treasure and was forced to agree to a council of Ordainers who had full power to reform the realm and the royal household. In exchange all the King got was a promise that this was not to form a precedent. The Ordinances mostly looked back to previous Articles and precedent from the earlier crises of Edward I's reign (and his father's before) - even back to the Magna Carta. However it wasn't particularly radical, and didn't try to impose the sorts of restrictions on royal power that were tried in the 1250s and 1260s. It was more a purge of corrupt advisers or officials and a drawing up of more explicit rules for how consent for taxation and other issues (like the King leaving the realm) should be obtained. One significant difference between the Ordinances and earlier documents about obtaining consent is that it moved this from being from "the community of the realm" to being more explicitly via representation in Parliament.
The publication of the Ordinances didn't solve the crisis. Edward II saw the renewed demand for Gaveston's exile and the restrictions on his ability to exercise royal patronage (to avoid future Gaveston-esque situations) as completely unacceptable. So this wasn't the dawn of an age of peace & prosperity like the authors would've hoped, it just kicked off more trouble - which is the subject of the next chapter.
The Brunei Gallery at SOAS housed an exhibition on Zoroastrianism for a couple of months this year (now finished) called The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. We managed to fit in a trip at the end of November, a week or two after our visit to the mini-exhibition at the British Museum on a similar theme (post). Sadly no photography permitted but we went to the British Museum briefly afterwards, and I took couple photos of related objects (some of which had replicas in the exhibition) to illustrate this post.
The exhibition started by setting the scene of the various cultures present in the Middle East in the first millennium BC when Zoroastrianism got going. They didn't just have objects from Iran, but also from other cultures across the region - including an example of the Luristan bronzes. I'd not particularly noticed these before (there are a selection in the British Museum, see below for a badly lit example), but they caught my eye this time. The exhibition was saying that these cultures were replaced by Indo-Aryans migrating from the steppes to the north, and Zoroastrianism was brought by these peoples or developed by them. I think this is based primarily on the language used to write the Zoroastrian scriptures. This is called Avestan and is only known from being written down many centuries later by Zoroastrians. The scriptures themselves are collectively called the Avesta.
The next room of the exhibition was a circular space with verses from the Gathas, a key Zoroastrian text which is traditionally believed to be Zarathustra's own words, on the walls in Avestan and translated into English. This was complemented by audio of these verses being read out. From there the exhibition moved to a very brief description of some of the key principles of Zoroastrianism, for instance the division of the world into 7 classes of things (like fire, water etc), and there were several Zoroastrian texts displayed. I read none of the scripts that these books were written in, let alone the languages, so this section felt rather heavy on texts with too little explanation. Some parts that stick in my mind, however, were firstly the way that the annotations for the rituals would be written in a different writing system to the main text - and upside down. Avestan is written right to left, and the Gujarati annotations are written left to right - so if they're upside down then they run right to left just like the main text. Also written upside down wherever it occurred was the name of the evil principle, Ahriman. As well as the texts there were illustrations of the Zoroastrian funeral arrangements in this section - because the elements of the world are holy they should not be polluted by the dead body. This means that cremation and burial weren't regarded as viable ways of dealing with the body (although these days they may be). Instead the bodies are exposed to vultures (sometimes in circular towers known as dhakma) - modern changes in tradition are in part due to a decline in vulture population.
The next section of the exhibition looked at the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China. The objects here consisted of more texts (some of them some of the earliest extant Zoroastrian texts dating from the 9th Century BC) and some ossuaries. The other side of this room showed representations of Zoroastrianism in the Christian world. Not just the Three Wise Men but also Zarathustra shows up in medieval texts as an ancient philosopher and magician - the very word "magic" derives from the Zoroastrian word for priest (Magus). A prime example of how things get garbled as they travel between cultures.
Downstairs the centre piece of the exhibition was a replica Fire Temple. Non-Zoroastrians aren't permitted in real Fire Temples so this is really the only way to see what one is like. As well as an impression of the building they had a (fake) fire in a ritual cauldron and examples of many of the implements used during rituals. There was a video of a priest and his assistant carrying out the daily ritual of the temple - which involved not just the fire but also water and plants. These days a priest has just one assistant, but they had a book from pre-Islamic times which showed where the 9 different assistants should be positioned during this ritual, so clearly it was once much more elaborate. I think this room was my favourite part of the exhibition, and certainly the most striking.
The rest of the downstairs was divided into two sections - one was Zoroastrianism in Persia and one in India. The Persian side was dominated by a rather fine glass etched replica of the sculptures from the Palace of Darius in Persepolis - the photo above left is of the plaster cast replica in the British Museum. The centre text of that relief is a cuneiform inscription extolling the virtues of King Artaxerxes III who had this staircase added to the palace. It also calls for the Zoroastrian gods to protect him and his country. Other objects in this section included a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder (the photo above right is of another replica in the British Museum, the original is out on tour). This details Cyrus's conquest of Babylon and again has Zoroastrian themes. One of the interesting bits of information in this section was that it was a Persian Zoroastrian priest who really pulled together the religion into a coherent whole, several centuries after it was originally founded. Prior to him the different cults in different places had their own flavours of Zoroastrianism, but he set down a proper way to do things and enforced it. The other half of the room was Zoroastrianism in India, sadly it seemed to me to lose focus and to devolve into a collection of portraits of notable Indians in (British) court dress - mostly from the Tata family. It is presumably no coincidence that one of the listed sponsors of the exhibition is TATA Enterprises ...
Upstairs there were some more modern pictures of Zoroastrians around the world - there are now communities in many countries including Britain. And there was some art with Zoroastrian themes, most of which was not really my cup of tea.
Overall I think it was an interesting exhibition, and I'm glad I went. However, it did suffer from a lack of focus (not just in the Indian section, but that was the worst) and I wasn't always sure why things were included. And sadly by the time we visited (only a little over a month after opening) the labelling on the cases was beginning to wear off - and particularly downstairs some of the cases were lit in such a way that the labels were pretty much unreadable. We did buy the book, so when I get a chance to read that hopefully the essays will elucidate some of the things I missed!
The Making of the Modern Arab World is a new Radio 4 series about the causes and recent history of the current political situation in the Middle East. It's presented by Tarek Osman, an Egyptian author, along with several interviews with historians or the descendents of notable figures - his focus is on Egypt and Syria in particular. The first episode looks at the development and decline of Arab liberalism. Osman started by talking about the parallels between the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the 1919 Egyptian uprising against the British colonial government, and about how during the early 20th Century there was a period that could be seen as a golden age of liberalism in the Arab world. He then began to trace the rise of this liberal ideology, and the flowering of the Nahda - the Arabic renaissance.
Osman traced this story back to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. This shook Arabic culture out of a sense of complacency about its place in the world. In this pre-European-colonial-empires time there weren't the same tensions between "the West" and "the Middle East" that there are now. Scholars and intellectuals from Egypt and other parts of the Arab world visited European countries and investigated European philosophy & science, with an eye to taking what ideas they could and integrating them into their own Arab way of life & their Islamic religion. This lead to a period called the Nahda, often translated as the Arab renaissance. This wasn't seen as Europeanising, but more as modernising and regaining the place in the world that they used to have (back when Europe was in the "Dark Ages" and the Islamic world was the centre of intellectual development).
However the drive to modernise came at a cost. The economies of the Egypt and other Arab countries weren't set up to generate enough money to buy the new modern industrial infrastructure that they were putting in. So they got in debt to the European nations, in particular Britain and France. When economies collapsed, or there were popular uprisings against the governments, the British or French would step in and directly rule the country concerned. But the Nahda continued, and there was a growing elite with more liberal values than the traditional conservative society of these countries. This elite was encouraged by the colonial authorities via diplomacy during and after the First World War to consider themselves a potential stepping stone to self-rule for their countries.
As always comes up in the modern history of the Middle East the First World War is where Britain and France really sow the seeds of the current political conflicts both internally to the countries concerned and between the Arab world and Europe. To get the various past and current constituent countries of the Ottoman Empire on the side of Britain and France in the war they were all promised self-rule and lands of their own. And in addition the Jews were promised territory in Palestine. Several of these promises were contradictory, but that isn't even the worst bit about the situation - after the war most of the promises weren't kept at all. Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire between themselves, and the Arab states didn't get self-rule.
The sense of betrayal in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries was profound. Osman discussed the uprisings in Egypt (in 1919) and Syria against the colonial governments. Some initial amount of success - limited self-rule in Egypt after 1919, and a backing off of the French authorities in Syria (after the initial brutal crackdown) - lead the liberal elite to believe they had begun to achieve their goals. But the lack of results with Britain and France still holding onto the powers they wanted damaged the creditability of this elite with the rest of the population. Osman finished the programme by talking briefly about the movements that grew out this disillusionment with the liberal Westernised elite. One of these is the Arab nationalist movement, in particular the Ba'ath party in Syria, and the other is Islamism, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt. These movements are the subject of the next couple of episodes.
Unreported World is a current affairs series on Channel 4 & a little while ago they did a half-hour programme about damage to antiquities in Egypt. We put off watching it for a while because it was bound to be depressing, and indeed it was.
It was filmed after this summer's coup where President Morsi was overthrown & it looks at the effect the unrest has had on the ancient sites, and on the livelihoods of those who work in tourism. One of the main strands was talking to two people who make their living offering camel rides at the Giza Pyramids. And since the coup there have been very very few tourists, at the point when they were interviewed it was a couple of weeks since their last customer. Who'd been the first for a while. These two were doing better than some and must've had some savings - their camels weren't starving yet. There was a particularly unpleasant sequence where the reporter (Aidan Hartley) was shown the animals that had starved to death because their owners could no longer afford to buy food for them left lying in the desert. Hartley also talked to the two about their home lives, and visited there - the adult man lived in a fairly small house with his own family, his two brothers & their families, and his sisters. The three men all work in the tourism industry and have had no work for weeks. He's wondering how he's going to afford his children's school fees, and about how that's going to affect their future. The boy who works with him is only 13, and dropped out of school when he was 8 - he needs to work to support his family, because his father has a degenerative disease. All either of them have ever done for work is offer camel rides, and if the tourists don't come back they don't know what they're going to do or what's available for them to do. They were very anti-Muslim Brotherhood, who they see as causing the problems.
The other main strand of the programme was about the looting of antiquities that's been going on since the coup. In many cases this grows out of the lack of tourism and lack of income for people who relied on tourism. Hartley managed to get an interview with someone who is going out into the desert to dig things up to sell, and he was explaining that he did know it was robbing from the future and that it was wrong but he saw no other way to earn money to get food. Obviously he's going to be spinning that for what he thinks the Western TV crew want to hear, but we were just shown the dead animals, and other signs of people who are running out of options. But the main focus of that strand of the programme was on an Egyptian archaeologist, Monica Hanna, who is preparing to sue the government for basically allowing the looting to happen She was (at least on camera and officially) talking about the lack of security at the ancient sites and the knock on effects of the curfew in Cairo (ie people who might protect the sites have to be home overnight, but the looters don't stop for the curfew). However in the interview with the looter he said he bribes the officials who should be looking after the sites to turn a blind eye to what he's doing - that's how they're getting away with bringing bulldozers in, or with sometimes operating in broad daylight.
Hanna took Hartley to several different places to see the sort of damage that was being done. This included a variety of sites where nothing has yet been properly excavated - like the sands around one of the pyramids at Dashur, where it was known there were graves but no-one had dug them up yet. But now the looters have been in with their bulldozers and dug up any antiquities they can find to sell on the black market. Which means we'll never know what has been stolen, because they didn't know what was there before. And a lot of potential knowledge about that area is lost forever now the graves have been disturbed. It's not just the truly ancient sites that are being disturbed - Coptic churches and graveyards from pre-Islamic times have also been disturbed. Rockcut churches have had holes blown in them with dynamite, looking for treasure, murals have been defaced, graves disturbed and grave goods stolen. Hanna said that as well as the looting for things to sell she sees an anti-idolatry strand in what's going on - she talked about proclamations by religious figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood which talk about destroying the pyramids or other examples of "idolatrous" sites from "bad religions".
A thoroughly depressing programme to watch. There aren't simple answers either - just got to hope the political situation settles down and tourists can come back to revive the economy before too much is destroyed.
Other TV watched this week:
Episode 2 of Tudor Monastery Farm - part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.
The Joy of Logic - one off programme about the history of logic and maths, and the birth of computer science. Good, and made me want to re-read Gödel, Escher, Bach again.
Episode 4 of Stories of the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited - Julian Richards returns to digs that were originally filmed for Meet the Ancestors more than a decade ago & sees what new things have been learnt. interseting but padded, as all the other episodes were.
Indie Game: The Movie - film length documentary about indie games, following the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez, and talking to the creator of Braid. Interesting look at the behind scenes of game development at this small scale, did make me wonder why anyone would ever put themselves through that.
I've been dragging my heels about writing up this book ever since I finished reading it nearly a month ago, because I've got no idea what to say about it. Consider Phlebas is the story of a Changer called Horza. Changers can alter their physiology to make themselves into a mimic of a person, and so make good spies or military agents. Horza is a minor figure in a vast war between the Indirans and the Culture. The war is about expansion and politics and beliefs, of course, but Horza's part in it is down to a simple principle. The Indirans are all biological, but the Culture have machine AIs who are not just citizens of the Culture but heavily involved in running the Culture. And Horza feels that is wrong, on a deep fundamental level. He (and in fact his entire world/people) are on the Indiran side, despite the fact that the immortal Indirans regard mortals as not really people. At least they're all biological, right?
Horza is rescued from near death after a mission goes wrong, and sent to capture a Mind (a Culture AI) which has gone to ground on a Planet of the Dead. A Planet of the Dead is sort of a museum exhibit - a particular civilisation preserve worlds where the sentient species self-destructed, and embargo them. Except that a few guardians are permitted, and for this particular Planet of the Dead those guardians are Changers, and Horza was once amongst their number. So he's a good choice, but obviously things don't go smoothly (there'd be no story otherwise). Horza ends up "rescued" by a mercenary ship after a space battle destroys the Indiran ship he was on, and must first ingratiate himself and then wait for his chance to fulfill his mission. As a supporting cast we have the various other mercenaries, and for a primary face of his antagonist we have the Special Circumstances agent Balveda who is trying to get to the Mind first (to rescue it).
And I got to the end of the book and just ended up feeling deflated. In retrospect I suppose it should've been obvious it was going to be a tragedy, but I wasn't expecting it to end with it all feeling quite so pointless. Horza's mission is important to him, but it's not really important to the war, or to the Indirans. He just ends up a pawn ground to dust between vast forces he has no chance of affecting. He has chances to turn aside, to make a life for himself somewhere else away from the war - but he sticks to his principles, he does the right thing as he sees it. And the universe doesn't care, the Indirans don't care, mostly no-one even knows he existed. And his principles are misguided at best - the Indirans don't care at all about him or anyone who isn't an Indiran, Horza's elevation of biologicalness as the most important thing is just convenient for the Indirans to make him more useful.
I prefer more optimism in my fiction, I think. Or maybe just less nihilism.
A note of comparison to the other books by Banks that I've read - identity is again a strong theme. Horza can change his entire appearance & mannerisms to mimic others, I don't think we once see him in his natural form in the book. People are always interacting with who he's presenting as, rather than who he is - and he definitely has issues with his identity, including recurring nightmares about forgetting his own name. I'm not sure if I missed something there - was Horza not his real name and I missed clues about that?
Another note is that I thought the Culture was "in our future" but this book makes it clear that's not Banks's intention - there are framing vignettes for the story that give Earth dates for the war, and it's happening elsewhere in the universe during the past 600 years, or so.
How Videogames Changed the World was a two hour look through the history of computer games, presented by Charlie Brooker. We recorded it from Channel 4 on Saturday and it was very much made to be aired around the release dates of PS4 & Xbox One - and Sony had definitely bought a lot of the advertising spots in the breaks! I'd not actually had high hopes going into watching it - I mean, a mainstream programme about games might miss the mark. But it was clearly not just about games, but also by gamers - all the participants "got it".
The format was a countdown of 25 significant games - although it was almost treated like it was supposed to be a chart it was really a chronological sequence. Most of the first hour of the show was a nostalgia filled trot through my childhood, and then the second half had a lot of games J or I have bought as adults. Very much the target audience for the programme :) As well as Brooker there were lots of other contributors - some games industry figures (journalists or developers) and some relatively random celebrities (most of whom I didn't know of). Well, they had a love of games & gaming, so not entirely random, but ...
As someone who has spent a lot of her life playing computer games it was nice to find few things I'd quibble at. I think the biggest hole I'd pick in the list is that it'd be nice to've had something from the simulation/strategy/god game niche that wasn't just The Sims. I mean, I can see they wanted to talk about The Sims (and had stuff to say specifically about it), but nothing about Civ or Populous or Sim City and not even name checking those felt like an oversight. In general tho I agreed with their choices - they were good or iconic, or in some cases neither but perfectly illustrated the point being made.
It wasn't just a history of how games have changed, I thought the programme did a good job of showing how they fitted into the culture around them at the time and of illustrating how they'd affected the world. There are many positive ways that games have changed things - Minecraft was one major example used here, because it's not just a game it can be used to teach things too. And just in general games are more interactive and less passive than, for instance, TV watching. I did have issues with the dismissal of books as less immersive than games, tho ;)
They also spent a bit of time on most of the big issues around gaming and gaming culture - not just the positive aspects of gaming. Obviously they covered the moral panic over video game violence, and equally obviously as a programme by gamers it was heavily on the side of how foolish this moral panic is. But even so space was given to examples that did cross lines - because the point is not that all games are OK for everyone, it's that demonising all games because of a few is like saying every film ever made is pornographic because filmed porn exists. Another issue discussed was the way that gaming culture can be seen as a bit of a cesspit. The two strands of that that they discussed were again the obvious ones. The treatment of women gamers and particularly women gaming journalists can be abysmal, and CoD on Xbox Live in particular is notorious for foul mouthed teenagers. This is just a vocal minority, as they said on the programme, but it can seem relentless at times and probably more so from the outside.
The last "game" on the list was Twitter, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out and didn't (to me) actually illustrate their point very well. The point Brooker & co were trying to make was that with the rise of social media and so on more of our day to day life has been gamified. I think there is a point there, but I'm not sure for most people Twitter is that thing. All the people speaking on the programme were in some ways celebrities - in the sense that people will follow them on Twitter because of what or who they are not because of a personal connection. So they were all discussing how things like follower counts are like game scores, and projecting a persona is like having a game avatar or playing an RPG, and you craft tweets for maximum impact. And, well, I'm not sure normal people do that? Maybe everyone else does, I do barely use Twitter myself, so I could be way off base here. What did strike me is how the public in that game of Twitter are the coupons that prove you're winning (or not) - we're like the gold coins that Mario collects. Which didn't seem to be the point Brooker was making, but it's an interesting one to me.
A good programme, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a look at a culture that's one of my own :)
Other TV watched this week:
The Science of Doctor Who - a lecture by Brian Cox about the physics of space time, and the Fermi paradox.
Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm - part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.
The last episode of David Starkey's Music and Monarchy - which covered the 19th and 20th Century.