Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest; Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice

Mind the Gap was a two part series presented by Evan Davis about the growing gap between the economy of London (booming) and the economy of the rest of Britain (somewhat stagnant). I’m not sure he really had 2 hours worth of material, but I guess he wanted to divide it into two themed chunks. The first programme mostly covered what the situation is and how it has arisen. Davis talked to a variety of people – CEOs, workers, people involved in transport, Boris Johnson etc. The take home message was that the gap exists because a gap already existed and it’s just got more pronounced. Basically businesses want to be near other businesses – either of the same type for collaboration (or people poaching) or of different types (again for collaboration). So once London started to be the place to be, it became more the place to be. Davis did spend a bit of time talking about the downsides of this as well – in particular the way people get priced out of the city. And the effects on transport and other infrastructure requirements. Like the fact that Crossrail isn’t even built yet and they’re already planning Crossrail 2 because the projected growth of the city means it’ll be needed that soon.

The second programme was more concerned with what, if anything, can be done to reduce the gap – bringing up the rest of the country rather than bringing down London, obviously. This felt particularly padded, to be honest. Davis’s message here was the he thinks (and this was clearly couched as a personal opinion) that trying to bring the whole of the rest of the country closer to London in economic terms is a non-starter. By spreading the economic growth so thin you don’t ever get momentum going anywhere. Also Davis didn’t seem to think many places had enough there to start off with. His idea was that the best hope for economic growth outside London is to encourage formation of a supercity in the north of England. Statistically speaking if you compare city population sizes between many European countries including Britain then we don’t actually have a “second city” – there’s a far bigger gap between London and the next tier of cities than you’d expect. So Davis thinks that the way forward is for the Liverpool to Leeds corridor to turn into Britain’s second city. I guess Glasgow/Edinburgh wasn’t chosen because it has the issue that it might turn out not to be British shortly.

Overall I wasn’t sure if I agreed with Davis, but I’m aware I don’t really know much about economics and haven’t thought about these issues much before – so my sense of disagreement might be just the result of ignorance.

If you were after a serious programme about polar bear life and biology, then Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice is not the programme you’re looking for. However it was very entertaining 🙂 The best claim to seriousness that it has is that it uses disguised remote control cameras to get closer to polar bears and to film them acting in a much more natural fashion than you can do when there’s a whole film crew around. And as the programme blurb says, this does demonstrate their intelligence and curiosity. But what made it worth watching was the narration (voiced by David Tennant, in his natural accent so not quite like Doctor Who providing commentary). In the narrative the polar bears were fairly anthropomorphised and the cameras were definitely anthropomorphised, and it was great fun to watch!

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of The Plantagenets – Robert Bartlett covers the history of the Plantagenet dynasty, who ruled England for nearly 300 years.

Episode 4 of Pagans & Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn.

Episode 6 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 1 of Monkey Planet – series about the biology and behaviour of primates.

In Our Time: The Tempest

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which was discussed by Jonathan Bate (Worcester College, Oxford), Erin Sullivan (University of Birmingham) and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Somerville College, Oxford). This was the last play written solely by Shakespeare, around 1610, and is also the only one where he made the plot up entirely from scratch. The action almost entirely takes place on an island (perhaps in the Mediterranean, perhaps in the Atlantic, it’s not specified). Prospero was Duke of Milan, but his position has been usurped by his younger brother and so Prospero and his daughter Miranda have gone into exile on this island. The island is uninhabited except for the spirit Ariel and Caliban, the deformed/monstrous son of the deceased witch Sycorax (who was previously banished to the island). The opening scene shows Prospero’s brother and a boatload of people from Naples (including the King) caught in a storm (raised by Prospero) and being shipwrecked on the island. The plot revolves around Miranda and one of the nobles falling in love, Caliban in rebellion against Prospero’s authoritarian rule over the island and Prospero and his brother reconciling (eventually).

After Bate gave a summary of the plot the programme moved on to looking at the ways that Shakespeare’s life and the politics and issues of the day influenced the play. Parallels are often drawn between Prospero (using his magic to manipulate and direct all the others on the island) and Shakespeare (using his art of playwriting to manage and direct the action on stage, and to shape the imagination of the audience). This parallel is increased by the last section of the play where Prospero talks about giving up his art and retiring. As this is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play this can be seen as Shakespeare talking about his own retirement. Another way that Shakespeare’s own circumstances inform the writing of this particular play is that later in his career he and his acting company bought an indoor theatre. This meant that more lighting effects and sound effects were possible than in the outdoor theatres. And it’s easier to do special effects like having someone fly when you’re in a room where you can fix a hoist to the ceiling.

One obvious way that the political situation of the time informs the play is that Shakespeare’s company were frequently called upon to perform plays at court; even more often after James took the throne than in Elizabeth’s time. The plays he wrote therefore needed to be entertaining to the King, and to pander to his interests and enthusiasms. One of the things that King James VI & I was particularly interested in was magic, and he believed that there was both black magic (that of witches) and good magic. In the play Sycorax (who never appears but is referred to) is an embodiment of evil magic, and Prospero’s magic is presented as good magic. However Shakespeare leaves the question of whether there’s any real difference between the two open for the audience to think about. Family and dynastic marriages were also of interest to James (and to his wife) – they had children, unlike James’s predecessor on the throne, and had to think about marriages for them. So the plot thread with Miranda, and Prospero’s orchestration of her romance with Ferdinand, would appeal to the royals.

For all that Shakespeare made up the plot of this play, it’s still informed by stories or events he’d heard of. For instance the whole set-up of a ruler usurped by a brother going into exile to study magic comes from a real life event. One of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire had had that happen – but it seems he was quite happy with that state of affairs, and devoted the rest of his life to magic rather than trying to regain his throne. Obviously in The Tempest Prospero isn’t happy, and this may be another way of appealing to James (who firmly believed in the divine right of kings). Another real life event that underpins Shakespeare’s story was the shipwreck of a ship going to Virginia in Bermuda. (This same event is important in Pocahontas’s life as her future English husband was on that very ship – the In Our Time about her aired the week after this one, but we listened to it a few weeks ago (post)).

Colonialism is also an important theme in the play, and it’s one that’s only grown in importance in modern times. The island is “uninhabited” – which means except for Caliban. Even by the standards of the time Caliban should’ve had rights to the land by virtue of having been born there, but Prospero still feels he has the right to rule the land because he’s more important than Caliban (I paraphrase heavily here). Caliban is described initially as monstrous and deformed, and there’s some reference to how if they could get him back to Naples they could display him in a fair and make a lot of money. That’s actually a reference to what really happened to some poor Inuit person, brought back to London and displayed as a fairground attraction (he didn’t take long to die, apparently). This was an era when explorers were discovering the strange (to Europeans) flora and fauna of the Americas, and it was thought that there might be not-quite-human people out there too, over whom obviously the “superior” Europeans would rule. But there were more enlightened viewpoints even at the time – the experts talked about an essay called “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne which argues that just because the customs of other people are different doesn’t mean they are wrong. It’s worth noting that Caliban is almost an anagram of Cannibal, and is also similar to Cariban (which is what people called Carribeans at the time). Caliban isn’t just depicted as monstrous, however. He’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and Duncan-Jones was saying that the best lines and best poetry in the play are given to Caliban. Shakespeare is again not coming down on one side or the other – he’s giving the audience something to think or argue about.

The play fell out of favour after Shakespeare’s time. In particular after the Civil Wars it was rewritten as more of a rom-com called An Enchanted Isle. Partly this was because it was seen as an “old” play, so needed reworking for the new fashions. And partly because there are various speeches in the play that think about different ways the world could be ruled – and that would be quite a raw and touchy subject for the time. In the 19th Century the play was rediscovered and across the course of the 20th Century it increasingly appealed to a post-colonial audience. The experts talked a bit about more modern reimaginings of the play including one where Ariel is coded as Martin Luther King and Caliban as Malcom X (Prospero, obviously, remains the authoritarian white man).

The Tempest isn’t one of the plays I knew much about before listening to this programme, it was interesting to learn more (I don’t get to it in the Shakespeare MOOC I’m doing for another couple of weeks).

“Whiskey and Water” Elizabeth Bear

Whiskey and Water is the second half of the duology started with Blood and Iron (post). It is set 7 years later and in many ways deals with the unfinished business from and consequences of the end of the first book. But where Elaine and the stories of the Fae & Merlin were the centre of the last book, in this one it’s Matthew Magus and the stories of Hell & the Devil in his many forms that take centre stage. I finished reading this a while ago but I’ve been putting off talking about it because while I know what happened on a surface level I have a tantalising feeling of not quite getting it on a deeper level. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, I just have a sense of something just outside my grasp.

The plot proper kicks off with the murder of a girl in New York – by a Fae. Matthew Magus is no longer what he was, he was damaged by his part in the end of the Faerie War and his magic isn’t under his control. But he still feels a duty to protect Manhattan, even tho he can’t quite do it, and he still feels guilty that he couldn’t prevent the murder (like he maybe once would’ve). And so he takes the girl’s friends under his wing to help them find out who and why.

There are also subplots revolving around the losses of the war. Murchaud, a Prince of Hell, died in that war and Jane Andraste bears a responsibility for that death as he was only there as part of her alliance with Hell. Murchaud is a gaping wound round which the story bends – he’s Morgan le Fay’s son, he’s Elaine Queen of the Daoine Sidhe’s father, he was Kit Marlowe’s lover. And Kit wants revenge on Jane Andraste for his death so he leaves Hell where he was living with Murchaud to challenge her to a duel. And so many of the other key players in the story have reason to smooth his path to that – not just those I mentioned already, but also Lucifer Morningstar (one of the several Devils) and Matthew. Matthew has his own issues with Jane – his whole life has been twisted into one of loss by Jane and the Prometheans’ desire for war against Faerie.

Whiskey is the centre of another subplot. He was given Elaine’s soul and name as a part of her becoming Fae enough to be Queen. And so he has a conscience and he isn’t doing what needs to be done as the foremost of the water Fae. The Bunyip comes to challenge him because Whiskey is weak from his refusal to kill. Which means that the Bunyip gets drawn into the conflict in alliance with Jane Andraste.

Loss is one of the themes running through the book. Not just Matthew’s losses, Kit’s losses, Elaine’s losses etc: Hell itself is a loss of God’s presence, and Lucifer suffers from what he sees as God’s refusal to forgive him and the loss of God’s love. The end of that particular thread took me a little by surprise. I don’t think it really came out of nowhere, I think I just missed the things that should’ve clued me in. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, is another theme. And I think pride too – several characters are brought down, or nearly so, by their own pride or the pride of others.

This book doesn’t work for me quite as well as Blood and Iron does, but it’s still good. And perhaps if I read it again I might get it next time.

Monday Link Salad

I think I’ve seen this before but any time you might feel like it would be nice to live in some other time, here’s a nice little list of all the ways Londoners died during one particular week in 1665. Even once you discount the nearly 4000 dead of plague there’s a nicely varied list of possibles, many of which are much less likely to kill you these days. Yay for modern medicine!

No-one knows what they’re doing except those who don’t know how much they don’t know, and they’re dangerous – a slightly different take on the causes of imposter syndrome.

“My Real Children” by Jo Walton is a book I want to read, based on that excerpt. According to amazon it’s not out over here till August tho. So I need to remember to either buy it or check the library nearer the time!

A new Civ game is announced for this autumn. I’m a bit conflicted here, it looks like it’ll be Civ 5.5 and I didn’t like 5 as much as 4, but the set in space thing might be rather cool. I’ll likely end up buying it despite any doubts – I did get a little over a hundred hours out of Civ 5 after all and that’s quite a long lasting game 🙂

TV I set recording last week:

TV I set recording this week:

Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland; Rococo: Travel Pleasure Madness

Border Country can be fairly characterised as unashamed propaganda for the No-to-Independence side of the upcoming referendum in Scotland. To be fair that fits my own bias* so I was predisposed to like the series. The narrative structure for the two programmes was a history of the border regions of England and Scotland from the time of the Romans through to James VI & I as ruler of both countries. It was presented by Rory Stewart, and his thesis is that the border between Scotland and England is not a natural cultural breakpoint, but more of an arbitrary line drawn across the region. And he believes that these sorts of line-on-the-map borders lead to more problems than they solve.

*One selfish reason: if Scotland isn’t part of Britain then as the English born child of Scottish parents I lose my sense of national identity (I’m British rather than Scottish or English). One more political reason: As someone who can’t vote in the referendum I’m not looking into it closely, but the rhetoric in favour of independence that I do see is heavy on the “of course the bad stuff stays with the UK but we’ll get to keep the good bits of the Union even once we’ve left”. And that feels naive and foolish to me – maybe everything will work out the way they want, but unless there are some signed agreements then making contingency plans on worst case scenarios and reassuring your public about them would seem sensible.

The intros from the BBC continuity announcer for both programmes were very pointed about this being Stewart’s personal opinions, and he says that himself several times through the series. Part of this is distancing it from his job – he’s the Conservative MP for the Penrith and the Border consituency in Cumbria. So important for him to point out repeatedly this is him speaking for himself and not the Tories in general. But this also came up several times when he was talking about the history of the region – he’d fairly often say something along the lines of “many historians believe X but I believe Y because …”.

The facts and stories that he told us were mostly the same as in many other programmes about British history. But there were two major differences in the way the narrative was framed that made this a series worth watching. The first of these was that it was strongly focused on the stretch of land between the river Humber and the river Forth, which he referred to throughout as the Middleland. He emphasised the continuity of culture across that region, both before and after the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall. The first programme covered the tribal culture of the people who lived in the region before the Romans, then the effect the Wall had on them. This was followed by the aftermath of the demilitarisation of that border when the Roman Empire shrank back away from Britain. And that programme ended on a high note with the golden age of Northumbria – the era of the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert. A time when this region was a centre for religious thought and art across Europe – note that Northumbria at the time covered areas on both sides of the border. The second programme was full of death and destruction. He concentrated on the Vikings, then the Harrowing of the North by William the Conqueror and finally the Anglo-Scottish wars of the late medieval period and the clans of Reivers who terrorised the area during this period. The power of these clans, in Stewart’s narrative, was broken only when the border ceased to divide the countries. He said that the unification of Scotland and England into the United Kingdom meant that the Reivers weren’t useful to the military of one side or the other so it was easier to enforce the law in the region.

The other way in which the framing of this series was different to many other British history programmes is that Stewart frequently drew parallels between our history and areas of the world today. He was a deputy governor in Iraq for a while, he’s got a lot of involvement in charity work in Afghanistan and has walked through that country and written a book about it. As well as other places. So, for instance, he was comparing the tribal Celtic culture that existed before the Romans arrived to rural Afghanistan. He compared the golden age of Northumbria to modern day Tibet – because of the monkish religious cast to the culture. Never in a “it’s exactly the same” sort of way, but in a way that drew out the parallels and made you think about both the history of Britain and the current state of the world in a new way.

I don’t think I always agreed with him – I could see places where I thought he’d had to be careful to pick his facts to fit his story (like the Edward I trying to conquer Scotland bit didn’t quite sit right with me, for instance). And I think the implied “don’t vote for independence because it’ll all go up in smoke” is a bit too far-fetched. But equally, I do agree that the boundary between Scotland and England is a historical artifact – drawn by the Romans for their own imperial reasons. And it was thought provoking, and good to look at the history I know through a different lens.

Rococo: Travel Pleasure Madness was a three part series about the Rococo art movement presented by Waldemar Januszczak. It’s a sequel of sorts to the series he did last year about Baroque art that we watched in February (post). In the Baroque one he moved across the continent following the movement, this Rococo series was done in three themes instead. And his themes were picked to support his thesis that a lot of the modern world has its roots in the Rococo. First he looked at the period and the art in terms of travel – particular emphasis on Venice as a tourist destination, as well as the fondness for paintings of exotic animals and Chinoiserie. Next was pleasure, and there were two strands to this. One was the sort of decadent pleasure epitomised in Boucher’s Blonde Odalisque (a painting I’ll never look at in quite the same way after seeing Januszczak sprawl across a sofa in the same pose (with his clothes on, thankfully!)) and in Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid. The other strand talked about things like how “the pursuit of happiness” as a human right is a Rococo idea. The last of the themes was madness – a lot of the Rococo style is rather otherworldly and unreal, and this programme focussed on where that could lead and the darker side of the Rococo.

As with the Baroque series it’s hard to find things to say, because it’s all about the visuals. One thing that does strike me is that Januszczak’s programmes have a distinctive style to them. I’m not sure I can articulate it, it’s more of a feeling than something I’ve got figured out – but I’m hard pushed to think of another presenter who spends so much time walking away from the camera with his back to the audience. Another quirk is that often he has people looking at the paintings he’s talking to – and they’re not just people around in the art gallery by chance, it’s always the same handful of people so it’s for deliberate effect. This series also had people dressed up and acting out silent vignettes completely ignoring him while he stood and explained what was going on.

I still think Rococo art is overall a bit too frilly and a bit too pink, but I do now know more about what’s there behind the pink frilliness!

When Albums Ruled the World – nostalgia for the heyday of the vinyl LP, the 60s & 70s.

Episode 3 of Pagans & Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn.

Animals Overnight: Sleepover at the Zoo – programme about sleep and animal sleep patterns. They set up cameras around Bristol Zoo to record what various of the animals did overnight when no-one was around, and also visited various sleep scientists to talk about what we know and don’t know about sleep. Most surprising fact for me is that REM sleep appears to be the result of convergent evolution, even if we still don’t know what its purpose is.

Episode 1 of The Plantagenets – Robert Bartlett covers the history of the Plantagenet dynasty, who ruled England for nearly 300 years.

Episode 5 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

In Our Time: The Invention of Radio

Sunday morning we listened to the In Our Time episode about the invention of radio, which we’ve had sitting on the ipod for a while – it’s not a subject that caught either of our imaginations in advance. It did turn out to be interesting, but it also felt like a series of vignettes – this person, this date, this advance, now move on to the next – so I’m approaching writing it up with some trepidation! The three experts on the programme were Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Bruton (University of Leeds) and John Liffen (Science Museum, London).

At the beginning of the show Bragg introduced the subject by talking about Marconi and the patents he filed in the early 20th Century that mean he is often credited as the father of radio. When they discussed him, towards the end of the programme, they talked about how he liked to present himself as coming up with the whole thing himself. He didn’t give many (if any) of the people who’d previously worked in the field credit for their achievements. But as the programme had just demonstrated, radio wasn’t invented in a single flash of genius but was instead the result of an accumulation of nearly a century of small advances.

Before the 19th Century if you wanted to send a complex message a long way, then it could only travel as fast as you could transport a person carrying it. Experiments with electromagnetism in the early 19th Century started to change this, and by the 1830s a system of transmitting messages along a wire had been developed – the telegraph. At first the pioneers of this technology had envisioned something that would twist a needle to point at the required letter of the alphabet, but the work of Morse & others established a technically easier method involving a simple code. The telegraph took off pretty rapidly, but developing a wireless method would take much longer.

James Clerk Maxwell came up with a theory of electromagnetism that predicted electromagnetic waves. At first this was purely in the realm of theory, and proving it experimentally posed a variety of technical problems. You have to design and build apparatus to emit these waves, which was eventually done in the form of a spark-gap transmitter – I don’t think they explained how this worked on the programme. And then having done this you need to reliably detect the resulting waves. They talked about a few of the ways that were developed, but I didn’t really follow any of them and so have forgotten the details :/ Over a period of several years successive scientists and engineers made their own contributions to the field, but the definitive experimental proof came from the work of Hertz in the late 1880s.

This is still science rather than technology – none of the people involved so far in the story were thinking in terms of commercial applications, it was just an interesting phenomenon to investigate and try to explain. The Post Office, in Britain, oversaw the domestic telegraph network and was beginning to be interested in possible applications of wireless technology. However there was some pushback because the telegraph system worked so well, so why develop something new? There was a similar thought process at work in the early days of the telephone system too – the postal system worked so well, why would anyone need a phone?

Even once it was known to be theoretically possible to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves wirelessly there were still several practical obstacles that needed to be overcome. For instance at first transmitters transmitted across a wide range of frequencies – so if there were two transmitters relatively close together then their signals would overlap and a receiver wouldn’t be able to pick out the message from one or the other. So one of the advances that had to be made was in the concept of tuning – restricting the transmitter to a particular subset of frequencies and then only listening to one of these bands. Another obstacle to be overcome was in the sensitivity of detectors. This was done in part by a man called Bose, who was working in Calcutta. The detectors used didn’t operate as well in the humid environment of India, and so Bose had to develop a modification of the design – which was then better in other environments too.

And we’re back to where Marconi enters the story. He was a young man from a wealthy Italian family, and despite his protestations otherwise what he did was to put together all the various prior work on wireless technology and figure out a commercial product. He’s helped in this by the fact that he’s rich, well connected and good at publicity. He also came up with a niche for the technology – ships! Obviously it’s not practical to trail a telegraph wire after a ship that’s sailing across the Atlantic, so this is an application where wireless has obvious answers to the “why bother?” question. Most people at that time (including people like Tesla) thought that electromagnetic waves would move in straight lines, so this is a case where Marconi not really understanding the science worked out in his favour – he just set up trials at doing a transatlantic transmission from Cornwall to the US. This was a success and he was then able to market his devices for use in shipping.

These radios were still transmitting code rather than sound. The programme didn’t spend much time covering the next stage because it was getting towards the end of the time they had available. But basically instead of transmitting bursts of waves, instead this built on the work of Tesla (I think) and transmitted a continuous radio signal. The modulations of this signal were then used to carry information that could be decoded into the original soundwaves recorded by the microphone.

I’m not sure I’ve done the programme justice with this write-up – in particular there were a lot of little biographical snippets for the various figures involved in the story that made them come alive as people, and I haven’t conveyed that at all.

Maximo Park (Manchester Academy, 15 March 2014)

The reason we went to see J’s sister and family on the weekend that we did was because Maxïmo Park were playing at the Manchester Academy on the Saturday evening (15th March). J & I had spent the day in Manchester at the museum (post) and we had a brisk dinner in a restuarant in the China Town area before meeting Jo and Chris outside the venue at pretty much spot on doors time. I’m sure I’ve seen someone play at the Academy before but it seems it was long enough ago that the outside of the building had changed and I didn’t really remember the inside either!

Iron Maiden Beer

Out of deference to the fact that Jo was 6 months pregnant we hung around in the bar area where we could sit down until the support act started – and obviously the rest of us sampled some of their beers over the course of the evening. They had rather a good selection of things I’d not tried before – including the Iron Maiden beer (had to be tried) and some by a local brewery (Brightside), all pretty good.


The support act were Teleman, who I’d never heard of (or heard) before. I remember liking them at the time – quite rocky and appropriate as the opener for a Maxïmo Park set. But I must confess as I’m writing this nearly 3 weeks later I don’t actually remember them that well. J bought the CD from the merch desk at the end of the gig so clearly he liked them too. I should listen to it some time 🙂

Maximo Park

And then on to the main event! Maxïmo Park were fantastic, as usual. There’s a real energy to their sets, and even though we were further back than we often are (about halfway, I think) there was still a really good atmosphere and the people around us were clearly really into it. And by the end of the set people were jumping up and down all around and even behind us. Obviously there were quite a few songs from the most recent album, but after that I think the next most represented album was their first one. That’s still my favourite, and my go to album when I think I want to listen to some Maxïmo Park, so that was pretty good for me 🙂

After the gig was over we bought some beer at the merch desk – they had a Maxïmo Park No. 5 beer brewed to be sold after the gigs. We picked up a bottle each, J and I drank ours on the Sunday evening when we got home to finish off the weekend 🙂 Rather nice, quite citrus-y and flavourful. (If I wanted to be pretentious about it I suppose I could say: Fresh & energetic, like the band …)

Unnatural Histories; Tales from the Royal Bedchamber

Unnatural Histories was a series with a message, and in the case of one of the episodes it even seemed to have some subliminal messaging going on (and perhaps the other two and we just didn’t spot it). The basic premise was that the series was looking at three great “wildernesses” which have been made national parks and investigating whether or not it’s really true that these are the last great spaces untouched by the hand of man. Each episode concentrated on the history of a particular national park – firstly the Serengeti, secondly Yellowstone and thirdly the Amazon rainforest (bits of which are national park but they were thinking about the whole region). The message was the same in each case – that the concept of untouched wilderness is really just a nasty little racist hangover from the days of white imperialism. In all three cases people have been living in and shaping the land and ecosystem for thousands of years. So the narrative of the “pristine, untouched wilderness” erases the native peoples from the picture – like the way we talk about the “discovery” of the Americas in the 15th Century despite there having been people living there for 12,000 years who thus discovered it some time ago. It’s a narrative that only works if you consider Europeans as the only “real people” in the situation.

It definitely succeeded in being a thought provoking series – we kept pausing it to talk about it while watching. I think there’s something to be said for keeping some parts of the world as a viable habitat for wildlife rather than just building cities over everything (in particular the Amazon which has a significant affect on global climate too). But the way in which these parks were created and the way the people who lived there were treated was appalling. In both the Serengeti and Yellowstone native people were moved out involuntarily and prevented from using the land the way they used to – but tourists could still go onto the land and often cause more damage than the locals would’ve. In the Serengeti big game hunters were positively encouraged at the same time as local people were prevented from hunting for food. Removal of people is also altering the ecosystems of the parks – for instance elk in Yellowstone grew in numbers to an extent where wolves had to be reintroduced to prey on them. The Amazon was even more complex – in that there was a significant reduction in population by diseases brought by the first Europeans, possibly up to 90%. So the human part of the ecosystem had collapsed prior to the attempt to preserve the “wilderness”, but the effects of that human population hadn’t entirely unravelled.

It’s difficult to know what can be done, tho. These ecosystems were sustainable with populations of about the size that they had, who lived in traditional ways. And the modern world inevitably changes that, and I don’t think any of it is in ways that should be prevented. Modern medical care keeps people alive for longer, so the population grows and consumes more. Once you’re aware of conveniences like clean running water and electricity you’re going to want them – and that requires space and resources. And these aren’t things you should deny people to keep them “traditional” enough to live somewhere. But how do you police the land use effectively? And without that turning into its own nastiness? And if the people were moved out a couple of generations ago like in the case of Yellowstone then do they still have the knowledge and so on to live the way their ancestors did?

So yes, a very thought provoking series with more questions than answers.

(The possible subliminal messaging was in the Serengeti one, btw – every time they switched from black & white footage to colour or vice versa there was a frame or two of a still image of two Masai standing against a sunrise (or sunset).)

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber was aired to coincide with the birth of William & Kate’s son. It was presented by Lucy Worsley (who did Fit to Rule that we watched last year), and was a chronological look at the bedchambers of the English & British royalty over the last 700 or so years. It wasn’t quite what I expected in that I was expecting more about the birth or not of heirs to the throne, but really it was about the beds and the rooms. So we were shown several rather nice looking beds from various points over the centuries. And she explained how pre-Victorian times the royal bedchamber was actually a state room – and the people who had access to it were some of the most important people in the country because they had the most access to the king.

I don’t think there was anything in this programme I didn’t already know, but it was nice to see the examples of beds etc.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 1 and 2 of Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness – three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about the Rococo art movement, as a sequel to his series on Baroque art.

Episode 1 of Border Country – programme about the history of the area of Britain around the England/Scotland border, presented by Rory Stewart.

Episode 1 of Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest – two-part series about the increasing gap between the economy of London and the economy of the rest of Britain.

Episode 4 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 1 & 2 of Pagans and Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn

In Our Time: The Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference of 1884 was part of what’s known as “the Scramble for Africa”. At the conference representatives of all the European nations met to discuss who got what part of the Africa (with no African representatives present). The repercussions of this are still being felt today. The subject was discussed by Richard Drayton (King’s College London), Richard Rathbone (SOAS, University of London) and Joanna Lewis (LSE, University of London) on In Our Time. This was a subject where it was clear that the three experts had far more to say than could fit into the 45 minute time frame. Although the title of the programme was the Berlin Conference the need to give context and to look at the aftermath meant that they ended up trying to give an overview of the whole of European imperial ambitions in Africa.

The first point they made is that Africa is enormous – much bigger than one thinks it is, because its size is minimised by the projection used to create most maps. Until the 19th Century Europeans interacted only with the periphery of the continent, leaving the vast interior unexplored (and un-interfered with). Back in the 16th Century (I think) Spain and Portugal had casually divided the world between themselves – with no real idea of the territories in question – Spain got the New World and Portugal had Africa. By the 19th Century several other nations had footholds in Africa, but the colonies were all around the periphery and were primarily trading outposts which had become towns. The primary players in West Africa were the French and the British. Round the south I think they said it was more British. The east of Africa had Portuguese towns, and also various Arab settlements from places like Oman. The north of Africa along the Mediterranean coast was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The primary “commodities” traded were slaves, and things like ivory. This was to change in the late 19th Century as the anti-slavery movement gained traction. Slaves were replaced in importance as trade goods by resources such as rubber, and eventually gold, diamonds and other minerals were found in regions of the African interior.

What changed in the later 19th Century was both that the Europeans began to realise just how much territory was available, and also the Industrial Revolution was making them more able to exploit it. This was the age of exploration, and the adventures of explorers like Livingstone and Stanley were being widely reported and stirring up fascination with this “new” land. The point about the Industrial Revolution is that it brought railways and better guns – the railways let the Europeans have better access to the interior and the opening arms gap between them and the indigenous peoples meant they could dominate the land they found. One of the experts also made the point that a power vacuum was being generated by the ongoing collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So the various North African territories that had previously been Ottoman were beginning to be parcelled out (in intent or actuality) between various European countries and this was encouraging people to think about lands south of the Sahara as well.

The Berlin Conference was intended to ease tensions as the Europeans began to exploit this territory. All the European nations were present although many weren’t really players in the game – more there to ally themselves with the countries who had actual imperial ambitions. The experts were saying, however, that it’s wrong to think of this purely on a country level. Although it was heads of state and diplomats who were doing the actual negotiations (which took 3 months) the interests that were being represented were those of particular port towns (like Liverpool or Hamburg) and of private companies. The acquisition and management (or governance) of the territory was also via private companies. As they pointed out on the programme this feels like a retrograde step – it wasn’t that long since the East India Company had been disgraced by the Indian Mutiny, and governance of India had been taken into government hands. The eventual outcome of the conference was a beginning to dividing up the continent between various countries and a formal recognition that if a country (or a private company from a country) had treaties with the native peoples in an area then they would be considered to rule that area.

The main winners from the Conference were the British, the French, the Germans and King Leopold (of Belgium). The British and French make a certain amount of sense (in as much as any of it does) because they already had footholds on the continent and were expanding anyway. Germany wasn’t actually interested in Africa per se but Bismarck was keen to establish the new unified Germany as a major player in European politics. This was the reason why he’d been the one to organise the conference in the first place and why it was held in Berlin – proof that the new country was playing with the big boys.

King Leopold’s private empire of Congo was the least sensible sounding and least pleasant outcome of the conference. They actually discussed him in more than one section of the programme, but I’m amalgamating it all in this paragraph. Leopold was King of Belgium, and the first cousin of Queen Victoria (as well as being related to most of the other royal houses of Europe). Lewis characterised him as having “Empire envy” – Belgium didn’t have one, and he wanted one just like his cousins. So he concocted a scheme to get himself a part of Africa. He did this by setting up an organisation that purported to have a variety of noble sounding humanitarian aims. This was a time period when being anti-slavery was almost the mark of being a civilised person, and so by his high sounding abolitionist rhetoric for the organisation he was able to get donations and backing from many prominent figures of the time. By the time of the Berlin Conference Leopold’s organisation had contacts with many of the peoples living in Congo (via the work of Stanley who had continued Livingstone’s work in exploring Africa). He had treaties with the chiefs of these tribes, that were terribly unequal – like in return for two pieces of cloth a month one chief promised all the resources of his territory and man power whenever Leopold’s administration required it. They didn’t say explicitly on the programme (not enough time?) but I assume such treaties were “agreed” with a heavy degree of coercion. At the conference Leopold was able to exploit both his connections, and the political situation between Britain, Germany and France, to get agreement that he was ruler of this vast territory in Congo. A territory that was 78 times the size of the country that he was actually King of, and that he would go on to exploit mercilessly by perpetrating one of the worst human rights abuses known in history. No European country behaved well in Africa, but Leopold’s rule of Congo stands out as the worst.

Notable by its lack in this whole process was any consideration of the people who actually lived in Africa. The paternalistic views of the time held that the Europeans were sorting this out “for the good of Africa” and they didn’t see any reason to find out what the various Africans might want themselves. However the experts did point out that it wasn’t uniformly bad for all Africans, nor was it completely a situation imposed from the outside. There were winners and losers amongst the African peoples and not all treaties were as problematic as the one I mentioned above. They didn’t have time on the programme to go into details about this, tho.

Unlike most In Our Time programmes this one felt like they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Bragg had to rush the experts through the programme to try and finish on time, and I was left with the impression that they’d had a lot more to talk about.