September 2015 in Review

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


The Lancashire Cotton Famine – In Our Time episode about the effect that the US Civil War had on the cotton industry in Lancashire.

Total: 1


“Rescuing History: ARCE Recording Sheikh Abd el-Gurneh” Andrew Bednarski – September EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1



Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice.

Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar.

Total: 2


The Greatest Knight: William the Marshal – programme presented by Thomas Ashbridge about the life & times of William the Marshal.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Deir el Medina.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Medinet Habu.

Total: 2

Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar

Perhaps the hardest bit of these posts is coming up with something for spoiler space when I advertise them over on Facebook or G+! This evening I’m all out of random witty thoughts to share, so hopefully a couple of sentences saying that will suffice.

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

It seems the moral of the story is “don’t do what you’re told”, particularly if it’s an ancient sociopath that’s doing the telling … a sensible idea. But overall a reasonably subversive set of messages we’re being sent so far this season. If you’re shown something, don’t believe it; if you’re given an order, don’t blindly obey. Or perhaps just: think for yourself.

Obviously Clara and Missy survived, and the Doctor didn’t kill Davros-the-child, nor Davros-the-old-man. Although I suppose the implication is that the Dalek sewers/graveyard are going to kill Davros and all the Daleks, but that’ll just be a localised problem that they overcome easily and off camera before the next story they show up in. I wasn’t actually that keen on the reveal that the Doctor had somehow planned to give his regeneration energy to the sewers to spoil Davros’s victory. I know they had to come up with some way to have the Doctor win in the end and escape, but I thought that undermined the difference between Davros & the Doctor that was set up – that the Doctor can have compassion even for his enemy. Though maybe it wasn’t really the Doctor’s plan, maybe he was just using the “cat defence” when he realised he’d been tricked – “I totally meant to do that”.

J was right – Clara was the Witch’s Familiar, with Missy in the role of the Wicked Witch. Another compare & contrast set up – again we’re shown that no matter the Doctor’s faults, the point is that he cares and treats people as people not just as particularly useful pointy sticks. Another parallel between the two halves of the plot is neither Clara nor the Doctor being all that convincing with their “how dare you I’ll kill you” threats. Although the Doctor at least didn’t actually utter the threat just tried to imply it without saying it. But the Daleks didn’t believe him any more than Missy believed Clara.

Seems the season arc this time is about why the Doctor really left Gallifrey, although I’m guessing that just as we never found out the Doctor’s name we won’t find this out either. But we’ve had Missy rubbing it in Clara’s face about her shared past with the Doctor (did she really say “when we had a daughter”? I only half caught that). And Davros overtly mentioning it too. Moffat also clearly wants us to remember the confession disc/last will & testament or whatever that disc really is. (I did like the double fake out with that – the Doctor grabs the glasses and Davros & we assume him to be playing the fool, then it turns out the sunglasses are the new screwdriver (at least for now)). Oh and the ring the Doctor is wearing … called to our attention several times towards the end of the episode. I can’t remember if he wore a wedding ring before or not but it couldn’t’ve been pointed out more if it had had a flashing neon sign above it this episode.

Nice call back to Clara’s initial story with her inside the Dalek. And I liked thematically the idea that Daleks are all about taking emotion and feeding that energy into negativity & destruction. For me it fits into the “think for yourself” theme that these two episodes have – after all how many times does one see a picture or headline in the media or in a widely shared facebook post that’s designed to tug at the heartstrings or generate outrage, and then the story attached encourages the reader to hate “those responsible”. And often if you take the time to look into the story properly it turns out to be bobbins – but it served its purpose in getting people worked up and their hatred pointed in the direction the original authors wanted.

Curious to see if the title of the next episode (Under the Lake) continues to be significant … though that may’ve just been a thing for that two-parter. All “Under the Lake” makes me think of in that sort of context is Excalibur, and nymphs, so perhaps just literal this time. (No spoilers for that episode in comments please, J prefers to remain totally unspoiled.)

Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

So Doctor Who is back – that kinda snuck up on me, I didn’t notice till about a week ago that it was coming up. It’s about the only fiction I watch on TV and pretty much the only thing I write up for this blog in a timely fashion – more a stream of consciousness bit of chat about the episode than a review per se, and probably won’t make much sense if you didn’t watch it. And yes, I’m waffling right now in this intro paragraph as its sole purpose is to not have spoilers in the entry preview on facebook/G+ 😉

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

So now we’re past the spoiler warning let’s start with the end! Believe nothing you see is my takeaway from the rest of the episode. That was pretty much the theme running through the whole thing – not just the walking out into Skaros when they thought they were on a space station. But also the snakey-dude and the crypto-Dalek. And of course Missy who wasn’t as dead as all that at the end of last season (I mean, we knew she wasn’t but we “saw” a “death” for her). So I don’t believe any of that ending either: not the deaths, not the destroyed TARDIS, not the Doctor going back to kill child-Davros. (Did we even see the deaths live? Or did we just see both on Davros’s screens as the Doctor did? You can do a lot with special effects after all 😉 ) Of course, I’m just left wondering what else I’ve forgotten to disbelieve …

Oh and I think one shouldn’t believe Missy with that “you’re the puppy” line to Clara. Missy came to Clara for help, the Doctor seemed to react worse to Clara’s potential death than Missy’s … if she’s just a pet, she’s not just the cute puppydog. After all, it’s not like Missy turned good, as she demonstrated herself.

Damnit, wrote the above paragraph and it was niggling at me why that felt significant and I got about three lines further into this post & I think it’s just come to me. Look at the title of the episode: “The Magician’s Apprentice”. Isn’t that Clara’s relationship to the Doctor? Next episode: “The Witch’s Familiar”. Clara again? Or is Missy the Witch rather than the Doctor? Or Clara the Witch for that matter? (Or I’m totally off-base with this, but I must pay more attention to the titles than I usually do.)

It really wasn’t where I expected the season to start. I mean: the Daleks, the Master (Mistress, whatever), a two-parter. That feels season finale rather than opener. And more self-contained than a Moffat season normally starts off like – by which I mean that if there is a season arc/season big-bad set up in this one then I didn’t spot it. Moffat may’ve just got more subtle tho 😉 Or I’ve missed something blindingly obvious … or believed something I shouldn’t’ve. I’d call out the fairy-tale feel of the episode titles, but after a few seasons I think fairy-tale is just part of the underpinnings of Moffat Who.

I liked the 80s cheesey music vibe running through this. And the Doctor’s “axe fight” was awesome 😀 As were the crap jokes that were only going to work in a few hundred years time. Clara’s levelled up in badass too – both in terms of leather jacket wearing motor bike riding, and in terms of being called in by UNIT as much in her own right as because she’s the conduit to the Doctor, and facing down Missy. Obvious film reference was Star Wars, and I did enjoy seeing the seedy spaceport bar Doctor Who style.

Looking forward to finding out what happens next, about the only thing I’m sure about is it won’t be what I expect.

In Our Time: The Lancashire Cotton Famine

Before I listened to this episode of In Our Time I had no idea that the American Civil War had caused hardship to so many people in Britain. The cessation of cotton imports from the Southern USA after war broke out led to the cotton mills in Lancashire shutting down, and several hundred thousand of people became unemployed. And yet the directly affected workers were still overwhelmingly on the side of the Northern USA, and for the ending of slavery. Discussing this on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (University of London), Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia) and David Brown (University of Manchester).

The cotton industry was one of the biggest industries in Britain during the 1850s and 1860s. Cotton was imported and made into textiles in mills in the new industrial towns like Manchester and other places in the North West of England. Nowadays factory jobs are low status, and low paid, but at that time these jobs were skilled labour and were well paid. The factory production of textiles replaced the older piece work system, where weavers worked in their own homes. In the new system there were potential jobs for the whole family, from quite an early age, so families were relatively well off as compared to their rural counterparts.

The south of the US had a climate that was particularly suitable for growing high quality cotton, and so 90% of the cotton that entered Britain came from the slave plantations in the US. Thus the outbreak of war in 1861 had the potential to cause significant disruption to the cotton industry. The North blockaded the ports of the South preventing the export of cotton – and the South also didn’t make much effort to break the blockade because they misjudged the mood of Britain vis-à-vis the continuance of slavery. At first the lack of cotton imports didn’t cause many problems. The owners of the mills had been able to see which way the wind was blowing and had stockpiled cotton in case there was a problem. This was only an extension of normal business practice – having reserves in case the harvest failed was common practice. But by 1862 these reserves were running out and mills started to first slow down operations and then shut down all together. At first families could attempt to minimise the effects. As they were relatively prosperous they might well have savings, and providing they could keep one member of the family in a job then that income plus savings might tide them over for a while. Eventually, however, the hardship affected most mill workers and their families.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph the South had misjudged the political and economic situation in the UK and the public antipathy for slavery. They had assumed that the UK government would intervene to protect the cotton supply, so decided to hasten that by not trying terribly hard to break through the blockade. However cotton wasn’t the only important part of the British economy, and some of the other key pieces relied on trade with the North (for instance a lot of the nascent financial industry was heavily invested in Northern US business opportunities). There were also other potential sources of cotton – a bit of lead time was necessary to diversify and to improve the quantity & quality of these alternatives, but they were viable in the long term. Politically speaking the Establishment did have some sympathy with the South (a sort of fellow feeling for another aristocratic based system). But other factions in Parliament were more radical and more anti-slavery. The Government as a whole were also inclined to caution – intervening on the losing side of a civil war could be disastrous for future relations. And their caution was wise – after a while it became clear that the South were losing.

The general public was quite well informed about what slavery in the Southern US meant. There were articles and editorials in newspapers, and ex-slaves would tour the country giving talks and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. Some escaped slaves even had their freedom bought by funds donated by mill owners & their workers. The strength of anti-slavery feeling was such that during the Cotton Famine a mill workers’ association wrote to Lincoln to encourage him to continue the fight against the slave-owners, despite the effect it was having on their livelihoods. Their general sentiment was that while it was awful to be out of work, it was more important for slavery to be eradicated.

Obviously public opinion wasn’t completely one-note, there are exceptions to every generalisation and there were also pockets of pro-South feeling in Britain even outside the Establishment. One place that was more pro-South was the city of Liverpool. It was here that the cotton arrived, so there were representatives from the South living there and working as factors involved in trading the cotton. This meant more contact with Southerners as people rather than as the far away subjects of anti-slavery speeches. The experts suggested that this is one of the roots of the Liverpool/Manchester rivalry – different parts of this cotton industry with different priorities finding themselves on opposite sides of a conflict (ideologically even if not actually).

The consequences of the Cotton Famine on British culture were surprisingly far reaching. For instance it began changing the way the public and the Government thought about welfare. When several hundred people were suddenly out of work the existing poor laws were found to be inadequate. One reform brought in after this was that legislation was passed to allow councils to employ the unemployed to build public works. And rather than letting people starve or putting them in workhouses (which would’ve been completely overwhelmed) funds were raised to be distributed amongst the unemployed so that they could buy food.

The dignity and unselfish way that the workers behaved during this period of hardship also changed the way the working class were thought and talked about at the time. There was a feeling that obviously the “working man” would riot if he had no food nor employment, and would be unable to see past his own needs to that of other people. But during the Cotton Famine there was only one riot – and that was when one town decided to distribute funds as tokens rather than money to “save” the people from the temptation of misusing the money. It was the disrespect that caused offence. And as mentioned above the mill workers were to a large extent pro-North and anti-slavery in sentiment, despite their own hardship. The overall behaviour of the mill workers during this period undermined one of the main arguments against extending the franchise to all men. Clearly the common man actually was capable of seeing beyond his own self-interest to the bigger picture. So although change didn’t happen immediately, the seeds of it were beginning to be sown.

So from a conflict over slavery on the other side of the world came the first steps towards universal suffrage and a welfare state! Not something I had previously realised.

The Greatest Knight: William the Marshal

William the Marshal is one of the men responsible for the Magna Carta as we now know it. His seal is on the re-issuing of the charter in 1217 by Henry III, in his role as Regent for the king. His statue stands in the House of Lords behind the monarch’s throne defending the monarchy as he did in life. Earlier this year we watched a programme that was a biography of him, which rather surprisingly wasn’t part of the Magna Carta anniversary programmes that the BBC put on to coincide with 800 years (since the charter was first signed) as it was first aired in early 2014. The programme was presented by Thomas Ashbridge whose series on the Crusades we’d previously been less than impressed with (post). This programme was rather good, tho 🙂

After William the Marshal’s death his family commissioned a biography of him in verse form, which still survives. The text is in Norman French as one might expect for a member of the nobility of the time. Ashbridge opened the programme by showing us this book and telling us a little about it. Of course, as he said, it’s not all to be taken as literally true – it’s primary purpose is to demonstrate what an illustrious ancestor the family had. I assume Ashbridge used other sources to corroborate the information in the programme, but he didn’t say what those were.

William was born during the Anarchy, the civil war between the Empress Mathilda and Stephen de Blois. He was the second son of a minor noble and his father was on Mathilda’s side – or at least, not on Stephen’s. When William was 4 he was taken hostage by Stephen’s forces and Stephen attempted to win a seige of William’s father’s stronghold by threatening to kill the child. William’s father was not cowed by this threat, replying that he had the equipment to make more sons and leaving William to his fate. Clearly Stephen was bluffing, as William survived the encounter! You can’t help but think it must’ve been pretty traumatic, tho – it included William being paraded back & forth in front of the castle whilst his life was threatened.

In his adolescence he went across the channel to France to a relative of his mother’s to train as a knight. Ashbridge pointed out that during this time period the cross-channel connections for the nobility were still very strong and this would not be like going to a different country. Knights were a pretty new part of the culture and warfare of the time, and the stirrup was the new cutting edge technology of the day. It was a role that was really only available to the nobility, as you had to have an expensive horse. Ashbridge talked a bit about knights in general, and also showed some representations of them from this era. They were reminiscent of the Lewis Chessmen and of Norse berserker imagery – which isn’t entirely a surprise given the origins of the Normans. I think I hadn’t expected it to be quite noticeable in depictions of knights, because the mental image I have of “a knight” is from a later more courtly era.

The biography of William creates an image of a somewhat greedy and lazy teenager during these years (it’s not entirely a hagiography)! But once he was knighted (perhaps on the eve of battle, I can’t remember what Ashbridge said) he began to win a name for himself in tourneys. These are not the stylised and formal affairs of the later high medieval period, instead they are wide-ranging fairly brutal fights between groups of knights. The primary aim to was to capture some of the opposing side, who you could then ransom for a nice little cash bonus. William’s biography tries to claim he was only interested in honour and victory, but it does also mention his accountant who kept track of the ransoms he was paid. So clearly William was also interested in the money to be made, and made sufficient to employ someone to look after it for him!

William entered the court of Henry the Young King via Henry’s mother Eleanor of Acquitaine. (Henry the Young King was the eldest son of Henry II and Eleanor, and was crowned in his father’s lifetime.) William was part of his master’s entourage escorting Eleanor somewhere when they were ambushed. Most of the escort died but William and the other survivors managed to fight off the enemy forces for long enough for Eleanor to escape. He was captured, but once she was in safety she ransomed him and brought him to court. Once in the Young King’s court he rises to prominence as the best knight at court.

The politics of the court is a perilous game for William to negotiate, particularly with his status as the best knight. His biography states that at one point he is exiled due to a whispering campaign about himself and the Young King’s wife with hints that perhaps there was some degree of truth to it. This sounds very Lancelot & Guinevere, and may be a complete work of fantasy on the biographer’s part – after all by the time the text was written all the protagonists were safely dead so no offence could be given by a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-the-queen-fancied-him. This was one point in particular where I wish Ashbridge had brought in other sources and talked about how plausible this was in terms of historical fact. He did talk to another historian who made the point that the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle story reflects a very real anxiety of a Prince of that era. Court society at the time had a combination of a meritocracy of sorts (the knights) and a hereditary monarchy – the King or Prince was unlikely to be both the son of the right man and the best knight in his court. And if prowess at knighthood is the definition of the perfect man, then why wouldn’t the King’s wife be attracted to the best knight?

The next phase of William’s life is in the Holy Land as a Crusader. This is just before the time of Saladin and Richard III. Obviously Richard III is not yet in the Holy Land – he is Henry the Young King’s younger brother and didn’t go on Crusade until around the time he became King after both Henry II and Henry the Young King’s deaths. However Saladin is one of the key players at this stage. Not much is known about William’s time as a Crusader, other than that it happened – however he seems to’ve done well at it, and increased his reputation.

William then returns to Henry the Young King’s court, where he remains until the Young King’s death in 1183. He then enters the service of the Young King’s father, Henry II. Again he rises to prominence as the best knight at court. Henry II gives him an heiress to marry, and grants him lands – William is now a baron, a member of the landed aristocracy with a household and a retinue of knights of his own. Not bad for the second son of a minor noble. William remains a loyal servant of Henry II’s until the very end – in the last rebellion of Richard I (Richard Coeur de Lion) against Henry II William fought on Henry’s side. The biography says that at one point he was fighting one-to-one against Richard, and had the opportunity to kill him but at the last moment turned his lance aside and killed Richard’s horse instead. When Henry II died during this rebellion (although not directly by violence) William remained loyal even after death – Henry’s other servants fled, taking what they could, but William remained to see to Henry’s proper burial.

It might’ve been thought that Richard I would exile or otherwise punish William as he had fought against Richard during the rebellion. However Richard saw William’s actions as the honourable actions of a knight – he had remained loyal to his lord, and even after death did not dishonour his memory. And so William entered Richard’s service, and was subsequently a member of King John’s court when he in turn inherited the throne.

When John died in 1215 William was an old man in his mid-70s, and had pretty much retired from the life of the court. At the time of John’s death the country was in a perilous state – civil war was raging and the French King’s son had invaded (with the support of much of the English nobility) and ruled over half the country. Despite William’s age it was to him that the new King, Henry III a boy of 9 years old, turned. When he flung himself on William’s mercy William pledged to serve him despite the risks of failure because that was what his honour demanded. If William and the new King had failed to prevail in the civil war then William wasn’t just risking death, he was also risking the ruin of his family and household. And even at the end of his life he lived up to his reputation – he rallied support to the new King, he turned around the civil war and drove out the French. He was Regent for Henry III until his death in 1219, and as I said at the beginning of this post his seal is on Henry III’s first re-issuance of the Magna Carta.

This was a really interesting programme – I didn’t know much about William the Marshal before, although I knew the name, so I learnt lot from it.