“Foundation and Empire” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit wary about reading this book, after not enjoying the first in the trilogy very much when I read it a few days ago (post). But this one went better. I think the problem I was having with the first one was that each section had different characters & was so short that none of the characters really got a chance to expand beyond a name & a handful of traits. There are only two sections in this book, and so the characters have more room to breathe. Oddly this is most strongly the case in the second part, even tho in this story several of the characters end up under someone else’s emotional control they still feel more like people.

The plot is another couple of episodes in the history of the First Foundation. The first one deals with the last gasp of the Old Empire before it decays into utter irrelevancy. The Foundation has finally grown big enough & powerful enough to be noticed by at least some factions in the decaying Empire, who desire to put it back in its “proper” place – subordinate to the Emperor. The Foundation survives the crisis, but not really because it does anything (the story is about the people trying to do things and never seeming to get anywhere) – it’s because the Empire is now so unstable that internal politics get in the way of conquering ambition. The Foundation now has a sense of invincibility – the “dead hand of Hari Seldon” or the “Seldon tidal wave” will sweep away any & all forces that oppose it.

And that is where the second part of the book leaps off from. The Foundation is now a totalitarian state, ruled by a hereditary Mayor. Its people, in particular the descendants of the Traders of an earlier age, plot against the government. It’s predicted that a Seldon Crisis is nigh, but the authorities think the best thing to do is just to keep on keeping on – they’ll win, won’t they? And out on the periphery the rumours of The Mule grow – he’s conquering all in his path and heading for the Foundation. He does indeed conquer the Foundation and most of the rest of the galaxy (technically that’s a spoiler but the book has been out for 60 years …). Now he’s searching for the Second Foundation set up by Seldon, and just when the secret is in his grasp a woman saves the day. I particularly liked this because she wins because of who she is. She isn’t under emotional control because she’s genuinely kind – the mistake the Mule makes is to revel in this unforced kindness, rather than control her under general principles. She’s also shown as observant, intelligent and capable of doing what needs to be done, so it’s not a surprise when she figures out what’s going on and then does something about it. So having complained about the paper thin characters of the last book, it was nice to see someone whose character was shown rather than told and whose actions grew out of their character.

One other thing that struck me about this second section was how reading it from this perspective of 60 years later undermines one of the main plot points. The plot revolves around how the Seldon Plan is not infalliable – the Mule is a mutant and so was unpredictable. And his powers of emotional control mean that people stop acting like autonomous people – they are bent to do what the Mule wants. So the Seldon Plan can no longer predict them accurately, and when Seldon’s image appears he talks about the wrong crisis – the one that would’ve happened if the Mule had not been born and disrupted the galaxy. At one point one of the characters pontificates about the two ways that the predictions could fail. The first is if technology changed significantly and the second is if the nature of people changed. The first hasn’t happened in 300 years, so it must be the second. And yet looking at how technology has changed between when this book was written & now, it seems unimaginable that in 300 years as a Galaxy descends into chaos & wars between kingdoms no-one has invented a better weapon than the last of the Old Empire’s tech. So how could Seldon’s Plan have predicted anything well enough to last 300 years before being brought down by a super-powered mutant? Not that I think our current rate of technological change is necessarily sustainable, but over 300 years of “anarchy” with a power like the Foundation trying to assimilate its neighbours, well, you’d think there’d be an incentive to concentrate on out thinking them. I guess the “science as religion” trope of the last book is part of why this doesn’t happen immediately around the Foundation – but further afield you’d think it would.

And on that sort of amusing note – one major way society has changed in the last 60 years is smoking. I expect to handwave past manual calculations of interstellar navigation in a story of this vintage, but somehow the “everyone smokes” thing took me by surprise. Asimov even uses “won’t let other people smoke in his office” as a shorthand for “this character is prissy & officious”. All the other men lights up cigars here, there & everywhere, the women smoke cigarettes.

Overall this volume has aged better than the first in the trilogy in terms of storytelling & my enjoyment of it, let’s hope that’s also true for the third one 🙂

Fit to Rule; Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat

The second episode of Fit to Rule covered the end of the Stuarts, and the four Georges. Lucy Worsley skipped over Charles II entirely, and only briefly mentioned James II. Unlike his brother, James did actually manage to have a male heir, but unfortunately for him this is what led to his being deposed. James had converted to Catholicism much to the disgust of Parliament so when his second, Catholic wife had a son it Parliament invited William of Orange to invade. William was married to Mary, the eldest daughter of James (by his first wife) and both of them were staunch Protestants. William turned up with an army, but when he got to London James II and family fled. Worsley pointed out that this was a paradigm shift – Parliament were now the deciders of who should succeed to the throne.

William & Mary might’ve been strong in the right religion, but their health was another matter. William was physically weak – he was short & he was also asthmatic. His asthma got worse once he was living in London, so he & Mary moved to Hampton Court. This removed them from the political centre of the kingdom, which didn’t help to ease the friction between the foreign King & his Parliament. Worsley said that Mary was mentally fragile – she suffered greatly from guilt over being involved in deposing her father (which he made sure to fan the flames of, quoting the Commandments in letters to her etc). She also believed that women should not involve themselves in politics, but ended up being regent while her husband was away at war. The couple also failed to have any children – not even a single pregnancy. Worsley said that even at the time there was speculation that this was William’s fault – either through physical problems or possibly that he was gay. Whatever it was, they had no heir. Mary died young, of small pox in her 30s and William died 8 years later.

By this time Parliament had had some time to determine who should be next – Mary’s younger sister Anne who was also a Protestant. Anne’s medical history is rather sad – in 16 years she had 17 pregnancies most of which ended in miscarriage or still birth. Of the 5 who made it out alive, the longest lived child was only 11 when he died (which was before Anne took the throne). Worsley told us that contemporary doctors thought that Anne’s difficulties with pregnancy were due to an imbalance in her humours (that was still the dominant medical theory at the time) – in effect they thought she was slippery (had an excess of cold & wet humours) so the foetuses just slipped out. Obviously implausible to us today, but there’s not enough evidence of what was wrong to diagnose her from this distance of history. One thing that Worsley & the expert she was talking to did draw out was that Anne was obese, which can lead to pregnancy problems (but this wasn’t the whole problem).

Towards the end of her reign there were also rumours about her sexuality. Blenheim Palace was built by Queen Anne (using public money) for the Duke of Marlborough after his victory at the Battle of Blenheim. This caused a certain amount of political problems but it wasn’t Anne’s relationship with the Duke that caused raised eyebrows, instead it was her relationship with his wife. The two women had been very close friends for years, and scandalously treated each other as equals even after Anne became Queen. The Duchess had a lot of power and held the most important offices for a Lady of the Bedchamber and this caused resentment among others of the aristocracy. I’m not sure if there was any truth to the rumours – I don’t remember Worsley saying one way or the other.

After Anne the Stuart dynasty was over – and Parliament cast around for a suitable heir, eventually settling on George, the Elector of Hanover who was a Protestant. Worsley skipped quickly past George I, clearly other than being too German for comfort for his new country there wasn’t much wrong with him. George II didn’t have any medical problems (that Worsley told us, anyway) instead he had family drama. The Hanoverian monarchs were much more fertile than the Tudors & Stuarts had been but this lead to its own issues. Frederick, the eldest son & heir of George II, fell out with his father and this helped to further polarise British politics. The political party system was starting to get going during this era, but wasn’t yet as defined as modern political parties. Now with an adult heir who wasn’t getting on with the King there was an alternative court, so politicians in disagreement with the policies of His Majesty’s Government had a new centre they could revolve around. And the Prince of Wales could attract people to his court with promises of what would happen once he was King.

Sadly for him tho Frederick pre-deceased his father. Instead his son, George II’s grandson, George inherited. George III is famous for his madness, but Worsley was saying that it shouldn’t overshadow what was actually a very long and mostly sane reign. The madness itself is often thought to’ve been porphyria, but Worsley told us that the current theory is actually that this was a manic episode. She spoke to a doctor who has used the same techniques he uses to diagnose modern patients to look at the letters of George III before & during his madness, and he seemed fairly convinced that were George III to see a doctor today he’d be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

George III might’ve been mad, but he was also fertile and so his eldest son was old enough to be regent during his father’s madness. Worsley told us that this George (later George IV) was probably reacting against his childhood all his life. He’d been sent away from the family as a child to be educated strictly, and to have discipline instilled in him. In adulthood he indulged himself in as much vice as possible. He overate, he drank to excess, he took large quantities of laudanum (which is opium in alcohol), he was a notorious womaniser. Worsley showed us several satirical cartoons of George IV which were drawn by his contemporaries. When he died he was apparently not much mourned.

And that was the end of this episode, saving the rest of the Hanoverians for next time.

We decided we were just about ahead enough of the PVR filling up to watch one of the non-HD programmes we recorded more recently – because we were both intrigued to watch the most recent Horizon episode: The Secret Life of the Cat. For this programme some researchers had fitted GPS-tagged collars to 50 cats living in the same village. They recorded the tracks of the cats over a week, and also filmed some with cameras set up round the village and attached cameras to others. They picked where & which cats to film based on the early data from the first couple of days of GPS tracking.

There was a bit much “gee wow isn’t this exciting” and fluffy time-filling interviews with the families that owned the cats for my tastes. I’d rather’ve seen more of the data & some more in depth analysis. However there were some interesting results. There was quite a lot of variance between different cats, with some staying close & some ranging much further. They said that the male cats tended to have a longer range than female – I wanted to know if that was entire males or if it was also true for neutered males (and if there’s a difference does it depend on age at neutering?) but they didn’t talk about that. Where the cats are more tightly packed in the centre of the village they saw them time-share territories, which was interesting. And amusing (although not surprising) were the cats that left their own house, sauntered across the village into another house through some other cat’s catflap and finished off that cat’s food. The video they recorded of one of these showed that it wasn’t particularly wary as it did this – clearly it was something usual & the cat felt safe.

Overall it was still fun to watch, just I would’ve preferred something more in depth. It did make me wonder (not for the first time) where Toby goes when he goes out. We’ve thought before about fitting him with a camera or a gps device, but if he goes into our neighbours’ houses I think I’d rather not know 😉

In Our Time: Japan’s Sakoku Period

For around 200 years (from the 1630s until 1858) Japan pursued a policy of isolation from the rest of the world. The Japanese people were not allowed to leave the country, and foreigners were only allowed in under very controlled circumstances. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Richard Bowring (University of Cambridge), Andrew Cobbing (University of Nottingham) and Rebekah Clements (University of Cambridge).

They started by putting the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate into context. 16th Century Japan could be described as chaotic – different warlords in different regions vying for power. Towards the end of that century three successive warlords tried to reunite & stabilise the country, the final one was Tokugawa Ieyasu who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate which was to rule from about 1600 until the 1860s. International relations with nearby countries at this time were strained. In part this was due to recent events – in the 1590s Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to conquer China. To do this he invaded Korea (as it was in between China & Japan) but was beaten back by Ming Dynasty troops. Other tensions were more long standing – China saw itself as the superior country to all the surrounding ones, and trade was generally carried on via the tributary system. Japan had at times in the past been willing to play the part of a subject nation, but the Tokugawa Shogunate was not.

Relations with Europeans were also marked by tension. Prior to the onset of the Sakoku period various European nations traded with Japan, generally they brought European goods out to China to trade and they took the silk from China to Japan where they traded it for Japanese silver. With traders came missionaries – in particular Portuguese missionaries, and Jesuits. The Tokugawa Shogunate disapproved of Christianity for a couple of reasons. Firstly it encouraged people to owe allegiance to an authority that saw itself as superior to the secular authority of the Shogun (they didn’t say on the programme if they meant God or the Pope here). Secondly various of the warlords on the western side of Japan were interested in Christianity because it gave them access to trade in guns & other things that the central authority would rather they didn’t have.

So in the 1630s the third Tokugawa Shogun issued a series of edicts that began the Sakoku period. Outgoing ships were banned, people who’d moved away to other countries (as part of trade relations) were banned from coming home, Christianity was banned, the building of ocean going ships was banned and all trade from abroad had to enter through Nagasaki. Japan was able to enforce trading restrictions because the island was actually self-sufficient – the incoming trade was in luxuries. And this was looked down on, they were saying on the programme that the four classes of person in Japan at this time were samurai, farmers, artisans & merchants in that order of importance. Trade wasn’t approved of, and in particular trading for fripperies & frivolities was supposed to be beneath the dignity of a gentleman.

These edicts were enforced via threats of execution. They gave an example of an Italian missionary who tried to sneak into the country – he was caught, taken to the capital and interrogated, then buried alive. The experts also pointed out that Japan in this era was a very militarised society and people were accustomed to doing what they were told, and there was also a network of spies throughout the country to make sure disobedience was punished. And the Shogunate was seen as having brought peace & stability to the country after the chaos of the 16th Century.

Clements pointed out that this wasn’t some grand strategy. Even the name “Sakoku” is a later term. At the time these things were done as reactions to particular circumstances and then the conservatism of the Tokugawa Shogunate upheld the status quo rather than rethinking things. I guess this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” taken to 200-year-long extremes.

Finally external forces forced the ending of this policy of isolation. In 1854 the US Navy turned up with gunships and bullied & threatened the Japanese into letting them refuel (coal for their steam ships) and re-supply their ships to make US trade with China more easily achieved. The US Civil War distracted the Americans from finishing the job, but Britain and Russia did that – forcing Japan to sign treaties weighted in the European countries’ favour (this was normal policy when dealing with non-Western powers at that time). The Tokugawa Shogunate had been a bit rocky already when the US showed up, and collapsed soon after. After a brief civil war the Empire of Japan was formed, and within 40 years was interacting with Western powers as an equal.

This can be seen as a very quick turn-around for Japan from isolation to embracing the modern world. But throughout the programme they were pointing out that the isolation wasn’t as complete as it’s sometimes pictured. Trade with the outside world still happened through the whole period – both with China and with the Dutch. Even though the Dutch were Christians they weren’t catholic (so no Pope) and weren’t as interested in conversion alongside trade as the Spanish & Portuguese. So they were permitted to establish a trading town on a man-made island in the harbour of Nagasaki. Another factor in their favour with the Japanese was that they were willing to go through the motions of paying tribute to the Shogun. Part of the political stance of this period was the Shogun setting itself up as another centre of a tributary system like the Chinese one.

As well as merchants all Dutch trading posts had doctors living in them – and these were the conduits of information in and out of Japan. Several wrote memoirs when they went back to Europe describing Japanese culture & history to the Europeans. And Western knowledge flowed into Japan – first medicine itself, and later other sciences like astronomy. So by the time that Japan was forced open to foreign trade there was already some knowledge of the Western world, and a literate, educated populace who could use it to learn more now that they had to.

An interesting programme about a subject I knew nothing about beyond the bare fact of its existence.

“Foundation” Isaac Asimov

This isn’t one of the Asimov books we own – we’ve got the next two in the trilogy and I’ve had to get this out of the library so I could read it first. J bought the other two, in a second hand bookshop somewhere many many years ago. I did think about buying this one but as I’m just about to put the rest in a box it seemed silly to buy something only to box it up.

I believe Foundation started off life as a series of short stories, and this makes the novel very episodic. But this isn’t a flaw, as a structure it works for the story Asimov is telling. The first section is set just before the fall of the Galactic Empire after about 12,000 years of stability. Hari Seldon has perfected the science of psychohistory which makes statistical predictions about the future behaviour of people. He predicts the fall of the Empire and sets up two Foundations “at opposite ends of the galaxy” to reduce the period & depth of anarchy that would follow & hasten the setting up of a new galaxy spanning society. The following sections follow the fate of the first Foundation on the planet Terminus across about 150 years & each details a crisis point that they face & overcome. These crises were all predicted by Seldon & he left time-locked recordings for the future.

I’m not sure if it’s just because I’ve been reading about China recently or if the resonance is intentional on Asimov’s part. The old Empire feels like a China analogue, and the crumbling into Kingdoms round the periphery makes me think of one of the various bits of Chinese history where the Empire shrank back to a core leaving autonomous territories at the outskirts. That resonance serves to highlight the oddities of timescale in the novel, however. 12,000 years of stability is an incomprehensible amount of time. When I think of long lived civilisations on Earth China & Ancient Egypt spring to mind, but both of them have been periods of stability lasting a few centuries punctuated by periods of breakdown of the central government. So the Galactic Empire has lasted unimaginably longer than these, yet within 50 years the planets at the periphery have lost significant amounts of vital scientific knowledge. That’s within the lifetimes of the people who previously ran this tech! And by 150 years even the centre of the old Empire has lost a lot of knowledge (that’s a plot point in the last section of the book). And that just feels too quick. It’s like suggesting that during the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian civilisation they all forgot how to irrigate their fields because the central governmental structure had broken down. And the Galactic Empire was a literate educated society, surely instruction manuals would survive and other educational materials. Of course there’s other manipulation going on via the Second Foundation, and I can’t remember if that explains some of this – I’ll find out when I get there in the series.

It’s interesting how much of this book was about religion and the power of religion to manipulate. Terminus is weak compared to its neighbouring kingdoms but they manage to turn their scientific knowledge to their advantage. Instead of teaching their neighbours how things work they train them as priests who follow ritual procedures to operate the atomic generators etc. And they dress it all up with talk of the Galactic Spirit & so on. The priests can only learn by coming to Terminus, and the High Priests on each planet are actually Foundation diplomats. It’s a religion entirely designed to deceive and manipulate people. And it has its parallels in the over-arching plot of the novel. Hari Seldon sets up the Foundation on Terminus, but lies to them about their purpose initially. Then he appears at critical moments and effectively bestows his blessing on them. In fairly generic terms, saying things like “the solution is of course obvious”. The only thing that makes it clear he’s not a charlatan is that he appears at the right time, but even that isn’t much – it was only a Seldon Crisis if Seldon appeared, obviously if there’s no recording then it didn’t meet the criteria. The other parallel is that the Foundation is deliberately not educated in psychohistory because it would affect their actions and spoil the predictions.

Overall the book feels like “an interesting idea for a novel, now he just needs to flesh it out a bit” 😉 The characters feel a bit thin & like they’re only there to allow Asimov to write out the cerebral exercise of the plot. In some ways it’s more like reading thinly fictionalised history than reading a story, which is (I think) a stylistic choice by Asimov for this story. But it means that for me it’s not aging well.

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 4)

These three sections are the final quarter of the catalogue for the Royal Academy’s exhibition about the art of the early Qing Dynasty era. The first essay is the last of a set of three about the various emperors – in this case the Qianlong Emperor. The next is about the painting & calligraphy of the Chinese elite, which was often subversive in nature. And finally the meaning behind the floral & natural themes of the art of this period.

“The Qianlong Emperor: Virtue and the Possession of Antiquity” Jessica Rawson

Collection and appreciation of art and artefacts from China’s past were an essential part of the legitimacy of a ruler. As the Qing Dynasty were Manchu and not Chinese this was even more important for them than their Chinese predecessors. The Qianlong Emperor had a personal interest in art as well, but this was much less important than its role in symbolising the virtuous & righteous nature of his rule. He didn’t just collect art, he also annotated it – often directly on the object itself. Despite modern complaints about this as spoiling the works of art it was another way in which the Qianlong Emperor demonstrated his place in the long line of Chinese rulers. The bronzes of the Shang & Zhou Dynasties (c.1500BC to 221BC, post) were often inscribed with descriptions of the events that caused the bronze to be made, or something else intended to extol the virtues of the owner. The Qianlong Emperor saw his own inscriptions as being a part of this long tradition. As well as collecting ancient artefacts the Qianlong Emperor commissioned catalogues of those that he & his predecessors had collected. Again this has a long heritage, in this case dating back at least to the Song Dynasty (960AD to 1279AD, post). And finally he practiced the appropriate arts for an Emperor – he was a calligrapher (and published collections of his calligraphy so that people would know this).

The items in this section include ancient bronzes, and Qianlong period items inspired by them (I was particularly struck by an enamelled flask made to look like a Warring States period bronze flask). There were also paintings of the Qianlong Emperor, and some by him too. As well as some of his seals as used on paintings from his collection.

“Silent Satisfactions: Painting and Calligraphy of the Chinese Elite” Alfreda Murck

This section was about the paintings and calligraphy that was made & displayed outside the official court. Some was made by people who also participated in court art, some was entirely separate. In general the painting style is different to that of court paintings, it is more like calligraphy and was regarded by the elite as a natural extension of writing poetry (and like poetry if you were a part of the intellectual elite then this was part of your skillset). Because of the shared culture and education of the people who would see these artworks it was possible for the scholars to use them to criticise the regime in a subtle & subversive fashion. One of the examples Murck gives is the painter Gong Xian who painted landscapes focused on mountains & rivers that pointedly omitted the sky – i.e. no heaven, no symbol of imperial authority. Other people chose their calligraphy styles to reflect a political opinion, for instance picking the style of a Tang Dynasty loyalist & martyr to emphasise loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.

This section of the catalogue was, obviously, the paintings and calligraphy of these elite scholars. It was organised in chronological order to show the connections between the people, in effect the conversations they were having via their art. Unfortunately lacking the necessary in depth knowledge of the art of the period or of the previous art and symbolism they were referring to meant that I could just look at them as pieces of art rather than messages. I was particularly taken with Luo Ping’s Insects, Birds and Beasts – a set of 10 album leaves with pictures & poems.

“The Auspicious Universe” Jessica Rawson

This essay was about the symbolism behind the natural motifs used to decorate the palaces of the three Emperors. Rawson says this forms a pair with her earlier essay about the Qianlong Emperor – the two themes used to decorate the palaces were antiquity (discussed earlier) and auspiciousness (discussed here). The flowers, fruits, animals & birds found in paintings and other artworks are generally part of a complex scheme of allegorical symbolism. It grew out of poems starting from c.600BC, and gradually transferred to painting and other visual arts. Some symbolism depended on what things looked like, some on homophones. For instance the word for bat (fu) is a homophone for the word for happiness & good fortune (also fu, but a different Chinese character) – so an object decorated with bats is a wish for good fortune & happiness. All of the natural motifs of the art of this period could be read as auspicious messages.

The objects in this section are paintings, sculptures & ceramics decorated with natural motifs. I particularly liked a painting by Shen Quan called “Pine, Plum and Cranes”. There were also several ruyi sceptres which had belonged to the Qianlong Emperor – they are talismans of good fortune and were presented to him by courtiers on his birthday.

So that’s the end of the book. Well, there’s also a section of notes about each object in the catalogue, but I’m not going to try & summarise that. Anyway I’ve only looked up the ones I was particularly interested in. A good book 🙂 Some of the essays were better than others, but all of them were interesting. I should add symbolism in Chinese art to the list of things I’d like to know more about.

Next non-fiction book will be a change of scene, it’s about the Plantagent rulers of England. I might write up some more general thoughts about what I’ve learnt from these last two books before I get to it though.

Fit to Rule; TOWN with Nicholas Crane; Isaac Newton: The Last Magician

Fit to Rule is a series about the British monarchs from early modern times through to Edward VII presented by Lucy Worsley who is looking at the kings & queens through the lens of their medical history. This first episode covered the Tudors & the early Stuarts, getting us from Henry VIII to Charles I.

She started with the familiar story of Henry VIII’s desperation for an heir, and how this lead him to go through several wives and change the religion of the country to get what he wanted. But she also talked about how the health of the King was inextricably linked with the health of the country in people’s minds. Henry was scrutinised at all times by a whole collection of physicians, in particular she mentioned that his urine would be examined for changes & signs of his health. And she talked about how the lack of an heir must’ve taken its toll on his psyche – he is said to’ve cried when Edward was born, and Worsley presented this as tears of relief that the stress was over. But she didn’t mention any of the other health issues around the King, for instance the leg wound he got in a tourney that never quite healed or the (much later) idea that he might’ve had syphilis (I think that’s now discredited but surely still worth a mention?).

Next up is Edward VI, who inherited the throne when he was only 9 – Worsley told us the story of how his procession through London on the eve of his coronation was halted when he wanted to watch the acrobats. He didn’t stay childish for long though. Three years later in his diary he notes the ways in which he thinks his uncle (who is acting as his Protector during his minority) is abusing his power and working against Edward’s interests. And a little later there’s a diary entry stating rather coldly that his uncle was executed. There wasn’t really much about medical matters in this segment, just the fever he catches at the age of 15 and dies from.

Worsley name checked Lady Jane Grey before moving on to Mary. Lady Jane Grey was queen for 9 days because Edward felt she was a more acceptable (Protestant) heir than his Catholic elder half-sister Mary. Mary wasn’t willing to let this stand, and was the only person in this era to successfully revolt and take the crown – she was after all the real next in line to the throne. Worsley told us how Mary was the first ruling queen of England (the Empress Mathilda presumably doesn’t quite count), and was crowned as both King and Queen with two sceptres. Her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain was intended to secure the succession of a Catholic heir, and had to be fenced around with special considerations to overcome the “normal” roles of wife & husband. Philip was firmly in the place of consort not King, and should Mary pre-decease him he would not become King – her heir (hopefully her child) would become the monarch.

Mary was in her late 30s so time was running out for her to have a child, but she showed signs of pregnancy soon after her marriage. At the time protocol required a pregnant Queen to retreat to her chambers & see no-one but her ladies & midwives. This was awkward in the case of a ruling Queen as it removed Mary from the day-to-day politics of the court. Worsley & the expert she was talking to agreed that Mary must’ve shown physical signs of pregnancy because there are so many eye-witnesses that agree. Her physicians (men) couldn’t examine her directly but could take reports from the midwives and look at her external appearance, and they agreed she was pregnant. The Queen also reported feeling the child move. But as the due date came & went, no baby was born. Worsley discussed the possible reasons – a phantom pregnancy (i.e. all in her head), a false conception (i.e. some misshapen mass of flesh that wasn’t a real foetus) or possibly cancer which is what killed her a few years later.

Elizabeth I is next, but the programme pretty much skipped past her – she didn’t have interesting ailments. Neither did James VI & I, her successor, but his more or less open homosexual affairs later in life affected the politics of the realm so we dwelt on him for a while. He also was the first monarch for sometime to come to the throne already in possession of an heir and a spare. His heir, Henry, was the epitome of a Prince – charismatic, handsome, virtuous. Unfortunately at the age of 18 he died of a fever devastating his family, in particular his father. James VI & I’s favourites became more prominent after this, in particular George Villiers (later Lord Buckingham). Diarmaid MacCulloch was the expert Worsley talked to for this segment and he was telling us how having male favourites destabilised the court in a way that a King having mistresses didn’t. Women weren’t regarded as important, so were more easily ignored. But men were potentially political rivals so couldn’t be ignored by the court in general and the closeness of Buckingham (in particular) to the King was resented. Early in his reign James VI & I was an accomplished statesman, but after Henry’s death his infatuation with Buckingham lead to poorer judgement.

And last monarch of this episode was James’s son. Charles I was originally the “spare” and as a solemn, shy child this may’ve lead to his feeling less important and to feel he needed to prove himself. He was also not a very healthy child, Worsley showed us boots that were probably his as a young child. They have particularly reinforced heels & ankles, and she said that his would be to help him stand & walk – he’s known to have had rickets. When he was made Duke of York as a child there were worries he might not manage to stand through the ceremony, so two courtiers were positioned one either side to catch him if he fell. Worsley tied his childhood need to prove himself, and to cover up his weaknesses, to his later conviction he was a divinely appointed monarch who didn’t need Parliament interfering with his governance of the realm. Of course this was to have fatal consequences in the Civil War, ending with his execution. Worsley also showed us one of the two shirts Charles wore as he walked out to be executed – he put two on so that no-one would see him shiver in the January and think him afraid … still trying to hide any weaknesses right to the bitter end.

The second episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane was about Saffron Walden – a town in Essex near the border with Cambridgeshire. I’ve never been to it, but when I worked in Cambridge the year before I did my PhD at least one of my colleagues lived there.

Saffron Walden is an older town than Oban (the subject of the first episode), dating from Saxon times. Back then it was just called Walden & wasn’t all that big. After the Norman Conquest the de Mandeville family built a castle next to the town & moved the market there from a nearby town. The town was then renamed Chipping Walden (Chipping means it is where the market is, which I didn’t know before). The town was fortified at that time, and despite expansion remained within the lines of its fortifications until the 19th Century (I think that’s what Crane said). It since expanded considerably with more expansion on the cards. The town was also the centre of a saffron crocus farming area, hence the modern name. These days the market for home grown saffron is small, because it’s cheaper to import it from overseas, but Crane talked to a man who is starting to farm it in the area again as a speciality product.

Coming up to the present day there’s a lot of surviving medieval housing & other architecture in the town, and Crane spent some time talking to a plasterer who does pargeting designs on new buildings. When we were watching this bit J & I commented that this looked like the decoration on Ancient House in Ipswich – and I was amused when I looked up pargeting in wikipedia to find that one of the two examples pictured is Ancient House. Crane also visited nearby Audley End house, the seat of the Lords Braybrooke, which is now run by English Heritage and open to the public. He spoke to the oldest daughter of the current Lord Braybrooke who sadly won’t inherit because she’s female (and so are all her siblings – there was no mention who would inherit).

While the market still exists it’s no longer the primary focus of the town – nowadays it’s a commuter town, the train journey to London from Audley Station takes under an hour and the M11 is also conveniently close. Crane visited the newsagents at the station, which is also an off-licence. As well as normal sorts of wines it also sells much more expensive wine – between £100 & £500 per bottle. The chap who runs the shop said he sells 2 or 3 of these per week to people popping in on their way home from work. Which gives you a flavour of the sorts of people who commute from there, I guess!

There were also some spectacular displays of NIMBYism from the townsfolk that Crane spoke to. There’s a development being planned of a reasonably significant amount of housing on the outskirts of the town, and consensus appeared to be that the residents didn’t want it to happen at all. Several of them mentioned it as “affordable housing” and I couldn’t help but feel that part of the objection was that they felt they lived somewhere posh and now there might be riffraff moving in. I’m being a bit unfair here, people did also bring up the problems there would be on the roads given that the proposed development is on the opposite side of town to the railway station. But even so, I think that just means some thought should be put into planning how the road network will cope. The population of the country is growing whether people approve of that or not, and those people need to live somewhere.

Isaac Newton: The Last Magician was a biography of Isaac Newton partly told by interviews with a selection of historians, and partly by dramatised interviews with Newton & contemporaries (using the words of letters by & about Newton). Oh, and some dramatised stuff by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote a biography of Newton back in the 1940s based on papers of Newton’s that Keynes bought at auction in the 1930s. The dramatised bits were a bit hammed up, but that kept them entertaining rather than over-earnest.

Newton starts life in inauspicious circumstances in 1642. He was been a small & premature baby and wasn’t expected to live long. His father dies when he is very young, and his mother abandons him to be brought up by his grandparents when she re-marries when he is 3. He did well at school, not so well with other people (in the sins he listed in code he included things like threatening to burn down the house with his mother & her husband in it), and started on some of the obsessions that would stick with him for the rest of his life. For instance he turned the attic into a giant sundial – marking out how the light changed in the room with time.

At the age of 17 his mother pulled him out of school to come & run the farm now her husband had died. He did sufficiently badly at that that he was sent off to Cambridge to study instead (which also reinforced his sense that he had a destiny to study & to work out how the world functioned). He studied natural philosophy, what would now be called science. He then began to experiment and investigate time, light, optics and many more subjects for himself. It’s during this period that he did some of the things he’s remembered for – he did the experiments with the prisms showing that white light can be split into colours but these coloured lights cannot be further split. He did the experiments on optics that could’ve blinded him – looking at the sun in a mirror to see how it affected his vision, inserting a bodkin under his eyeball to see what effect deforming the eye had on vision. He also invented calculus (but didn’t tell anyone about it). The programme made no mention of Leibniz, I guess so as not to complicate the story.

Eventually his peers at Cambridge brought him to the attention of the Royal Society & Newton started to share his work & thoughts. He published a paper on his work on splitting light into colours, but this was reviewed by Hooke who pronounced it not of much worth. Newton flounced off in a huff, and took his toys with him. He did no more scientific work for the next 12 years – and until Maynard Keynes bought up some of his papers in the 1930s it wasn’t known what he had been doing. He was engaged in alchemical experiments – trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone which would transmute things into gold. And trying to figure out what made things alive (I think this fits into this bit). During this time he also developed his theological ideas into a sufficiently extreme form as to count as heresy. He did not believe in the Trinity, in particular insisting that Christ was a man and not the Son of God.

Newton returned to non-occult science via a correspondence with Halley about the orbits of the planets. Inspired partly by the idea that his enemy, Hooke, couldn’t figure it out Newton set to working out why the planets orbit how they do – leading to his theory of gravity, and his laws of motion. His publication of these ideas (as the Principia Mathematica) was well received, except by Hooke who tried to claim that he’d thought of it all first. The two men had an undignified spat, but Newton won out this time.

Newton had a nervous breakdown in 1693, the causes of which are unclear. The various talking heads on the programme suggested reasons ranging from him having recently worked with large quantities of mercury to the breakdown of a particularly close friendship with a Swiss mathematician immediately before. After his nervous breakdown they were saying that he never really did any more work – he refined some ideas, but that was it for novel ideas.

In later life he became more of a politician – he was made Warden of the Royal Mint, and was also the President of the Royal Society. He remained arrogant and poor at dealing with people, however. In a letter to the Royal Astronomer he orders the man about demanding that he provide data that Newton wants. This rather predictably puts the man’s back up as he regarded himself as a peer of Newton, not a servant.

After Newton died he was buried in Westminster Abbey, in with the Kings & Queens, despite his extreme Protestantism (the extent of his heresy wasn’t really known at that time). His reputation afterwards was as the first rationalist, the start of the Enlightenment. The experts on the programme were saying that to keep this reputation intact any papers of Newton’s that referred to alchemy or religion were kind of shuffled under the carpet – locked up in a box until sold off at auction in the 1930s.

An interesting & informative programme – the dramatisation of the bits from the letters really brought them to life. And it showed how much more there was to Newton than the myth.

Australia with Simon Reeve; The Tube: An Underground History

For the last episode of Australia with Simon Reeve he travelled down the east side of the country from Gold Coast to Melbourne. In Gold Coast he did the obvious surfing thing (and met the Meter Maids who wander round the streets in bikinis and buy new parking tickets for cars that’ve stayed past the end of their ticket). Then he spent a while exploring the less polished side of the city – first by accompanying the police on their rounds one evening. They told him that organised crime is a big problem in the city due to the heavy drug-using culture in Australia, particularly in this area, and pointed at the biker gangs as the main components of this. Reeve then visited a biker gang for the other side of the story – they were saying that they were just misunderstood. That offending rates go down once someone joins a biker gang. And somewhat undermined that with the “if you don’t mess with us we won’t mess with you” attitude that definitely came across as a threat.

Reeve next visited the Liverpool Plain which has some of the richest farmland in the world, and talked to an old couple who’ve farmed there for all their lives. The region is gradually being encroached on by the mining companies, because it’s resource rich (like the rest of Australia) and this couple & their neighbours had recently won a battle against having their land purchased to be mined. Looking at how the mining is done (strip mining on a large scale) it seems daft to do that to farmland that is feeding the country. And on a similar daft note he talked to environmentalists trying to save the koala about how close to extinction they are as the suburbs spread out into their habitat. Again given how much land there is in Australia and how comparatively few people you’d think it would be possible to leave more koala habitat to the koalas.

In Sydney he talked about the growing multicultural society in Australia since the “whites only” immigration laws were ended in the 1970s. Now one in ten citizens are of Asian descent, and he talked to a couple of very different examples. A muslim woman who’s part of the first Muslim ladies Aussie Rules team, and a billionaire who was born in China and has built about 5% of the highrise apartments in Sydney. From there he travelled to Melbourne, visiting a bushfire on the way. He didn’t spend much time looking at Melbourne, just a bit of time at the Australia Day celebrations.

I’ve liked watching this series, Reeve had a knack of pointing out the issues & bad points as well as showing the scenery & the good sides of life there. There was quite a lot about immigration & integration of different peoples into society – noticeable by their almost total isolation were the aborigines, only in the army did we see them involved with the rest of Australian society. And the programmes also looked at the various environmental “challenges” facing Australia, despite how it’s a vast resource rich land it’s still finite.

The Tube: An Underground History was a programme made to celebrate the London Underground’s 150th anniversary (which is this year). It was a combination of old footage (I wondered if a lot of it had been recycled from a 100th anniversary programme) and interviews with people who work there now. In the hour it covered the history of the Tube, from its beginnings as a collection of private companies in Victorian times through the nationalisation of the 1930s, the post-war decline & then renewed investment after the fire in Kings Cross Station. And it also showed us the things that’ve been done earlier this year to celebrate the anniversary – running a steam train along the first ever section of line running from Paddington to Farringdon (filled with politicians & bigwigs, just like the first ever train was). And Charles & Camilla visiting and solemnly riding on a tube train (a normal one not the steam one).

It was entertaining to watch, they’d picked their interviewees well – including the station supervisor at Farringdon who was a complete drama queen but funny with it. And a train driver who’s a bit obsessed with the tiling patterns at the various stations (designed to let you distinguish the stations even if you couldn’t read the signs). They also interviewed a descendent of Charles Pearson who had the idea and got together the funding for the first segment of line – apparently he’d tried to get permission to do it & investment based on the way it would be a social good (allowing people to move out of the slums near their workplace & into better, cheaper housing in the country) but had failed several times. Then he hit on saying that the congestion on the streets would drive business out of London & people funded him based on the idea that this underground railway would prevent this. And obviously the programme also talked to graphic designers, given how iconic things like the logo & the map are – both the guy who now is in charge of this for the whole company, and a man who was a friend of the chap who designed the tube map.

“Pebble in the Sky” Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky was Asimov’s first novel, published in 1950, and is one of the few Asimov novels I actually bought. My mother owns most of the ones I’ve read, and J brought copies of the Foundation ones that I’ll be getting to next into the house so I’ve never actually got round to buying many.

Having just read the short story version it grew out of (post) I think this is a much better telling of that story, but it’ll still never be a favourite. There’s still no women, really, although Pola Shekt gets a bit more on-screen time however she’s still very much “the love interest”.

The plot is much the same as the short story. Josef Schwartz, one of our two main characters, is transported from 1949 to the far far future. There he suffers culture shock & gets caught up in the politics & conspiracy of the time. Earth is now radioactive and can only barely support the population which means when you get to the age of 60 you get euthanised. So much time has passed since the 20th Century that no-one knows that Earth was the original planet that mankind came from, and the Galactic Empire treats Earth & Earth people as an insignificant cultural backwater. The Earth government smarts under this, and there are plans afoot to Do Something About This (these are the antagonists). Our other protagonist is a brilliant young Galactic archaeologist, Bel Arvardan, with theories about the origins of humanity – and on his visit to Earth he gets caught up in the political situation along with Schwartz.

However behind the plot, what I think the book is about is colonialism and racism. It’s probably been 15 years since I last read this book and I can’t remember if that struck me before, it surely must’ve done tho as it’s seemed obvious this time. The Procurator of Earth – i.e. the Galactic Empire’s representative/ruler on the planet – reminds me of a British Governor in India during the days of the British Empire. He lives in a palace that’s a little part of the Empire on Earth, and takes pills to reduce his chances of getting local diseases while bemoaning the lack of “civilised” company. Arvardan comes from a planet that’s particularly bigoted against Earthmen and starts with the sort of self-deceit you’d expect – he thinks of himself as enlightened, why he thinks he’d even employ an Earthman in one of his archaeological teams but the other chaps would refuse to work with one so such a shame he can’t. And then reacts poorly to meeting actual Earth people in the actual flesh, going back to his culturally conditioned ways. But he falls in love with an Earthgirl and changes his mind – about her, her Dad & Schwartz at least, we don’t get quite enough time in his head after to believe he’s completely changed. Arvardan’s theories about the origins of humanity are clearly analogues for the debates in archaeology of the time – did Homo sapiens evolve once in Africa and spread, or did we evolve in each region separately. Just switch “in Africa” for “on one planet, that just so happens to be the one that’s looked down on”. And the second hypothesis is used to justify racism as “scientific” in the same way in the book as in real life.

I think it’s painted with too broad brushstrokes, practically hitting you over the head with the analogies. But equally it’s hard for me to see it the way it would’ve been read at the time – in 1950 in the USA segregation of races was still legal (my grasp on this subject is hazy, but poking on wikipedia it seem that the major milestone for the start of desegregation is 1954 and a court decision that ruled that separate schools for blacks & whites was unconstitutional). Prohibition of interracial marriages isn’t declared unconstitutional till 1967 … so in that light hitting the reader over the head with the Bel Avardan/Pola Shekt relationship as being an analogy for an interracial relationship is possibly what was needed to make the point. Would more subtlety have let people ignore the parallels too much? Asimov does a good job of making sure there’s people to sympathise with on both sides of the divide – people are people and some of them are bigots, some of them are not, and all of them are products of their culture. And obviously by putting the whole of Earth as the targets of the racism he puts us on their side at first, but then he counterbalances this by making the way the antagonists plan to rise up against the Empire & fight back be morally wrong. I’m not quite sure if that works or if it ends up too close to “so you should stay in your place”.

Which brings up the way this book definitely doesn’t feel current – it’s so short! Just a couple of hundred pages. And it does feel a little like it’s been kept short by keeping it just a touch too shallow. Everything gets tied up very neatly at the end with an air of “and now they all lived happily ever after” but it clearly can’t be true – you don’t solve millennia of bigotry with one foiled coup & a marriage. I exaggerate a bit, but it definitely feels overly optimistic as an ending to me.

Not a favourite, but there was more to it than I remembered.

The Stone Roses, Finsbury Park 7 June 2013

On Friday we headed into London to see The Stone Roses play at Finsbury Park. We’d seen them for the first time last year at Heaton Park (their reunion gigs), and jumped at the chance to see them again this year.


We got there pretty much at gates, and were surprised how close we could get to the stage. Could’ve been at the barrier, but decided that given how nuts the crowd had gone at Heaton Park discretion was the better part of valour & we stood a little way back – maybe 10 people from the front (ended up a bit further back by the time The Stone Roses came on, as is always the way coz people push forwards). Crowd was a bit rougher with more fighting & less pleasant than at Heaton Park, and I kinda felt security were more concerned with security theatre than actually doing much useful. Like early on we saw 5 big burly guys come to tell a couple of lads they needed to put their cans of beer into paper cups, yet when a couple of fights broke out during Dizzee Rascal’s set they took ages to react & sort it out. The other way it was less pleasant was there were more chaps peeing on the ground & a lot more paper cups of liquid being chucked across the crowd. Most of it was cold & hence probably beer, but lets not dwell on that – suffice to say I washed extra specially thoroughly when we got back to the hotel that evening :/

First band on were Rudimental. We really drew the short straw for support acts, to be honest – the next night had acts that were much more to our tastes. Rudimental are very current – they have had a recent number 1 hit. Wikipedia lists them as drum and bass which isn’t really my thing, musically speaking they performed well (bonus points for having a trumpet player!) but they didn’t really grab our attention. I felt like I was too old and have never been cool enough to be into them, if that makes sense 😉


Next were The Courteeners, who I also hadn’t heard of before. They were a five piece rock group & much more to my taste, and I need to try & remember to find out if they’ve got anything on Spotify & give it a listen. The atmosphere for their set was good – there seemed to be a lot of people who were there as much for them as for The Stone Roses.

The CourteenersThe Courteeners

And our third support act was Dizzee Rascal (a rapper, who I had heard of before). His set was marred by at least two or three fights in the audience but I’m not sure it would’ve gone down all that well even without stopping a couple of times while security broke things up (eventually). I’d listened to a couple of his recent albums on Spotify a few days before and thought it seemed fairly samey, but when the set started I thought I’d maybe misjudged it and this was going to go well. He & the rest of his band (er, the other guys on stage, it’s not really a band) had presence & managed to get the crowd going along with it for a while. Then it just fizzled – partly I think because he played a load of new unreleased songs & it’s not like most of the audience knew his older stuff so we couldn’t care less about the new stuff.

Dizzee RascalDizzee Rascal

And finally it was time for the band we were actually wanting to see! The Stone Roses came on at about half-eight, and played for nearly 2 hours without much chat or even many pauses between songs. The set list was a bit different to the one at Heaton Park (I particularly noticed the lack of Sally Cinnamon coz we’d been talking about it earlier in the day), but pretty much all the classics were there 🙂 The crowd were all into it, singing along even with the guitar & bass riffs when there weren’t any vocals to sing. It did kick off a bit (and at times I found it hard to keep my feet) but apart from a few assholes it was people who were enthusiastically enjoying the gig, so that was OK. (I gathered from conversation around us that further in it was rougher & people weren’t being as courteous as they should – not picking up people who fell for instance – so it was wise that we didn’t push further forward.)

The Stone RosesThe Stone RosesThe Stone RosesThe Stone RosesThe Stone RosesThe Stone RosesThe Stone Roses
The Stone RosesLeaving, Lit by Lasers

After the gig we walked back to the hotel – I’d got us in a Travelodge near Kings Cross, so that was quite a long walk but the queues at the tube station were apparently taking an hour to clear. Much nicer to walk for that time & talk about the gig. As with after the Heaton Park gig I had “Something’s Burning” stuck in my head with the first bit of the lyrics looping over & over:

Don’t count your chickens
Coz they’re never gonna hatch
You can’t catch a monkey with a shotgun and a sack
Coz you’re too dull baby
You can’t see the wood for the trees
Coz you’re too slow baby
You just couldn’t get off your knees

(Although it appears I always mishear the fourth line, coz I remember it as identical to the sixth.)

A fantastic gig! Hopefully they’ll release new material some time too, apparently they’re writing so there’s hope for that 🙂