August 2013 In Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“The Wasp Factory” Iain Banks. Horror, and very hard to summarise in one line. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott. First book of Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, epic fantasy with flavours of English history to its secondary world. Library book.

“Think of the Children” Kerry Wilkinson. Crime novel, set in Manchester, about a sequence of murdered or missing children. Library book.

Total: 3


“The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime”. A book about the Arab Spring, written by a BBC journalist.

Total: 1


Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts & the Russian Tsars. An exhibition at the V&A about the English & Russian courts centred round the silverware gifted by England to Russia.

V&A Museum – a brief visit to some other galleries while I was there for the Treasures of the Royal Courts exhibition.

Total: 2


Ancient Ripples.


Porcelain Bottles.

Total: 3


Queen Zenobia. In Our Time episode about the Palmyran Queen who rebelled against Rome & founded a short-lived empire in the Middle East around 270AD.

Turkey: The New Ottomans. A three part series putting modern Turkey in a historical context, and looking at its relationships with the Arab World & the West.

Total: 2


August EEG Meeting. The format this month was different – 4 short talks from members (including me).

Total: 1



Ancient Apocalype. Series about how various ancient civilisations met their doom.

Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami. Time Team special about a tsunami that hit Britain about 8000 years ago.

Caligula with Mary Beard. Mary Beard tells us what we know about Caligula, and looks at how much of the myth might be true.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor. Announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast to play the next Doctor.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve. Simon Reeve travels around the coast of the Indian Ocean.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank. Programme about the development of London in the 17th Century, presented by Dan Cruickshank.

The Making of King Arthur. Simon Armitage looking at the development of the King Arthur myth in Norman times.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb. Programme about a mass grave dating back to the 1st-3rd Centuries AD found in the catacombs of Rome in 2003.

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain. A series of three children’s lectures from Christmas 2011 about the brain.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan. Programme about what a history written by Genghis Khan’s adopted son tells us about him.

Secrets of the Saxon Gold. Time Team Special about the Staffordshire hoard.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens. Series about Queens of England in medieval & Tudor times, presented by Helen Castor.

Who Were the Greeks?. Two-part series with Michael Scot giving an overview of Greek civilisation & looking at the truth vs. the myth of what they were like.

Total: 14

This Week’s TV with Buried Treasure, Historic London, King Arthur & the Indian Ocean

Secrets of the Saxon Gold

This is another Time Team special this time about the Staffordshire hoard which was discovered in 2009. It was (one of?) the largest collection of Saxon gold to be found in Britain, and so is interesting both to the general public & to archaeologists – hence this Time Team special. Even after a year of examining the items at the point this programme was made there’re still a lot of unknowns – Tony Robinson did his best to nail down a theory for why the hoard was buried, for instance, but really the answer is “don’t know”. I think they all agreed the best guess is it was gathered to be melted down & remade, and buried during a crisis then the owner never returned through death or other misadventure.

But there was also a lot of other information that had been found. Like they’d managed to date it to within about 50 years (after the last datable coin of ~650AD, before the art style changed in ~710AD). So that’s contemporary with Sutton Hoo. They had also managed to trace where the gold & garnets had come from – reinforcing the knowledge that the Saxons were connected to a large trade network stretching across Europe & Asia. And because a lot of the pieces were damaged already they can learn more about how these items are made.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

This programme about London in the 17th Century was presented by Dan Cruickshank & looked at the changes between two published surveys of London. The first was written by John Stow & published in 1598, the second was an updated edition by John Strype & published in 1720. Between these two years you have the Civil Wars, the Plague of 1665 & the Great Fire of London in 1666. You also have a change in England’s place in the world, which is reflected in the ways the two surveys talk about the Thames. In 1598 it’s all about defence – you would be able to see invaders sailing up the river in time to do something about them. In 1720 it’s more about access to trade & the rest of the world. As well as a potted history of the century Cruickshank also talked about how the geography of London changed – not so much in the centre despite the fire, apparently a lot of people rebuilt their houses where they’d once stood. Instead the changes were in the outward expansion of the city – to the east this was driven by the new docks at Deptford & Blackwall, and the need for closer housing for the workers. To the west it was driven by new homes built for the gentry, and their demand for suitable places to shop and entertainment.

Interesting programme – and a neat way to look at the history of the city during this period.

The Making of King Arthur with Simon Armitage

The Making of King Arthur was originally part of the BBC’s Norman Season a couple of years ago and has been sitting on our PVR ever since. In it Simon Armitage looks at the development the Arthurian legend, from the perspective of how the story evolved rather than whether or not there’s any truth behind it. After a bit of scene setting about how the Arthurian legend is still told in the present day Armitage starts with the appropriation of the Welsh stories of Arthur by the Norman conquerors. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Normanification of the legend it gets further Frenchified by poets across the channel. They introduce some of the key elements of the legend we remember – like the quest for the holy grail, and the Lancelot/Guinevere love story. And then it comes back to England & English with Thomas Malory’s Mort d’Arthur (which we listened to an In Our Time about a while ago (post)). Throughout the whole programme Armitage had people reading from the various works he was talking about – normally chosen to thematically fit the work or point Armitage was making. Like the lady who works at Monmouth Priory reading a bit from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, or a man (Erwin James) whose writing career started whilst in prison reading from part of Malory’s book. Slightly bizarrely Armitage also visited a woman who keeps the remnants of what she believes to be the Holy Grail – this is said to be the cup that was kept in Glastonbury Abbey until it was dissolved in 1528. It then passed into the keeping of the Powell family until the 1950s, when it moved again to a hidden location. (This is the Nanteos Cup, to disambiguate it from other claimed Holy Grails.)

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fourth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean started in Oman & ended in the Maldives. In Oman he showed us Iranian smugglers, and a remote village on an island that still live in a traditional way catching fish. He skipped over Iran other than to talk about it, and moved on to India where he visited Mumbai. As always we got both sides of the city. First a festival of Ganesh showing the touristy-happy side of life, and then visiting the people whose fishing village has been subsumed into the city for the seedy underbelly. How humankind is fucking up the oceans was the theme for the rest of the programme. First over-fishing in India, where even the captains of the fishing boats say catches are going down year on year yet the industry is expanding. Then on to the Maldives where the coral is suffering from changes in the temperature of the ocean – even a small change of temperature can kill the coral polyps and the death of the whole section of reef is not far behind. And finishing with a visit to the island where the rubbish goes – which is basically a heap of rubbish, bits rotting, bits burning, seeping into the sea through the sand & falling off the edge of the beaches. There were highpoints to that section of the programme too – line & pole tuna fishing, for instance, for a sustainable way to harvest food from the ocean. Also a project to regrow the coral in the ocean and keep the reefs alive.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

King’s Dragon is the first book in Kate Elliott’s seven book Crown of Stars series. I’m pretty sure I read the first few a longish time ago (this one was first published in 97 so there’s a lot of scope for “longish” time here). And then I must’ve caught up with publication or something & lost track and never finished them. A mention somewhere (, perhaps?) reminded me that I vaguely remembered liking them so I should give the series another go. Glad I did, I really enjoyed this one – now I just have to decide if I’m going to buy them or get the rest from the library one by one.

(Please no spoilers for the rest of the series, I’m enjoying figuring this one out as it goes along.)

The world they’re set in is not ours nor is it a one-to-one analogue of ours, but it’s flavoured by English history – it partly reminds me of the Anarchy (the 12th Century English civil war), and partly of Anglo-Saxon England in the time of the Viking raids. There’s a religion that’s analogous to Christianity, with a saviour figure that died for mankind in some sense. A major difference is that instead of God the Father, there’s Our Lord and Our Lady – and the two have equal billing. This is extrapolated through the society, women have a much better place in this world than in the analogous medieval England. In particular women can be biscops (analogous to bishops) and perhaps that’s only women that can be, I’m not sure – the two we see most are. Women can also inherit titles & crowns in their own right with no questions about ability. They go to war as soldiers too. There’s even a respected (although not mainstream for the kingdom we’re in) strand of thinking that inheritance should pass solely down the female line because it ensures you know the heir is a true heir.

Inheritance to the throne is also interesting in that it requires fertility – when the monarch’s children get to adulthood one will be sent out on an heir’s progress for a year, and will only become heir if they get pregnant or get a woman pregnant during that year. The central political conflict in this book hinges on that – Sabella, the King’s sister, went out on her heir’s progress first but failed to become pregnant. Henry got a bastard son on his subsequent heir’s progress and has inherited the throne. Now Sabella is raising a rebellion against him (as she finally has a child). Another of the conflicts in the book also has this custom as its starting point – the King’s favourite child is his bastard son who proved his fertility, yet that son cannot inherit only the subsequent legitimate children can do that.

The characters whose eyes we see all this through aren’t the major players in the political dance. Instead one of the central characters is Alain, a bastard child destined for the church. He’s brought up in a village, by the man he believes to be his father, and while he yearns for adventure his path seems set. And over the course of the book it feels like it would’ve been a good path for him – there’s something a bit saintlike about him (although he’s also still a very realistic boy), he’s paid attention to the teachings of the church & tries his best to follow them, particularly where compassion is concerned. But he gets caught up in the chaos of both the rebellion, and the raids by the non-human Eika. Being a bastard child he seems set to be The Chosen One whose origins aren’t what they seem & one of the suggested “true stories” of his birth seems to be validated by events towards the end of the book. But I’m not sure that’s the true answer – it feels like Elliott is doing something more clever to play with the trope than that.

The other central character is Liath. Her father is a sorcerer – magic is real in this world, and perhaps forbidden by the church depending on which bit of the church you ask. Actually that’s something else I like about this story, “the church” is not a monolith – it has schisms & heresies & councils that decide on what’s orthodox & what’s not and so on. Anyway, Liath has been on the run with her father since early childhood after her mother died, and her story opens with her father’s death. Liath doesn’t have much coherent idea about who her parents are/were nor why they’re on the run – but clearly someone or something was after them. I felt a bit like her father should’ve told her more because he should’ve realised his death was a high risk, but the justification of protecting her through her ignorance does seem realistic. Liath is initially sold into slavery, as she can’t pay her father’s debts (well, it’s engineered so that this is the case). She’s another Chosen One archetype and again Elliott isn’t retreading the well worn path with this story – for instance when Liath meets a man who fits the mentor slot she doesn’t trust him because of what’s gone before. The Eagles, the branch of the King’s army/messengers that Liath & her friend Hanna join, feel like a more realistic version of Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. No telepathic spirit horses, no special mind powers and most importantly no sudden spiritual healing and family-formation to make up for the abuses of the joiner’s childhood. But nonetheless there’s something reminiscent about them.

There’s a host of secondary characters as well, both male & female. All the characters in the book felt like people to me, but there’s some that stand out as a second tier of protagonists. There’s Hanna, Liath’s friend who also joins the Eagles. There’s Rosvita, a cleric who is perhaps an analogue of the Venerable Bede or Geoffrey of Monmouth – certainly now she’s in her old age she’s writing a history of the country. And there’s also Sanglant, bastard son of the King, whose origins we know are otherworldly from the prologue. That prologue also sets up an expectation that he & Alain and Liath are somehow in opposition – agents of different otherworldly factions. But so far the pawns don’t seem to be quite marching to their master’s tunes. Again I think Elliott is setting up the “standard” tropes of epic fantasy and then doing something much more interesting with them.

And now I really want to know where the story is going. Best decide on buy or borrow first though! 🙂

“The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime” Jeremy Bowen

J got me to reserve this book out of the library a few weeks ago, he’d seen a mention of it somewhere & when he finished he said he thought I’d like to read it. It’s an overview of the first 18 months or so after the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010/early 2011, as told by Jeremy Bowen who is a journalist with the BBC. The book is a combination of overviews of the political situation before, after & during the various revolutions and also of more personal anecdotes from Bowen as he travelled through the countries to report on the revolutions & their aftermath. So it’s very much one man’s account – it’s what he’s seen, what he’s been told & what he thinks it means. But it’s also one man’s expert account, so worth the read.

One of the themes he draws out is that the growing discontent wasn’t just because the ageing autocratic leaders were starting to pass power down to their children, it was also because the population was growing and changing. In these countries something like 60% of the population is under 30, and a large number of those people have never had jobs and had no sense that this could change. They were also more connected to each other than people would’ve been in the past. The internet & mobile phones opened up communication between people across a country & across the region. So the discontented no longer felt isolated, and with being able to see they weren’t alone came organisation & action. And the security services & the regimes were slow to catch on. Not only to try & stop people using modern ways to talk to each other, but they also failed to realise that modern technology makes it harder to brutalise people into pretending nothing happened – if the video of the beating/killing/whatever has already gone viral then the world knows you did it.

Bowen also didn’t shy away from detailing the many ways the West had caused the problems in the first place – not just the leftovers of the colonial era, but much more recently. The propping up of various regimes as part of the Cold War, for instance. Also the later propping up of the same regimes as they fought on the “right side” of the “War on Terror”. For all the preaching about democracy and human rights the reality of the situation was that a secular but brutally autocratic dictator was considered preferable to risking an Islamist government. Just ignore what he’s doing to his people … Even Gaddifi got rehabilitated towards the end, forgiven for his own sponsoring of terrorist activities because he was useful for the new anti-terrorism.

How nothing happens in isolation is another of the threads running through the book. The uprisings took off one after the other in part because with a common language & global communications people in one country could look at Tunisia or the following countries and imagine themselves doing the same thing. On the other hand, leaders like Gaddafi & Assad took away the lesson that if they wanted to squash their own revolutions they needed to be more brutal than, for instance, Mubarak. On a brighter note Bowen says that the NATO intervention in Libya grew out of the fact that some of the key players were in junior positions or on the sidelines during the 1990s and witnessed the non-intervention in the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda. And so they were determined not to stand by & let Gaddafi get away with war crimes in their turn. But then that had the knock-on effect of influencing Russia’s veto over intervention in Syria, because they felt they’d been misled about the level of proposed intervention in Libya …

An interesting & thought provoking book. Reading it now when the coup? second revolution? in Egypt is in full swing was also a slightly odd experience – the Egyptians Bowen talked to who said “we know the way back to Tahrir Square” feel prescient now.

A Short Trip to the V&A

While at the V&A for the Treasures of the Royal Court exhibition (post) I also managed to have a look at a couple of other galleries before & after the exhibition. Sadly train times meant I didn’t get long there overall (otherwise I’d’ve had to pay the peak time fare) but I did get some photos!

The photos are up on flickr (here), with some highlights in this post.

I started out in the Medieval & Renaissance Europe galleries, and the first couple of rooms I went into had a strong religious theme. The first room actually reminded me a bit of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (which I still haven’t written up a post about) because it was dominated by a piece of monumental architecture nicked from another country:

Choir Screen from 's-Hertogenbosch

In this case the Choir Screen from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. This room was mostly pieces of sculpture, and the next one I went into was full of altarpieces. These were all spectacularly ornate, like one from France (the Troyes Altarpiece) which had not just the main subject in each carved scene but smaller incidental details behind.

The Troyes AltarpieceThe St. Margaret Altarpiece16th Century Italian Altarpiece

Moving on to more secular art (and I think forward in time) one of the pieces that particularly stuck out to me was a tapestry showing scenes from the Trojan War. One of these was the Amazon Queen Penthesilea kneeling before King Priam of Troy – when I went to the museum we’d only just listened to the In Our Time episode about the Amazons (post), so they were particularly in my mind. Also in this section they had one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which I somehow found unexpected.

Tapestry, Part of a Set Showing the Trojan WarLeonardo da Vinci's Notebook

After I’d been to the exhibition I went and looked at the British galleries – starting from the Tudors and moving on the Stuarts. I didn’t have long before I had to leave (only an hour or thereabouts) so I was quite brisk, just looking at & photographing things that caught my eye rather than everything they had. This included the Great Bed of Ware, mentioned by Shakespeare in one of his plays – and probably constructed to be a talking point for the inn in question to drum up trade. I also took several photos of the clothing they had on display (and tried to get some of the panelled rooms, but sadly those mostly failed to come out right).

Bust of Henry VIIThe Great Bed of WareWoman's Embroidered Jacket16th Century Gentleman's Cloak

Definitely going back for a longer visit sometime, with the big camera too 🙂

The Week’s TV Including Greeks, the Indian Ocean & a Couple of Apocalyptic Events

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The second leg of Simon Reeve’s trip round the Indian Ocean covered three island nations off the coast of East Africa. For Madagascar Reeve concentrated on the bits of the island that aren’t protected wildlife preserves, so in contrast to the imagery one normally sees there were a lot of shots of deforested farmland. And that deforestation has had the predictable results of altering water flow patterns, causing flooding & destruction. (There were some shot of cute lemurs as well, but very much not the primary focus.)

From poverty & environmental destruction in Madagascar he moved on to wealth & … environmental destruction in Mauritius. Tuna fishing was the primary culprit here – the sort of dredge up everything in the sea and sort the tuna fish out later approach to fishing. He’d originally been given permission to film in the harbour, but that was withdrawn.

As a contrast the Seychelles segment was mostly focussing on environmental re-creation. Reeve visited a British man who bought an island in the Seychelles in the 1960s for around £8000, and he’s spent the time since then making the island into a perfect habit for himself and his giant tortoises. It wasn’t clear if there was any other people on the island with him, but definitely lots of tortoises!

That episode finished up with a segment about Somali pirates & the Dutch soldiers who’re trying to rescue the boats captured by these pirates. This lead nicely into the next episode which we watched a few days later. In it Reeve travelled from Kenya through Somalia to Somaliland, finishing off the African leg of his journey. Throughout the programme there was an air of suppressed hysteria, because for the middle part of it Reeve was visiting Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia.

The Kenya leg of the journey was mostly focussed on an area of abundant & impressive wildlife – the Tana River Delta. Sadly a lot of the land is being given over to sugar cane plantations, which not only gets rid of all the wildlife, but also involves moving on the people who make their homes there. Reeve also visited a village at the northern end of the Kenyan coastline where the villagers earn their livings by making flipflops that wash up on their beaches into ornaments & toys. That’s only a fraction of the plastic that washes up on the shoreline, but it’s the bit they’ve come up with a way to make money from.

The men in that last village no longer fish because of piracy, which led nicely into the next segment where Reeve went to Mogadishu. Much respect to Reeve for going there – it looked terrifying. He was with one of the AMISOM regiments (the African Union peacekeeping force that’s there), as that was safest, and they took him out to the front lines in the city – at one point moving him & his camera crew away quickly because it looked like the Somali al-Shabab militants were about to attack. He also visited a food station – a lot of refugees have come to Mogadishu because there are places they can get food (foreign aid has been prevented from reaching other parts of the country), and despite how dreadful conditions are in the capital they are still better than elsewhere in the country.

From there Reeve flew to Somaliland, which has broken away from Somalia but is not recognised as a separate country by the UN. So it’s in a sort of limbo, but it’s a limbo that has law & order and a much more functional state apparatus than war-torn Somalia. Here Reeve didn’t just visit & talk to refugees from Somalia, he also talked to a Somali pirate who has been captured & jailed in Somaliland. The man was completely unrepentant. While he spun it as “we’re just trying to protect our fishing rights from the big corporate tankers” for the start of piracy, he was also completely upfront that there was money to be made in taking people hostage or taking their goods and felt that was a reasonable thing to be doing. He was sort of justifying it by saying that because his country was so war torn there’s no other way to make money to get food/whatever so terrorising the seas was the obvious choice.

Who Were the Greeks?

The second & final episode of Who Were the Greeks? was more focussed on the things that have left a lasting legacy down to our time. So he looked at things like the Olympics, which are both like our current games and very much not. For instance one difference was that winning was all that mattered in Ancient Greece, none of this “it’s the taking part that counts” or doing your best, you either won or you didn’t. Another thing he looked at was the architecture & sculpture that has survived since Ancient Greek times, concentrating particularly on how our ideas about what it looks like are heavily influenced by the fact that the paint has disappeared over time. There was an interview with one expert who said he rather hoped that people forget again about the paint (as has apparently happened before) so that future generations can have the joy of this discovery. I was unconvinced, it has to be said 😉 Maybe if they remember the paint they might have the joy of other discoveries we haven’t got to yet rather than just repeating the past.

And he finished up the programme by looking at how come Greek culture spread so far from Greece. Part of this is down to Alexander the Great, who in the process of conquering a lot of the then known world managed to spread Greek culture behind him as he went. And then after the Romans conquered the Greeks they assimilated Greek culture into their own & spread it further still.

Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami

Another Time Team Special that we had recorded was one about a tsunami that hit Britain 8000 years ago. This event played a part in the splitting of Britain from mainland Europe. There’s definitely evidence for some sort of catastrophic flooding event in the north-eastern coast of Britain, in the form of a layer of sand which contains deep sea diatoms. The tsunami was triggered by an undersea earthquake out somewhere north of Norway, it in its turn was likely triggered by changes in the crust due to the retreating glaciers.

The people living in Britain & Doggerland (the name of the land linking Britain to the European mainland) at the time are often thought of as “primitive hunter gatherers”, but there’s increasing evidence that this was not the case. A major part of this programme was talking to the woman running an excavation in York of a Mesolithic village. It dates to around the same time as the tsunami & is a least a semi-permanent settlement with houses constructed from timber.

A minimum amount of padding in this programme, although we did roll our eyes somewhat when they suddenly launched into a flight of fancy about how something was “clearly” a spiritual item used by shamans. Well, you can’t tell, can you? It’s not like they left a little note next to it saying “holy object” 😉

Ancient Apocalypse: Sodom & Gomorrah

Sadly the last episode of the Ancient Apocalypse series had enough padding to bring the average padding/programme for all the other programmes we watched this week back up to “high”. It was about the biblical story of Sodom & Gomorrah, and whether or not it was based on a real event. And this retired engineer had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. And then he talked to some scientists. They thought he had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. They found some facts. He had a theory, and needed facts to prove it. Someone did an experiment. He had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. Oh look, this theory fits the facts, but it’s not proven yet. Each time they explained the theory it was the same one, they were really just spinning their wheels.

However, mockery aside there was a kernel of a programme there. The basic idea was that when Genesis came to be written down it included folk tales that were fitted into the overall Jewish-centric narrative. One of these might’ve been a memory of a devastating earthquake in the Dead Sea region that is turned into an example of God’s wrath striking down the wicked. Over the course of the programme they did show evidence that there were settlements we could call cities in the Dead Sea region in the early Bronze Age. They also showed that this was & is an earthquake prone zone, with signs that an earthquake did happen around the right time for it to affect the people in the cities. There were also a couple of added bonus destructive properties over “normal” earthquakes. The first of these is that there’s a lot of methane trapped in the rocks underground, which an earthquake could release to ignite fires (hence the fire & brimstone bit of the tale). The second is that the ground around the Dead Sea is made up of rock that will liquefy under earthquake conditions, which could then trigger a landslide tipping the houses of a settlement into the Dead Sea if they were close enough. The cities might be close enough because you can harvest asphalt out of the Dead Sea and that was a valuable trade item at the time. So maybe all of that happened, and was passed down as a folk tale that made it into the Bible. But there’s no proof, just a lot of it-could-be-possibles.

But it felt like at least half of the 50 minute programme was taken up with telling us this man had a theory, telling us what the theory was, and telling us he needed facts to prove it. Then a bit of shaky cam stuff to make us think about the earth shaking.

I was disappointed with the series overall, it felt like a good idea let down by an overly padded and gee-whiz execution.

Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts & the Russian Tsars (Exhibition at the V&A Museum, London)

Back in July I went on a daytrip to London to visit the V&A and to see their exhibition called “Treasures of the Royal Courts” before it closed on 14th July. I must’ve been to the V&A before, but it’s been a long time – I didn’t have much time on this visit because of train times, but I did manage to have a little look at a couple of galleries as well as the exhibition which I’ll talk about in another post. Sadly no photos for this post because photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition.

The subtitle for this exhibition had struck me as somewhat strange, in advance – Tudors, Stuarts and Russian Tsars? One of these things is not like the others! However all became clear – the centre piece of the exhibition was a collection of silverware that had been gifted to the Russian Court by the English. Most of the silverware of this period that remained in England was destroyed, either to make more fashionable pieces in a later time or after the Civil War when the Monarchy was abolished. So these pieces from Russia are the best surviving examples of English silverware from this period. With this as the focal point of the exhibition the rest of the items explored what the Tudor & Stuart courts were like (materially speaking) and how & why these gifts were made to Russia.

The first part of the exhibition gave a picture of the splendour & symbolism of the English Court during this time period. It started with arms, armour & heraldry – including some of Henry VIII’s armour. I particularly liked the four Dacre Beasts – painted wooden standard bearers in the shape of four beasts that symbolised Lord Dacre’s ancestry & allegiances. Which included a dolphin, I hadn’t realised that was a heraldic beast back in the 1520s! As well as the pageantry of the military world there were a lot of items from the civilian side of court life. These included minatures, jewellery, clothes and larger portraits of monarchs and members of the court (with a particular emphasis on people who’d been envoys to Russia).

Diplomatic relations between Russia & England had started accidentally in 1553. A small flotilla of English ships was trying to find a route to China via the north, caught in bad weather the surviving ship landed on the coast of Russia and the crew were escorted to Moscow to meet the Tsar. This was an auspicious time for both nations to start direct diplomatic relations. Europe at the time was divided between Protestant & Catholic countries, and this both limited options for trade and disrupted the safe passage of merchants & diplomats by land. Russia was outside this conflict, as the form of Christianity in the country was Orthodox. Russia was also relatively new as a country – the Duchy of Muscovy had only recently “upgraded” itself to being the rulers of Russia. So they were looking for trading partners & diplomatic contacts to set themselves up as part of the “civilised” world.

Symbolism, pageantry & protocol were important in both courts, so despite the cultural differences there were similarities in their styles of diplomacy. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Diplomacy broke down completely during the Commonwealth (between the two Charleses, when Oliver Cromwell was in charge). This was because the Tsars did not approve of the overthrow of a monarchy. There were also problems that arose from the diplomats being as much (or more) merchants as courtiers, which some of the Tsars felt was an insult. England was also little inclined to get involved in the wars Russia fought, in particular Tsar Ivan (the Terrible) had hopes of much more involvement from Elizabeth I’s England in his wars than he ever got.

This info (and more, I’m summarising from memory so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff) was illustrated in the exhibition with not only the silverware but also portraits from the Russian Court, other gifts between the courts, and even paintings of the diplomatic events. I was particularly struck by a portrait of Prince P. I. Potemkin, who as part of his diplomatic career was an ambassador to England in the time of Charles II. (It’s currently used as the picture of him on his wikipedia page.) I think he looks both completely different to the English court of the time, but also part of that same sort of world of showing off your status by what you wear. In terms of the other gifts the standout one was a coach presented to the Tsar. They had a model in the exhibition, and a video about it (which is on the exhibition website. It was taken across to Russia by boat in pieces then reassembled in Moscow before presentation.

As I said, the silverware was the main focus of the exhibition, and was laid out in the centre of one of the rooms so you could see all round it. These weren’t just some dishes to eat your dinner off, they were display pieces to be laid out on a cupboard or buffet at the side of the room. Or perhaps put on the table as a centrepiece. As such they were large and heavily decorated pieces. I particularly liked the ewer in the shape of a leopard – posed much like the standard bearing Dacre Beasts from the start of the exhibition, with a shield rather than a standard. I also liked a water pot with both handle & spout shaped like toothy grinning snakes. The decoration was obviously full of symbolism & meaning and then for the Tsars it had the added meaning of demonstrating international trade & diplomatic connections.

It was a good exhibition, and I’ve got the book to read at some point 🙂

Turkey: The New Ottomans

Instead of an In Our Time this week we listened to the first episode of a recent series about Turkey from Radio 4. In the series Allan Little is looking at the current political situation in Turkey, both in terms of how it’s developed over the last few decades & how it’s interacting with the rest of the world.

This episode covered the internal politics & focussed on the rise of the AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey) and how they compared to the previous rulers. Around a hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire fell, and Turkey became a republic. The military were heavily involved in the formation of this republic, and there have been several coups over the years as the military replaced leaders they no longer approved of. The regime was authoritarian, but also very secular and focussed on being a part of the West. Little spoke to various people who were targeted by the previous regime because of their religion as much as anything else – anyone who was a practising Muslim was automatically suspect. Study of the Ottoman past was also suspect – textbooks for children glossed over it in a few paragraphs, archives of Ottoman papers etc were locked up & academics forbidden to look at them.

The growing discontent with the secular authoritarian regime led to the formation of the AKP about a decade ago, and at first this was seen as the dawning a of a new era. The election of the AKP put an Islamist but still Western-leaning party in power. Little talked to both members of the AKP and some of the same people he’d interviewed about the previous regime, and the picture all of them painted was of hope for the future at that time. The AKP were heavily invested in the idea of becoming a part of the EU and this drove both increasing prosperity (via their economic policies) and human rights reforms (to make themselves palatable to the EU).

However over time the AKP has become more authoritarian in its turn. Little opened the programme with a bit he’d recorded on the day the demonstrations in Gezi Park started (and I guess he had had the idea for the series before and had to re-write it as events caught up with him). Little, and some of his interviewees, linked the changes to both increasing confidence on the part of the AKP and to the rejection of the Turkey’s application to join the EU. Little made the point that majority rule is not the only thing required to make democracy a functional form of government – the rights of the minority & the right to oppose the elected government are also important. He was saying that the AKP are using their election to justify any changes they want to make, including talk of changing the constitution to make the AKP’s grip on power even stronger. This hasn’t sat well with the growing middle class, and it’s their discontent that is driving the recent protests. The next two programmes in the series will (I think) go into more depth about the change of focus from the West to the Arab world, so Little only covered it briefly here.

“Think of the Children” Kerry Wilkinson

I picked this book up at the library coz the title (“Think of the Children”) caught my eye & then it turned out to be a crime story so I started to read it. It’s billed on the front cover as “A DS Jessica Daniel novel” so I guess it’s part of an ongoing series (although I do read in the crime genre, I don’t read much or keep up with it in any way).

The story opens with the protagonist, Jessica Daniel, pretty much stumbling across a case – she’s driving to work when there’s a car accident in front of her & when she goes to check on the (dead) driver she finds a body of a child in the boot of his car. It’s her team at the police force that get the case (partly because she’s the one that was first on the scene) which quickly generates several leads linked with other missing children in Manchester.

One of the things I liked about this book was the sense of reality – there’s political infighting between the various departments of the police force, and sometimes the need to look like they’ve done something is what’s driving the press releases rather than actually finishing off the investigation. Also not every lead turns out to be linked, some things are red herrings, some things are just superficially related. I also liked the way even tho it concentrated on the case at hand there was a feeling of a slice of the lives of not just Jessica but also her friends.

But all that made the conclusion of the main bit of the case feel more jarring. It felt like the novel had suddenly descended into unreality and storybook territory – Jessica comes up with a scheme to get the villain to confess what’s actually going on and her scheme is both illegal & rather implausible. And it’s a sudden descent into a more vigilante attitude on her part, rather than the rest of the book where she’s much more presented as working within the structure of the police force. It was much more the sort of thing I can think of Tempe Brennan doing in Kathy Reichs’s novels, and felt out of place in this book. (I like Reichs’s books, just they’re a different sort of story to the way the bulk of this book felt.)

Another niggle is that the author more than once did the “I know something but I’m not telling you” trick. Jessica gets ideas and makes plans & tells a colleague or whoever about them but we the reader don’t find out till it’s unfolding. It feels too much of a cheap trick to heighten suspense & I’d’ve preferred the author to find some other way to do that.

Overall fun, but flawed. I’ll probably pick more up at the library if they catch my eye, but I’m unlikely to go searching for them.