March 2014 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. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)



“Chronicles of the Black Company” Glen Cook – rather good secondary world military fantasy about a mercenary band who contract to the Lady, who is a reawakened evil sorceress putting down a rebellion.

Total: 1


Monday Link Salad 3/3/14.

Monday Link Salad 10/3/14.

Monday Link Salad 24/3/14.

Monday Link Salad 31/3/14.



Vikings: Life and Legend. Exhibition at the British Museum.

Total: 1



Grave Goods.

Little & Large.

Nosy Parker.

Total: 4


Pocahontas. In Our Time episode about the life of Pocahontas.

The Physiocrats. In Our Time episode about the Physiocrats – who were a school of economic thought in 18th Century France.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In Our Time episode about one of the great Chinese novels, written around 1400AD about the historical period at the end of the Han dynasty nearly a thousand years earlier.

Total: 3


“Dealing with the Invisible: Experiencing Egyptian Mythology” Garry Shaw. Talk given at the March meeting of the EEG.

“Figurines in Ancient China: From Prehistory to the First Emperor” Sascha Priewe. Talk at the British Museum.

Total: 2



Around the World in 60 Minutes – one-off programme partly about what it’s like to be an astronaut on the ISS and what space travel has done for us. And partly a travelogue about various places on Earth that the ISS passes over, and how we only have one planet so we should look after it.

Captain Cook: The Man Behind the Legend – Timewatch episode from 2008/09 about Captain Cook & his voyages of exploration. I knew surprisingly little about the man in advance (beyond that he existed).

Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters – programme about the various stories and explanations that people used to have for dinosaur bones.

Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure – biography of Edward VII.

The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History – two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Inside the Animal Mind – Chris Packham looks at how animals think and perceive the world around them.

Mad Dog: Gaddafi’s Secret World – a 90 minute documentary about the rise and fall of Gaddafi, using interviews with people who were a part of his regime in one way or another. Very much had a message, and sometimes you could see just how they were using spin to make him seem as bad as possible (even tho I agreed with the premise it felt heavy handed). Part of the Storyville series.

Royal Cousins at War – a look at the dysfunctional family relationships between the three cousins who ruled England, Germany and Russia at the outbreak of the First World War.

Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Viking Art: A Culture Show Special – programme about the current British Museum exhibition, tho the programme concentrated more on Britain than the exhibition does.

Total: 13

Monday Link Salad

Perhaps the oddest taxidermy … thing … ever. There are no words to do it justice, there really aren’t.

Thankfully none of my experiments ever did quite that … (animated gif). And here are some awesome animated cat gifs.

Someone’s meditation on what it means to be a naturalist – it doesn’t so much remind me how nice it is to have time when walking somewhere to look at the critters & plants I see on the way, as validate my love of doing so πŸ™‚

TV I’ve set to record this week:

Around the World in 60 Minutes; Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters

Around the World in 60 Minutes was a hybrid of a programme – part “what’s it like to be an astronaut?” and part travelogue. The two strands of the programme were woven together by looking at what you see during one orbit of the International Space Station – which takes 90 minutes to go round the Earth. The travelogue side of it went to about a dozen different places round the world, in the direction of the orbit, and told us something about the place and an interesting stat or two. For instance at Greenwich they talked about the meridian, and how in some sense the charts produced by the British after longitude was formalised were the GPS of their day. There was also a distinct environmental message to the whole programme – for instance they visited Brazil where they talked about the Amazon rainforest and how it’s the lungs of the planet. Brazil has had laws against deforestation for decades, but it’s only since they’ve put up a couple of satellites to keep watch over the forest that they’ve been able to enforce the rules. Now any deforestation can be seen by comparing images and the landowner can be fined. But the rainforest still loses something like 450 acres of forest every orbit of the ISS (I think that number’s right, it was something close to that anyway).

This travelogue stuff was interspersed with footage from the ISS (both inside and out) and interviews with an astronaut who’s been to the ISS. The emphasis here was strongly on how cool it is to go to space although they did mention things like nausea in microgravity being a problem initially, and talked a bit about the difficulties of getting in and out for space walks. But overall it felt a little like a recruiting film in these bits πŸ˜‰ There were also sections about the sorts of scientific experiments that are done in space, like taking viruses up because once they’re returned to earth you can make better vaccines (tho I don’t think I followed why that happened).

It wasn’t quite what I’d expected from the description – I think I was expecting more travelogue and less recruiting for astronauts. It was cool tho, in its own hippy sort of way πŸ™‚

Another quirky one-off programme that we watched last week was Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. This was presented by Tom Holland, who opened the programme with a description of how much he was fascinated by dinosaurs when he was a small child. It went on from there to look at how a variety of different cultures have interpreted the fossilised bones they discover – what they made of dinosaur bones.

His main theme was that even though we now know most of the stories are wrong, they’re still attempts to explain these bones and most have some element of truth (or at least you can see where they came from). For instance there are myths from Native American societies that live on the Great Plains that talk of huge birds with teeth and sea snakes with feet that lived a long time ago in a different age of the world when there was water over the land. And if you look at the fossils you find in the area then you can see that once it was a shallow sea (lots of sea creatures), with pterodactyls and aquatic dinosaurs.

He didn’t just stick to dinosaur bones – several Greek myths might have come from discoveries of large mammal fossils. He suggested that elephant skulls look a bit like one-eyed monsters, because of the gap in the skull for the trunk which might look like an eye socket. Back before the Greeks knew what an elephant was perhaps they told stories of the cyclops to explain these bones. But the most striking Greek one was his suggestion for where griffins originate. There aren’t any dinosaur fossils in Greek territory, but if you go out along the silk routes towards China, then there are fossils in the Gobi desert of dinosaurs – they are beaked, and have four legs (with claws) and even nests of fossilised eggs. Stories about these bones could easily have been the original travellers’ tales about griffins.

As well as these older myths Holland also talked about the first more scientific attempts to figure out what dinosaur bones were. He visited Crystal Palace and looked at the dinosaur reconstructions there – which to modern eyes look ludicrously wrong, with their heavyset clumsy looking frames. And he did note that there are still many things we don’t actually know and are still just extrapolating according to our own prejudices.

This was a fun programme, it covered quite a lot of ground and all with a sense of humour. Although it did at times get a bit too carried away with itself (lots of “surely it must’ve been based on this!!”) but mostly it stayed the right side of the line, and anyway it wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Other programmes watched this week:

Episode 2 and episode 3 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 2 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Viking Art: A Culture Show Special – programme about the current British Museum exhibition, tho the programme concentrated more on Britain than the exhibition does.

In Our Time: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese novel written around 1400 AD which is one of the great works of Chinese literature. It is a part historical, part fantastical story of the events of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, which was in the 3rd Century AD. It’s still very popular and an important part of general culture in China today, and many films and video games are based on the book. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Frances Wood (British Library), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Margaret Hillenbrand (University of Oxford).

As usual the programme started off by setting the topic in context – in this case there were multiple historical contexts we needed. The first of these was a very brief overview of the Three Kingdoms period. This is the name given to the period in the imediate aftermath of the Han Empire. The time when the Han ruled China (from ~220BC to ~200AD) is still regarded as a high point of Chinese history, and as the source of many of the bureaucratic systems that persist throughout Chinese history. Han rule of China began to fall to pieces in the late 2nd Century AD, partly driven by weakening power in the centre & their devolving of greater power to military leaders on the peripheries of the empire (so that they could put down rebellions more effectively). Eventually the state fractured, and three kingdoms emerged from the chaos. This was a time of conflict, but it was also a time of artistic and cultural vibrancy. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not the only artistic work to be inspired by this period in later generations.

The novel is normally said to be written by Luo Guanzhong, who was active in the late 14th Century AD (the first copy still in existence dates back to 1522, so the dates and attribution are a little vague). So the time of writing is thought to be at the end of the Yuan dynasty – which is the second of our historical contexts. The Yuan were the descendants of Genghis Khan and had ruled China for around a century. Around the time that Guanzhong was active the Chinese state was beginning to disintegrate into civil wars, and so the parallels with the end of the Han are obvious.

And the third of our historical contexts is the later Ming dynasty when the novel really becomes popular and enters the canon of Chinese literature. There’s a couple of different things that drive this. One is that it’s during this part of Chinese history that printing technology really takes off – whilst there’s nothing technically new the scale of operations changes. More books are published in larger numbers, and the growing merchant classes are increasing the literacy percentage of the population. The other thing that changes is that novels become more respectable – prior to this period novels were something for women or lower class people, members of the literati elite wouldn’t admit to reading them. They were concerned with higher art forms like poetry. But in the early 16th Century this is changing and novels are being taken more seriously.

Having put us into context the experts moved on to discuss the novel itself. One of them (Hillenbrand, I think) described it as being 70% history, 30% fiction. Clunas pointed out that when we say 70% of it is historical what’s actually meant is that it’s clearly based on a historical text (Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms) written shortly after the period ended by an official in the court of one of the Kingdoms in question. So we don’t know that the historically “accurate” parts of the novel matched the actual events, but they do match a probably quite biased contemporary text. But as well as the historical parts where different dukes lead troops into battles etc, there’s also place where the text takes off into a flight of fancy – someone gets deified or something like that.

There is a large cast of characters (men, mostly) and the primary protagonists are the rulers of two of the Kingdoms. One is somewhat of a villain, the other is a man who was loyal to the Han Dynasty and is doing his best for China. Among other important characters are the loyal man’s sworn blood brothers. And there is also an advisor/strategist whose talents are thinking outside the box – one of the experts said this was her favourite character. The stories about him are often part of the fantastical side of the story – like an occassion where he’s short of arrows for his army, so he devises a scheme to “borrow” some. He sends a boat padded with straw bales to sail up and down the river baiting the enemy into firing at it – when it returns it has all the arrows he needs stuck in its straw bales!

There are several themes to the novel, but the one that they spent some time talking about was that of loyalty. As it’s a novel about the disintegration and reintegration of a vast empire who is loyal to whom obviously drives a lot of the plot. The three sworn brothers and their loyalty to each other (and the Han) are particularly noteworthy. Chinese culture places a lot of importance on kinship, and loyalty to one’s family and ancestors. So swearing loyalty to the state and to other non-kin who are loyal to the state is notable. They suggested that one reason for the growing popularity of the novel in the later Ming dynasty was that this theme spoke to the new middle classes. These people didn’t come from the lineages that the upper classes did, and they had often moved from their ancestral homes to cities to become merchants and tradespeople. So this novel spoke of how to navigate the world when your kinship ties weren’t the answer.

They also discussed the prose of the novel. Previous literature was written in classical Chinese, and tended to be very elliptical and allusive. But Luo Guanzhong used a lot of vernacular expressions in his writing, and this made it more direct and visceral. Another note here about authorship – they compared the novel’s status in China to Homer’s cultural legacy in the West but there’s another point of comparison. There are indications in the style of different bits of the novel that imply that Luo Guanzhong might’ve been collecting together already existing oral traditions.

There was also some discussion of the impact of the novel outside China, which has been relatively small. The first English translation of it doesn’t come until the early 20th Century (worked on by a customs officer in his spare time). However there were some copies that made it out of China to European libraries – one in the Spanish royal library, and one split into sections and sold seperately to a variety of collectors across Europe (before anyone could read Chinese to know it was one book).

Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum Exhibition)

The current big exhibition at the British Museum is Vikings: Life and Legend. It only just opened and runs through till 22 June. We’ve actually visited twice – first time on opening day when it was shutting early so we ended up not having enough time to see things properly, so we went back a week later. This is the first exhibition they’ve had in their new exhibition space, so it was interesting to see what the new room was like. Of course the way it’s laid out this time will be totally different for another exhibition, but the final space with the whole ship in it was striking for its sense of wide open space. Otherwise my impressions were that, really, it’s a big rectangular room but that’s not a bad thing – it gives them a lot more flexibility with layout than the circular space they were using before.

The overall theme of the exhibition is to show the Vikings as being more than just marauding warriors. The emphasis was on their trading and settling activities rather than just raiding, and on the cultural exchange between the Vikings and the various places they visited. I was a little disappointed with the first couple of areas of the exhibition, not helped by the huge number of people when we visited the second time. The exhibition opened with a small collection of illustrative objects found in the Viking homelands, then looked at Viking influenced objects from a variety of the areas they interacted with. Most of the objects were quite small (and spaced out) and the labels weren’t visible till you got right up near them – this meant there was a lot of time queueing to see things. And I didn’t think they’d made enough use of the wall space in that area – there were some pictures (and a rather good video) and a handful of quotes but more to look at while you waited to get a chance to see the objects would’ve been nice. There also wasn’t quite enough context in the labels for some of these objects – like the jewellery, where it would’ve been nice to have some pictures showing how it would be worn.

However, criticisms about the layout and labelling aside, they did have a lot of interesting things (and later sections of the exhibition were much better). One thing I particularly liked in the first area was a video screen that was showing the various trade & raiding routes of the Vikings. The sheer scale of the area that the network covered was astonishing, and particularly so when you remember the sorts of ships they were sailing in. The first room and a half had objects of Viking origin or with Viking influenced design that had been found across their trading network. As well as a selection of things from the British Isles and north western Europe there were also items from a variety of Slavic countries where the Vikings settled fairly early on. And from as far away as the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. Many of the quotes round the walls throughout the exhibition were from Islamic writers, talking about the barbaric habits of the Rus (the name they gave the Vikings). In many ways that told us as much about how the Islamic intellectual elite of the time wanted to see themselves as it did about the Vikings, but it was interesting to see someone else’s mythology of the Vikings and how it was and wasn’t like ours.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the sorts of goods that the Vikings took on their trading runs, and the sorts of things they got back. This included a couple of large hoards of silver – one found in England, one in Sweden. These included whole pieces of jewellery, jewellery that had been hacked up (to use as currency) and coins. Some of these coins were Islamic dirhams from the Middle East, showing again the widespread nature of Viking contacts. The English hoard had been buried in the north of the country just around the time that Γ†thelstan (Anglo-Saxon King, grandson of Alfred the Great) united the whole of England under his rule. Presumably left behind by one of the defeated Vikings. This section of the exhibition also included samples of amber and fur of the sort that the Vikings would’ve taken to trade in Byzantium or the Middle East. And examples of the shackles that they kept their slaves in as they took them to the same markets – many of these slaves were picked up on raids on places like Ireland. Some were taken to Viking settlements (genetic analysis of people in Iceland shows a lot of Irish influence) and others were sold on in the Middle East. They had a quote from an Islamic writer talking about how impressively well the Vikings looked after their slaves, after all they were valuable trade goods.

After this there was an area devoted to the way that the Vikings displayed wealth and status. As well as some ornately decorated swords there were several very large pieces of gold jewellery. This included a cloak pin for a man to wear which was huge and must’ve been really quite cumbersome when in use. There was also a gold necklace that looked big enough to be a belt, and must’ve weighed far too much to wear regularly. And there were several objects associated with feasting – I was particularly struck by the decoration to go round the top of a drinking horn.

And then after walking through a couple of fairly narrow corridors you come out onto a balcony overlooking the centre piece of the exhibition – the longest Viking ship ever found. It’s really quite impressive to see. About 20% of the actual wood was found, mostly at the base of the ship – including the whole of the keel (I think that’s the right word, the piece of wood at the centre of the base that goes from end to end). Because they have that particular piece they can recreate the size and shape of the ship (knowing how Viking ships are designed) and they’ve created a metal frame to fill in the gaps that gives you a real sense of scale. While it’s the longest ship ever found, they don’t think it was the biggest in existence because sagas refer to ships with more pairs of oars than this one would take. But it’s still one of the biggest, and was a great display of status for the man who had it built. It’s thought that this was either Cnut (the one that ruled England for a while in the early 11th Century) or a rival of his in Norway. On the one hand it looks incredibly large as you stand there looking at it (37m long), but on the other hand when you think about how far the Vikings went in ships like these it seems awfully small for such long voyages. There were also some other pieces of other ships (like a shield that had hung over a burial ship’s side, and a steering oar). And a fascinating little audio snippet of an interview with a man from Shetland (interviewed in the 60s I think) talking about the names of pieces of ships – which are apparently very similar in old Shetland dialect to Viking names for the same things. Partly this was fascinating because for most of the way round the room till I got to it I could half hear it and it sounded like a foreign language not English. But when I sat down for a moment to listen it was suddenly understandable, even if heavily accented and full of “foreign” words.

Around the ship there are several collections of objects that give much more of a sense of the Vikings as people than the previous rooms had done. These started with a look at the warrior culture of Vikings, and included many swords and pieces of armour. There was also a jawbone from a warrior that showed how they filed their teeth. I’d known they did this, but somehow I’d though that meant filed to points – that’s not the case though, what they did was to etch horizontal grooves in the front teeth. These would be filled with blue pigment, and were an extension of the decoration of their tatoos – intended to make them look fierce and intimidating on the battlefield. And also to demonstrate their ability to handle pain. In this section they also had evidence that the Vikings weren’t as unbeatable as their reputation at the time and in the modern day might suggest. A mass grave somewhere in England with the bodies of several Viking warriors, all of whom had been decapitated – this was clearly an execution of people captured in battle, not a sign of victorious Vikings.

The last section looked at the move from warriors to soldiers, and the concurrent move from their older pagan beliefs to Christianity. By the end of the 11th Century the Viking era was over – often the endpoint chosen is the defeat of the Norwegians by Harald Godwinson the day before William the Conqueror defeated Harald in his turn. What remained were countries that were just like other European countries of the time (the Normans are a good example of this). In this section they had a replica of the stone erected by Harald Bluetooth with a very Viking looking piece of Christian imagery on it – Christ on a cross but surrounded by a snake motif. The replica was coloured as the original would’ve been when it was set up and was very striking.

Despite finding the first couple of rooms disappointing I’m pleased we went to see the exhibition. It might not be one of their best but it’s still good and worth seeing πŸ™‚ And the ship is awesome!

“Chronicles of the Black Company” Glen Cook

Chronicles of the Black Company is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Black Company series. I’ve seen these books recommended several times over the last few years and I’ve finally got round to reading them. This book is a secondary world fantasy, of a fairly medieval flavour, where magic exists. Our protagonist is Croaker, the medic and records keeper for the Black Company – a band of mercenaries that have existed for the last few hundred years. As we start the first book they are contracted to protect the ruler of and enforce law and order on a city. This rather less than satisfactory contract is coming to a close and they take on a new contract in a certain amount of haste – this turns out to be working for the Lady, as part of her army putting down a rebellion in her lands in the north.

The Lady is … not nice. In fact she’s on the evil side of the good/evil divide. Once long ago she, her husband (the Dominator) and their chosen/magically bound servants (the Taken) were imprisoned and buried by the forces of the White Rose. The Lady and the Taken were released (some time ago when the story starts) and now rule almost uncontested over the north. They’re not immortal, in that they can die if you stick a sword or an arrow in them, but they aren’t going to die of old age. The only “good” thing about their release, is that the Dominator is still bound … And this is who the Black Company has contracted with.

There is, of course, a prophecy. The White Rose will be reborn, and when the comet returns (as it does every 29 years) fortune will favour her, and presumably she can defeat the Lady and the Taken again. This is what the rebellion is all about – the rebels don’t know who or where the reborn White Rose is, but it’s the year of the comet and they are determined to find her and overthrow the Lady. But things aren’t that simple, this is not that sort of story.

This is a story where everything is shades of grey, the question is just how grey they are. The Dominator and the White Rose do represent the two ends of the spectrum – he’s pretty close to black, she’s pretty close to white. But for the people on the ground – Croaker and the rest of the Black Company, the inhabitants of the land they’re in, the rebels, even the Lady and the Taken – nothing’s black and white. The rebels are, frankly, as bad as the regime they’re fighting against – war’s a dirty business, civil war particularly so. It’s not really a war of pitched battles, either – skirmishes and ambushes and sieges instead. With all the messiness of civilians getting caught up in it too. The Black Company’s honour and pride is bound up in honouring their contract, and so having taken service with the Lady they must fight for her (tho later in these three books that does change). And the Lady herself isn’t wholly evil – through Croaker’s fascination with her we see glimpses of humanity, increasing through the three books. It’s never quite clear, however, how much of that is her manipulating him (and through him the others). She’s also not as bad as the Dominator – her marriage was not a love match, and as well as ruling the north and fighting the rebels she is also making sure that he doesn’t escape his bindings.

Croaker and the others aren’t particularly saint like, either. There are the occasional offhand references by Croaker to the Company troops being let off the leash for a bit of looting, pillaging and raping every now and then when they win a victory. The officers (like Croaker) will step in when it goes too far – they’re an honourable Company – but there’s a certain matter of factness about the brutalities of war. And they do work for the Lady for rather a long time – and it’s self-preservation that drives them over to the other side in the end. Most of the mercenaries probably have a past they’re escaping. We never find out what this is, for any of them, not even Croaker. The slate is wiped clean when you join. Pretty much everyone uses a nickname not their real name. Of course some of this is because the magic of this world has a concept of one’s true name carrying power, but that’s not the whole story.

The quote on the back of the edition I read is from Steven Erikson (who wrote the Malazan books) and he says (among other stuff) “[it’s] like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote”. And it does feel very much like modern warfare – this is not a book about a glorious medievaloid battle of Good vs. Evil. This is a mundane and grubby war, where you hope you’re not on the wrong side even though you know you probably are. Where most of the people involved are doing their job – some of that job involves killing people, most of it is tedious and there are occasional moments of sheer terror. It’s epic fantasy as seen from the point of view of mid-ranking characters – not in charge, but a step above pawns. But it’s still an optimistic trilogy overall – there’s no happily-ever-after with Good reigning transcendent (and anyway, there are more books so the story isn’t over) but the arc is a positive arc. And even if our characters weren’t princes and lords they still had agency and could make a difference when it mattered enough.

There were other things I wanted to talk about (like how much I liked the various supporting characters) but I think I’ll wrap up here coz this post is long enough. I’m glad I finally got round to reading this – it was as good as I’d heard it was πŸ™‚

Monday Link Salad

Apparently triops cysts (eggs, effectively) can last up to 18 months in outer space and still hatch once returned to their proper environment … other facts about triops in that link, too.

This is a synopsis of a proposed article looking at the history of US science fiction writers from a perspective of discussing the far right politics of several well known writers/editors. The intent, I think, is to contextualise the various clashes between more progressive (and mostly younger) parts of SF/F fandom and the (mostly older) rightwing parts that’ve been taking place over the last few years. Looks like it’s been funded (it’s a kickstarter-esque thing) so will be interesting to see the eventual article.

I’ve signed up for a couple more Future Learn courses – one on Richard III starting on 30th June, and one on the Roman port of Portus starting on 19th May.

We’ve just got a Chromecast, so I installed a new app on my phone – Dayframe lets you cast photos, you can link it up with flickr, 500px, G+, facebook, and so on as well as display photos off your camera. Not entirely intuitive interface for adding streams to the favourites (or at least I got a little tied in knots at one point when adding flickr) but does the job well.

TV I set recording last week:

TV I set recording this week:

Grave Goods

Grave Goods

These pots were found buried at Gurob (an Ancient Egyptian site excavated by Flinders Petrie) – they were burnt and then buried beneath the floor of the building. It was a Hittite custom (c.1300BC) to dispose of the goods of a wife who predeceased her husband in this way – Petrie believed this indicated Gurob was the residence of Hittite princesses and their servants in Egypt.

Inside the Animal Mind; Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure; Royal Cousins at War; The Great British Year

Inside the Animal Mind is a three part series presented by Chris Packham that looks at what we know about how animals think and what that tells us about our own thinking. The first episode covered animal senses, the second looked at how intelligent animals are and the third investigated the effects of being social on animal intelligence. In each episode Packham showed us the sorts of experiments currently being done to extend our knowledge of animal minds. For instance one of the questions he looked at in the first episode is how do dogs seem to know when their owners are due home from work? It’s not like they can tell the time after all. It turns out that this may have something to do with scent levels in the house – if you bring into the house something smelling of the owner earlier in the day, which increases the scent levels, then the dog doesn’t react at the normal time.

The first episode was mostly setting the scene for the meat of the series – making sure we knew a bit about how information gets into the animal brain. The next two episodes were mostly concerned with the overall question of how unique are humans. What, if anything, sets us apart from the other animals. So the second episode concentrated on some of the most intelligent animals – primarily a variety of crow species. These birds solve can solve complex puzzles, use tools and even plan for the future. That last was illustrated by an experiment where a couple of crows were kept in a large cage that could be partitioned into three – overnight they were kept in one end or the other, during the day they had free range of the whole cage (and were given plenty of food). They weren’t given a choice about which end of the cage they spent the night. If it was one end they would get breakfast in the morning before the partitions were removed, if it was the other they wouldn’t. So after that pattern had been established they were given places to hide food (little sandtrays) in each end of the cage. During the day they’d hide some of the food they were given, and they’d hide a significantly higher proportion in the “no breakfast” end – knowing that if that was where they ended up then they’d want more food in the morning than if they ended up in the breakfast room.

The last episode concentrated mostly on dolphins (tho also other intelligent social animals, like chimps). The idea is that being social helps to drive the development of intelligence and in particular intelligence to do with communication and recognition of others (and oneself) as individuals. Things we think of as human traits, and some of these traits take a while to develop in young children too – a child won’t recognise his or herself in the mirror until the age of 2, and the ability to realise that other people have other perspectives takes longer than that. Dolphins are one of the few animals to recognise themselves in a mirror – they had footage of a dolphin very clearly admiring himself in a mirror in the water. They also had some footage of how this was first observed – the biologists were observing dolphin mating via a one-way mirror, and when the dolphins realised there was a mirror there they oriented themselves so they could watch themselves while they were mating.

The series didn’t try to provide an answer to what sets us apart from animals – just pointing out that many of the things we think make us special have been found in at least one other species. And yet, there must still be something that means we are the ones with civilisation and advanced technology not the others, but we don’t yet know what that is.

I’d been expecting something a lot more shallow, so this series was a rather nice surprise. Worth watching.

We’ve started watching some of the World War I related programmes that the BBC are broadcasting at the moment. The first three that we’ve watched were sort of prequels to the war. The first was a biography of Edward VII (Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure), and the others were a two part series about the descendants of Queen Victoria who were ruling England, Germany and Russia by the outbreak of the war (Royal Cousins at War). I’m lumping these together to talk about because they had clearly been made by the same team, and had the same format and aesthetic. Each one had a (faceless) narrator, as well as a selection of experts on the subject, and they were very focussed on the biography of the individuals and how that intersected with the politics. At times that did make us feel they overstated the importance of (for instance) the English King in the politics of the day but mostly it stayed on the right side of the line.

The mission of all three programmes seemed to be to humanise the people they were talking about, and one of the tricks they used to do this was by colourising black and white photographs of them which suddenly makes them seem more real. In the two Royal Cousins at War programmes they also had video footage taken by the royals on their holidays – so all messing about a bit and hamming it up for the camera. And of course there’s a soap opera quality to the dysfunctionalness of Queen Victoria’s family. The Edward VII programme spent a lot of time looking at the way the relationship between Victoria and Edward was a vicious circle – she felt he was useless and shouldn’t be trusted with responsibility. So he frittered away his time on women and parties, and whenever he did get given something to do he’d end up doing daft stuff like showing official documents round to his friends to get opinions. Which then meant Victoria had proof he was useless. So that meant by the time he came to the throne no-one, not even himself, thought he was going to be any good at being King. As it turned out, he was good at the job – he was charismatic and much better than his mother at the public performance side of royal duties.

This is also the last hurrah of powerful monarchs in Europe. While Edward VII and his son George V didn’t have much overt power, as constitutional monarchs, they had even less after WWI was over. Their role was still important in terms of diplomacy, however. Edward’s ability to get on with people helped to sweeten relationships with countries such as France – a visit from Edward helped get public opinion onside before the “real diplomats” sat down at the negotiating table to discuss what became the Entente Cordiale. And George’s lifelong friendship with his cousin Tsar Nicholas helped shape the alliance between Russia and England.

At the other end of the spectrum Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas were still autocratic rulers and so their personal qualities and opinions did have a large part to play in politics and foreign policy. They weren’t entirely free to do what they wished – public opinion and the opinions of their politicians did matter, but they had more genuine power than the British monarchy. And sadly neither were particularly competent. Tsar Nicholas seems to’ve epitomised “nice but dim” and combined this with a strong sense of his duty to preserve the authority of his throne. Which doesn’t end well.

The story of Wilhelm is the sort of thing that if you wrote it as fiction people wouldn’t believe it. He was the son of Victoria’s eldest daughter and she had been married off to the Kaiser Wilhelm I’s eldest son with a mission to liberalise Germany. Her husband (heir to the throne) is more liberal than his father and than Wilhelm II would turn out to be – so if only he’d lived to rule longer than a few months then history might’ve gone very differently. Wilhelm II had a very troubled relationship with his mother – he had had a difficult birth, and his left arm was damaged in the process. His mother couldn’t bear the fact that she had a crippled child, and Wilhelm himself felt inadequate – which only got worse as he got older and bought into the militaristic culture of Germany at the time. As future Kaiser he should be the epitome of perfection, and yet he was physically crippled. This sense of humiliation isn’t helped along by relations with his extended family. Edward VII was married to a Danish princess, whose sister was married to Tsar Alexander. Prussia had invaded Denmark, and defeated the Danes, in the 1860s and the Danish royal family had never forgiven them. So the two sisters would organise jolly family holidays … to which Wilhelm was not invited. He seemed to go through most of his life overcompensating for his disability and for his perceived lack of friends. He also seems to’ve been a rather nasty piece of work, too – so even tho some of it was out of his control, he did make his own problems worse.

These programmes were an interestingly different perspective on the run-up to World War I, and I realised how little I know about Germany of that era & Kaiser Wilhelm in particular.

We also finished off watching The Great British Year. This was a nature series, about the wildlife of Britain across the year. I don’t really have much to say about it – the point was very much the visuals, and they did have some spectacular footage πŸ™‚ And there were red squirrels, but not enough of them for J’s tastes πŸ˜‰

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Episode 1 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.