Wild Arabia; Israel: Facing the Future; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

We're still trying to whittle down the amount of stuff we have recorded on our PVR so on Tuesday evening we started to watch a series about Arabian wildlife & people narrated by Alexander Siddig. This first episode was called "Sand, Wind and Stars" and was all about the desert in the centre of the Arabian peninsula. As with most nature programmes it's hard to say much about it, because the point is primarily the visuals. This was a very beautiful programme, lots of shots of endless desert sands and oryx moving across the scene. And close-ups of a variety of animals that can survive in the desert heat. There was also another strand of the programme that followed a man and his son on their way to a camel racing gathering - a Bedouin tradition.


On our normal Wednesday night tv night we started off with a programme about Israel - John Ware visited Israel and spoke to a combination of ordinary people & political or religious leaders (mostly Israelis, but also Palestinian Arabs) about Israel & the future. The thesis of his programme was that Israel stands at a crossroads between a secular future and a religious future.

The programme started with some scenes of Tel Aviv and Ware pointing out that at first glance this could be any cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. But you don't really have to travel that far to get to the Egyptian border, where the army patrols after attacks on Israel from the Egyptian side of the border. And back in Tel Aviv he spoke to the members of a rock group who are all pilots in the airforce as their "day job". Israel has been in a state of conflict, if not outright war, with the surrounding Arab nations since the country was founded and this is an always present fact of life for Israelis. And if anything this tension is on the increase in the aftermath of the Arab Spring - for instance Egypt has elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power who are anti-Israel. But Ware said that these are not the issues that are concerning Israelis the most, in the most recent election the candidates campaigned on internal matters. He went to a football match in Tel Aviv and spoke to random spectators about their views on the election and got a wide spectrum of answers from conservative to liberal. Much like you would if you went to a football match in the UK and asked similar political questions.

Ware spent the rest of the programme talking to representatives of various different ideologies & political positions within Israel. One group he talked to were the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who, as the name suggests, are a particularly conservative subset of the Jewish faith. Some of them (all of them?) were living in the region before it was Israel (or are descended from people who were) - and they are predominantly anti-Zionist, believing that the Jewish state shouldn't've been founded by secular authorities and that it should've waited for the Messiah. Ware filmed a demonstration by Ultra-Orthodox Jews who wanted to boycott the last election, and pointed out how odd it seems to us to see Jews who don't want an Israeli state. Or rather, who don't want this Israeli state. There are also tensions between this community & more liberal Israelis partly because there are a high proportion of the Ultra-Orthodox receiving welfare benefits (because they are devoting their lives to their religion and spirituality rather than supporting themselves). And partly because the more extreme Ultra-Orthodox have tried to impose their behavioural rules forcibly on other citizens who don't share their beliefs.

Ware also looked at the position of Arabs within Israel - the descendants of those who stayed when the country was founded. He primarily interviewed an Arab man who writes a comedy tv show about the mis-adventures of an Arab in Israel. We were shown clips from it, it made me think of Mr Bean a bit but much sharper edged. The writer talked about how Arabs are often treated with prejudice by ordinary Israelis, and although they are full citizens with the same rights as anyone else in practice they are poorer than other Israelis and often feel like second class citizens.

And of course a lot of space was devoted to the situation in the West Bank (and Gaza to some extent). Ware talked to an Israeli woman who lives in one of the settlements in the West Bank - in an area that's practically a suburb of Jerusalem. I felt she was very media-savvy, when asked why she lived where she did she said it was "of course" partly for ideological reasons, but then dwelt at length on the beauty of the place, how good it will be for her children to grow up there, how the schools are very good. As a counterpoint Ware also talked to a group of young Arab activists who in the wake of the Arab Spring have been doing very media friendly protests. For instance they boarded a bus travelling from the West Bank into Israel proper carrying signs and having alerted media so they could be filmed being removed from the bus at the border.

There have been long running attempts to get some sort of peace settlement between Israel & the Palestinians who lived in the West Bank & Gaza before Israel attempted to expand into that territory. Mostly this has focussed on trying to set up a Two State solution where the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank & Gaza and the Palestinians will form their own state in those regions. Ware spoke to some people in favour of this sort of solution. One of these was an Arab businessman who is funding and leading a building project to create a Palestinian community in the West Bank with similarities to the sorts of housing the Israeli settlers have - beautiful, modern, a good place to live. He was upfront that part of his reason for talking to Ware was because he wants the world to see that the Palestinians can be builders too, not just the stereotype of destructive terrorists. Another of the people Ware spoke to was an Israeli politician who thought that Israel did not have a God given right to claim any territory that had been in biblical Israel, so they should withdraw & leave the Palestinians in peace.

But there are people at both ends of the political spectrum who believe that the idea of a Two State solution is dead, that the only way forward would be a single state. They believe this for very different reasons, and would like to see very different sorts of single states. The Arab protesters I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above and other more liberal people would like a single state where all the citizens of the state whether Israeli or Arab have the same rights. And that this might mean that Arabs get elected to positions of power in the government and get to influence the direction of the state, and that's OK.

At the other end of the spectrum the religious conservatives want a single state, where everyone has rights but where only Jews get to have any influence on the direction of the state. Ware spoke at length to a woman who is a politician with this sort of ideology and she was quite clear that she thought that the most important thing about the Israeli state was that it was Jewish and keeping it that way should be paramount. She also felt that Israel has a right to the territory in the West Bank based on the biblical borders of Israel. And in addition she didn't believe that a Two State solution would be in the interests of Israel's security - stating that since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza violence from Hamas against Israel in that region has increased.

I thought Ware tried to make a balanced programme, letting the various people say what they had to say without overly editorialising. Obviously he chose who to speak to and how to edit them, but I felt the storyline he was fitting the programme to was that there's a range of opinion & ideology in the country and it's not a simple situation. Of course it's hard for me to tell how balanced he actually was, because I know nothing about Israeli politics!


The second episode of Chivalry and Betrayal covered the period from 1360 to 1415, and was actually mostly about England and the English monarchs rather than the Hundred Years War per se. But Ramirez started off by telling us what the situation was like in France after the peace treaty between Edward III and John II. Whilst there was peace on a national level, and no actual armies going around fighting, bands of English soldiers were going about the French countryside looting and pillaging. These freebooters were sometimes led by knights, but there was no real organisation - every man in it for the profit he could get out of it. I don't imagine the English authorities tried terribly hard to stop it, and the French were handicapped because their King was still held captive by the English.

Once John II of France died his son, Charles V, could finally take over properly. He declared war on England once more and started to turn the tide against England. His new general, Bertrand du Guescilin, was less interested in the army being perfectly chivalrous and more interested in winning - Ramirez pointed out the similarities here to how Edward III had got the upper hand in the initial stages of the Hundred Years War. Having driven the English mostly out of France, the French also put together a fleet that was much bigger & more capable than the English fleet. This they used to harass the towns along the Southern coast of England. Ramirez talked to an expert on this who told us that the MO of the French was to sail in with the rising tide, then loot, pillage and burn the town. Following this they'd drag the town's ships out to sea as they departed on the receding tide. 6 hour lightning raids, that would not only destroy a particular town but also strike fear along the coast about where they'd strike next. The townsfolk would obviously appeal to the crown to do something about this, but no help was forthcoming and that's the next thing Ramirez went on to talk about.

Edward III is still on the throne at this point, but gone are the days of the warrior King he was in his youth. Old sources suggest that he went senile towards the end of his reign, in the 1370s. Ramirez went to look at Edward III's funeral effigy which has a model head made from a plaster cast of the King's face after he died - so it's a true likeness of the man. The expert she spoke to pointed out that there are indications that Edward III had had a stroke or a series of strokes. So she was saying that it wasn't dementia that affected the King, instead it had a physical cause (I'm not quite sure why that matters - I think it's more that these days "senile" is a technical term, but back then it would probably have been more broadly applied and cover loss of mental capacity due to a stroke as well).

Edward III was succeeded by his 9 year old grandson, Richard II - because the Black Prince had pre-deceased Edward III. So now England has been pushed out of France and has a child on the throne (after a few years of an ineffective King in Edward III). So there's a bit of a hiatus in the Hundred Years War & in fact Richard II and Charles VI (the Mad) do agree some sort of peace.

Just as well, because there are other things for the English to worry about - first the Peasant's Revolt, where the day is only saved by Richard II himself (still young) promising the rebels their demands will be heard then reneging on the promise. But it's a close call, and the Chancellor (Simon Sudbury) is dragged out of the Tower of London and killed during this conflict. Ramirez visited the church in Sudbury (the village in Suffolk) and saw the head of Sudbury (the man) which is kept there. It's a skull (obviously) but still has some skin on it. She spoke to an expert anatomist who showed us the marks on the vertebrae which show he was decapitated but not with a single blow, the first cut didn't quite go all the way through.

Ramirez then visited the National Portrait Gallery and showed us the diptych portable altarpiece that shows Richard II kneeling before Christ, Mary & the heavenly host - as she said, it shows us what sort of King Richard was. Vain and concerned with other things than war. She also showed us an inventory of all the precious things Richard had bought, and pointed out that the country might've put up with taxes for war but there was discontent about being taxed so much for the King's luxury. This contributed to Richard II's downfall. He'd exiled the future Henry IV, and then when Henry's father John of Gaunt died Richard extended Henry's exile and took his inheritance for the crown. Henry came back, raising an army of discontented English, and defeated Richard II to take the throne. He had a claim, as John of Gaunt was a son of Edward III, but was still a usurper.

When Henry V took the throne after his father, Henry IV, died one of his driving motivations was to prove he was a legitimate King. And Ramirez told us that the way he did this was to go back to war with France to show he was a warrior King and that God was on his side. Charles VI (the Mad) is still on the throne in France - Ramirez didn't tell us much about him, but what she did say was that like Richard II he was more interested in peace. This new campaign by the English reaches its climax with the Battle of Agincourt, which is still remembered today (thanks to Shakespeare) as a great victory for the English. Henry had proven his point, God was on his side.