Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities; Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities was a series about the history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore that we watched in December last year finishing just before Christmas. Montefiore seems to be specialising in serieses about holy cities – his previous ones have been about Jerusalem (which we watched before I started writing blog posts) and Rome (post).

Byzantium started out life as a strategically well placed Greek town at the eastern periphery of the Greek (and later the Roman) world. It rose to greater prominence as the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted towards the east, and Constantine moved his capital there at the same time as establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. The Greek pagan past was swept very much under the carpet as the newly renamed Constantinople was positioned as the Christian centre of a Christian Empire which it remained until 1453AD. Something easy to forget from the way the subject was taught to me as a child is that the Roman Empire continued in the East long after the fall of Rome – seamlessly becoming what we now call the Byzantine Empire. Montefiore talked about how Constantinople came to be regarded as associated with and under the protection of the Virgin Mary, one-upping in their minds the association of Rome with St. Peter. And he finished up the first episode with a discussion of the rising tensions between the Western Church and the Orthodox of Constantinople, culminating in the excommunication of the Patriarch by the Pope and the Great Schism.

The second episode covered the period between the Great Schism in 1054AD, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453AD. This is a period characterised by decline from former glories, punctuated brutally by the 4th Crusade. The Crusades started off because of the worries of the Byzantine Empire over the rise of Islam and how this new faith had conquered vast swathes of territory, including the Holy Land, and were now eyeing up Byzantine lands. They invited the Western Christians to lend their military might to hold off the Muslims, but this was an uneasy alliance. With the added political differences between Constantinople and Venice (supplier of ships for the 4th Crusade) the unease spilt over into outright violence and Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders. Montefiore had a bit of an air here of an outsider handing out the popcorn while he was discussing the lead up to this disaster, but he sobered up for the discussion of the atrocities afterwards. The programme ended with the final fall of a weakened Constantinople to the Ottomans, after they’d taken over all the surrounding territory.

The third episode covered the whole of the Ottoman Empire’s time in the sun. This was a second golden age for the city, now known as Istanbul – once again the centre of a large secular Empire it also became the centre of another religion. The Ottoman Sultans moved the seat of the Caliphate to Istanbul, and discovered (or moved in some cases) relics of the Prophet Muhammed and those close to him in the city. Montefiore dwelt on different aspects of the Ottomans to the series we watched earlier in the year (post). He didn’t gloss over the institutionalised fratricide of the Sultans as much, and he told us about some of the less successful holders of the title whose incompetance or brutality also shaped the city. He also spent a bit of time telling us about how the Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Western Europe. This episode ended with a discussion of Attaturk and the new secular Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire.

As always with Montefiore’s serieses I I liked the cinematography as well as being interested in the subject matter. There’s a visual style to the programmes that I like, though I’d be hard pushed to describe it or distinguish it from other things – but that’s me lacking the vocab and knowledge, I think 😉

The other series we finished off over the last few weeks was Sam Willis’s series about Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History. This was a three part series that looked at shipwrecks around the British coast or involving British ships since Tudor times, with the main focus being on the 18th and 19th Centuries. The format was part telling the stories of individual disasters, and part drawing out what effects these disasters have had on British culture and British history. Willis did a good job of making the shipwrecks sound every bit as hideously dreadful as they must’ve been, whilst not overdoing it. And there were lots of interesting tidbits of history – like in the last episode he told us about the first weather forecasting system, the first life jackets, the fight Plimsoll had to undertake to get overloading of merchant ships regulated and several more. An interesting series, worth watching.

Other TV watched over the last couple of weeks:

Calf’s Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food. Disappointing programme about Restoration era English food that couldn’t work out if it was about the history or about the food, and ended up falling short with both aspects.

Planet Ant: Life Inside the Colony – a bit like the series The Burrowers that we watched a while ago (post) but about leafcutter ants not cute fluffy bunnies etc. An ants nest was reconstructed in a lab and science is being done on it (and we got told how the nest worked and about the ants biology etc).

BBC 4 Sessions: The Christmas Session – recorded for Christmas 2011 I think, this featured various folk artists including the Unthanks and was a lot of fun. We watched it on Christmas Day.

Egypt’s Golden Empire – a three part series on one of the Sky documentary channels that we watched at J’s parents’ house. I confess I wasn’t always paying that much attention, but what I did watch seemed like a rather good and thorough overview of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.

Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe – round up of the big events of 2013 presented by Charlie Brooker (and segments from others, which I felt worked less well).

Jool’s Annual Hootenanny – music and chat from Jools Holland and his guests (and audience). It’s our tradition for welcoming in the New Year when we’re at home – Jools on the telly and whisky to drink. Not the best one there’s ever been, but we still had fun heckling.

2013: Moments in Time – another roundup of 2013, this time of the main news stories of the year shown through the photos that illustrated them. And some discussion of the changing nature of these photos (and the rise of social media’s importance in news).

Episode 1 of Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart. This episode was about Africa.

Episode 4 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

2013 Roundup: Non-fiction Books

This is a much shorter list than the fiction list! I’ve read three and a half non-fiction books over the last year. Three of these I’ve written a short essay after each section about what it said – one thing I need to get better at is editing these to be shorter and more on point (and then perhaps including more of the book in each post). The first two of these books are about China – a broad sweep of the whole history up to the end of the Empire, and a narrower look at the art & culture of 18th century Qing dynasty China. My current project book is about Plantagenet England, I’m a little under halfway through, I think. And I also managed to fit in a book about the Arab Spring, which I reviewed rather than recapped.

2013 Roundup: Fiction Books

I wrote reviews of 42 fiction books during 2013, of which 17 were in my great re-read of all the fiction I own. There’s also a small handful of books I didn’t write about because I read them in the library and didn’t bring them home – so say 45 for a round number of books read. Of these both my favourite of the year and least favourite were library books, both written by women and one published this year and one last. Over on my librarything I do give books star ratings, and I’m organising the rest of this post using them. Even tho the difference between any two adjacent star ratings is dependent on my mood at the time I rated the books, there’s a clear difference between 5* and 3* and 1* books.

First some overall stats:

Gender split (f:m) = 14:13
Dates (2013:rest) = 8:34
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 24:18(1)
Series (standalone:series) = 11:31

(Counting authors once each, but not going into details about authors of short stories just using the editors. Also counting a book as standalone even if it’s in the same universe as others by that author but not directly related by plot or characters. If a book was owned when I read it it counts as owned even if it was given away afterwards.)

I’m noting these for a variety of reasons. Gender split is because that’s part of the ongoing conversation in SFF fandom over the last year – or at least in the parts that I read. One strand of that is that books by women are reviewed disproportionally less than books by men, and as one of the ways I pick up new books to read is by reading reviews I wanted to see if that affected what I was reading. But it looks like I’ve got a fairly even split, although that’s a slightly disingenuous way to count it – each author once – because I read a dozen Asimov related books which I think might skew it more male if I counted each book separately.

The next two stats are because I was interested in how my re-read was skewing what I was reading. But I’m still reading a substantial amount of new-to-me fiction (mostly from the library), and a reasonable amount of actually new fiction. The last stat is because I noticed that of my 5* books two were new instalments in on-going series that I’m already invested in. And three more were the start of serieses, only one was standalone. Which seemed very skewed so I wondered how it played out across the rest of what I read last year – the answer is skewed towards series books, but not at at 5:1 ratio like my favourites. I don’t know if that means anything, but it was interesting to me 🙂

5* Books

Gender split (f:m) = 4:3
Dates (2013:rest) = 4:2
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 5:1(1)
Series (standalone:series) = 1:5

Of these I’d pick out “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson as the top book I read in 2013, I really liked the exploration of how the events of someone’s life shape them and yet they’re still themselves despite the differences.

4* Books

Gender split (f:m) = 4:5
Dates (2013:rest) = 1:11
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 8:4(0)
Series (standalone:series) = 3:9

3* Books

Gender split (f:m) = 3:6
Dates (2013:rest) = 2:15
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 6:11
Series (standalone:series) = 4:13

2* Books

Gender split (f:m) = 3:2
Dates (2013:rest) = 1:4
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 4:1(0)
Series (standalone:series) = 2:3

1* Books

Gender split (f:m) = 1:0
Dates (2013:rest) = 0:1
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 1:0
Series (standalone:series) = 0:1

If I manage to finish a book it generally doesn’t get 1*, but this was a rare instance of a book where the more I thought about it the less I liked it. The worst book I read last year.


Gender split (f:m) = 0:1
Dates (2013:rest) = 0:1
Ownership (library:owned(new) ) = 0:1(0)
Series (standalone:series) = 1:0

I didn’t know how to rate this one, so I didn’t!

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor

I did watch the Doctor Who Christmas special on Christmas Day, I just didn’t get round to writing about it till a week or so later so this post might be shorter than usual! However, it was a fine exit for Matt Smith’s Doctor 🙂

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

It felt like Moffat drew a distinct line under not just the various story arcs from the 11th Doctor’s era, but also the whole of New Who. And tied up the end of regenerations “problem”. Quite a lot for a single episode!

I liked the way that the possibility of Gallifrey coming back turned out to be something the Doctor couldn’t afford to allow. Of course it would reignite the Time War – after all we knew the Daleks were still out there and just the same as they were. I guess we have potential future stories about Gallifrey breaking through in one way or another but we likely won’t get the whole of Time Lord civilisation coming back. It is kinda amusing tho that it’s only about a month ago Tony & I were discussing in the comments if we thought the “search for Gallifrey” story would be one season or last for a while – looks like it’s kinda done already 😉

I also liked that the this threat is the one thing that finally gets the Doctor to stop running away, like he has done all his life. OK, so not actually having the TARDIS for the first few hundred years helped, but this is also the character that we saw going stir crazy on Earth after only a day not so long ago. But maybe having aliens to fight/annihilate every few days helped stave off the boredom. I wonder how that experience is going to affect him going forwards – two big things in the New Who characterisation of the Doctor have been that the Doctor is traumatised by his double genocide, and that he’s always running away. The 50th anniversary special resolved the final part of the first – he didn’t kill off the Daleks (as he’s known for a while) and he didn’t kill off his own species either. And now he’s had 700 years on one planet, protecting it without gallivanting around the universe having adventures. And he seemed by the end to’ve resigned himself to dying there.

I liked that this last Doctor has actually lived for a while – 400 years or so of gallivanting, 700 years on a planet. Gives a feel for what the lifespan of a Time Lord would be if they didn’t go around getting themselves into danger. And in some ways makes their conservative non-interference policy they used to have make a lot of sense – if you yourself might live for 13,000 years or thereabouts you can afford to take the long view, particularly when dealing with species with much smaller lifespans. A human’s whole life could be lost in the “oh give or take a hundred years or so” that you can imagine a Time Lord saying when trying to pinpoint a date from their past. Does make you wonder why the Doctor hangs around with humans so much though – even if you space your visits out, they still die so quick. (And we do see that in the way the 11th Doctor has been written, and in the way the rest of them keep dropping people off and then not looking back.)

I didn’t really buy Gallifrey giving him more regenerations – I’ve never had the feeling any of them would care. Although on reflection I guess that also means that they still have a chance to get him to help them come back through to this universe again. But it does very firmly boot that (slightly tedious IMO) line of fannish worry about how long the Doctor has left to live out into the distance. He’s not just got another regeneration, he’s got another cycle so let’s talk about it in a few decades! I did like the way Moffat chose to take the “oh no, now he’s #12, what next?” speculation and make it even worse before solving it – that half regeneration in 10’s era was a real one but he just looked the same. And what’s the numbering now – Peter Capaldi is now the 1st Doctor of part 2? 😉

Other things – Tasha Lem, who/what is she? Or does the Doctor just go about collecting not-quite-stable women who get to learn to fly the TARDIS? Can’t be River in some resurrected fashion, coz she has a line about the Doctor’s body being “new” to her at first. How about the Master? Or just someone new we’re given hints of backstory with coz after all there must be a lot of the Doctor’s past we haven’t seen.

I liked Handles, it was rather neatly surreal with the Doctor having a Cyberman head as a pet. Also liked the deftness of the characterisation on Clara’s mother (step-mother?). She gets a tiny amount of screentime but you can see why Clara invented a boyfriend and you can see why she was willing to run away so much while not quite severing ties with her family (coz her Dad & Gran seemed nice). I also liked the call backs to various things/people from the 11th Doctor’s run, tho a shame I don’t think Rory got an explicit mention (or maybe I’ve forgotten it). The hallucinations of Amy/Amelia as he regenerated were a nice touch, I thought.

So now we have a whole new Doctor and some new story arcs to look forward to! 🙂

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Just before Christmas J and I went to see the new Hobbit film. The rest of this post is pretty spoilery (and doesn’t include a plot summary so may not make much sense if you haven’t seen the film yet). The unspoilery version is “it was good! you should probably go see it! (providing you like such films)” 🙂

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

I’ll start briefly with the techy side of it – this time we saw the high frame rate 3D version, rather than the IMAX one. When we saw the first Hobbit film (post) it was a little spoilt by us being seated right under one of the rear speaker stacks, so that was part of why we avoided the IMAX showing. The other reason was that during some of the faster moving sequences in the last one like the goblin sequence we thought it was a bit blurry. That wasn’t an issue with any of the bits in this film, so I think the HFR version was worth going for. Although it did look a touch unreal – I’d forgotten that was a common thing said about HFR films, so it was niggling at me during the film, but J said he got used to it pretty quick (given he was expecting it). It still niggles at me a bit coz it doesn’t make sense that it should look unreal but there you go.

Moving on to the film – the dragon Smaug was awesome 😀 I particularly loved the scene where Bilbo is in the hoard and first figures out just how big Smaug is. Some of the chase segments afterwards did feel a bit contrived, but I think I buy into the idea that the dragon was playing with his food – he did seem to have that sort of personality, particularly after the “you can’t fool me” conversation with Bilbo in the hoard. I did wonder what the dwarves were thinking, trying to kill a fire breathing dragon with molten gold – surely neither heat nor gold should cause him a problem. Maybe they hoped he’d drown? Maybe they were just clutching at straws …

I guess one of the tough things about adapting the Hobbit for a modern audience is that Tolkein didn’t bother to write any female characters into the story, and Peter Jackson et al have clearly decided not to gender flip any of the existing characters. So for the last film Galadriel gets a speaking part so there’s at least one woman, and in this one we have Tauriel the wood elf. In some ways it’s a shame she gets tacked on as “the love interest”, but I don’t think it’s entirely as shallow as it seems on the surface. She’s the only elf we see that sees past her people’s prejudice against dwarves to treat any of them as people, and I think blindness/seeing is one of the things this part of the story is about. She also isn’t a damsel in distress needing rescuing – she’s the one who goes out to shoot the orcs threatening the dwarves, and not just in her own lands but chasing them across the route the dwarves travel. She saves Kili’s life, rather than him rescuing her.

I think Gandalf (again) gets one of the lines that states a theme of the film – “We have been blind, and that has let the Enemy come back” (possibly not the exact words, I’m writing this a week after seeing the film). He says this just after he and Radagast realise that the Necromancer is more than just a rumour, and just before he goes into the orc stronghold that’s under a spell to cloud one’s sight. But it fits into a wider context than that – he also says it after he’s not followed up on Bilbo being awfully … odd about something he found earlier. We know it’s the Ring, and Peter Jackson et al have the advantage here in adapting the Hobbit as a true prequel to the Lord of the Rings rather than retro-fitting it into the story like Tolkein did. We know what that ring is, and we know where this is going – and in not following it up, going instead to do “more important things” is Gandalf being blind again, and allowing the Enemy another step on the way to victory. And to narrow the context again – even in this film alone we see Gandalf setting things in motion (setting Thorin off on this path, leaving the dwarves & hobbit to their own devices) that ultimately end in Smaug waking up and flying off to burn Laketown. Bilbo, of course, gets the final word on that – “what have we done!”.

I think Thorin gets fewer framed hero shots than before, and his flaws are highlighted more than I remember them being in the first film. He still believes (mistakenly) that he’s the hero of this story, and we see where that gets him – he’s too proud to bargain with the wood elves, he’s willing to dangle promises in front of people to do what he wants even when it’s not in their interests. He sends others in to do his dirty work, or sends them away if they’re not useful any more, without caring about them as other than tools. If it wasn’t for Bilbo he wouldn’t’ve got anywhere, let alone as far as he’s got – but when Bilbo’s running from Smaug all Thorin cares about is whether he’s got the Arkenstone. (We don’t see if he did or not, so I’m assuming he did – he never tells Thorin he doesn’t have it, he just doesn’t tell him he does).

It’s been a long time since I last read the book, so I can’t really remember what’s been changed – though I’m told that it’s rather a lot. Other than Tauriel I did notice that Bard gets more (any?) of a role at this point of the story, rather than appearing after Smaug has been set free. And the sequence with Beorn wasn’t quite what I remembered either. Still I’m not so attached to the book that I mind it being retold in a different way 🙂

As I said at the start of this post – it was good! 🙂