In Our Time: Druids

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Druids which was another high-flying overview, albeit a little hampered in this case by the fact that there are few actual facts known about the Druids. The experts on the programme were Barry Cunliffe (from Oxford University), Miranda Aldhouse-Green (from Cardiff University) and Justin Champion (from Royal Holloway, University of London). The programme was a little confusing at times – I think there were possibly too many angles that they were trying to cram into one programme, as well as the paucity of solid information.

Most of what we know about the Druids comes from the Romans who wrote about them – the Druids existed between about 400BC & 400AD, primarily in the British Isle and also in Gaul (modern France). Early Roman writers (like Julius Caesar) seem to’ve been impressed by the Druids. They are described as playing extremely important roles in both the secular & religious life of their communities, they were highly organised & hierarchical and held gatherings where knowledge etc was passed between them and presumably some of it back out to their communities. The Druids themselves haven’t left us much evidence because they adhered to an oral tradition for communicating their knowledge – the experts speculated that this might be partly for memory training, and partly for restricting the knowledge to those who were supposed to know it. The Romans were impressed with the philosophy of the Druids, and some later authors drew comparisons between Pythagorean ideas (I think about the soul) & Druidic ideas (which is pretty high praise for the Druids given how highly esteemed Greek philosophers were).

Many later Roman writers have a change in tone towards the Druids – much less favourable, and more inclined to see them as troublemakers. Perhaps because when you are conquering somewhere having an organised priesthood that has frequent countrywide meetings to exchange knowledge is effectively having a resistance movement. And the Druids had something to lose – the Romanisation of Gaul & Britain reduced their power & replaced them with Roman administrators and Roman religious temples & priests. Later still, Christianity played a part in stamping out the last remains of Druidic culture in Ireland & Wales even tho early on there was some coexistence between the two.

The respect of the Romans for the Druids is still obvious even in the later times when they are stamping them out. When the Romans went to march on the Isle of Anglesey one of the most holy Druidic sites they took on the order of 20,000 soldiers with them, which is rather a lot for an island populated largely by priests. This happened in the same time frame that Boudicca rose up to revolt against the Romans on the opposite side of the country, and the assault was abandoned to march back to deal with her army. Aldhouse-Green made the point that this is unlikely to be coincidence and she thought it was likely that Boudicca’s revolt was timed to prevent the destruction of Anglesey – there is apparently some evidence that Boudicca herself was a Druid.

The programme then jumped to the 17th Century reinvention of Druidism – mostly lead by English clergy, it seems. It’s from these people that we get the linkage between Stonehenge & Druidism – because knowledge of the true extent of the history of humans in the British Isles wasn’t known in the 17th Century they assumed that anything pre-Roman pretty much happened at the same time. So Stonehenge is pre-Roman and Druids are what were there before the Romans, so therefore Druids built Stonehenge. Which isn’t at all the case – Stonehenge pre-dates the Druids by a couple of thousand years! However, Cunliffe did suggest that perhaps the culture that built Stonehenge developed into the culture that had Druids, that there’s some continuity there due to some similarities between archaeological evidence for religious practices in the two time frames.

In this segment of the programme they also touched on how the Bardic tradition in Wales & Ireland may’ve grown out of the Druidic culture – that it’s the closest thing to continuity there is between actual Druids & what people in the 17th Century were trying to rediscover. And that that’s not much continuity at all. But the Romantic reinvention of the past didn’t just give us some colourful stories & myths, it also helped the development of archaeology itself – people bought up sites that were thought to be holy to the Druids to preserve them, and to investigate them.

Skyfall

J’s doing well for trips to see films this year – I think this is the third one he’s persuaded me to go to the cinema for. Still don’t like cinemas πŸ˜‰ The film was pretty good, though πŸ™‚ I’d managed to completely avoid spoilers, so only knew it was the new Bond film & I think that’s a good way to come to the story. As always this isn’t so much a review as a collection of thoughts, and there are major spoilers ahead in the rest of this post.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

I thought they did a good job of putting in references to old Bond film things for the 50th anniversary while still making it a modern film – Miss Moneypenny, exploding pens (albeit in absentia), modified classic cars, martinis, Bond girls, meglomaniac mad & deformed villain with a complicated plot. All the things were there. And while the Bourne films might’ve given the Bond franchise a bit of a shot in the arm, making these recent Bond films more gritty & real, they’re still quintessentially British (in a fairly old-fashioned way). I mean, from what we see in this film Bond’s origin story (rich, childhood trauma involving death of parents, fights to protect others against evil) is pretty much Batman’s origin story. But Batman the American becomes a disguised vigilante & Bond the British gentleman joins MI6 and works for the government as a spy.

And rather nicely I felt the whole plot requires Bond to be who he is for it to work out. Not just how he happens to have the deserted, remote country house complete with secret passages, faithful old retainer & Daddy’s old hunting rifle for the final showdown to take place in. But also things like when presented with a gambling chip for his only clue, he puts his tux on & goes to cash it in and see what happens – a gamble – rather than going back to base and following other more conventional leads. And in the scenes at Skyfall at the end, we get shown how even when Bond is not at the top of his game, he’s still sharper, quicker, better than the other two.

I liked what they did with Mallory, how for the first part of the film you see him through M & Bond’s eyes – some interfering bureaucrat who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Then you get his back story from Moneypenny, as the first crack in that impression, followed by the inquiry scene where he’s fairly clearly not only on the same side as M & MI6 in general, but also reacts well when the violence kicks off. After that I thought you could look back at the way he acts before and see it differently. In particular the scene where Bond is returning to active duty and Mallory is asking why he bothered to come back, why not pretend to be dead. That’s not the cowardly suggestion it looked like – that’s Mallory testing Bond, poking at him to see how he reacts & thinking about things like has Bond lost his nerve after his near death.

On one level I liked the Moneypenny reveal, it gives the Miss Moneypenny of the old films a modern revamp. On another level, I felt that doing that in the same film as M’s death was problematic. There were really only 3 major female roles in the film – M, Moneypenny and SΓ©vΓ©rine. And two of them died & the other one retired from field duty. Which doesn’t sit well with me – it’d’ve been nice if Moneypenny had gone back into the field at the end. I know why they did it, the Miss Moneypenny scene is neat, but that also feeds into the disquiet because the baggage we as viewers bring to it is that Miss Moneypenny is a secretary – so a definite step down from active field agent. My personal handwave is that she’s got her eye on working her way up to the top desk job – M. It’d’ve been nice to have something more solidly textual to support that though.

But having said that there are some indications in the film that it’s not supposed to be a step down so much as a step sideways to play to her strengths. I did think it was emphasised that Bond would not want M’s job, not just because he wants the adrenaline rush of the active duty, but also because he doesn’t want to be the person who has to make the judgement calls about when it’s right to sacrifice one person for the good of the rest. You see how he both respects M for her ability to make that call, and hates that she can. And you can see that Moneypenny is not retiring from the field because she was broken by believing she’d shot Bond – she did both what she was ordered and what she felt was the right call. I also don’t think the film set her up as a bad field agent – she definitely came across as not as skilled or experienced as Bond, but part of the point is that he’s the creme de la creme. She did come across as competent & capable to normal mortal levels, and the shot she flubbed was only a surprise because “movie gun rules” meant we all expected her to magically hit the right guy. Looking at her view through the sights, it was exactly what she told M – impossible to get a clean shot. And yes, she was pleased she hadn’t killed him, but like M there was no impression that she’d spent the intervening time sobbing in the corner. Still, I wish we hadn’t had both the strong women from this film (SΓ©vΓ©rine doesn’t count here) finish the story no longer in the role they were previously shown as competent at.

Going back to things I whole-heartedly appreciated – I liked the running themes of betrayal, duty, the importance of doing what needs to be done and, of course, “sometimes the old ways are the best”. Kind of a hymn of praise to the myth of the perfect English gentleman – which is what Bond is. And in this film it’s also what M is, even her eventual death is done with no fanfare or fuss, that whole sequence is the epitome of the stiff upper lip.

Betrayal is in there because it’s not really about betrayal it’s about whether you can see beyond yourself to the wider picture – Bond & Silva are both betrayed to their deaths by M, Bond understands why but it breaks Silva & he spends the rest of his life plotting the perfect revengeful murder-suicide. Of course, Silva’s near death is a lot less clean than Bond’s and so you’d expect him to be more twisted-up by it, which does spoil the symmetry rather. Another neat touch for that theme is that Silva dies by being knifed in the back – betrayal metaphor acted out. And it’s also a metaphor for cowardliness (not facing your death). And of course, it was “the old ways”.

And as well as all those thinky things, it had lots of explosions and gunfights and chase scenes. Which is always awesome πŸ˜€ We went to the new “Imax” screen at the cinema near us – a bigger screen, better sound system. And it was pretty good, tho not awesome enough for the price hike you get by going to that screen πŸ˜‰

In Our Time: The Cell

This week we listened to the In Our Time programme on the cell while we had our Sunday morning breakfast. This is a subject about which I know rather more than the average educated layperson*, so I was curious to see if it’d hold up as still being interesting. It did πŸ™‚

In the 45 minutes they managed to cover an impressively large amount of ground. Starting with a brief intro on what a cell is (building block of biological organisms, but just like the atom once you look more closely there’s a lot more going on inside than you thought), then moving on to how big (not very) and how many in a person (a lot, but even all those human cells still only add up to 10% of the cells in your body, the rest are bacterial). They then covered in chronological order the three main stages in life on earth (if you’re thinking from a cellular perspective). First there were prokaryotes – bacteria are this sort of cell. These are the simplest sort of cell – a membrane bag that makes the important chemicals be more concentrated inside than they are in the sea. They have DNA (the metaphor they used was of a library), RNA (copies of blueprints from the library) and proteins (built from the blueprints), and they make the needed energy to do their internal chemistry by transporting protons across the outside membrane. But they don’t have any divisions on the inside of the cell, everything’s in the bag together.

Then about a billion years later the eukaryotes appear (an amoeba is a single-celled eukaryote) … and Melvyn Bragg managed to mispronounce eukaryote more ways than I could count in 45 minutes – the best was when he turned it into something resembling “erotic” πŸ˜‰ Eukaryotic cells have subdivisions inside them – they’re named for having a nucleus which is a compartment that holds the DNA, they also have mitochondria which were originally free living prokaryotic bacteria. These are the true determinant of eukaryotic cells – they evolved by one cell type engulfing another type, and then living in a symbiotic relationship where the internal bacteria provide energy for the outer cell. It’s thought this arose once and only once. So having more energy and having separate compartments (many of them, not just the two I mentioned) lets them maintain a bigger genome (the fragile DNA is kept away from the rest of the machinery, they have enough energy to do more reactions) and do more complex chemistry.

Next stage (after about another billion years) is the arise of multicellular organisms (like people! tho that took a while) – which are lots of eukaryotic cells stuck together. In this last section they managed to touch on the two sorts of cell division, cell specialisation by controlling which genes are switched on or off, and even some relatively recent research that shows that the control switches for the genes might be quite a long way away on the DNA strand so the way the DNA folds up in the nucleus is important (now that’s a hard problem to solve)**. Oh, and also to mention the true distinction between male & female (female gametes provide the mitochondria).

The experts on the programme were Steve Jones from UCL, Nick Lane (also UCL) and Cathie Martin (JIC and UEA). Unfortunately Prof. Martin wasn’t quite up to the normal standard – she was both nervous & used too much jargon. Either one alone would’ve been OK, but the two together made her contributions somewhat confusing to follow. Which is a shame, because she came across as someone who knew her stuff (as did the other two) but wasn’t comfortable with explaining it to non-scientists (in contrast to the other two).

But that quibble aside, it was interesting to listen to, and I thought it provided a very good high-level run through a complicated subject. It’s always nice when things like this hold up even if you already know what they’re talking about, gives you confidence that the ones you don’t know are equally accurate πŸ™‚


*Amusingly one of the further reading suggestions on the Radio 4 website for the programme is for a textbook I had to buy for my first year undergrad – Alberts et. al. “Molecular Biology of the Cell” … it’s the 2nd edition I have on the bookshelf upstairs, seems they’re up to a 5th edition now.

**One of the things I was doing during my last post-doc was looking for the β-catenin promoter, so this was particularly interesting. Mapping the 3D structure of the DNA to make sure all the various bits line up with the right genes has got to be complicated. And I bet it changes based on what cell type, which other genes are switched on or off etc.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance – but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can’t really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver’s 3 part series – the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols – Marr told us some of Temujin’s early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire – allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren’t really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn’t already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more – ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed …) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land – the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as “the Dark Ages” – concentrating on the work of MuαΈ₯ammad ibn MΕ«sā al-KhwārizmΔ« (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it’s right! He’s the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo’s economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper – which (along with lots of Leonardo’s other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn’t a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though πŸ™‚ ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV πŸ™‚


For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We’d been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn’t like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I’d feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would’ve been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain’s food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn’t continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn’t quite’ve been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The “modernisation” of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses – much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going … easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who’d been 7 and a farmer’s son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer’s wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting – and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn’t tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it’s easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended – it’s history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.

“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

This has turned out to be a somewhat topical entry, as Hilary Mantel has just won the Booker Prize for “Bring Up the Bodies”. It’s the second book of what will be a trilogy and is a novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s more well known courtiers. The story can’t really be spoilt, as it’s following history pretty closely – Cromwell starts from humble beginnings and rises to prominence first as the servant of Cardinal Wolsey, and then manages to survive the Cardinal’s downfall going on to work directly for the King. He is important in the engineering of the break with Rome & the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage so that Henry can marry Anne Boleyn, then instrumental in the subsequent downfall & death of Anne. After this he first rises higher (and is even granted a title) but then his enemies contrive to bring about his execution after the failure of Henry’s fourth marriage (which was to a woman Cromwell had found and put forward as the right candidate).

So that’s an extremely simplified potted biography of the main character of the novels. I read the first book (“Wolf Hall”, which won the Booker prize in 2009) earlier this year, it covers the time of the Cardinal’s fall and Anne Boleyn’s rise as well as multiple flash backs to Cromwell’s early life. “Bring Up the Bodies” covers much less time – just the last year of Anne Boleyn’s life. And I would assume part 3 will take us through to his fall from grace & death.

This is a period of history I’m particularly interested in, so it’s not surprising that these books are right up my street. I also liked the style they’re written in – it’s (mostly) present tense, and while it’s (mostly) in third person it’s like it’s the story Cromwell is telling himself about what’s going on around him. As if he’s constantly editorialising inside his head about what’s happening and what it means. It’s also very stylised, which is a constant reminder that this world of the court of the Tudors isn’t our world, the people are obviously still people like us but they have different expectations, different ways of behaving, they see the world differently. And a lot of the story happens in the gaps between what people say, or in the meanings behind the words.

Here’s a bit from around the middle of the book, when Cromwell has trapped Mark Smeaton into confessing to adultery with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is deciding who else to arrest from the string of names that Smeaton has given as also guilty and discussing it with Wriothesley (aka Call-Me-Risley). Thomas Wyatt is said to have been a lover of Anne’s before her marriage to Henry, and is a friend of Cromwell’s:

He turns. ‘Call-Me. You’re early today?’
‘I could not sleep. A word, sir?’
So today the positions are reversed, it is Call-Me-Risley who is taking him aside, frowning. ‘You will have to bring in Wyatt, sir. You take it too much to heart, this charge his father laid on you. If it comes to it, you cannot protect him. The court has talked for years about what he may have done with Anne. He stands first in suspicion.’
He nods. It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not simply talk to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.
But he decides to give Wriothesley an explanation he can follow. ‘It is not Wyatt,’ he says, ‘who stands in my way with the king. It is not Wyatt who turns me out of the privy chamber when I need the king’s signature. It is not he who is continually dropping slander against me like poison into Henry’s ear.’
Mr Wriothesley looks at him speculatively. ‘I see. It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you.’ He smiles. ‘I admire you, sir. You are deft in these matters, and without false compunction.’
He is not sure he wants Wriothesley to admire him. Not on those grounds. He says, ‘It may be that any of these gentlemen who are named could disarm suspicion. Or if suspicion remain, they could by some appeal stay the king’s hand. Call-Me, we are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.’

That shows us both Cromwells, the one inside his own head who’s doing good for people, who’s got good motivations but who does what is necessary if the king wills it. And that’s a truth about him, it is the way he is. But it’s also true what he tells Wriothesley, that’s also the way that Cromwell is. And even though we see the story through Cromwell’s editorialising eyes we still get to see how he must look to the outside world, and how even on the inside he is that calculating despite the stories he tells himself. All through this book, and the last, we see Mantel’s Cromwell taking note of every time he’s mocked or pushed aside by the gentlemen of court. Put down because he’s just a common born man who happens to be useful to the King, by men he considers as worth less than him for all their titles and noble birth. And we see him taking note of those that mock the memory of Cardinal Wolsey. That bit about what a paragon of virtue Wyatt is also shows us what he thinks of the rest of the court, like George Boleyn, Anne’s brother. The sudden drop into coarseness there is something that happens often throughout the book and in Henry VIII’s court. They might all be putting on a show as honourable chaste & chivalrous knights, but behind that act there’s a lot of illicit sex and petty vindictive behaviour. And plenty of gossip and jostling for position & status. Which in the end is what does for Anne Boleyn, whether or not she did commit adultery she didn’t act in a way that made it unbelievable so once the mud was flung it stuck.

Anne Boleyn’s downfall is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery – the various records from the time or shortly after are contradictory & show their biases. What’s known is that four gentlemen of the court (including George Boleyn) and Mark Smeaton, a common born lute player, were tried and executed for adultery with Anne, and she herself was executed for the same crime. High treason, as her alleged adultery put the succession in doubt. Mantel makes the point in her afterword that as no-one now knows what actually happened she’s not putting forth “the truth” she’s giving us a plausible possibility of how Cromwell saw those events. It certainly feels true to the character she’s written and to the times he lived in.

Mantel does a very good job in getting across just how claustrophobic and paranoid this must’ve made the court, too. Things are dredged up from conversations long ago and cast in a new light by later events. How can you remember everything you might’ve said that is now not acceptable? If spending time in private conversation with a member of the opposite sex is now sufficient proof of adultery, what might you be accused of? There are two moments in the book where everything suddenly shifts and you can see how precarious the situation is for England or for Cromwell. First the King is injured in a tournament & they think he is dead (and this is in fact the beginning of the end, as it does re-open an old wound on his leg, but the characters don’t know this). Elizabeth is but a baby, Anne is pregnant (and not yet disgraced) – will the Boleyns rule in Elizabeth’s name? Will part of the country rise up in arms to support the claim of Mary? Civil war looms, chaos is on the horizon. And the king, thankfully, revives. When Anne miscarries shortly afterwards, that’s really the first nail in her coffin – Henry has had a stark reminder that he needs a legitimate son (as has the court). If Anne’s not providing one, perhaps she isn’t the right wife for him.

The second is personal to Cromwell, but has the same shock and fracturing effect in the book (as it is, after all, Cromwell’s story). Henry feels Cromwell has overstepped in something, and viciously rants at him, making his displeasure clear. And it’s starkly clear just how much Cromwell’s career, and even life, are dependent on the King’s whim. And how few of the court are his friends in truth. The moment passes, Henry comes as close to apologising as the King ever does – partly by entrusting Cromwell with the task of finding out how to extricate the King from his no longer wanted marriage.

The personal is very much the same as the political. Who is friends with whom, who respects whom, the little things people say when they think they’re safe are all the things that shape the political course of the whole country. And Mantel brings that vividly to life, through the eyes of a man who catalogues and weighs up everything to see what it’s worth and how it can be of use. In many ways Cromwell is a monster, he engineers the deaths of several people throughout these books in fairly cold blood – but always able to tell himself it’s for the good of the country. Yet Mantel still makes him sympathetic, you can see how he does what he has to to survive and to keep his own people safe, and he is doing what his prince requires for the stability of the realm.

I thoroughly recommend the book (but read “Wolf Hall” first!).

Prometheus

We went to see Prometheus at the cinema ages ago, but I’m reminded of it again because the blu-ray J bought has just arrived & J spent a large chunk of the weekend watching the extras & commentaries (as well as re-watching the film). I’ve seen quite a few people in various places online saying how crap the film was, but to be honest I completely disagree with that. I suppose I should point out that I see very few films, so perhaps I’m just not as jaded as the general cinema-going population. Also I haven’t actually seen the Aliens films (although I’m aware of the plots of them and have seen clips/bits over J’s shoulder, and have read some of the spin-off & tie-in novels). Even above & beyond my general dislike of narrative entertainment in visual form I’m particularly not keen on seeing gruesome things so sci-fi horror isn’t really my thing. But that does mean I didn’t go into watching Prometheus expecting it to be another instalment in a franchise that was dear to me (like I think a lot of people did) – so I didn’t have to reset my expectations to the reality of the film. Although that did also mean I spent more of it watching from behind my hands than I’d expected, coz J had said in advance he didn’t think it’d be that gory πŸ˜‰ But equally I think the real reason I liked it better than other people I’ve seen comment on it is likely to boil down to it being my sort of story & not theirs, and that’s perfectly reasonable.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover over text to read, or read on entry page:

This isn’t a review, it’s more a collection of thoughts & impressions. And the main thing that’s stuck with me about the film is the ideas & the characters, rather than the action plot. I mean, you need the action plot, it’s what you’re watching and it wouldn’t work without it. But it’s the underpinnings that I found interesting & that J & I talked about afterwards (and again now that he’s got the blu-ray). I also like that you don’t actually get answers, you get hints & questions & possibilities and I think that makes it stronger. To take some recent examples (of things I haven’t seen but have read about) – the modern Battlestar Galactica & Lost both had a series long mystery plot of sorts, and then when people found out what was actually in the creator’s head it was disappointing. The questions had been more interesting than actually being given the answers. So I think the fact that the film doesn’t tell us much about the origins of human and Alien life in this universe is actually a good thing.

I didn’t think the whole thing was the most perfectest film ever, though – I do have criticisms and one part of the premise that I have to handwave my way right past. One major criticism is that I don’t think the film did a particularly good job of establishing Elizabeth Shaw as the character they intended and that weakened the first half of the film for me when I saw it in the cinema. Afterwards I read some stuff & watched a viral trailer snippet that made it clear that she had several doctorates and was trained in more than one field. That meant that the fact that she’s equally at home in an archaeological dig & a biology lab is actually because she is supposed to be a genius and polymath. And not sloppy writing on the part of writers who are making her do “all that science stuff” in the services of plot with no regards to how plausible it would be. I think it would’ve strengthened the film if there’d been some reference to her genius, something like a throwaway line about her multiple doctorates in the bit where she’s introduced to the crew of the ship.

The opening sequence is the bit that I need to resolutely put my own interpretation on and ignore textual hints that something else is intended πŸ˜‰ In my personal version the Engineer is seeding the whole of life on Earth – I refuse to see the lichen or other greenery visible on those rocks. This is because as a biologist I’m far too aware that we’re very closely related to the other life on the planet to be a creation that’s seperate to the rest of the biology of earth. So that Engineer is seeding the original DNA molecules that become the whole of the planetary ecosystem, not just intelligent life. I also file under “movie science, no relation to real science” the bit where they compare the DNA of the Engineer head to human DNA and it comes up as a complete match, if you actually stop and think about it that’s ludicrous. My DNA is different from your DNA is different from any other given human’s DNA so a total match only happens with identical twins. So why would a big blue guy who isn’t and doesn’t even look human 100% match whatever their human DNA sample was? So I just accept the point they’re trying to make here (the Engineers are related to us in some fashion) and skip past the inconsistencies both with any sensible reality & with the way I’ve had to handwave the opening premise. It’s got an emotionally right point, even if it’s not actually right (truthy rather than true) and sometimes that’s just the way you need to tell the story.

Something I’ve been paying attention to recently when I’m reading or watching fiction is mirroring. The most obvious example here is David and his relation to his creators which is juxtaposed the whole way through with the humans and their relationship with & desire to know their creators. He has what the humans are looking for – he knows his creators, he knows why he was created and how banal those reasons really are (because we could, because we wanted a better servant, because Weyland didn’t have a son). And all those humans (except Shaw) treat him as something beneath them, to be ordered around, practically as furniture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on a couple of occasions he’s addressed as “Boy” by the crew when they’re giving him orders, I think that’s supposed to set up mental resonances with slavery in the US. Only in this case it’s “OK” because he’s only a robot after all. And yet Weyland has put together this trip to try and meet his creators, expecting welcome and to be treated as an equal. Shaw & Holloway’s motivations are a lot less mercenary, and Shaw’s attitude towards David is a lot less callous, but they are still expecting more from their own creators than their species gives to its own creations.

David and Vickers provide another set of contrasting mirrors. Weyland in his pre-recorded welcome speech manages in a single sentence to twist the knife in both of them – neither will ever be good enough in ways they cannot change. “David is the closest thing I have to a son”. Except David is not a real boy, he’s always a robot first and foremost. And Vickers is his daughter, and that’s even worse than a robot when it comes to Weyland’s dynastic ambitions. And you can see how that’s eaten away at both of them – Vickers in the scene where she ends up telling Weyland that all Kings die, that’s the natural order of things. It’s even more obvious in the longer version of that scene in the deleted scenes & extras part of the blu-ray, she still loves him and wants his approval whilst knowing it will never happen and wanting him dead. And David with his line near the end about “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”. When I saw the film at the cinema I spent a lot of it wondering if Vickers would turn out to be a robot, but it’s actually that her facade and David’s facade come partly from the same place. The line that David repeats from Lawrence of Arabia is telling: “Certainly it hurts. […] The trick […] is not minding that it hurts.” I think if she’d turned out to be a robot that would actually have undermined that whole strand of the film, and detracted from the question of is he a person or not. Shaw clearly thinks so, she treats him as another person – I think she’s the only one we see thanking David for the things he does, and he clearly appreciates that from the way he interacts with her.

As an aside – writing this it’s interesting that I fall into the same way of singling out David as the people in the story. I’m using surnames for the human characters, but referring to David by his first name. By necessity, as he doesn’t seem to have a surname. But I suspect that’s deliberate, and it means that even writing about the film you end up singling out David as lower status than the rest of the named characters.

Shaw and Weyland are interestingly juxtaposed too. These are both very intelligent driven individuals in a class of their own, but you only have to look at that scene where they’re waking the Engineer and trying to ask him questions to see the differences between them. Weyland’s are all about himself – what can they do for him, can they make him young, can they stop him dying. Shaw’s are really on behalf of all humanity – why did you create us, why did you change your minds, what is the purpose of all this.

Shaw & Vickers too make a pair – until Weyland is woken up the two people in charge on that ship are those two women. The scene where Vickers exerts her authority early on is amusing because Holloway is there blustering away about “do you have some hidden agenda?”, but the real face-off is between Vickers and Shaw and they look pretty evenly matched. They’re also both determined and tough women who do what needs to be done – Vickers kills Holloway to prevent him getting back on the ship because of his infection and the risks to herself & the rest of the people, Shaw cuts an alien baby out of her stomach and then goes down to the planet to see the awakened Engineer because it’s what needs to be done. But Shaw again is more sympathetic & Vickers is driven by more selfish motivations. Oh, and they both run away the wrong way from the falling spaceship in their panic – Shaw is saved effectively by a miracle, she trips and manages to roll her way to a rock that breaks the fall of the ship just enough that she isn’t crushed. If she hadn’t fallen she’d probably still’ve been running along the long axis of its fall when it hit the ground.

And those questions of Shaw’s are referenced again at the end – David asks if it really matters why, and Shaw says that of course it does, and that’s part the fundamental difference between humans and robots like David. Ridley Scott says in his commentary that that’s an essential truth about David – he’s intensely curious but about how things work, what things are. And that drives a lot of what he does through the plot – the obvious example is that he infects Holloway to find out what will happen, and asks his permission first (and manipulates him into giving it unknowing). But he doesn’t much care about why. It is what it is, that’s all that’s interesting. And that’s actually a fairly alien mindset to us – I mean a fair amount of thought from humanity goes into big questions like “why are we here?”, “what’s the purpose of life?”. Shaw is admirable because she cares more about that than Weyland’s selfish questions. So David is pretty different from a human, despite being “made in our image” … and yet the characters in the film don’t really seem to expect that their own creators might be just as alien.

They also expect the aliens, the Engineers, to be a monolithic culture. But why? The group of them that goes off in this ship does so for all sorts of reasons – Weyland to get immortal life, Shaw & Holloway to find out where humanity came from, Vickers to make sure she knows what happens to dear old Dad (and make sure he’s dead), the geologist for a pay-cheque, the xenobiologist coz he’s a real geek about alien lifeforms and he’d love to see some in the flesh. They’re not a monolith, they’re people. And so are the Engineers – the one we see at the beginning sacrifices himself to bring life to the world, the one we see at the end destroys David & the humans he can reach without a second thought. This doesn’t necessarily show that the culture changed their minds (tho given the timescale it also could be that), it could just be that some factions go and seed life through the galaxy for a variety of personal reasons but some factions regard this as an abomination for an equal variety of personal reasons.

I feel like I’ve been writing for ages but still only scratched at the surface of the things I want to say. But I think if I carry on it’ll turn into a rambling mess (or more so), so I shall stop here πŸ™‚ It’s a film that I thought had all sorts of interesting ideas just below the surface of the action-oriented plot.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 5

This Sunday we listened to the last part of the In Our Time series on the Written Word. This covered the impact writing, and printing, has on science. As was a theme throughout the series they started with someone telling us how the Mesopotamians did it first, followed up by someone telling us how Egypt actually got there are least as early if not earlier πŸ˜‰

The first scientific writings that we know of (from either culture…) are astronomical observations, applied arithmetic (for things like building pyramids, as well as accountancy) and medical observations & treatments. The Greeks then took this further by systematising & analysing data on many different things, biological as well as physical & chemical. The programme made the point that a lot of our words for scientific processes come from the Greek – analyse, theory etc. This Greek knowledge & process was then transmitted via the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe and taken forward by new scientists in the Enlightenment era.

They spent a while looking at Newton’s notebooks, which are kept at Cambridge. These (and other scientists’ notebooks) evolved from the commonplace books that educated people would keep at this time into something closer to a modern lab book. Commonplace books were notebooks where someone would write down facts & quotations & such that caught their interest or that they wanted to remember. Newton’s books started off like this, but soon became places where he wrote down what experiments he’d performed & what he’d observed – like diagrams of a particular prism set up & details of what he saw. Or an experiment where he stuck a wooden bodkin in behind his eyeball and deformed the curvature of the eyeball and recorded what that did to his vision …

So the handwritten word was (and still is) important in the doing of science, in recording what you tried, what happened, what you think that means & what you’ll do next. The printed word is important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge – relatively large numbers of identical books can be produced, and then not only can more people read them but also discussions can refer to specific things & be sure they’re the same in the book their correspondent has.

Overall this was an interesting series, although at times it felt far too Euro- or British-centric. I guess this was partly because he was visiting British places that held early writings, and those collections are bound to be biased towards more local things.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; In Search of Medieval Britain

Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World – this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China – who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous – the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there’s a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an “elixir of immortality” which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed – and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar’s relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt’s assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn’t quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he’d kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua’s imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would’ve been. This didn’t really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme – with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua’s martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.


We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer – with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the “oh it’s delicious” after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think πŸ˜‰

I wish we’d managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun πŸ™‚

Adventures in Geocaching, Part 5

Saturday was another bright & sunny day, so we headed off to Thetford Forest to try & find some more geocaches. We sort of misjudged the times, we’d originally planned to have lunch at home but then realised it would take longer to drive there than we’d thought so left earlier with a plan of getting lunch somewhere near Thetford. Which was successful, but perhaps taking a picnic lunch and leaving even earlier would’ve meant we could do the whole walk we’d planned. Still, it was a nice lunch at a pub seemingly attached to a Premier Inn in Thetford.

Day 11

day 11 map

We parked in Santon Downham with the idea that we’d do the circular walk that took in the 11 caches in the Santon Downham set (“Santon Circular 1” etc) and 3 Church Micro caches – a 4.5 mile walk with 14 caches, which seemed like it would work out. In the end though we did about half of the walk, including looking for caches 1, 2, 3, 9, 10 & 11 of the circular set and 2 of the church ones (“Church Micro 1486 – Santon Downham” and “Church Micro 1485 – All Saints Santon”). This truncation was because we spent so long looking for numbers 1 & 2 in the circular walk (and failing to find them πŸ™ ) that at about 5pm we decided to cut back towards the car rather than head even further away. It was still half 6 by the time we got there tho! The bit I could record on My Tracks (my battery started to run out part way round) was 3.8 miles so I suspect we still did about 4.5 miles what with the faffing about and the completely wrong turn we took at one point as well.

It felt like a disappointing day, but actually we found 6 of the 8 we looked for. The problem was that we started off by not searching for one because there were too many people there (that was actually number 11 and we went back and found that at the very end), then of the next 3 we only found 1 despite spending over an hour looking between the other two. The guy who’d put these caches down was very very good at hiding them – perhaps too good for us. But having said that, we did find all the next ones we looked for – hidden in the ends of sticks or little painted magnetic button sized ones. Well camoflaged. I think we may need to return with reinforcements sometime!

The walk was good, too, although I was a bit cold having misjudged the temperature of the sunny looking day. And I got a few pics πŸ™‚

SwansSwansOld Post BoxSanton Downham, in the Domesday BookSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamSt Marys Santon DownhamRiverAll Saints SantonFlowerGetting DarkGetting DarkAmusing Sign

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories – both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it … and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with “and also known as the Father of Lies” πŸ˜‰ I did wonder what the Chinese might’ve had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don’t know but I rather suspect that they’ll’ve had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history – history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don’t know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China – he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England – both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one – the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you’d hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them …) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.