The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

Pompeii is the city most often mentioned when talking about the places destroyed by Vesuvius erupting in 79AD, but Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explained that Herculaneum actually tells us even more about how the Romans lived than Pompeii does. He started this programme by explaining that the way that Herculaneum was covered up by the ash from Vesuvius means that there is a lot of stuff preserved in Herculaneum that isn’t preserved in Pompeii.

So as well as buildings and the wall paintings & mosaics, there is also a lot of wooden furniture that has survived. This includes things like decorated wooden screens between rooms, or beds and so on. Some of these pieces of wood still have traces of paint & he showed us some wooden ceiling panels where that’s the case. He was telling us that they’ve done analysis of the paint traces and then showed a reconstruction of the vivid colours that it would’ve had originally. Also along that sort of line he showed us the head of a marble statue that had been discovered still with a large amount of the original paint – the hair was a ginger colour and you could see the painted eyelashes & irises of the eyes.

The preservation of wooden objects in Herculaneum also means that a lot of the town’s legal documents were preserved – originally these would’ve been written on wax tablets and the wax is long gone but the traces of the writing are still visible on the carbonised wooden frames. These documents are invaluable for telling us about the inhabitants of the various houses and their lives. He told us about one set of tablets that were a slave girl challenging her status – we don’t know if she won or not, but she was able to go to court and have witnesses called to determine if her mother was a slave when she was born or not (which would determine her own status). He also showed us the citizenship documents of an ex-slave who had managed to make use of the legal system once he was freed in order to become a citizen. Upward mobility appeared to be very common among the inhabitants of Herculaneum, and there were many freed slaves. Interestingly Margaret Mountford said in her programme about Pompeii that Herculaneum was a resort town, but Wallace-Hadrill didn’t mention that idea at all.

When we got to the segment of the programme about the sewers I remembered what we’d seen Wallace-Hadrill in before – Mary Beard’s programme about Pompeii had a section on the Herculaneum sewers where she talked to Wallace-Hadrill (he is the main man in the Herculaneum conservation project after all). Here he spoke to the people doing the investigation of the organic material from the sewers. They told us about the diet of the inhabitants of Herculaneum – a lot of fish, unsurprisingly for a town on the coast of the Bay of Naples. It seems Romans liked their fish whole & crunchy, the fish bones found in the sewers showed signs of digestion even the ear bones from the fish. Wallace-Hadrill then went to a market in the modern town & showed us that much of the fish & of the fruit & veg are still available today.

To corroborate the evidence from the sewers there is also data from the bones of the people found in the boat sheds. Wallace-Hadrill talked to the anatomists who are investigating these bones. They have done some analysis to see what sort of diets people ate (as this shows up in the bone composition) and this backed up the idea of a fish-rich diet. It also showed a lot of variety, they said it was hard to tell what factors affected who ate meat or fish and who was mostly vegetarian because of the social mobility meaning it was hard to identify who was or was not a slave or higher status. One thing they emphasised a lot while talking about the skeletons was that this is a unique resource – it’s a sample of about 10% of the population of the town from a variety of backgrounds & lifestyles. Because they all died simultaneously in this disaster it’s a snapshot of what the town was actually like.

An interesting programme, particularly when put together with the “how did they die” one we watched last week πŸ™‚

The other programme of the evening was the first episode of a series about the Hundred Years War presented by Janina Ramirez. We’ve seen some of her programmes before – she did one about what medieval illuminated manuscripts tell us about the Kings of England, and one about Anglo Saxon treasures.

The Hundred Years War is a conflict between England and France in which started in the 14th Century. In this first programme Ramirez started off by setting the scene – when Edward III came to the throne of England in 1327 he was not just the King of England but also held two duchies within the kingdom of France for which he had to pay homage to the King of France. Edward also believed that via his mother he was entitled to the French crown once the King of France died. However the French disagreed & his cousin Philip took the throne. At this time the French and English courts were tied together not just by blood, they also spoke the same language (French) and had a common culture of chivalry.

Edward refused to pay homage to the new King of France, which lead Philip to try to confiscate his duchy of Aquitaine. Then Edward declared himself the rightful King of France and this started the war. The first major battle was at Caen, where Ramirez pointed out the unpleasant side of chivalry as a concept – it didn’t apply to everyone equally, fellow knights would be taken prisoner & properly treated if they made themselves known. But the townsfolk at Caen were slaughtered wholesale by the English army. After this victory Edward III marched his army nearly to Paris, and then lured the French army to CrΓ©cy where he and his army waited at the top of a hill. This battle was a disaster for the French, in large part because Edward III completely ignored the chivalric rules of war. Instead of allowing the numerically greater number of French Knights to close with the English Knights and fight it out he had stationed two divisions of longbowmen (who weren’t nobly born) to target the French as they advanced. The resulting slaughter of both men & horses was responsible for Edward winning the battle. The army then went on to Calais, where they also won.

I think we skipped forward about 10 years here – Ramirez told us some stuff about what was going on in England during this time but I think there weren’t any major battles in France. One of the significant events was the formation of the Order of the Garter – meant to call to mind the Knights of the Round Table this was an elite order of 26 Knights. But as usual Edward’s version of chivalry was heavily leavened with practicality – these Knights were chosen based on their demonstrated ability on the field of battle. The French King created his own order of Knights in response – the Order of the Star. Instead of 26 handpicked proven warriors this order consisted of about 500 Knights, who all swore an oath not to leave the battlefield while they could still fight.

The next campaigns were led by Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. He started with his army from Aquitaine & marched towards Carcassone in the east. As the army passed through France they destroyed any villages, farms or mills they came across. They took the food they needed on the march and then burnt the rest. Once they reached Carcassone the knights at the town retreated into their fortifications, and the English could lay waste to the town (and kill the townsfolk). Again chivalry didn’t count for the ordinary people. Once the English had headed back to Aquitaine again, having made their point, the French King wrote a letter to the townspeople saying how he was sorry they’d suffered (but not actually doing anything about it). Ramirez emphasised how this campaign was a statement of power – look how the English could destroy the land and livelihoods of the French people and their King couldn’t do anything about it.

The Black Prince’s next campaign the following year went northeast from Aquitaine in much the same way. It ended up at Poitiers, where this time the French army was waiting for them. This time the English didn’t have the advantage of high ground, nor the surprise of their archers, but nonetheless they still won – and took the King of France (by this stage Philip had died and Jean II was King) into custody. He and other noble prisoners were taken back across the channel to England and held hostage. A truce was declared at this point (mostly due to the Black Death, Ramirez was saying) and then after a while a peace treaty was signed that gave Edward more lands in France (around Aquitaine mostly). He also held all his French lands in his own right, not as a vassal of the King of France. In return Edward was to renounce his claim to the throne of France … only somehow he never got round to that bit!

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 7)

Late Imperial China: The Ming and Qing Dynasties

This last chapter of the book covers about 550 years from the start of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 through to the overthrow of the last Qing Emperor in 1911 (plus a coda about the rest of his life up to his death in 1967).

Orientation Dates: Battle of Agincourt was in 1415. The printing press was invented in Europe around 1440, and Caxton brought it to England in 1476 (post). Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, also Rodrigo Borgia became Pope (post) in this year. Henry VIII ruled from 1509-1547. Martin Luther nailed his treatise to the church door in 1517. Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603, the Spanish Armada was in 1588. Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI & I comes to the throne of England, Act of Union creating Great Britain in 1707. Charles I beheaded in 1649. Glorious Revolution in 1688. South Sea Bubble in 1720 (post). US independence declared in 1776. War between UK & US in 1812 (post). Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901.

The Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty were the last Chinese Emperors of China, and their era was a reaction against the foreign rule of the Mongol Yuan immediately before them. The founder of the dynasty was a peasant (Zhu Yuanzhang) who became the leader of one of the insurgent groups during the civil wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period. He was only the second peasant to become Emperor, which he did in 1368 – the first was the founder of the Han Dynasty, which must’ve seemed like a nice omen to the people of the time (if they knew that). He was pretty conservative, and authoritarian, and he concentrated on promoting orthodox Confucian values. His successor in 1398 was his grandson – his oldest son had predeceased him, so the succession passed to his son’s son. However all Yuanzhang’s sons had been given territories around the Empire and command of armies, and unsurprisingly when the new Emperor started to reduce his uncles’ power bases this lead to rebellion and the senior of these uncles overthrew him to become the Emperor Yongle ruling from 1402 to 1424. And that’s pretty much the last of the individual Emperors of the Ming Dynasty that the book mentions – others might be mentioned in passing but the rest of this section is devoted more to the themes of the era. Which leaves about 200 years worth of nameless Emperors until the fall of the Ming in 1644.

As I said, one of the themes was the focus on making China “properly” Chinese again, after the century of Yuan rule. Part of this was an emphasis on codifying the rules, bureaucracy and social hierarchy of the country. The first Ming Emperor wrote the Great Ming Code (amongst many other pieces of legislation) which was a penal code specifying how the five traditional punishments should be applied to specific transgressions. He also commanded that this code could never be changed (because he felt he’d got it right and that social change could only be bad) – the book doesn’t say if it did stay the same through the whole 300 years of the Ming era. The bureaucracy was extremely organised, with officials categorised into ranks and types. They became officials via the traditional examination system, which during the Ming Dynasty became more & more constricted in curriculum and stylised in form. Scholars were the elite, and this was the only way to move upward in society, so any family that could afford to educate a son for the exams would do so.

During the Ming Dynasty the capital of China was moved to Beijing where it remains. This was started during Yongle’s reign and took forty years to accomplish. Surprisingly for a dynasty that was emphasising how they were not the Yuan it was built to the blueprint of the Yuan city that had been near there before. The Forbidden City is the name of the Ming Imperial Palace complex that was built in Beijing at this time. As well as being the residence of the Emperor it and its architecture had symbolic importance, and it held ritual altars. It was also the place where officials met with the Emperor and where the official business of government took place. The Forbidden City was built to be impressive, and to awe the officials and foreign dignitaries that came to have audiences with the Emperor.

The Emperor Yuanzhang was not keen on foreign adventures – he re-conquered China and that was it. He tried to encourage his successors to keep to these ways, but the Emperor Yongle had different policies. He sent out several fleets under the command of Zheng He in the early 1400s to visit foreign countries – they definitely went to India, and at least one reached the East African coast visiting cities in both modern Somalia & modern Kenya. An aside in this book next to a picture of Chinese map says that there are claims that one of Admiral Zheng He’s fleets reached the Americas & this map (which does show a recognisable looking American coastline) is thought to prove it. But it says this in such a way as to make it clear the author of this bit doesn’t believe it for a second πŸ˜‰ I’ve read a book previously about this (“1421: The Year China Discovered the World” Gavin Menzies) and even though I read it a long time ago I’m sure Menzies sounded convincing when he talked about the fleet finding the Americas. These fleets carried gifts for the rulers of the places they went to – the purpose wasn’t trade but tribute between countries.

Yongle also lead several major military campaigns into Mongolia – he died in battle during the fifth of these in 1424 and subsequent Emperors were not as interested in the world outside China as he had been. Although having said that, some Emperors did try & lead campaigns into Mongolia that weren’t successful – the book mentions an Emperor Yingzong who got captured by the Mongolians in 1449, so the officials in Beijing put his brother on the throne rather than ransom him. It says the Mongolians gave him back unharmed, which first seems a bit odd (wouldn’t they kill him if no ransom was forthcoming to teach the Chinese a lesson?) and secondly what would the Chinese do about having two “legitimate” Emperors? Sadly the book doesn’t say.

Trade with foreign nations during this period was mostly by sea – the collapse of the Mongolian empire had destroyed the safety of the overland trading routes. Officially the Ming Dynasty prevented or controlled trade, but in actual fact it went on semi-officially or unofficially in the seas to the south of the country. This unofficial trade was significant in the Chinese economy bring lots of silver into the country from the New World via the Europeans. There was also a lot of piracy – both by Chinese ships and by international ships (the Chinese mostly blamed the Japanese but there were a lot of countries involved including growing numbers of Western ones). In terms of cultural exchange the book only really talks about the Jesuit presence in China at this time – which seems to’ve both been significant and also not to’ve ultimately gone down well with the Pope. The Jesuits on the ground, so’s to speak, tailored their message to the culture they were in which lead to the Emperor removing Christianity from the list of “ruinous religions” that people weren’t supposed to follow. But it also lead the Pope to condemn the “Chinese Rites” and to ban the sorts of accommodations that the Jesuits had made (which decision wasn’t reversed until the 20th Century).

The Dynasty came to an end in tragedy, sparked by growing unrest and failed reforms of the tax system. The population of the country was growing, and the regime’s desire to change nothing from a vision of a golden age of a rural Confucian past wasn’t dealing well with the realities of the country. Finally a rebel army took Beijing and the Emperor Chongzhen first killed his concubines in a drunken rage and then hung himself the following morning. The Manchu Qing Dynasty were the eventual victors in this period of unrest.

The Qing Dynasty

I feel this should be subtitled “Finally the Jurchen Get Their Chance” πŸ˜‰ To recap – the Jurchen were a group of northern tribes who conquered northern China during the time of the Song Dynasty (post) and ruled it as the Jin Dynasty. They didn’t manage to conquer southern China before the Mongols swept in and conquered them. In the late 1500s the Jurchen people were reunified under Nurchai a man whose father and grandfather were killed during a massacre of a Jurchen village carried out by the Ming army. In 1618 Nurchai (ruling as Khan of the state of Jin) declared war on Ming China. His son Hongtaiji succeeded him as Khan in 1626 and continued the military expansion. After 10 years he changed the name of the dynasty to Qing, and coined the term Manchu to describe the inhabitants of the Qing state at that time (primarily Jurchens but also the inhabitants of the northern territories they had conquered, including some Chinese).

In 1644 the Qing took Beijing a year after Hongtaiji’s death, and his son Shunzhi was the new Emperor of China. It took a while before all of southern China was under Qing rule, but eventually the Qing ruled over a much larger territory than Ming China had covered. Shunzhi was a child Emperor under his mother’s regency (she was a descendent of a brother of Genghis Khan and the book refers to her as “strong-minded”). Shunzi died young, and his second son Kangxi inherited the throne at the age of 15.

Kangxi ruled for 61 years from 1662 to 1722 and it is he that consolidated the rule of the Qing over China. He successfully put down a rebellion by rulers of the southern parts of China (who had been prominent under the Ming Dynasty but initially surrendered to the Qing before rebelling later). He also annexed Taiwan, which was a Ming loyalist stronghold at the time. And he expanded the empire in the north & northwest to a point where it touched on to Russian territory. There were some skirmishes, but matters were resolved with the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 which determined the border between the two empires. The book has an interesting aside here – this is apparently the first & last time imperial China signed a treaty with a foreign power as an equal. I suspect some mythologising of this as a tipping point for the beginning of the end for China (the subsequent treaties with Western powers had China as very firmly the junior & beaten down partner), even though previous treaties weren’t always imbalanced in China’s favour.

Kangxi was succeeded by his fourth son amidst rumours that his will had been forged so that Yongzheng could “steal the throne” from his brother. Yongzheng ruled for 13 years, and turned out to be a hard-working and competent Emperor. He in turn was succeeded by his 25 year old son, Qianlong, who had been a favourite of his grandfather Kangxi’s. This lead to Qianlong taking an oath that as an act of filial piety if he ruled for 60 years he would abdicate so as not to reign longer than the great Kangxi. At his age, in 1736, it must’ve seemed like an empty promise – something fine sounding that wouldn’t matter in the long run. However he lived to 89 years old, and had to abdicate in 1795 so as to fulfil his vow. And then the book strongly implies he back-seat drove the first four years of his son’s reign.

The golden age of the Qing was the first century or so of their dynasty, and even by the last couple of decades of Qianlong’s reign the empire had begun to go into decline. Partly this was a consequence of a booming population, and the difficulties in feeding them. And the efforts of the Qing regime to alleviate the problems only served to make them worse. To try & grow more food new farming techniques & crops were encouraged. Chinese people were encouraged to migrate from China proper into the new western territories. Both of these served to increase the population boom, and the migration in particular caused environmental & political problems up to the present day.

Qianlong was the emperor that the British met with their first diplomatic mission, when he was 83 and nearing the end of his reign. There was somewhat of a culture clash – King George III offered trading rights & an exchange of ambassadors, Qianlong magnanimously allowed the diplomats to present tributary gifts to him on his birthday. There wasn’t an immediate reaction to this by the British because they were otherwise engaged (in the Napoleonic Wars), but they didn’t forget about China’s refusal to deal with them as equals.

Trade with European countries was a very important part of the Chinese economy & was also tightly controlled. At first the Kangxi Emperor permitted trade in four cities but later it was restricted to Canton, and the Europeans weren’t allowed to trade direct with Chinese customers but instead thre were government intermediaries. The major export to Britain was tea, which China had a monopoly on, and it was paid for in silver. The trade deficit meant that Britain was running out of silver to pay with, and so here we get to the British-behaving-badly part of the story (and this is also where the whole thing gets quite complex, hopefully I’m not about to grossly misrepresent it!). The East India Company started to sell opium to the Chinese to reduce the deficit, and actually swung the balance the other way – now the British were importing so much opium that silver was leaving the Chinese economy. For that reason & because of the effects of increasing numbers of Chinese becoming opium addicts the Chinese confiscated & destroyed the British stock of opium in China in 1839. And so the British declared war on China for this insult, defeating the Chinese in 1842 and forcing them to sign the Treaty of Nanking. This was the first in a series of “unequal treaties” where the Chinese gave up controls over their trade and paid reparations to the victors. There was another war not long after where France (and to a lesser extent the US and Russia) also got involved, ending in the Treaty of Tianjin where more European countries got trade rights in China and China ceded land to the British & to Russia.

The Chinese empire was by now in a sorry state after defeats & humiliations. In the second half of the 19th Century various rebellions broke out – the most significant was the Taiping Rebellion. At first the Europeans were on the side of the rebels because they were to some extent Christians (very unorthodox ones tho). But later when the Taiping opposition to opium became more problematic the Westerners backed up the Qing government. Forcing more concessions from them afterwards.

From the 1860s to the 1890s the Qing regime attempted to both Westernise & strengthen their political & military power. But it proceeded too slowly to have much effect (the Chinese lost wars to the French over Vietnam and the Japanese over Korea during this period). And too fast for the conservative forces in the regime, including the Dowager Empress who engineered a coup in 1898. During this period as well the various Western powers were dividing up China between them into spheres of influence, although China never quite became a colony of any of them. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 started as a reaction to both the deteriorating power of the Qing government and as a response to the increasing foreign power in the country. But then the rebels were manipulated into supporting the Qing against the foreigners, and were invited into Beijing to join with the Qing army – the Dowager Empress declared war on all the Western nations simultaneously. Whilst that displays great chutzpah, it doesn’t seem to me to display great amounts of sense – and an allied force of about 20,000 troops entered Beijing and defeated the Qing troops & rebels killing about 50,000 Chinese in the process. The imperial court fled, and the Boxer Protocol was enforced which gave the Western nations yet more access and control over China. And really that was the beginning of the very end for imperial China.

In 1908 the Emperor and the Dowager Empress both died, and 2 year old Puyi became Emperor. In 1911 the Xinhai revolution succeeded and declared the establishment of the Republic of China. Puyi’s uncle’s widow abdicated on his behalf. The rest of his life seems rather sad – at first he was Emperor still but only inside the Forbidden City. Later he fled to Manchuria and ruled there, propped up by the Japanese. After the Second World War he spent a while in prison, then lived much like an ordinary citizen in China until his death in 1967.

The Book in General

So I’ve got to the end of the book! My thoughts overall are that I’ve learnt a lot, but it’s far from being the best quality book I’ve read. Quite a lot of typos and errors of that sort, at least one point where there’s a sentence that never gets finished because when you turn the page you’re into a new section. It also could’ve done with a firmer editorial hand in terms of content – it’s written by a team of about 20 authors who are listed in the front of the book, but there isn’t any indication who wrote what bit. And it doesn’t always feel like anyone came along afterwards to make sure the separate sections worked in the context of the whole book. For instance in this last chapter there were three explanations of the line of succession between the first three Ming Emperors in three successive sections. Or in the previous chapter there was a bit where first the book discussed at length the ways that Song China traded with and had cultural exchange with the rest of the world, followed a page later by a statement that Song China was isolated from the rest of the world.

The book also could do with more or better maps – several times I had to look up a map in another book to figure out what this one was talking about. And at various times the name of an Emperor or other figure would be mentioned and put in context by a reference to someone else – who wasn’t mentioned before or after that one time. I felt a book that’s presenting itself as an entry-level book on a subject should take a bit more care to be self-sufficient.

However, having said all that I do now have a much better grasp of the sweep of Chinese history and that was the point of reading the book πŸ™‚

And finally, this is the first book I’ve done this “write an essay on each chapter” series of blog posts for. It’s definitely slowed me down in reading it but I think it’s done so in a good way – effectively I’ve read each chapter twice, once to read it and once skimming through while I write it up. I also remember far more of the start of the book than I otherwise would’ve. So as experiments go, I think this was a success πŸ™‚

The posts have possibly got a bit long, however – I’m not sure if I maybe need to split things up more (I can write multiple posts about a chapter even if I read the chapter in one go) or work on writing more concisely. Or maybe just stick with whatever length of post I end up with. Something to think about.

Next up will be a selection of fiction because I’ve got too many books out of the library at the moment, then on to another book about China that I’ve borrowed from my Dad (and it covers the three Qing Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong which works out nicely for following this book).

In Our Time: Epicureanism

Epicureanism is another Greek philosophy I’d heard of but didn’t really know more than the name. Even less than I knew about scepticism, where at least I was vaguely aware of the idea. The experts dicussing Epicureanism on In Our Time were Angie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), David Sedley (University of Cambridge) and James Warren (University of Cambridge).

Epicurus was a Greek who lived around the 4th Century BC, who wrote extensively on many subjects including physics, natural history, ethics & philosophy. Many of his writings survived – partly the way things always survive, by being copied again & again as people find them useful and also by being referred to by other people. But they’ve also survived in a more surprising way – a library in the house of a Roman living near Herculaneum was preserved via being carbonised (so they said, I assume carbonised in a readable form) and there are works of Epicurus that are only known from this library. There’s also a poem written by Lucretius extolling the virtues of Epicureanism that passed on much of the philosophy, Hobbs in particular waxed lyrical about this.

They spent a while discussing Epicurus’s understanding of physics, as that underpinned his philosophy. He wasn’t the first Greek philosopher to believe the world to be made out of atoms, but he did write about this extensively. He argued it starting from the idea that our senses tell us that the world is made up of bodies, and that there must therefore also be voids otherwise no movement would be possible. He then argued that the bodies we see (like a person, an animal, a plant, a rock, whatever) must be made up of smaller bodies because the ones we see are divisible and change. So these small indivisible (and invisible) bodies are atoms, and they exist in a void. He also argued that this void must be infinite, because if there is an end to it then what’s beyond the end? Logically it must be infinite and then this implies that the bodies (atoms) are infinite in number – if there was only a finite number then they’d be spread too thin to form the larger bodies.

Epicurus also needed to explain how come we can have free will if everything is made up of atoms that move in precisely predictable ways, and he did this by means of “the swerve”. This is saying that an atom as it moves in its straight line might deviate a small amount in its course, and this then means that not everything is predictable so there can still be free will. This idea came back again in the early 20th Century – as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle allowed philosophers who were worried how free will could fit into a universe ordered by Newtonian physics to say that the universe wasn’t predictable. But the experts were saying that it’s not clear how that actually works, mechanistically speaking, to give free will it just feels intuitive that you need some sort of unpredictability to the universe.

These ideas about the physical basis of the world put him in opposition to the Sceptics. Because his arguments are all based initially on “our senses tell us …” he can’t share the Sceptics’ views that one cannot trust one’s senses. So he argued against that. His theory about how our senses work was that there was some film emanated by a physical body that passed through the air to the ears or eyes or whatever. And when it entered our sense organs then the brain’s interpretation of that was always accurate – but it might have been changed between the object and one’s sense organs. So an example is an oar half in & half out of water looks bent but feels straight. The Sceptical way to look at this was that it was a contradiction between your two senses so how could you tell which one was accurate? Epicurus said that your perceptions were both accurate – it looks bent, it feels straight – and it’s that something happens between the object and your seeing of it that makes it look bent.

This model of the physical world is what lead to Epicurus’s philosophy of life. If everything is made up from these bodies, including the soul, including the gods, then there is no afterlife and the gods are not our creators. So the right and good way to live your life should be based on something in this world, and Epicurus said that this should be pleasure. When a baby is born, it already knows the difference between pain & pleasure it’s not something taught – so choosing pleasure as your guiding principle is going back to basics. This wasn’t a philosophy of sybaritic luxury, Epicurus believed that true pleasure was when you were free of pain and it didn’t get better by adding on more luxuries. So if you weren’t hungry, then that was the same amount of pleasure regardless of whether you’d had a simple, filling meal or a fancy feast. They talked about this quite a bit on the programme – there was something about two sorts of pleasures, and the static ones (like freedom from hunger) being the greater ones. Epicurus also counted freedom from fear as being a foundational form of pleasure, so to follow his philosophy you needed to work on not being afraid of death. When it came to physical pain his idea was that if it’s mild pain then you can use your mind to remember past pleasure or anticipate future pleasure and eventually the pain will pass. And if it’s severe pain then it won’t last long (they were saying on the programme that this was because if it was severe pain then you were probably going to die, and as there was no afterlife then it’d all be over).

They were saying that Epicureanism lasted well into Roman times as a philosophical school, but it’s in many ways the opposite of Christianity. So as Christianity rose Epicureanism fell out of favour. The works of Epicurus were rediscovered in Europe in the Renaissance, but they didn’t have much time on the programme to discuss this.


Back in the middle of March J & I spent a long weekend in Berlin. Primarily this was to visit the exhibition about Amarna that was on at one of the museums, but we did manage to look at other stuff as well, even stuff that wasn’t anything to do with ancient Egypt! πŸ˜‰

Brandenburg Gate

I’ve got several photos up on flickr, there are some highlights in this post πŸ™‚ Not going to talk about things in chronological order here, instead I’ll group it into categories.

Travel & Getting Around

Our trip out went remarkably smoothly – no traffic delays on the way to the airport & the flight was on time etc. And we even managed to figure out buses & U-bahn trains to get ourselves into central Berlin to find our hotel. Even so, it was evening by the time we got there so we just got some dinner at a nearby restaurant and then went back to the hotel & crashed. Tiredness not helped by it being just a couple of days after the Marillion Weekend!

I’d managed to get us a hotel within walking distance of the museums (the ones we went to were on Museum Island), so even though it was bitterly cold we did that rather than figure out the buses or trains. And it was nice, we got to see a bit more of the city than we otherwise would’ve. We walked past the New Synagogue on the way to & from the museums, and several other neat looking buildings. Also lots and lots of graffiti ranging from basic tags through to very elaborate art – I’m not sure where the boundary between graffiti & “official” art was. I wish I’d taken more photos of that in retrospect, I’d only really got one (I was a wimp, my hands were freezing cold if I took my gloves off so the camera stayed in its case too much).

Berlin New SynagogueBerlin BuildingBerlin BuildingMural

And the less said about the flight back the better – getting to the airport was fine, but the airport itself was pretty crappy (busy, cramped, no decent food options, not much information on what was going on) and the flight was delayed. But we made it home to the miserable wet weather that the UK had waiting for us so it worked out OK πŸ™‚

Food & Drink

All my photos of food & drink were on my phone to put on G+ while we were away, except for one, so the quality is pretty crappy (I’m also not sure how to embed them in this post so that they’re a sensible size etc, so I’ll just say the album is here, on G+. The first night we just went for “close” as the primary criterion for food so wound up in an oriental place that did interesting fusion food that wasn’t quite to our tastes (not bad, just we didn’t like it). Breakfasts were in the hotel – a continental breakfast buffet which was rather good. Lunches were mostly in the Neues Museum in between looking at things, which meant club sandwiches or salad for me and slightly more variety for J (there was Egyptian themed stuff). In the evenings we tried to eat German food, which to be honest I found a bit overwhelmingly dense (I was coming down with a cold by the last day tho, so maybe that was it). We also drank beer with our meals, it seemed the thing to do πŸ˜‰

Berliner Pilsner

Neues Museum

As I said above, the primary purpose of the trip was to see an exhibition at the Neues Museum, and also to look at the rest of their Egyptian collection. I’m going to talk about the things we saw more in another post & share a whole load more pictures of the items (not uploaded yet, and only half-processed). We spent 1 whole day and two half days at the Neues, which for me was in retrospect a bit much – the last day I was feeling coldy and so very done with that museum, I should’ve gone off to somewhere else while J finished up the bits he hadn’t seen or wanted to see again.

J at the Neues MuseumGreek CourtyardJ

One thing I really liked about the museum was the remaining bits of the original decoration. The museum building had been badly damaged during the war, so there wasn’t a lot left, but when the restoration was done they’d preserved as much as they could. The Egyptian wing of the museum had previously been painted to look like an Egyptian temple, and the other wing (Greek, Roman and, pre-historic items) had things like murals of Odin in rooms which used to house the collection of items from Norway.

Paintings of Egyptian TemplesOdin Over the DoorMap on the WallPharaohPainted DoorwayBerlin Green Head

Pergamon Museum

On one of the mornings that we didn’t spend in the Neues Museum we went to the nearby Pergamon Museum. Which could have a sub-title of “Monumental Architecture We Nicked from Around the Ancient World” πŸ˜‰ The key piece is a Greek altar building from Pergamon, which is stunningly large to have as a museum exhibit. They also have rebuilt a part of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar’s time, which is the thing that we went to the museum specifically to see. Again I’ll talk about this more in another post, as I’ve several photos of the buildings and artifacts they have in the museum.

Pergamon AltarJ Photographing Non-Egyptian Stuff!J in Front of the Ishtar Gate

Brandenburg Gate (and assorted nearby buildings)

One of the things I’d wanted to see was the Brandenburg Gate, so on the second full day we were there we walked there from the museum. Getting to it just as the sun went down – took several pics despite the cold, including the one at the start of this (massive) post πŸ™‚ On the way we walked past several statues and grand buildings, including the memorial to the victims of war & tyranny. Oh, and quite a few bears – this being the tourist trap bit of Berlin. In one of the shops we also spotted the most appallingly tacky plates embossed with the image of Nefertiti in gold (on white) and a couple of cartouches (which didn’t have Nefertiti’s name in). It was awful. J has a pic somewhere I think, but I don’t know if he’s sharing it or not πŸ™‚

Memorial for the Victims of War and TyrannyBrandenburg GateBerlin Bear

Berliner Dom

Berliner Dom

On the last full day we spent the afternoon looking at the cathedral that’s next to Museum Island. The physical building of the Berliner Dom has had a bit of an odd history. Underneath it is the crypt where the Hohenzollern family were buried, and this family played a major role in German history from the 12th Century through to the early 20th Century. They provided several Electors, Kings & Emperors of Prussia, Germany and Romania. And the Protestant branch of the family that ruled in Prussia are buried in Berlin from the mid 16th Century onwards. The church building appears to have been pulled down and rebuilt several times – each time to make something grander and more fitting for the family status and aspirations. This finally stopped when the existing church was bombed in the Second World War. It was subsequently rebuilt exactly as it had been pre-bombing, for the first time restored rather than replaced. (My understanding here is based on one small leaflet in English, a skim-read of wikipedia for dates and some attempt to understand the German signs in the church – take with requisite large barrels of salt).

Dome ExteriorCherubDome Interior

The existing building is grandiose & ornate, and by this point this was built the family clearly thought very well of themselves indeed (I think they were Emperors by then, so you can see why). The outside is floridly carved with all sorts of bits & bobs. The inside has mosaics, reliefs, statues, grandiose tombs – you name it, it has that sort of decoration. Around the dome are mosaics of all four evangelicals, statues of four great reformers (e.g. Luther & co), reliefs showing scenes from the acts of the apostles. Higher up in the dome are yet more mosaics. The stained glass actually looks like paintings rather than windows. In the church itself there are also some ornately carved tombs or grave monuments of some of the Hohenzollerns.

Evangelical Mosaic & Reformer StatueAltarGoose!Death Writes in His Book

Upstairs there was a small exhibition of models of the church they didn’t build last time round (ie the ideas that got turned down), plus we could get up to the inside walkway round the dome & look out through the windows. There’s also an outside walkway but this was closed due to bad weather (I’m guessing they were worried about ice & snow). Unfortunately the windows for the inside bit were clarty beyond belief and so the pictures I have are a little spoilt by the grubbiness of the glass.

View from the Dome of the Berliner DomView from the Dome of the Berliner DomJ

Downstairs was the crypt laid out with coffin after coffin of the Hohenzollern family. Quite depressing actually – rather than being glorious monuments these felt very personal and sad. Mostly black coffins, with maybe bits of velvet and the occasional dead bunch of flowers. Even when there was decoration it didn’t lift the sombre mood. And the relatively large number of child coffins dragged it down further.

Hohenzollern CryptCoffins of Kings

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Memorial

On the last morning we were there we managed to pack up our stuff way before time to go to the airport, so decided to walk to a place where we’d seen on the map the Berlin Wall used to run. I had a little guidebook, but it hadn’t mentioned where the memorial stuff for the Wall was, so we were very pleased when by chance we walked directly to the area that’s been set aside for that. This morning was also the only point in the trip we were actually in what used to be West Berlin, and that only briefly. There are some sections of the wall still standing, with several small information points that tell you what happened to whom & where. There’s also a memorial to all the people who died crossing the wall trying to escape to West Berlin during the years the wall was standing. And a section of the wall has been rebuilt so that you can see what it looked like.

Berlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall Memorial

It’s almost incomprehensible, to be honest. The Berlin Wall coming down is one of the first current affairs events I really paid attention to (as I said yesterday in my post about Doctor Who) and the mindset of the people who ordered it built in the first place just makes no sense to me. “Oh look, all our people are defecting in their droves because they hate their lives here so much, so lets not change a thing, let’s just wall them in and kill them if they try to get out”. We didn’t end up staying long here, too cold and we had a plane to catch, but I’m glad we managed to see it before we left.

Overall, a good holiday πŸ™‚ A new city I’ve now visited, and we saw quite a few things as well as the Egyptian stuff. I think I’d like to go back sometime, but preferably in the summer!

Doctor Who: Cold War

Well, that was an unexpected effect of this week’s Doctor Who – it made me remember how old I am! πŸ˜‰ Seriously – it was a historical drama, set within my life time.

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

And not only that, but the script had to gloss the terms “Cold War” and “Mutual Assured Destruction”. Because there are adults alive today who were born after the 80s. To be fair the first current affairs event I remember really paying attention to was the Berlin Wall coming down so really I’m post-Cold War in my adult paying-attention life. But the (recently-written) science fiction I consumed in the 80s was often post-apocalyptic “what life is like after the nukes have done their job”, so there was definitely some of that sense of being only one button press away from The End of the World. Just one ideologically sound soldier’s reaction away from doom.

They conveyed that well, I thought. The second in command(? political officer?) with his fanatical fervour, and the claustrophobia of mind to go with the claustrophobia of the reality of the submarine. And the way the two superpowers are facing each other down and all the rest of world can do is hold their breaths and hope – nicely paralleled with the Ice Warrior & the Doctor (both incomprehensibly powerful beings) facing off at the end of the episode.

Awesome casting having the guy who played Brutus in Rome (TV series on HBO) being the fanatical officer, who even tries to conspire with the alien to bring about the destruction of the US. And that also ties back into the theme – “I’ll destroy us if I have to, if that’s the only way to stop you”. Overt from the Doctor, implicit for the Soviet submarine crew.

Dead mothers last week. Lots of father/daughter stuff going on this week. Both actual and metaphorical. Interesting partly because I felt Clara’s characterisation was “off” but the stereotyped hole she was filling wasn’t so much “every man’s desire” but “every man’s daughter”. She’s looking for fatherly approval from the Doctor (“did I do OK?”) and the Professor treats her like a daughter. And in the final stand-off she reminds the Ice Warrior of his daughter, both literally by talking to him about his daughter and metaphorically (it’s her singing that impels him to mercy).

But her characterisation did seem a little shaky, which is a shame. One thing I did like tho, was that she was shown having to come to terms with the actual reality of life travelling with the Doctor. Not just the traditional “whoops, not where we thought we’d be”, but culture shock (language, culture, history can change so we could die here and the world end) and most of all that people would die and die messily. And it all just got real. And for a change we see her having difficulty processing it (and I felt that was presented sympathetically – it’s outside her experience so of course she finds it difficult to cope with).

Singing was important again as well – the Professor diffusing the tense drill by bursting in singing (badly) along with “Vienna”. Then the Ice Warrior & his fond last memory of his daughter. And the Professor trying to get Clara to sing “Hungry Like the Wolf” with him. And of course, the singing Clara does right at the end to remind the Ice Warrior that the Earth is full of people’s daughters. It’s probably coincidence, but having this episode straight after The Rings of Akhaten did make the singing stand out.

References abounded – if last week was all Star Wars & Star Trek, this was Hunt for Red October and Alien in aesthetic. And J said some of the sounds were fairly Predator-esque. And all with that claustrophobic one-push-of-that-button-and-we’re-dead thing.

Things I didn’t like: The mcguffin that got rid of the TARDIS. I mean, I know it had to be gone to make the plot work, but that was lame. The “oh give us a lift” at the end – obviously the captain of the submarine so, so, so can’t do that. But how the hell do they get there without him? Also, and less nitpicky-ly, I didn’t like the way Clara barely does anything but “be a daughter” and do what she’s told.

Overall I’d rate it “reasonable”, whilst still enjoying it (a large part due to that whole Cold War thing, and the way they paralleled that across the plot and the setting).

Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

There’s a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii & Herculaneum that’s recently opened, so there’ve been a few programmes on the BBC recently on the same subject. Last night we watched Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time – which was billed as a “drama documentary” so I was a little concerned (I don’t generally like too much dramatisation in my documentary viewing) but it turned out to be really good. It was presented by Margaret Mountford, and the way this was presented was as if I should know who she was – having looked her up on wikipedia it turns out she’s known for having been on The Apprentice (as a judge not a competitor). She’s not the presenter here as a “personality” – she’s recently got a PhD in Papyrology with a focus on Roman & Bzyantine Egypt, so she’s an expert in a field related to the programme’s subject. And as I was telling J this, he pointed out he’d heard of her coz she’s a trustee of the EES. I guess I probably should’ve heard of her πŸ™‚

(I do tend to look up the presenters of programmes I watch on wikipedia if I don’t recognise them & even sometimes if I do – it’s interesting to see what else people’ve done.)

I do have some bits of criticism about the programme. Firstly, it suffered slightly from Discovery documentary syndrome in that it was constantly presented as “solving the mystery”. Also the script was oddly repetitive. Almost every time Mountford talked to an expert she’d ask a long detailed question, then the expert would repeat most of the question followed by their (short) answer, then Mountford would repeat most of the question prefaced with a phrase like “so now we know why …”. But those are just niggles, it was well worth watching.

Programmes we’ve watched before about Pompeii & Herculaneum (like Mary Beard’s one which I’ve got a brief write-up of on lj) have concentrated on what the towns tell us about how Romans lived. This programme concentrated on how they died, using what we now know about volcanoes and about the way that bodies react to different temperatures to build up a picture of the last day of these people’s lives. It was actually a fairly distressing programme – nothing gruesome shown, but they did a good job of bringing across the horror of the event and of making you empathise with the people. The “drama” side of this drama documentary was limited to some (really rather impressive) CGI of the eruption and some vignettes of people running through the streets or huddling in shelter – which was just about the right amount of drama for me.

Pliny the Younger had actually described the eruption from witnessing it across the Bay of Naples, but some elements of his description had been dismissed in more recent times as being the result of an overactive imagination. In particular he described a part of the column of smoke & ash as separating off and rolling down the mountain. “Obviously” this had to be wrong, surely only lava spills out over the land. This view was then completely overturned by footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – another way for a volcano to erupt involves a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas & bits of rock & ash that moves very very fast along the ground (at or over the speed of sound). Mountford talked to an expert who said that this happens when the magma has a lot of gas in it.

It was these pyroclastic flows that killed the people in both Herculaneum and Pompeii – the differences in the remains between the towns is caused by the different distances from Vesuvius. There were 5 pyroclastic flows in total, all of which reached Herculaneum. The people in the town had taken shelter in the boat sheds which would’ve been a safe place in the event of an earthquake (and the eruption was preceded by earthquakes). When the first pyroclastic flow reached Herculaneum it was still at a temperature of about 500°C. The people huddling in the boat sheds died instantly, and the temperature was sufficiently high to vaporise their flesh leaving only charred bones and cracked skulls from where their brains had boiled and exploded. As I said, gruesome.

Pompeii is about 5km further from Vesuvius than Herculaneum, and the first 3 pyroclastic flows didn’t reach that far. In fact it wasn’t until dawn the next day (about 18 hours after the initial eruption) that Pompeii was in true danger. This had been enough time that some people had even returned to their houses to grab their valuables & coin, which would be fatal. The fourth pyroclastic flow reached Pompeii, and the added distance it had travelled had reduced the heat to around 300°C. Mountford visited a lab in Edinburgh where they demonstrated what happens to a piece of pork wrapped in woollen cloth at that temperature. The outside edges of the meat were seared but the cloth was still intact & only slightly discoloured. And this is what happened to the inhabitants of Pompeii – they were instantaneously killed by the heat, but their clothing & flesh remained intact. They were then buried in ash which formed a solid shell around their bodies. Inside these shells the soft tissue & cloth gradually decomposed, and when they were discovered the archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster & then removed the ash. This left the casts around the bones that we see today – complete with impressions of the clothes the people were wearing.

The last part of the programme was about an artist doing facial reconstructions of two of the victims – a woman from Herculaneum and a man from Pompeii. These are always neat to see, and humanise the remains, but I do wonder how accurate they are. I mean, you can tell some stuff about facial structure from the bones, but would their mothers’ recognise them?

Glad we recorded it even though it said “drama documentary”, it was a good programme.

The sixth & last episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music talked about the last 100 years of music – the Popular Age. The biggest difference between this era and previous eras is that the advent of radio and of easily available recorded music changed how people could listen to music. It became more omnipresent and you could listen to what you wanted when you wanted to.

The main theme of the programme was that as classical music became increasingly remote and snobbish the vacuum was filled by popular music – starting with jazz. One example of this that Goodall presented was musicals. The same sorts of people who previously would’ve gone to operas in the 19th Century are those who go to the musicals performed on Broadway or the West End today. And popular music took over the role of commenting on current affairs as classical became increasingly abstract or irrelevant. He contrasted the Threepenny Opera* or Porgy and Bess with a surrealist ballet called Parade (score written by Satie; Cocteau & Picasso were involved). The former two were relevant (and well liked by audiences) whereas the latter was out of touch with the times and not accessible/interesting to a particularly wide audience either. Later, after the Second World War, popular music continued to provide social commentary – Vietnam protest songs, for instance, and Bob Dylan’s work.

*I had no idea that the song Mack the Knife was originally a German song in this musical! Odd & cool to hear it being sung in the original.

Classical music during this period moved towards things like Schoenberg’s abstract compositional style where the 12 notes of the western scale aren’t allowed to be repeated within a phrase, and where there’s no “home” chord. Basically we’re into the sort of thing that in my head I think of as “that modern classical stuff I don’t like”. But Goodall points out that this isn’t all that classical is doing during the last 100 years and people claiming that “classical is dead” clearly never go to the cinema! Most film scores are classical music and are written in a style that’s appreciated by a much wider audience than the more avant garde stuff.

Goodall talked us through some of the developments in popular music as well. Not just jazz, but also the rise of rock & roll and the way that was initially shaped by the new teenage market for music. He spent a while discussing The Beatles, and how they moved from their rock & roll beginnings. They not only innovated within their genre, inventing new styles & recording techniques, but also drew on the past of classical music (amongst other things). And this lead neatly into a discussion of how even though American rock & roll has spread throughout the world it has also started to incorporate music from other cultures (and there has also been a rise in people listening to the originals of this music). The Indian influences on The Beatles music were the first point in this segment of the programme, he also mentioned Paul Simon’s South African influenced album Graceland.

He also talked about how classical music was still the source of some innovations that were later taken up by popular music – he cited sampling, which originated with a classical piece but is now one of the foundational underpinnings of a lot of popular music. And he discussed how the cross-fertilisation between the two sorts of music is beginning to work both ways – some modern classical composers are taking ideas & inspiration from popular artists (he gave an example of a symphony that took inspiration from a Bowie album). So Goodall ended the series on a hopeful note for classical music – it’s not dead, and it’s even coming back to being relevant to a wider audience than music critics & composers.

I’ve enjoyed watching this series, it was both informative & interesting. It’s also pretty biased – very much it’s the story of Western classical music (even this last episode is more about the classical music of the era than the popular music). But then he does say right at the start of the first episode that “there are many ways to tell the story of music, this one is [his]” so that’s not a surprise.

“Control Point” Myke Cole

I’m torn about how to sum up my feelings about this book – is it flawed and doesn’t work for me? Or is it ambitious but doesn’t work for me? This post will have spoilers because I don’t think I can discuss it without.

The basic premise of the book is that some event has happened in the relatively recent past of the story and now people are developing magic powers – they manifest in some particular power (controlling fire, say, or opening gates) and it can happen to anyone at any time. And the US (the world?) has reacted by categorising them, prohibiting some sorts, and (I think) conscripting them all into the army. Oh and by invading another dimension, with its own indigenous population that are called “goblins” by the humans.

The excerpt I read set me up for a story that I ultimately didn’t get. This is actually the same sort of problem as I had with the film Avatar, and is definitely on me and not on the book (or film, in the case of Avatar). The opening scenes of Control Point read like the protagonist, Oscar Britton, was going to be part of a majority of “good guys” in the military working against loose cannons like Harlequin. The opening scenes of the sequel, Fortress Frontier, read the same way with a new view point character – and I read that excerpt before this book turned up in the library. So I thought what would happen was Britton would manifest, then would go on the run (I read a review, so I knew that was on the cards) but then return to the military and work within the system to both do the necessary job and to help change things so kids weren’t being killed by a military supposed to protect them. And that’s not what I got at all. Part of my lack of enjoyment of the book is that I thought it was going in one direction, and then it wasn’t.

So that’s some of the “didn’t work for me” part of my opinion. If that had been all – if the story was just a different sort of story to my expectation – I might’ve still enjoyed it overall. I liked Avatar, after all, even if I’d still like to see the film I thought I was getting! πŸ™‚

But I also didn’t like where this story went. The whole of the military and by implication the government that are in charge of them seemed to me to be deeply immoral, and it felt like it a caricature written by someone philosophically opposed to the military (which doesn’t appear to be the case from reading Cole’s bio on his website). For instance – they’re invading this new dimension that the world has access to since the event that caused magic to happen. Not for a reason that’s ever mentioned, and in the story it’s a covert invasion and the population at large (even a lot of the military) don’t even know there’s a dimension there to invade. It’s never shown as a reaction to a threat, it’s just “ooh it’s there, let’s conquer it”. They’re brutalising and killing the indigenous population in a way that makes one think of the way the white settlers and the young US dealt with the Native American population. And that parallel is emphasised by a group of antagonists in our dimension who are Native American terrorists using the new magic to try & secede violently from the US.

Everyone who manifests is conscripted into the military, initial training involves brainwashing as well as teaching them control. And either the brainwashing takes and they “voluntarily” join the military proper or it doesn’t take and they hang about being trainees until it does (or forever). Even if you manifest in a non-prohibited school of magic you’re not allowed to be a civilian once you’ve learnt control – nope, you need to “volunteer” or stay to rot. If it’s a prohibited school of magic and/or you go on the run when you manifest coz you don’t fancy vanishing into the military then as far as the outside world is concerned you either die or are locked up forever – but the reality is that you “join the military as a contractor” with the threat of actual death always hanging over you and none of the rights of a real soldier. Britton has a bomb inside his chest, coz that’s the sort of brutal thing this army does when they don’t think the brainwashing will take.

It is more than probable that this is intended as a dystopic view of a potential future – a “what if” about how a totalitarian leaning US government would react to people gaining superpowers. An extrapolation from the sort of regime that runs Guantanamo Bay. But to me it felt shallowly caricatured rather than interestingly dystopic.

And then we have Britton who goes through the entire story fucking things up via not thinking more than one step ahead in his “good intentions”. Again, I suspect this is deliberate – and this is the bit that makes me tip my opinion towards “ambitious but doesn’t work for me”. It’s a working out of the proverb that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Britton tries to save the kids at the start, but his actions actually cause more people to get hurt. Britton goes on the run, but he can’t control his powers & people die because of it. In trying to protect himself & get the bomb removed from his chest Britton gets people killed, rather than try the option that might have a higher risk for him but a lower risk for everyone else (this one in particular is signposted as a bad idea so strongly that I really can’t imagine why Britton ever thought it was a good idea). And that’s just a few examples – the whole book is full of them.

As I was reading it, I was thinking it’s a flawed story of an evil army doing evil things because it’s evil, with a hero who we are told is smart but who can’t seem to ever engage his brain before acting. But after finishing, and thinking about what to put in this post I started to think it’s an ambitious story about what would happen if the military machine that runs Guantanamo Bay & Abu Ghraib had to deal with American citizens manifesting dangerous superpowers, and how even the best of intentions don’t matter when you don’t think about the consequences of your actions. But nonetheless, it didn’t work for me – on the whole I’m more optimistic about human nature (perhaps that’s naivety, I have a feeling that’s what Cole would say). And I prefer reading stories that share some of that optimism, or at least have a protagonist that I like rather than want to shake and tell him to “think first, damnit!”.

In Our Time: The War of 1812

I knew that there was a war in 1812, but it was mixed up in my head with Napoleon & Moscow and I wasn’t really sure who was fighting in the 1812 war … but it turns out it was a war between the British & the United States of America. My lack of knowledge of it seems to be indicative of how important it actually was to the UK (as opposed to the US) but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

The programme was split into three sections – first the context, then the war itself and then a brief discussion of the aftermath & what the war meant to the countries involved. A major part of the context is the on-going war between Britain and France. Partly it was fought via trying to force the US to trade with one or the other party, and imposing sanctions when they disobeyed. But another part of that context is that the British were in dire need of sailors to man their warships, so pursued deserters (or those they could tenuously claim had deserted) even when said men were no longer British citizens. So British Navy ships would stop US ships in international waters, and board them to look for “deserters” who’d then get taken back & put to work in the British Navy. But these so-called deserters may not’ve been deserters at all and may’ve become naturalised US citizens. Or maybe were US born US citizens who’d been impressed into the British Navy at some point in the past despite not being British.

The incidents that actually kicked off the war were two fold – reflecting both parts of this context. Firstly the British said that the US was no longer allowed to sell salted fish to the West Indies, because the British wanted the Canadians to supply it instead (which would keep the money in the Empire). And a US warship (as opposed to a US merchant ship) was boarded by British Navy forces, 4 men were killed and 4 “deserters” including native born US citizens taken off to the Navy. These insults combined with a sense that if the US didn’t defend its honour then it would be forever walked over by other countries, lead to the US declaring war on Britain.

The war itself Bragg described as desultory. Not many battles, the biggest battle actually happened after peace had been negotiated (in Belgium) but before the two forces in America could be told. There were three main areas where there was fighting – Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the Atlantic ocean/coastline. The US believed at the outset of the war that would be able to just march some of their militia into Canada and the Canadians would lay down their arms and join the US – not entirely a foolish idea for the US, they’d just acquired part of Florida through a similar campaign. But the Canadians didn’t, and the US invasion was pushed back. An attempted land invasion of the US by Canadian militia met equally little success though – both militias being good at defending their own territory but less good at invading.

In the Great Lakes region of the US the British were backing the Native Americans, in particular the Shawnee who tried to unite the various Native American tribes to push the white settlers out of their lands. This was ultimately unsuccessful even with British backing, and this conflict was a major factor in the later campaigns against the Native Americans pushing them out of their lands (including the Trail of Tears). Andrew Jackson who was president when the later persecution of Native Americans was carried out became a war hero during this war partly because of his successful battles against the Creek Indians.

The naval arena was the area where the British had by far the upper hand – their army was bigger too, but the British Navy was the premiΓ¨re Navy in the world at this time. However two of the biggest successes for the US came in this area. The Battle of Baltimore, which has been memorialised by the poem that turned into the national anthem of the US (the Star Spangled Banner), and the Battle of New Orleans which occurred just after the peace treaty was signed. However the British did have successes as well – they successfully captured Washington after the local militia fled from the British Army force (that heavily outnumbered them as well as being better trained & armed). Originally the intent was to levy a fine (I think that’s what they said) as an indication that the town was captured, but as the Army marched into the town under a white flag they were fired upon – at which point they put to death the people in the house which had fired on them, and burnt down the various government buildings including the Presidential Palace & the Library of Congress. The experts were keen to point out that with the exception of the house which had fired on the army there was no damage done to civilian buildings.

The war came to an end after about 3 years mainly because the tensions that had lead to it went away – Napoleon was no longer ruler of France and Britain was no longer at war with France. Which meant that they weren’t so worried about US trade, nor were they so worried about tracking down deserters. Public opinion in Britain was also against the war – as being a waste of money & men, for no good reason. Peace was negotiated at a meeting in Belgium, and Burk summarised the treaty as saying not much of anything – nothing had changed since before the war & the treaty didn’t really mention any of the things that the war had been about. The other two disagreed with that as a general statement – but they did agree that from the point of view of Britain Burk was right.

From the point of view of the US this had been much more significant – it was almost a second War of Independence, and they felt they had asserted their right to be treated as a sovereign country. And as the news of one of their biggest victories in the war (in New Orleans) reached the majority of the country at the same time as news of peace did, it looked awfully like they’d won the war. Rather than it having been a bit of a damp squib that fizzled out. And from the point of view of the Native Americans it had been a disaster, which lead to public support for their persecution.

“Before the Golden Age 3” ed. Isaac Asimov

The third and final volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical anthology of short stories from the 1930s covers 1935-1938. And as with the other volumes it’s a bit hit & miss. Some of the misses have aged poorly, some I suspect I’d never’ve enjoyed even if I were a young lad in the 1930s.

I’ve been re-reading this with an eye to diversity – partly, I confess, because it’s easier to see here than it is in fiction from my own era. The original impetus is that there’s a fair amount of conversation around SFF fandom in the last few years about this sort of issue – like this post in Elizabeth Bear’s livejournal which addresses the idea that somehow if you have a protagonist or primary character who isn’t able-bodied/white/Western/straight/cis-male then you need to justify it otherwise you’re just “being PC”. Rather than, you know, writing a story about a person who’s as much of a person as any other person. And as I say, it’s easier in general to pay attention to in these stories because I’m not steeped in the culture of the 1930s like I am in my own (and the only difference between me & the “default” is that I’m female so it’s easy to have a blind spot). Sort of practising the thought patterns for future use.

So I’d been looking for women or lack thereof in these stories. And the racism jumped out at me, and would’ve done if I was looking or not – that’s something where we’ve really come a long way since the 30s. But I haven’t really mentioned the other sorts of categories where people get elided into non-existence or caricatured. People with disabilities & transpeople are mostly Sir Not Appearing in this Universe – although there’s some pretty poor portrayals of mental illness (like the madman in “Minus Planet”). And really I’m not sure I can say much more than that about it.

Sexuality is an odd one though – in the vast majority of these stories it doesn’t feel like any of the people have any sort of sexuality, they’re not even asexual it just isn’t a thing. Even some of the ones with “romance subplots” (like the dreadful Meek stories in volume 1), you aren’t left with an impression that these people fancy each other, or even like each other. It feels like the author is aware that people get married, but has no idea why. A large part of that is style, of course, and differences in the culture of what’s appropriate to talk about. But some of the stories do manage to build that feeling even without anything explicit – taking an example from this volume “Proxima Centauri” has a love match that feels like a(n overwrought, fairly chaste) love match. And then there’s the ones like “Minus Planet” where to my modern eyes the two male protagonists read as gay (in a chaste & understated way). Particularly in comparison to “Proxima Centauri”. In both cases the main character goes off on a mission/trip that may well end in death, and in each case the “love interest” goes with him. The woman because she can’t live without him, the man because he can’t let him go alone. And I’m left wondering if that’s a modern reading pushed back inappropriately, or if it was a deliberate but subtle hint that would’ve been picked up by someone of the time. I’m not sure where, if anywhere, I’m going with this but it’s something that struck me.

A note on the notes that follow – I read this on the plane to & from Berlin, and only took notes on the way out so the second half are written after a few weeks gap.


“The Parasite Planet” Stanley G. Weinbaum

Tale of derring do on the frontier – this frontier being Venus. Strength of the story is the exotic, alien & deadly wildlife. Weakness of the story is the romance plot, although if the last paragraph about how they would get married immediately wasn’t there then it’d be a little less out of nowhere.

“Proxima Centauri” Murray Leinster

Ship travels to other star to colonise. Might not be a generation ship as it was only 7 years, but that’s the feel. Tedium leads to social breakdown, leads to segregation between officers & crew – this sets up the “love triangle” as the daughter of the commander is in love with a crew member but the second in command would like to marry her. Main plot is more interesting – the planet is inhabited by intelligent carnivorous plants who value animal flesh more than we value gold. Death & Doom follow (though our plucky heroes win the day, kinda).

“The Accursed Galaxy” Edmond Hamilton

Meteor lands, turns out to be a strange polyhedron. Reporter who finds it calls in a scientist who opens it under instruction from the being within, who tells its story before being freed. And reveals the “awful truth” about our galaxy. Neat but implausible explanation for the expanding universe. Back to “women what are they?” tho, but at least that means no 1930s romance subplot.


“He Who Shrank” Henry Hasse

Lab assistant to a mad scientist is injected with a potion that makes him perpetually shrink (and includes all sorts of things that keep him alive too). The atoms of each universe are the solar systems of the next. This is one of the stories that stuck in my mind over the years since I last read this – it holds up, I think.

“The Human Pets of Mars” Leslie Frances Stone

UFO lands, aliens have a look around, take a motley crew of humans back as pets. Eventually our plucky hero organises an escape. Too many of the secondary characters felt like types to me – the pompous privileged politician, the older organising matron, the shiftless black workman, the half-crazed black spiritual woman, the sweet girl child etc etc. The protagonist and the other primary characters aren’t much better, to be honest. I think this falls into the “neat idea, shame about the execution” category.

“The Brain Stealers of Mars” John W. Campbell, Jr

This reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury and of Philip K. Dick. Claustrophobic paranoid story about chameleon type aliens living amongst the Martians. The (human) protagonists land, and discover these creatures who start mimicking them – 20 of each man, how do you tell which one was the real one? The solutions felt a little too neat (and the story feels like it worked, rather than being ambiguous), but this is Campbell and as I recall he liked the human protagonists of stories he bought as an editor to win. (And now I’m trying to remember where I’ve picked up my ideas about Campbell’s preferred tropes – maybe I’ll find a book on my shelves during my re-read that tells me.)

“Devolution” Edmond Hamilton

Pessimistic little story about the “true origins” of the human race. This seems to be a Hamilton theme, and he does do them well. Completely preposterous, mind you.

“Big Game” Isaac Asimov

Short-short by the man himself, as of age 21 – written in 1941 and unpublished before this anthology. It’s the “true story about what killed the dinosaurs”, and is as pessimistic as Hamilton (by whom it was inspired).


“Other Eyes Watching” John W. Campbell Jr.

Non-fiction article about Jupiter. I confess to skimming this, and I think I’ve done so every single time I read this anthology. It’s in the purplest of purple prose, and I just can’t be bothered to pick the facts out of the flowers. It starts:

All space was flamed with an intolerable incandescence; for two thousand million miles, titanic streamers of flame shot out, wove and twined, streamers that flared dull-red and cooling where they stretched to breaking, then great clots that swirled in blue-white heat of new creation. Dimming slowly in the distance, the Wrecker was vanishing, the vagrant star that had lashed worlds out of the Sun as it swept by.

It makes my over-use of commas and run-on sentences look tame … Apparently it, and others like it, inspired Asimov to further being interested in science, tho.

“Minus Planet” John D. Clark

Antimatter planet approaches the Earth and will hit & cause catastrophe, but our plucky heroes spot it in time and save the day. Despite the best efforts of a random madman who’d like to stop them. Suffers terribly from “women, what are they??”. Not that memorable to be honest, I preferred “Born of the Sun” in the last volume (which was more science fantasy/horror than this, but at least it had a fun catastrophe).

“Past, Present and Future” Nat Schachner

Man of ancient Greece who winds up in the future Inca lands uses the “secrets of the Egyptians” to enter suspended animation looking for a better future. He’s joined (accidentally) by a (white) man of the 1930s. They wake up in the far future in an enclosed habitat because “the rest of the world is destroyed” – it’s a dystopia reminiscent of Huxley’s “Brave New World” with its castes of people for particular societal functions. Our heroes are better because they’re not stratified like this, they’re more human. And along with a throwback from the upper echelons of the future society they escape to explore the outside world. Interesting premise, but it feels like the story stops before it starts.


“The Men and the Mirror” Ross Rocklynne

It’s a shame this is the story that ends the anthology, because I’ve never liked it. Two men, one a policeman chasing the other an outlaw. They are perfect gentlemen, being gentlemanly. And they discover an impossible physics problem in outer space, having gotten into a pickle they get out of it again by co-operating and using their superior intelligence. They are gentlemanly gentlemen once more. I tend to forget the plot between readings, because the soulless physics problem is actually marginally more interesting despite my general lack of interest in physics.