The Iraq War; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The last episode of The Iraq War covered the time period from after immediately after power was handed over to an elected Iraqi government through to earlier this year. Unlike the previous two episodes there isn’t a familiar well worn storyline for the whole of this episode – partly because the later bits are too recent to have a narrative yet, and partly because once the US & UK etc troops had gone then Iraq stopped being headline news so often. The story this episode told was one of a country that had descended into all out sectarian violence, then looked to be pulling out of it only to start slipping back.

In the time immediately after the Iraqi government was elected the country was divided by fighting between Sunni & Shia Muslims – the Sunni fighters were dominated by Al Qaeda, the Shia fighters were various militias plus the Mahdi army. And the ordinary civilians on both sides were caught & killed in the middle. Some (all?) of the Shia militias were state sponsored – they got weapons, transport, ammo, logisitics from state officials & departments – which only served to make the Sunnis fighting against them more determined.

Given it didn’t seem like the elected Prime Minister was able to do anything about this violence the US & UK governments replaced him. While it was dressed up as “suggesting” that he step aside for someone else, it really was the replacement of an elected leader of a country with a hand-picked alternative who was more “suitable” to the US & UK. Nouri Maliki, the replacement, was then to be propped up, sorry “supported”, by the US. And for all my scare quotes in the last few sentences it was a stratagem that initially seemed effective. Due to the US succesfully managing to get non-al-Qaeda Sunnis to work with the government, and Maliki himself suppressing the worst of the Shia militias (and pacifying Basra) some degree of unity and stability returned to Iraq … and the US & UK managed to get their troops home & to leave Iraq to look after itself.

But it hasn’t been a long term success, and violence is getting worse again. Maliki’s regime are arresting people who were involved in the sectarian violence, but it seems that it’s Sunni leaders & opposition politicians in general who are being targeted while Shia politicians remain free. In the last election several of the opposition politicians were disqualified from standing for election – again for reasons that didn’t seem to be a problem for Maliki’s own party’s candidates. The opposition gained a lot of seats in the election, to an extent where to form a government Maliki had to negotiate with them & set up a power-sharing deal. That hasn’t been honoured, say the opposition politicians, it’s still the Prime Minister Maliki show. So the feeling is that Iraq is slipping into a dictatorship with a figleaf of elections, and violence is rising.

An interesting series, particularly because it was primarily told through interviews with the people who were making the decisions (or their aides). Although obviously they’ll’ve been edited to fit the story the series was telling (worth reminding myself of because the message plays to my pre-existing bias on the subject).

I think I was right about Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble following the past, present, future theme for its episodes – this last episode was about sheep farming in Australia which is the future in two or three different ways. The first half of the programme focussed on what you could think of as the globalisation of sheep farming (I suppose this could count as “present” rather than “future” but for most of the world this sort of sheep farming is still the future). Humble visited a sheep station called Meka which is in Western Australia and is about the size of the county of Kent. There are several thousand sheep on this land, which mostly roam free, and five people. Handling this many sheep with this few people is pretty hard work & involves a lot of modern tech – to keep them watered there are windmills pumping up water to automatically fill troughs in each paddock (which might be 10km by 4km in size). And to muster the sheep in each paddock, which they only do a couple of times a year, requires planes & motorbikes.

Most of these sheep are bred to be sent to the Middle East, which has a growing & more affluent population but not the land to raise enough extra sheep to meet the growing demand for meat. For another market (like the UK) the sheep would be killed locally and then the meat exported, but the Middle Eastern market buys live sheep to slaughter themselves (i.e. the family who will eat the sheep kill it). This is a controversial practice, and the farmers Humble spoke to were open about the fact that in the past poor regulation of the shipping meant that losses of sheep on the voyage could be 3-10% of the cargo. However regulation has been tightened up, and Humble visited the holding pens for sheep before they were shipped and they were kept in good conditions & seemed relaxed. Losses these days are significantly lower (I can’t remember if they said 0.1% or 0.01%). But there is still the problem that the slaughtering once they reach their destination may not be humane (if nothing else because it may well be untrained people doing the slaughtering).

So that was the future of sheep farming as a large scale enterprise with the consumers on a different continent to the producers. Humble next visited farms where the breeding of sheep is done using modern genetic technology. The technique used is embryo transfer – they induce a ewe to release several eggs, then artificially inseminate her. The embryos are then removed, and viable ones are transplanted into other ewes as surrogate mothers. This speeds up the process of selective breeding because it allows you to get several more offspring from your best breeding ewes than you otherwise would. J noted while we were watching that it would also narrow the gene pool & wouldn’t that be a problem – but the programme didn’t mention that. I’m not sure if the various breeds of sheep might already be fairly inbred (because many of the breeding ewes would have the same father already).

And a third sort of future was a farm where the farmers are what Humble called “very hippy-dippy”. The sheep lead very stress free lives, with a lot of interaction with people & many lambs hand-reared. So they’re happy sheep, and the farm wins awards for the quality of the meat. A future for the elite – where quality over quantity counts.

It was a fun series to watch, with lots of interesting stuff about how different people live as well as about the sheep (or alpacas).

In Our Time: Relativity

Physics is one of those subjects where I can very clearly see the boundaries of my understanding – as soon as we get to quantum physics or Einstein’s theories of relativity I can follow the surface level explanations & analogies, but I’m always aware I don’t understand it on a deeper level. I assume the same is actually true of all subjects at some point – I’m not a genius, and I spread my self-education widely among many subjects rather than deeply delving into one – but for physics I can see the fence. It’s a peculiar sensation.

The three experts who talked about Einstein’s theories of relativity on In Our Time were Ruth Gregory (Durham University), Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal and University of Cambridge) and Roger Penrose (University of Oxford). The programme started with a bit of context: in 1905 Einstein published four papers, including one on Special Relativity. At the time he was working as a clerk in a patent office & was previously unknown as a physicist. Ten years later he published a paper extending Special Relativity into General Relativity.

Prior to Einstein’s theories of relativity the assumption was that there was some sort of objective measure of time in the universe, the same no matter how it was observed. Einstein theorised that the motion of the observer affected the observation of the passage of time – hence relativity. Apparently he later regretted using that word for his theories because it’s been used since to imply that physics is all just subjective & depends on your point of view, but actually there is still an objective physical reality which can be described mathematically & rigorously it’s just that within the system the point of view of the observer is important for the observations made.

One of the things that Einstein’s theories grew out of was the observation that the speed of light remains constant no matter what direction you’re travelling in or how fast you’re travelling. This seems to be a paradox. Say you think about driving a car towards or away from another car that’s driving towards you – when you’re travelling towards it, it gets closer to you quicker than if you’re travelling away from it. (I hope that makes sense.) But with light if you’re travelling towards it it appears to be travelling the same speed as it travels if you’re travelling away from it. Einstein’s theory explains how this happens by explaining how time is running differently (I think).

Special Relativity implied that time is another dimension like the spatial dimensions, and Minkowski built on this theory to mathematically describe spacetime. Einstein then used this mathematics as part of his theory of General Relativity. One of the key insights of General Relativity is that spacetime is curved by the presence of mass and this curvature explains why gravity exists. Gregory used an analogy I’ve heard before to describe spacetime & its curvature – thinking of spacetime as being like a four-dimensional version of a two-dimensional rubber sheet. If you have your rubber sheet suspended as a flat horizontal plane and then you put something large like a bowling ball on it, the sheet will be distorted & curved where the ball weighs it down. Then if you roll a marble across it it will accelerate down the slope towards the bowling ball – or if you get your angles and speed right you can make it orbit the bowling ball.

There was some discussion of the twin paradox at two different points in the programme. This is a thought experiment where you have twins one of which remains on Earth, and the other one travels away to a different star system at close to the speed of light, and then returns. When the twins meet again the one that stayed on Earth will be older than the one that went to the stars and back. This is a staple of science fiction, and I think the first time I ran into the idea was in “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein which I read when I was at middle school. The first time it was discussed on the programme was in the context of Special Relativity as the way of demonstrating what Einstein is talking about. And they mentioned that this has actually been shown experimentally – by getting a very accurate clock (synchronised with a matching clock) and putting it on a plane and flying it to the other side of the world & back. Then when you compare the two clocks the one that travelled has measured less time than the one that stayed put. Gregory pointed out that the observations demonstrate both the effects of relative motion and the effects of distance from a massive object (the maths needs to take into account that the plane is up in the air while the other clock is on the ground). I had no idea prior to this programme that the effects were measurable on such a human scale.

The second time the twin paradox came up was in the context of talking about the geometry of spacetime. Penrose was explaining that with his theories Einstein was trying to explain the universe in geometrical terms. Spacetime is four-dimensional, three dimensions are the familiar spatial ones that can be explained using Euclidean geometry. For the fourth dimension, time, Einstein (and Minkowski?) showed that you could use almost the same geometric rules only needing to reverse a sign – turn a plus to a minus. The way Penrose explained what he meant by this was to use the twin paradox – one twin is moving from event A to event B along a straight line in the time dimension, the other is moving from A to B on a curved line in the time dimension. For the spatial dimensions a curved line is a longer path than a straight line, for the time dimension a curved line is a shorter path than a straight line. (And this is what I mean by being able to see the edge of my understanding – I can write that last sentence as a fact and accept it is true, but I don’t understand why or how.)

I know I’ve missed out various things they discussed but I shall only mention another couple before I finish the post. Firstly there are real world applications of the theories of relativity, it doesn’t just help physicists understand the universe – it’s an important part of the underpinning of how GPS works. The other thing was that Rees was saying that Einstein was in some ways more like an artist than a scientist. By this he meant that for an artist their work is generally unique, if they didn’t exist no-one else would produce the same artworks. But for science generally if one person doesn’t come up with the theory or do the experiment then someone else would not long after. Rees thought (and the other two agreed) that while Special Relativity would probably have been thought of by someone else soon after, General Relativity was such a large jump that if Einstein hadn’t thought of it then we might still have not thought of it.

The Other Things I Read While Reading the As

The thirteen books filed under A on the shelf weren’t all the fiction I’ve read over the last six months – there were also fourteen books from the library. While I was putting together the stats for the books on the shelf (post) I also looked at these other books.

The books were as follows (links go to posts):

graphs of statistics for other books read while I read those filed under A on the bookshelf

(You can click on the graph for a slightly bigger version where the text is a little easier to read.)

When I started thinking about looking at the stats for what I’ve been reading in posts like these I thought to myself that whilst the books filed under A might have very male-skewed authors “obviously it’ll be 50% or more women for the other books”. Er, no. Fourteen authors, 9 male … still just 36% female. Not much better than the ‘main’ author stats for the As. So that’s rather disappointing. In terms of nationality it’s still a very US dominated list, and only one author was neither UK nor US (Maurice Druon is French and his book was originally in French (I read it in translation)).

Genre-wise they skew towards fantasy and historical novels. Eight books fall into some category of fantasy, seven books are in some way historical (they overlap). Perhaps a reaction against all the early science fiction I was otherwise reading? Certainly nothing deliberate in the choice.

This selection is mostly fairly recent books, probably because I reserved most of them after reading reviews or excerpts. The outliers are the Asimov (reserved because I don’t own book 1 of the Foundation trilogy and it seemed a shame to skip it) and the Druon which was recently reviewed on because George R. R. Martin has cited it as an influence on his Song of Ice & Fire series. Both of those were published in the 50s.

The mean star rating was 3.6 as compared to 3.1 for the As, with the mode being 4 rather than 3. Again influenced by reading reviews/excerpts before reading the book because I could weed out most things that weren’t going to be to my tastes before reading them*. Not flawlessly tho! The three books that were my least favourite included one I’d read before (the Asimov), one that I read & liked an excerpt from (the Cole) and one I read a very positive review for (the Whitfield). I’d say that the Cole was probably my biggest disappointment, the type of story I thought it was going to tell is a type I particularly like so it was sad not to get it.

*Whereas the stuff on the shelf included a lot of things I bought more than 20 years ago and my tastes have changed.

Those that were my favourites were all liked for different reasons and oddly I’d only recommend them to other people with caveats. A Memory of Light was a very satisfying conclusion to a series I’ve been reading for something like half my life, but you definitely couldn’t start with that one & the series as a whole does get bogged down in the middle so I could understand not wanting to read it all. The Atkinson gets better every time I think about it, and I think it’s got something interesting to say about environment, culture & personality and how those affect your life & your sense of self (both more & less than you’d expect). But I think you’ve got to be happy reading something very non-linear to enjoy the book, and it doesn’t have a plot per se. And lastly the Wendig is a vivid & intense urban fantasy/thriller crossover … but it’s pretty gruesome in places & if you’re easily offended by swear words you’re not going to enjoy it at all.

Treasures of Ancient Rome; The Iraq War; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The third & last episode of Treasures of Ancient Rome was about the art during the declining years of the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke opened by explaining that the canonical view is that the art of this period is poor & gets worse over time because the Empire is falling to bits. He sets out to show in this episode that this isn’t true – the art style might change but it’s no less good than what came before.

He started in the city of Leptis Magna which is in Libya and was prominent in the later part of the Empire. Sooke characterised this period of Empire as the periphery becoming as important (if not more important) as the centre. Citizens from the periphery could even become Emperor – Septimus Severus, for instance, was from Leptis Magna. The city is very well preserved, so several of Sooke’s examples of art from this period were from the city or nearby. These included a triumphal arch & the basilica, both of which combine classical Roman motifs with local elements. There was also a stunning mosaic depicting gladiators from a nearby villa that was only relatively recently discovered & has just been put on display in a museum (I think this was my favourite piece from the programme). And Sooke also visited another villa in Libya that has been part excavated – but he was visiting not long after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the Libyan archaeologist who was showing him around was explaining that sites like this are being neglected (now & under Gaddafi’s regime) and the art & artifacts that have been uncovered are deteriorating due to the neglect. From Libya Sooke went to Egypt, to show us the famous mummy portraits. These aren’t wholly Roman nor are they classically Egyptian, the two art styles & symbolisms have been merged together. And they are hauntingly beautiful images of the people whose mummies they’re attached to.

The next few artworks were from the northern reaches of the Empire. He very briefly touched on the art at Bath, which is a fusion of Roman & Celtic art, but wasn’t very impressed. The stuff he did hold up as truely great pieces of art was some of the silverware that’s been found in Britain & other parts of the northern Empire. This includes the Mildenhall Great Dish which he looked at with a modern silversmith to talk about how technically accomplished it is (as well as being good art). In this segment he also showed us the Lycurgus cup, which is made of carved glass. In the light it looks like it’s red, but in shade it looks green – this effect has been achieved by including particles of silver & gold in the glass. I wasn’t that keen on the design of the cup, so it seemed more of an engineering achievement than a piece of art to me.

And he finished up the programme by talking about how the art of the later Romans became the art of Western Christianity. To illustrate this he first showed us the mosaics in the mausoleum for a Roman woman (Galla Placidia) which date from the early 5th Century AD, and then the later mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. As this dates from the late 6th Century AD it’s well after the end of the Roman Empire – but there’s definitely continuity between the two sets of decoration.

At the very end Sooke wrapped up the series by saying that he’d shown that the Romans should be famed for their art, not just their conquering. Having not seen the first one I’d not quite realised that was the premise! A good series, I’ll be looking out for more programmes from him.

One of the sorts of programmes that J & I look out for to record fit into a category we think of as “depressing current affairs” – and the recent BBC series about the Iraq War fits into that. The first episode looks at the road to war, starting in September 2001 and following the politics & intelligence service actions for the next 18 months. The bulk of the programme is interviews with the senior people involved, not just from the US & the UK but also from Iraq. And I mean really senior – for the UK the people interviewed included Tony Blair & Jack Straw, among the US interviewees were Dick Cheney & Colin Powell.

The story the programme told was the now familiar one – in retrospect it’s clear that the decision to effect regime change was made and then intelligence was gathered to justify it rather than the decision coming after the data. It opened with something I’d not heard before that after Bush did his “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” speech the Iraqi government (in the person of the Prime Minister I think) were poised to reply that Iraq would join the fight against al Qaeda. But then Saddam Hussein countermanded that & said he’d reply himself – and tried to turn it into “we’ll help if you drop your sanctions”. So that put up the US government’s collective backs, and regime change seemed like the obvious way forward.

I’m not going to attempt to re-cap this programme, instead I’ll just mention a couple of the other things that particularly struck me (other than how self-serving Blair always comes across as …). First was a thought sparked by the current/recent situation in Egypt. There’s been a fair amount of talk in the media about how the US is having to dance an interesting diplomatic dance where they can’t regard the military intervention as a coup because coups are Always Bad Things and they don’t want to condemn this particular one just yet. Yet the attempts by the US intelligence services to figure out a way to engineer a coup in Iraq were being held up as the moral thing to do without even a figleaf of pretence that ceci n’est pas un coup d’etat. So coups are Always Bad unless either we like you better then we’ll call it something else or we organise it ourselves coz then it’s Good. Glad we got that straight 😉

One piece of the intelligence that was used to justify the war stood out to me as a particularly revealing about the way things were handled – this was the information from a French journalist/informer who had access to the Iraqi Foreign Minister. He told the CIA that the Iraqi man was wanting to defect & that he confirmed that Iraq had WMD. The CIA were concerned to make sure the journalist really did meet with the man he said he was talking to – so there was some business with custom made suits and an appearance at the UN in one of them. But despite being suspicious enough to run that test, once he’d passed that test then it was just assumed he was telling the truth about everything. Not that it was 100% confirmed but everyone interviewed was clear that it coloured the way they looked at everything else. So “definitely met him” was turned into “probably telling the truth about the conversation” very quickly, not for any reason except that the reported conversation fit the desired answer. Which is why you shouldn’t make your decisions first then fact gather to justify them! Hard enough to avoid bias normally, let alone when the President’s busy saying “I want to do this, now make a case for why I can”.

Of course the thing about a programme like this is that hindsight is always 20/20. The bias of the narrative was that people should’ve known better but that doesn’t mean they were cynically ignoring things or falsifying intelligence. Good intentions don’t outweigh the mistakes, but it’s better than having bad intentions as well!

The second episode covered the immediate aftermath of the war. The familiar story here is that while the US had a plan for the war, they didn’t have a plan for the peace – this programme showed how that lack of foresight played out. Again I’m not going to do a full recap, just pull out some things that particularly caught my attention (so there’s definitely important events missing from my write-up that the programme did discuss).

After Saddam was deposed & the war “won” because there was no plan there was a power vacuum, which the first man on the ground (Jay Garner) did his best to fill. He was a retired US General who had worked with the Kurdish leaders in the past – so known to them & respected by them – and he got them together with the Iraqi opposition leaders who’d been in exile. Garner’s plan was to have them form themselves into an interim government very quickly, then they’d sort out a constitution and elections afterwards. For political reasons & because the situation looked poor (because it was) he was replaced by Paul Bremer.

And that’s where the slide downhill begins. Hard to say if it would really have ended up differently had Garner been in charge, his plan wasn’t well received by all Iraqis, but it certainly seemed like Bremer caused a lot of the later problems. I was particularly struck by him setting up his office in one of Saddam’s old palaces … it seems the sort of symbolism you’d want to avoid. He then follows up by telling the proto-government that Garner was trying to assemble that they’re not diverse enough to represent the whole of Iraq (true, but …) and so he’s the one who’s in charge not them. Coz obviously it’s better to have a random US diplomat who knows no-one & no-one knows. Maybe he was a better choice, but handling it like that seemed designed to put everyone’s back up.

And then there’s the debacle with the Iraqi army. The plan, laid out by Bush, was “don’t disband the army, putting 300,000 or so trained men with weapons on the streets seems a bad idea”. Bremer … failed to pay the army and then disbanded it. The payment thing was particularly eye-rolling in my opinion – there was a disbursement of wages to civil servants etc from the old regime, $20 each which was about 6 months wages. But nothing for the army because why should they pay what Saddam had failed to pay them? So after disbanding the army they had a large number of well trained & organised men who felt disrespected & dishonoured, and who had no money to buy food for their families. Not surprisingly a lot found their way instantly into the various insurgency groups & that’s when the real violence against the US & their allies kicked off.

The handover of power got further complicated because the main Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa saying that elections should come before the constitution – i.e. that the constitution would be written by elected Iraqis not people chosen by the US. Seems simple enough, but Bremer had a hard deadline of “before Bush runs for President again” and that wasn’t time to get elections organised. The US administration of Iraq is therefore more concerned with how it looks in US domestic politics than whether it’s the best for the country they’re running … In the end Bremer just appointed someone to be Prime Minister and other people to be the government, which is directly against the fatwa that the Grand Ayatollah had issued and so is guaranteed to piss off the people who regard Sistani as their spiritual leader (i.e. the Shia Muslim majority of Iraqi citizens).

So now they have the army against them, the Shia Muslim authorities & believers against them plus the people who’d never been going to be with them. Maybe there were no good solutions once the war was won. One of the interviewees on the programme was a Sunni cleric who’d been leading an insurgency group since day 1 of the aftermath – he was quite clear that he’d not considered doing anything but fight the US. But even if it was hopeless, the way the post-war US administration acted didn’t help, and actively made things worse.

For something a little more light-hearted we finished off the series of TOWN with Nicholas Crane. This episode was about Enniskillen, which is on an island in a lake in Northern Ireland. Of course, as with a lot of places in Northern Ireland, the history of the town wasn’t terribly light-hearted. The oldest building is a castle that was built by Hugh the Hospitable in the early 15th Century, due to the strategically important location it was a target of the English when they were conquering & subduing Ireland in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Fast-forward to the modern day & The Troubles, and Enniskillen was the place where the Remembrance Day Bombing took place in 1987 killing 11 people.

The town is built around a single street running right across the island – it actually has 6 different names along the route, but that seems fairly arbitrary. Crane walked down this in a rather padded-out segment of the programme when he was making a big deal about how many independent stores there were on the street (and how they were clustered in types). The camera didn’t linger on the chain stores, but we still spotted them 😉 There were some interesting shops tho – particularly the butcher’s shop where they are so keen to ensure the quality of their bacon that they’ve purchased a nearby island to let their pigs roam free (until butchered).

The “future of the town” section concentrated on the fact that shale gas has been discovered in the area, and so there are starting to be plans for fracking to take place. I can see why people are concerned about this (“we’ll just explode the rock under your town a little” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence), but I did raise my eyebrows somewhat at the repeated allusions to The Troubles in this bit (not by the people, but by the programme). Crane said a couple of times that “the town needed to all come together against this just like they did during The Troubles”, which I suppose was like calling on Londoners to display Blitz Spirit during some later event … but it just felt a bit off to be comparing mining for gas (however intrusive) with killing people.

Overall the series was … OK. While we did watch all of it I wouldn’t say it was a favourite and I don’t think I’ll bother recording a further series.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble; The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England

The second episode of Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble was all about alpaca farming in Peru. In the first half of the programme she stayed with a family who herd alpacas in a traditional way. To feed themselves they grow potatoes and keep guinea pigs. The guinea pigs have free reign of the house & are fed on the potato greens so they’re combination pet, recycler & dinner. According to Humble they taste like dark chicken meat. The alpacas are kept for their fibre – it’s not wool apparently, but that’s a technical distinction of some sort because it’s the equivalent of wool in all ways. The family shear the alpacas by hand with a kitchen knife, and then keep some of the fibre for themselves to spin and then make the very brightly coloured cloth that the region is famous for. The rest of the fibre is sold to a middleman who sells it on to the cloth industry. Because their herd is not pure-bred alpaca they don’t get much money for the fibre. In general their lives are hard, but they prefer it to moving to a city where the standard of living would in some ways be lower.

The second half of the programme took us through the way that the alpaca cloth industry in Peru is moving from this traditional style herding into the modern world. Humble started with a cousin of the subsistence farmers she’d been staying with. He’s both a collector (one of the middlemen who buy the fibre) and a farmer. Having seen where the fibre is sold to & the requirements he realises that the sort of herds that he & his cousin have aren’t the best – so he’s bought himself a pure-bred male alpaca & is gradually breeding his flock to have better quality fibre. Next Humble visited a man who herds alpacas in a large scale way. His ranch has thousands of alpacas (instead of the 60 or so that the first family have), and they are a particular breed that has very high quality fibre. Instead of just letting the animals mate as & how they choose he selects his best males & best females & breeds those. And being a large scale ranch owner I guess he also sells direct to the cloth industry rather than through a collector.

She then visited a cloth making factory. The cloth they make is mostly exported with China being the biggest buyer. They are particularly interested in helping to improve the herd quality of all their suppliers (including small farmers like the first family) because places like China & the US are starting to herd their own alpacas, so Peru’s advantage in the market will be in having the best quality fibre. And so Humble then went to visit an alpaca breeding research centre which is part funded by this cloth manufacturer. They’re working on developing artificial insemination techniques for alpacas with the idea that small farmers might not be able to afford a pure-bred male, but might be able to afford the semen to produce better quality offspring for their female alpaca. So the alpaca industry is just at the point where it’s optimising for the modern world and a global market, but it’s not quite there yet.

Translating the Bible into English doesn’t seem like a big deal in the modern world – I think I own 3 different English translations (plus a New Testament in Scots) – but in Tudor England it was heretical and punishable by death. One of the programmes in the BBC’s recent Tudor Court Season was The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, which was a biography of William Tynedale presented by Melvyn Bragg. Tynedale’s English Bible eventually formed the basis of the King James Bible, but Tynedale himself was regarded as the most dangerous man in England for producing it and executed for heresy.

Tynedale was born on a farm in Gloucestershire near the village of Slimbridge, which is still a working farm today. He was educated at Oxford – first in Magdalen College School, at the age of 8 in the early 1500s, then at Magdalen College. Bragg used this introductory bit to set the scene for Tynedale’s later translation. At the time the Bible was only available in Latin – the language of the Church and of scholars (the two groups overlapped to a high degree). The Catholic Church had built up over the centuries a collection of doctrines & traditions that weren’t actually in Bible (like Purgatory, the requirement for confession & penance to save one’s soul etc), and the hierarchy of the Church was positioned as necessary to save the souls of the congregation. Tynedale (and other Reformation thinkers) saw the way the Bible was only available in Latin as a power play on the part of the Church – keep the congregation from reading the actual text & you keep them reliant on the priests to explain it. And you keep anyone from noticing that the Church has these non-Biblical traditions.

Tynedale had always had the ambition to translate the Bible into English so that everyone could read it, and his education had only served to reinforce that. Bragg was telling us that when the students studied the Bible they only looked at verses in isolation, rather than reading the whole Bible & getting a feel for the overall text. During this time Tynedale learnt of the ideas of Erasmus who promoted the idea of reading a text in the original language to get the best handle on the text. For the Bible this would be Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Greek (for the New) and Tynedale learnt these and other languages.

After Tynedale had graduated & been a priest for a little while he came into conflict with other clergy over his emphasis on the Word of God rather than the Church traditions. Bragg quoted from a description of an argument where another clergyman said that it was better to do without “God’s law than the canon law”, to which Tynedale reacted angrily – declaring that he would “cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”. This crystallised his desire to translate the Bible, and his first step was now to go to London to visit the Bishop of London & try and get backing for his project. This was the first of a few naive sounding things that Tynedale did in his life. The Bishop of London at the time was Cuthbert Tunstall, and Bragg described him as being a part of the Church orthodoxy & a close associate of people such as Thomas More. Unsurprisingly he didn’t back the heretical project that Tynedale proposed.

Realising that this would not end well, Tynedale eventually left not just London but also England and moves to Germany to work on his translation. Just to orient ourselves in the wider history I should point out that by this stage Martin Luther has started the Reformation in Germany, and it’s spreading through Europe. Henry VIII is on the throne of England, and had written his defence of the Catholic Church that earnt him the title of Defender of the Faith. So in moving to Germany Tynedale is aligning himself with the Protestant Reformation, and against the English Crown as well as the Catholic Church.

Tynedale completed his translation of the New Testament, and sought out a publisher in Cologne. Cologne was Catholic, but nonetheless he found someone who would produce the book and plans were made to print a few thousand copies & to smuggle them into England. Unfortunately for Tynedale his publisher was also contracted to work on a text for a member of the Catholic orthodoxy from England (Bragg told us who this was, but I’ve forgotten the name :/ ). The plans for the English New Testament were discovered & Tynedale had to flee with the project incomplete. He moved to Worms, and found himself another publisher so that he could restart the project. Tynedale’s life work wasn’t over with the printing of the New Testament, he continued to work on translating the Old Testament – going back to the Hebrew. Before his death he finished the first five books, which were also printed & subsequently distributed in England.

Bragg took the time at this point in the programme (and later on, near the end of it) to wax lyrical about Tynedale’s translation. He didn’t just translate it into English any old how, it was vivid & poetic language which sticks in the mind and has flavoured the whole of modern English – as much as Shakespeare did. Turns of phrase that Tynedale employed are still a part of our idioms today. But Tynedale didn’t just choose his words for maximum impact & memorability he also picked them to advance his Protestant ideas. So a word that was traditionally translated as “priest” became “elder”, and one that was traditionally translated as “Church” became “congregation”.

The authorities in England were obviously on the lookout for Tynedale’s Bible’s arrival in England, but several thousand copies still made their way into the hands of the more Protestant-minded members of the public. Bishop Tunstall preached against the English Bible, saying that it had errors and was heretical & blasphemous, and he presided over a bonfire outside St. Paul’s burning copies of Tynedale’s Bible. This didn’t quite go all the Bishop’s way – even those who might not’ve read the Tynedale text themselves weren’t entirely comfortable with burning the Word of God even if it was a potentially heretical version of it.

Thomas More led the hierarchy’s campaign against Tynedale’s work. There was a very amusing segment of the programme here where there were two Braggs on either side of a church aisle reading passages from More & Tynedale’s publications where they held forth on how dreadful and corrupt the other was. This had developed into a personal feud, not just an academic & political difference of opinion, and More at least started to resort to very vitriolic & foul-mouthed tirades against Tynedale. Including writing things like “You have kissed the ass of Luther and are now covered in shit”.

When Henry VIII was seeking to divorce Catherine of Aragon it looked like Tynedale would come into favour in court. This was because with the Pope refusing to grant the annulment Henry was searching for other ways to get what he wanted. Tynedale had published a treatise called The Obedience of a Christian Man, which was primarily arguing for everyone to read or hear the Word of God directly (so vernacular translations of the Bible are required so that the congregation as a whole can understand). But as part of it he said that Kings should not be subservient to the Church authorities – that God has anointed the King as the secular authority over a country and so the King should answer to God, not the Pope. Obviously Henry liked the sound of that, and used this as a plank in his splitting of the Church of England from Rome. But Henry still found the rest of Tynedale’s theology heretical (like the idea of an English Bible), and Tynedale went on to publish other treatises that didn’t sit as well with Henry including one opposing Henry’s divorce on the grounds that Henry’s use of scripture to justify it was an incomplete summary of the scriptural references to marrying one’s brother’s widow.

So Tynedale was still considered heretical, and Thomas More (amongst others) was still violently against Tynedale & all he stood for. Eventually Tynedale’s downfall was engineered by an agent of the English. This man, Henry Phillips, wormed his way into Tynedale’s good graces – he pretended to be a great admirer of Tynedale’s and to be interested in his theology. He then set up a trap – he came to Tynedale saying he had no money and got Tynedale to take him out for dinner. He then persuaded Tynedale to lead the way along a particular narrow secluded alleyway, and straight into the hands of soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire. Tynedale was imprisoned, and sentenced to death for heresy. Thomas Cromwell tried to intercede on Tynedale’s behalf, but was unsuccessful.

Tynedale was burnt to death, the typical punishment for a convicted heretic. As an act of mercy he was strangled before the fire was list, but this strangulation was incompetently carried out. Tynedale revived during his burning, but witnesses say he was stoic & silent as he died. (Which seems somewhat unbelievable.)

His Bible translation did not die with him, and Tynedale regarded that as more important than his own life. Cromwell eventually persuaded Henry VIII to endorse an English Bible, and the text of this was primarily that of Tynedale’s translation. Tynedale wasn’t credited, however, because he was still regarded as a heretic (and Henry still carried a grudge against him for not approving of the divorce). The Henry VIII Bible fed into the King James Bible translation, and so Tynedale’s words and work still lived on.

In Our Time: Prophecy

Prophecy is an important facet of all three Abrahamic religions, but the interpretation of the role of prophecy (& who the prophets are) is different in each. The experts who talked about it on In Our Time were Mona Siddiqui (University of Edinburgh), Justin Meggitt (University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Stökl (Leiden University).

For the modern incarnations of the three religions the bulk of the prophets are those attested to in the Hebrew Bible. Stökl was the expert on Judaism on the panel and so he talked most about these prophets. Prophets are divinely inspired and are in communication with God without being divine themselves. Nowadays when we think of prophecy we think of predicting the future, but this was only one of the sorts of messages that prophets could pass on from God. They also provided more general advice for the rulers about matters that the divine had some bearing on. They pronounced on the validity of old texts, they advised the King when to or when not to undertake campaigns, they’d advise him if God wasn’t happy with how the country was being run. Stökl was also saying that some figures in the Bible were retroactively designated as prophets – that Moses, for instance, was a charismatic leader and then later in Judaic history when prophets are more important he’s designated a prophet.

In terms of predicting the future most if not all of the descriptions of this in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible were written after the events that were predicted – so “prophesying” after the fact. (And actually there are no written texts dating before 200 BC, which means we don’t know how it evolved before this.) It was a win-win situation for the prophets anyway – if they got it wrong, then either they had misunderstood what God told them or God had some reason for telling them the wrong thing. Not that they weren’t a prophet, or that God had got it wrong. Jeremiah was the example here – God told him to tell the people something that turned out to be false & this was because it set up the punishment that God was going to visit on the people for previous wrong doing. There are warnings in the texts about false prophets and discussions of punishments for this, but there are actually no records of this ever happening.

Meggitt was the expert on Christianity & he talked about the way that early Christianity used the Jewish prophets to legitimise their belief that Christ was the Son of God. Obviously the Christian tradition is that prophets weren’t really getting the message across, so God himself had to come to earth in the person of Christ. The way the Christian Bible has ended up being structured means that the Old Testament ends with prophecies that Elijah is going to return and proclaim the day of the Lord. Although this is in the Hebrew Bible the way it is structured means that this isn’t where the book ends. Meggitt was saying that there’s a strong sense that the authors of the New Testament were looking for the prophecies in the Old Testament and then making sure they could find a bit of the life of Christ to fit them. The narrative being created to reflect the prophecy rather than the prophecy predicting the narrative.

In the early church there were still people being referred to as prophets, but as the Church became more institutionalised the role of the prophet diminished & then vanished. Meggitt was saying this was because lone self-selected divinely inspired people don’t really fit in well with a hierarchical organised Church. Bragg brought up the Pentecostal Church which is a modern Christian tradition which has prophets – so it’s not something that’s completely absent from Christianity. Just that as with Judaism the bulk of the religion thinks that prophecy stopped some time ago.

Siddiqui talked about Islam & the role of prophets in that religion. She told us that from an Islamic perspective all the prophets including Mohammed were given the same message or revelation from God. This message is about the oneness and truth of God, and has needed to be repeated because people fall away from it or fail to understand it. The differences in what was passed on or written down by each prophet & their followers are due to the interpretation of the prophet themself & their cultural blinders & ability to understand the message. Mohammed was able to properly understand and pass on God’s revelation, so there’s no need for any more prophets after him. Siddiqui also mentioned a distinction between prophets and messengers in Islam – I think she was saying that all messengers are prophets, but not all prophets are messengers. There’s some debate about whether the Virgin Mary is a prophet in the non-messenger sense because she is sinless, and this is one of the criteria for a prophet.

The way I’ve written this up it looks a little disjointed, but actually they followed the usual round table format & drew out the comparisons between the three strands as well as the differences. Although at times I felt like Siddiqui wasn’t quite having the same conversation as everyone else.

Filed Under A

I’ve reached the end of the first letter of the alphabet in my great re-read of all the fiction on my shelves, so I thought this would be a good point for a retrospective on what I’ve read so far. I’m fond of stats & graphs, so that’s where we’ll start 🙂

The books are as follows (links go to my posts):

Authors of the short stories in the anthologies were: Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, John W. Campbell, John D. Clark, Arthur C. Clarke, J. J. Coupling, Chan Davis, Raymond Z. Gallun, Martin Gardner, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward Grendon, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Hasse, Neil R Jones, Henry Kuttner (including writing as Lewis Padgett), Murray Leinster, John D. MacDonald, Laurence Manning, Capt. S. P. Meek, Judith Merril, P. Schuyler Miller, C. L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett), Peter Phillips, H. Beam Piper, Ross Rocklynne, Eric Frank Russell, Nat Schachner, T. L. Sherred, Wilmar H. Shiras, Clifford D. Simak, Leslie Frances Stone, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles R. Tanner, William Tenn, A. E. van Vogt, Donald Wandrei, Stanley G. Weinbaum and Jack Williamson.

graphs of statistics for books filed under A on the bookshelf

(You can click on the graph for a slightly bigger version where the text is a little easier to read.)

So out of the 13 books I read most were firmly in the “OK” territory (I’ve not put ratings in my blog posts, but I do put a star rating on them on my librarything). The outliers were the Armstrong book at 2 stars (which I think of as “meh”), and the Asher & Asimov’s “Nemesis” at 4 stars (“cool”). And that corresponds pretty much to what’s staying on the shelf and what’s going – although “Nemesis” is going into a box to keep it with the rest of the Asimovs.

For the gender ratio & publication stats I’ve added in the data for the individual short stories. In terms of gender split – it’s pretty poor. Even if I just count the three main authors there’s only one woman & she’s the one who wrote the book that’s leaving the house. When you add in the short stories the percentage gets worse, which can probably be explained by looking at the publication date breakdown. The anthologies are all old stuff – 1930s & 1940s fiction for the multi-author ones, 40s & 50s for the Asimov ones.

I’ve not done a graph for genre breakdown, genre boundaries & definitions are always fuzzy and I figured it makes more sense to talk about it than diagram it. Given this shelf was dominated by Asimov & Asimov-related stuff it’s dominated by science fiction. I’ve also got the bulk of the 1930s & 1940s stuff categorised under “science fiction” as an umbrella term – some of it would probably be better put as fantasy and some of it would be fantasy if published now but was still possibly science fiction back then (like the shrinking men stories). And that’s why it’s easier to talk about than to diagram! There’s only two non-Asimov related books – the Armstrong is urban fantasy and the Asher is science fiction (sub-category space opera). I think the main reason I was “meh” about the Armstrong is that I went through a phase of reading a lot of UF a few years ago and got tired of the clichés, and there’s nothing about “Bitten” that makes it rise above that to my eyes.

I’d wanted to see how the authors I’ve read here break down by ethnic identity, sexuality or other cultural groupings (like religion), but that sort of info appears to be hard to figure out. From the ISFDB and links from there (mostly wikipedia) I could normally figure out nationality (and that’s where I double checked gender) – but other info was notably lacking. I guess I could assume “white & straight unless otherwise specified” as that’s often the way things work out in places like wikipedia but that doesn’t seem right, so I’ll skip any conclusions here. In terms of nationality it was a predominantly US list, with a few Canadians & a few Brits – 33 of the 42 authors listed born in the US and while some moved away others moved in, the percentage of around 80% US is probably right. I’ve not done a graph because again it gets fuzzy – for instance does a British born man who moves to the US in childhood & stays there count as US or UK or both? Does it depend when he moves?

Something interesting I noticed while researching this – two authors that are US-born move to Canada in the 60s because of their politics. Chan Davis moved in the early 60s after he’d spent time in jail in the US because he was a member of the Communist Party of America. Judith Merril was first a Marxist then a Trotskyist (& also a Zionist in her youth), she moved in the late 60s in the Vietnam War era. She’s also referred to as a “genderbender” on the webpage for her but I’m not clear on how the phrase is being used there.

That’s the stats, what about the books? For Armstrong & Asher there’s only a single book apiece so I’ve nothing to add to the original posts. The various anthologies are interesting to me mostly as something historical – some of the individual stories were good, but the world & audience they were written for is almost as alien to me as the worlds they were written about. Particularly noticeable for the 30s stories, which also included a sub-genre that seems to’ve vanished – the “Lone Male Scientist & his Invention have Adventures” ones, think of H. G. Well’s “The Time Machine” as the archetype for this.

I’ve got a broader sweep for Asimov, but it’s an oddly skewed one. What I bought in the late 80s were books my mother didn’t already own – why buy things that were already in the house, after all? Of course now I don’t have easy access to those but I still don’t own them (with the exception of the two parts of the Foundation Trilogy that J bought back in the late 80s or early 90s). So I’ve only read 4 of Asimov’s novels here (plus a fifth as a library book). I much prefer his novels to his short stories, and Foundation (post) was the weakest of the novels for me and also the most obviously a fix-up of previous short stories. This is down to the lack of characterisation – it feels to me that Asimov didn’t bother making his characters into people in his short stories, but in a novel there was enough space for them to grow into more distinctive individuals. I preferred his (very few) female characters, I think he did a better job making them memorably distinct rather than names slapped on a stereotype. Having re-read the stories in Nightfall One I also wish he’d written more aliens in his career – I remember enjoying the alien section of The Gods Themselves years ago as well (another book Mum has that I don’t). My guess would be that in the case of both aliens & women he had put them in the story for a purpose & needed to take some time over thinking about their role, but men were his default & he was lazier about it. I.e. that he felt he needed an answer to the question of “why a woman?” but men were just the furniture for the story idea he was trying to show you.

For me, Asimov isn’t ageing well. The stuff I liked so much in my teens seems pedestrian now – I’ve read better books since, and even the one of his I liked best here didn’t rise up as high as the “awesome” category. Which seems a very odd thing to say about a man who’s held up as one of the Great Science Fiction Authors, but for me you need more than a good idea to make a good book you need some properly fleshed out characters & something more to the story. Sacrilege to some, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t recommend the Foundation trilogy to anyone unless they were interested in the history of the genre.

I’ll have another one of these round-up posts soon, about the other books I read while reading the ‘A’s. We’ll see how the stats on that balance up.

Treasures of Ancient Rome; Treasures of the Louvre

We seemed to go through a phase of only ever discovering TV series after the first episode had already aired, so there’s a few things on our PVR waiting for episode 1 to be repeated. Treasures of Ancient Rome is one of these, and we decided just to watch the other two episodes anyway and come back to the first if we get hold of it. The series premise is Alastair Sooke talking about the art of Ancient Rome, putting it in its historical context. As a presenter Sooke comes across as very enthusiastic and keen to share all his excitement about the subject – reminded me a bit of Dan Cruickshank in that sense (who we call “the Gosh! guy” in our household because he frequently starts his explanation of what you’re looking at with “Gosh!”).

This second episode was about the art of the height of the Roman Empire – running from the Emperor Augustus through to Hadrian. Sooke showed us six or seven representative pieces ranging from a (very large) cameo to Trajan’s column. Along the way we also were treated to Sooke reading relevant excerpts from a translation of Suetonius’s book The Twelve Caesars – which is the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors, all written with lots of scandalous detail. Sooke also spoke to some modern artists who use the same techniques as were used to create the pieces of art he showed us.

The title of the episode was Pomp & Perversion and the programme was looking at both the propaganda and the private art of the Emperors (and others). The propaganda was most clearly shown by Trajan’s column. It’s decorated with a spiralling mural all the way up the length of the column commemorating a victory of Trajan’s – there’s a museum where they have replicas of the reliefs set out so you can see them properly. I’m pretty sure the expert Sooke was talking to got an Asterix reference in when he was talking about it – pointing to the leader of the conquered tribe with an upraised hand he said “you can see him here saying “these Romans are crazy!”” 🙂

There were many examples for the debauchery side of the theme – for instance the Warren Cup. This is a silver drinking cup on display in the British Museum, it’s very well made and must’ve been a high status item. And it is decorated with two explicit scenes of gay sex. A different aspect of the Roman Empire’s reputation for debauchery was represented by one of the many copies of a statue of a man being flayed alive. It was mythological, but even so it says something about a culture if your garden ornaments are that gruesome.

There was also a segment of the programme where Sooke met a modern priest of the cult of Antinous. Antinous was a young man who was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian, and who drowned in the Nile at the age of 19 leaving the Emperor grief-stricken. A cult sprang up after his death, which was apparently on a par with the size of Christianity at the time (bear in mind this is 130AD so Christianity isn’t that big yet). Sooke didn’t say, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the grief of Hadrian had more than a little to do with the spread of the cult – a way of currying favour. The modern priest of the cult was explaining that in more recent times (18th & 19th Centuries I think he mentioned) having statues of Antinous or being a member of the cult was a good way for European aristocrats to covertly indicate they were gay.

I think my favourite of the art that Sooke showed us in this programme is one I haven’t mentioned yet – a fresco that would’ve adorned the walls of a room in the Empress Julia’s villa (wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius). It was for a smallish room with no windows, a place that was a respite from the summer heat, and it was a painting of a garden with trees & flowers & birds. It looked like it would be very peaceful to sit & look at. (And a contrast to the rest of the things in the programme!)

By chance we managed to pick two very similarly titled programmes, both about art for Tuesday & Wednesday. The one we watched on Wednesday was Treasures of the Louvre which was presented by Andrew Hussey, who was another presenter I’d never heard of before – he’s the Dean of the University of London in Paris Institute, and a writer & historian. The programme was an hour & a half, and in that time it managed to fit a tour round the highlights of the Louvre, a potted history of France from the 15th Century onwards & a history of the buildings of the Louvre. Quite a lot but it didn’t feel rushed although it was very obviously only the highlights.

Hussey started with the oldest painting in the Louvre which is from the 15th Century – it’s a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion, surrounded by saints (including Saint Denis with his head in his hands …). But for the purposes of the programme the most important part was that it had a small picture of the Louvre in the background. Which doesn’t look anything like the buildings that’re there today – the Medieval Louvre was a fortress (and Hussey said his preferred etymology for the word Louvre is that it comes from a word for fortress). The foundations of the old Louvre are visible in the basement of the current building, when we visited a couple of years ago I took a photo of them.

The start of the transformation of the Louvre from fortress to museum (via palace) was brought about in the 16th Century by Francis I who ruled France roughly contemporaneously with Henry VIII in England. The Renaissance is beginning in France & Francis rebuilds the Louvre as a fitting palace for a “modern” King – his part of the building is the short end of the U shape of the building I think. He also was a patron of the arts & of artists, and encouraged Leonardo da Vinci to move to Paris when he was an old man. The Mona Lisa came with him & was the first acquisition of what is now the collection of the Louvre.

The Louvre was used as a palace until the French Revolution. As well as showing us different works of art Hussey told us about the King & Queen watching Huguenots get murdered in the courtyard in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He also talked about the various building projects, including linking the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace with the half-mile long Grand Gallery. (Which is where the Renaissance era paintings are today.)

Hussey also told the amusing story of Louis XIV decamping to Versailles because he didn’t like the Parisiennes & the Parisiennes didn’t like him. Because of this move the Louvre was no longer the Royal residence, and so artists could move in – to learn from the works displayed there and produce their own. After the French Revolution the Louvre remained a working place for artists, and also took on the role of public museum. Hussey told us that the galleries were open for the first 6 days of the week for artists only, who were free to take paintings off walls, put chalk marks on paintings(!) etc. For the next 3 days it was open to the public, and on the final day of the 10-day revolutionary week it was closed to everyone for cleaning & necessary repairs. The government at this time also declared all art to be publicly owned so the collections of the Louvre grew.

After the Revolution came Napoleon, who started new grand plans for both acquisition of art & for the buildings. He also commissioned grand paintings of his coronation & other state occasions to properly display his splendidness. During his reign the Louvre started to gain the Egyptian artifacts & also other spoils of Napoleon’s military victories (like The Wedding at Cana, which is a painting I particularly liked when we visited the Louvre). The building works on the Louvre now got to the stage where the plan was for the original Louvre at the end to be linked on both sides to the Tuileries Palace enclosing a vast courtyard.

During the next few changes of regime the museum collections grew. Particularly notable was the formation of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities during the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy. Champollion was put in charge of this – as the man who first deciphered hieroglyphs he was a very significant figure in early Egyptology. The next important moment for the buildings was the destruction of the Tuileries Palace at the end of the Second Empire. It was burnt down because it was the residence of the Emperor, but thankfully the Louvre itself was not.

Hussey skipped fairly briskly past the two World Wars to come to the second half of the 20th Century. As part of the post-war politics (I think) the Mona Lisa was sent off on a tour of the US – Hussey showed us footage of the painting being shipped to the US & from the Presidential reception for the painting. He said they treated it almost like a head of state, which is a bit mind boggling. The Louvre began to get a bit run down, and as part of sprucing it up and rejunvenating it the glass pyramid was built. Controversial at the time it seems to me to be better than the car park that Hussey told us was previously there. And which I presumably saw, I’m sure I must’ve been to the Louvre when I went with my parents to Paris in something like 1985 or 1986 – and the pyramid wasn’t finished till 1989. Maybe it was a building site? I really can’t remember though. And for the final segment of the programme Hussey talked about a bit of the building that wasn’t even open when we were there in Sept 2011 – the new Islamic Art galleries.

I really haven’t done the programme justice in this recap – I’ve skipped over most of the artworks that Hussey talked about in favour of talking about the history (because I find that easier to summarise!) and even with that I’ve missed out a lot of detail. A programme well worth watching if you want an overview of a large chunk of French history & art history – and an overview of highlights of the Louvre collection. It made me want to go back & see (some of) the things I didn’t look at last time – we spent a couple of days in the Egyptian Galleries but only saw a few key things in the rest of the museum, so there’s lots left to see.