Treasures of Ancient Rome; The Iraq War; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The third & last episode of Treasures of Ancient Rome was about the art during the declining years of the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke opened by explaining that the canonical view is that the art of this period is poor & gets worse over time because the Empire is falling to bits. He sets out to show in this episode that this isn’t true – the art style might change but it’s no less good than what came before.

He started in the city of Leptis Magna which is in Libya and was prominent in the later part of the Empire. Sooke characterised this period of Empire as the periphery becoming as important (if not more important) as the centre. Citizens from the periphery could even become Emperor – Septimus Severus, for instance, was from Leptis Magna. The city is very well preserved, so several of Sooke’s examples of art from this period were from the city or nearby. These included a triumphal arch & the basilica, both of which combine classical Roman motifs with local elements. There was also a stunning mosaic depicting gladiators from a nearby villa that was only relatively recently discovered & has just been put on display in a museum (I think this was my favourite piece from the programme). And Sooke also visited another villa in Libya that has been part excavated – but he was visiting not long after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the Libyan archaeologist who was showing him around was explaining that sites like this are being neglected (now & under Gaddafi’s regime) and the art & artifacts that have been uncovered are deteriorating due to the neglect. From Libya Sooke went to Egypt, to show us the famous mummy portraits. These aren’t wholly Roman nor are they classically Egyptian, the two art styles & symbolisms have been merged together. And they are hauntingly beautiful images of the people whose mummies they’re attached to.

The next few artworks were from the northern reaches of the Empire. He very briefly touched on the art at Bath, which is a fusion of Roman & Celtic art, but wasn’t very impressed. The stuff he did hold up as truely great pieces of art was some of the silverware that’s been found in Britain & other parts of the northern Empire. This includes the Mildenhall Great Dish which he looked at with a modern silversmith to talk about how technically accomplished it is (as well as being good art). In this segment he also showed us the Lycurgus cup, which is made of carved glass. In the light it looks like it’s red, but in shade it looks green – this effect has been achieved by including particles of silver & gold in the glass. I wasn’t that keen on the design of the cup, so it seemed more of an engineering achievement than a piece of art to me.

And he finished up the programme by talking about how the art of the later Romans became the art of Western Christianity. To illustrate this he first showed us the mosaics in the mausoleum for a Roman woman (Galla Placidia) which date from the early 5th Century AD, and then the later mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. As this dates from the late 6th Century AD it’s well after the end of the Roman Empire – but there’s definitely continuity between the two sets of decoration.

At the very end Sooke wrapped up the series by saying that he’d shown that the Romans should be famed for their art, not just their conquering. Having not seen the first one I’d not quite realised that was the premise! A good series, I’ll be looking out for more programmes from him.

One of the sorts of programmes that J & I look out for to record fit into a category we think of as “depressing current affairs” – and the recent BBC series about the Iraq War fits into that. The first episode looks at the road to war, starting in September 2001 and following the politics & intelligence service actions for the next 18 months. The bulk of the programme is interviews with the senior people involved, not just from the US & the UK but also from Iraq. And I mean really senior – for the UK the people interviewed included Tony Blair & Jack Straw, among the US interviewees were Dick Cheney & Colin Powell.

The story the programme told was the now familiar one – in retrospect it’s clear that the decision to effect regime change was made and then intelligence was gathered to justify it rather than the decision coming after the data. It opened with something I’d not heard before that after Bush did his “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” speech the Iraqi government (in the person of the Prime Minister I think) were poised to reply that Iraq would join the fight against al Qaeda. But then Saddam Hussein countermanded that & said he’d reply himself – and tried to turn it into “we’ll help if you drop your sanctions”. So that put up the US government’s collective backs, and regime change seemed like the obvious way forward.

I’m not going to attempt to re-cap this programme, instead I’ll just mention a couple of the other things that particularly struck me (other than how self-serving Blair always comes across as …). First was a thought sparked by the current/recent situation in Egypt. There’s been a fair amount of talk in the media about how the US is having to dance an interesting diplomatic dance where they can’t regard the military intervention as a coup because coups are Always Bad Things and they don’t want to condemn this particular one just yet. Yet the attempts by the US intelligence services to figure out a way to engineer a coup in Iraq were being held up as the moral thing to do without even a figleaf of pretence that ceci n’est pas un coup d’etat. So coups are Always Bad unless either we like you better then we’ll call it something else or we organise it ourselves coz then it’s Good. Glad we got that straight 😉

One piece of the intelligence that was used to justify the war stood out to me as a particularly revealing about the way things were handled – this was the information from a French journalist/informer who had access to the Iraqi Foreign Minister. He told the CIA that the Iraqi man was wanting to defect & that he confirmed that Iraq had WMD. The CIA were concerned to make sure the journalist really did meet with the man he said he was talking to – so there was some business with custom made suits and an appearance at the UN in one of them. But despite being suspicious enough to run that test, once he’d passed that test then it was just assumed he was telling the truth about everything. Not that it was 100% confirmed but everyone interviewed was clear that it coloured the way they looked at everything else. So “definitely met him” was turned into “probably telling the truth about the conversation” very quickly, not for any reason except that the reported conversation fit the desired answer. Which is why you shouldn’t make your decisions first then fact gather to justify them! Hard enough to avoid bias normally, let alone when the President’s busy saying “I want to do this, now make a case for why I can”.

Of course the thing about a programme like this is that hindsight is always 20/20. The bias of the narrative was that people should’ve known better but that doesn’t mean they were cynically ignoring things or falsifying intelligence. Good intentions don’t outweigh the mistakes, but it’s better than having bad intentions as well!

The second episode covered the immediate aftermath of the war. The familiar story here is that while the US had a plan for the war, they didn’t have a plan for the peace – this programme showed how that lack of foresight played out. Again I’m not going to do a full recap, just pull out some things that particularly caught my attention (so there’s definitely important events missing from my write-up that the programme did discuss).

After Saddam was deposed & the war “won” because there was no plan there was a power vacuum, which the first man on the ground (Jay Garner) did his best to fill. He was a retired US General who had worked with the Kurdish leaders in the past – so known to them & respected by them – and he got them together with the Iraqi opposition leaders who’d been in exile. Garner’s plan was to have them form themselves into an interim government very quickly, then they’d sort out a constitution and elections afterwards. For political reasons & because the situation looked poor (because it was) he was replaced by Paul Bremer.

And that’s where the slide downhill begins. Hard to say if it would really have ended up differently had Garner been in charge, his plan wasn’t well received by all Iraqis, but it certainly seemed like Bremer caused a lot of the later problems. I was particularly struck by him setting up his office in one of Saddam’s old palaces … it seems the sort of symbolism you’d want to avoid. He then follows up by telling the proto-government that Garner was trying to assemble that they’re not diverse enough to represent the whole of Iraq (true, but …) and so he’s the one who’s in charge not them. Coz obviously it’s better to have a random US diplomat who knows no-one & no-one knows. Maybe he was a better choice, but handling it like that seemed designed to put everyone’s back up.

And then there’s the debacle with the Iraqi army. The plan, laid out by Bush, was “don’t disband the army, putting 300,000 or so trained men with weapons on the streets seems a bad idea”. Bremer … failed to pay the army and then disbanded it. The payment thing was particularly eye-rolling in my opinion – there was a disbursement of wages to civil servants etc from the old regime, $20 each which was about 6 months wages. But nothing for the army because why should they pay what Saddam had failed to pay them? So after disbanding the army they had a large number of well trained & organised men who felt disrespected & dishonoured, and who had no money to buy food for their families. Not surprisingly a lot found their way instantly into the various insurgency groups & that’s when the real violence against the US & their allies kicked off.

The handover of power got further complicated because the main Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa saying that elections should come before the constitution – i.e. that the constitution would be written by elected Iraqis not people chosen by the US. Seems simple enough, but Bremer had a hard deadline of “before Bush runs for President again” and that wasn’t time to get elections organised. The US administration of Iraq is therefore more concerned with how it looks in US domestic politics than whether it’s the best for the country they’re running … In the end Bremer just appointed someone to be Prime Minister and other people to be the government, which is directly against the fatwa that the Grand Ayatollah had issued and so is guaranteed to piss off the people who regard Sistani as their spiritual leader (i.e. the Shia Muslim majority of Iraqi citizens).

So now they have the army against them, the Shia Muslim authorities & believers against them plus the people who’d never been going to be with them. Maybe there were no good solutions once the war was won. One of the interviewees on the programme was a Sunni cleric who’d been leading an insurgency group since day 1 of the aftermath – he was quite clear that he’d not considered doing anything but fight the US. But even if it was hopeless, the way the post-war US administration acted didn’t help, and actively made things worse.

For something a little more light-hearted we finished off the series of TOWN with Nicholas Crane. This episode was about Enniskillen, which is on an island in a lake in Northern Ireland. Of course, as with a lot of places in Northern Ireland, the history of the town wasn’t terribly light-hearted. The oldest building is a castle that was built by Hugh the Hospitable in the early 15th Century, due to the strategically important location it was a target of the English when they were conquering & subduing Ireland in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Fast-forward to the modern day & The Troubles, and Enniskillen was the place where the Remembrance Day Bombing took place in 1987 killing 11 people.

The town is built around a single street running right across the island – it actually has 6 different names along the route, but that seems fairly arbitrary. Crane walked down this in a rather padded-out segment of the programme when he was making a big deal about how many independent stores there were on the street (and how they were clustered in types). The camera didn’t linger on the chain stores, but we still spotted them 😉 There were some interesting shops tho – particularly the butcher’s shop where they are so keen to ensure the quality of their bacon that they’ve purchased a nearby island to let their pigs roam free (until butchered).

The “future of the town” section concentrated on the fact that shale gas has been discovered in the area, and so there are starting to be plans for fracking to take place. I can see why people are concerned about this (“we’ll just explode the rock under your town a little” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence), but I did raise my eyebrows somewhat at the repeated allusions to The Troubles in this bit (not by the people, but by the programme). Crane said a couple of times that “the town needed to all come together against this just like they did during The Troubles”, which I suppose was like calling on Londoners to display Blitz Spirit during some later event … but it just felt a bit off to be comparing mining for gas (however intrusive) with killing people.

Overall the series was … OK. While we did watch all of it I wouldn’t say it was a favourite and I don’t think I’ll bother recording a further series.

Donald Campbell: Speed King; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The Marillion song Out of This World was inspired by Donald Campbell, and when they play it live the visuals are footage of the man and of his last fatal attempt to break the water speed record. So I recorded this biography of Campbell (Donald Campbell: Speed King) because that’s pretty much all I knew about him. We’d been putting off watching it for a while, as the footage of the crash is always pretty depressing to watch and the programme was probably also going to be.

We were right … it was pretty sobering to watch. Partly because of the tragedy at the end, dying chasing a goal that really wasn’t worth someone’s life. And partly because towards the end of his life it seemed like the world had moved on and he hadn’t. The programme opened with much the same footage of the accident as Marillion use, and then fairly straightforwardly told us the story of his life with contemporary footage and lots of interviews with people who knew him. This included people who’d worked with him, and also his daughter & widow.

Campbell’s father had been a land and water speed record holder before him, and was knighted for his achievements. Malcolm Campbell was by all accounts not a very nice man – arrogant & overbearing – and ignored Donald a lot. Donald on the other hand idolised him, and wanted to impress him. One of the interviewees, a writer who met Donald Campbell at the height of his achievements, thought that this desire to live up to & to out-do his father was the driving force behind his whole life. And certainly Campbell didn’t make any attempts at speed records until after his father died. But once his father was dead he gave up his job, mortgaged his house and dedicated himself to breaking speed records.

He broke the water speed record several times. At first he used his father’s old boat but was unsuccessful with this, even with modifications. Then he & his team created a newly designed boat, the Bluebird K7. This boat was barely in the water at all when in motion, as one of the engineers pointed out this is the best way if you want to go fast – air being a lot less dense than water. With this boat he broke the record several times in the late 1950s. This earnt him the CBE, and lots of prize money.

In terms of his personal life he’d been married twice by the late 50s. He had a daughter from his first marriage, who was interviewed on the programme. She said what she had been told was that her mother had been unfaithful to her father, and he’d discovered this and packed his bags & left. She didn’t see her father again for a few years (this was when she was quite young) and the first she knew about speed record attempts or anything like that was when he broke the first water speed record – she was in hospital (swallowed a hairgrip, she said) and someone came to tell her her father had broken the water speed record.

The programme didn’t mention his second wife beyond saying she existed, and moved on to the period he was single after this marriage ended. At this point he was rich, famous and was also charismatic … so unsurprisingly he had a lot of success with the ladies. His daughter said when she first met the woman who was to be his third wife she thought it was just another of his girlfriends, but this relationship was to last until Campbell’s death. And beyond – his widow was another of the interviewees and she said she still regarded herself as Campbell’s wife not his widow.

Having outdone his father in terms of water speed records Campbell now moved on to the land speed record. Campbell & his team designed and build the Bluebird CN7, a car that was theoretically capable of breaking the 400mph barrier. There was a lot of investment & sponsorship from British industry, and an assumption that he’d find breaking the land speed record just as easy as the water one. Sadly this wasn’t the case – the first attempt ended in a spectacular crash at around 300mph, wrecking the car and astonishingly not killing Campbell. The car was rebuilt and they searched for another place to attempt the record, blaming conditions in Nevada for the crash. But the Australian salt lake they found was even worse – it hadn’t rained for years there, but once the team arrived it rained again & again. The investors were beginning to balk at these successive failures – what had they paid their money for? Why wasn’t he getting on with it? Campbell even had to appear on TV to answer criticisms because various of the investors had been giving interviews about how unhappy they were with the lack of progress. To make matters worse, an American competitor had set an unofficial record (the car wasn’t set up right for the rules) so Campbell looked even more like a failure. Eventually in 1964 he succeeded in setting a record of 403mph – a record, but lower than the unofficial one.

He counted this as success (which it was, but I think they all felt it was only partial success) and set out to do something his father had never done – break both speed records in a single year. He achieved this in December 1964 & then returned to Britain. Sadly for him, the world had moved on and people didn’t really care so much for speed records as they had done in the 50s and before. It was the mid-60s, the Beatles were the big thing, and a rather old fashioned man doing rather old fashioned daring deeds wasn’t a good fit for the mood of the era. He announced plans to build a rocket car to break the land speed record again and built a mockup for the press. But he failed to get funding or sponsorship so the project was shelved. It felt like this is when he should’ve retired – he’d beaten dear old Dad, the public enthusiasm for more was waning, time to rest on his laurels.

Obviously, he didn’t. Various of the interviewees said that this was his life – all he knew how to do was make speed record attempts, it was what he’d devoted his life to for years. And it was how he earnt money. And he still hoped if he could generate a bit more publicity he’d get funding for the rocket car. So he moved on to making plans to refurbish the Bluebird K7 and start making attempts on the water speed record again. The boat had only been designed with 250mph in mind, but he was determined to push it past 300mph.

And on 4 January 1967 it had fatal results. He died doing what he loved. But to me it feels so pointless to have kept trying to cheat death after all that success.

His body wasn’t recovered (nor was the boat) until 2000-2001, and he was finally buried in September 2001. They didn’t say on the programme but the diver who located the wreck was inspired to search for it by the Marillion song, which brings me full circle.

After that we cheered ourselves up by watching the third episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane – a much lighter & fluffier programme! This one was about Huddersfield – a new town. Before the Industrial Revolution it was a village, albeit one with a market, but the proximity of both coal fields & the wool industry meant that Huddersfield grew quickly into a town. There’s still cloth mills in Huddersfield even now – Crane visited one that still works in the (post-Industrial Revolution) traditional way. He also visited a company that is pioneering new technology for finishing cloth using lasers and plasma – the man he spoke to there was a pro at saying nothing with lots of buzzwords 😉

Being a heavily industrialised town it wasn’t surprising that the Luddite Movement was strong in Huddersfield. Crane talked to a modern anarchist who is also a Luddite historian about the rebellion – how they came & broke the mills because they were taking away their livelihood. They were also concerned with how the employees at the mills were treated poorly and felt it was ruining their way of life.

Rebellion of another sort in more recent history – Huddersfield is the town where the northern rugby teams met and decided to split from Rugby Union to form Rugby League. While there are rules differences now the original split was down to pay – Rugby Union players must not be paid, and the poorer more working class players who played for the northern teams found that impossible to sustain. Watching Crane dressed up in rugby gear having them demonstrate tackles on him was particularly entertaining.

Crane also did a tour of the various bits of the town – including one of the markets, the canals, and the university. At the university he spoke to Patrick Stewart, who’s the Chancellor. The theme through the whole modern bit was that everyone who is born in Hudderfield or moves there wants to stay. Also that it’s not a touristy town, not even in the guidebooks. Crane got more than a bit carried away with himself several times – waxing lyrical about the wonders of Huddersfield. I’m not sure if this was padding or that he’d been genuinely overcome with love for the town. It was a little OTT tho!

Fit to Rule; TOWN with Nicholas Crane; Isaac Newton: The Last Magician

Fit to Rule is a series about the British monarchs from early modern times through to Edward VII presented by Lucy Worsley who is looking at the kings & queens through the lens of their medical history. This first episode covered the Tudors & the early Stuarts, getting us from Henry VIII to Charles I.

She started with the familiar story of Henry VIII’s desperation for an heir, and how this lead him to go through several wives and change the religion of the country to get what he wanted. But she also talked about how the health of the King was inextricably linked with the health of the country in people’s minds. Henry was scrutinised at all times by a whole collection of physicians, in particular she mentioned that his urine would be examined for changes & signs of his health. And she talked about how the lack of an heir must’ve taken its toll on his psyche – he is said to’ve cried when Edward was born, and Worsley presented this as tears of relief that the stress was over. But she didn’t mention any of the other health issues around the King, for instance the leg wound he got in a tourney that never quite healed or the (much later) idea that he might’ve had syphilis (I think that’s now discredited but surely still worth a mention?).

Next up is Edward VI, who inherited the throne when he was only 9 – Worsley told us the story of how his procession through London on the eve of his coronation was halted when he wanted to watch the acrobats. He didn’t stay childish for long though. Three years later in his diary he notes the ways in which he thinks his uncle (who is acting as his Protector during his minority) is abusing his power and working against Edward’s interests. And a little later there’s a diary entry stating rather coldly that his uncle was executed. There wasn’t really much about medical matters in this segment, just the fever he catches at the age of 15 and dies from.

Worsley name checked Lady Jane Grey before moving on to Mary. Lady Jane Grey was queen for 9 days because Edward felt she was a more acceptable (Protestant) heir than his Catholic elder half-sister Mary. Mary wasn’t willing to let this stand, and was the only person in this era to successfully revolt and take the crown – she was after all the real next in line to the throne. Worsley told us how Mary was the first ruling queen of England (the Empress Mathilda presumably doesn’t quite count), and was crowned as both King and Queen with two sceptres. Her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain was intended to secure the succession of a Catholic heir, and had to be fenced around with special considerations to overcome the “normal” roles of wife & husband. Philip was firmly in the place of consort not King, and should Mary pre-decease him he would not become King – her heir (hopefully her child) would become the monarch.

Mary was in her late 30s so time was running out for her to have a child, but she showed signs of pregnancy soon after her marriage. At the time protocol required a pregnant Queen to retreat to her chambers & see no-one but her ladies & midwives. This was awkward in the case of a ruling Queen as it removed Mary from the day-to-day politics of the court. Worsley & the expert she was talking to agreed that Mary must’ve shown physical signs of pregnancy because there are so many eye-witnesses that agree. Her physicians (men) couldn’t examine her directly but could take reports from the midwives and look at her external appearance, and they agreed she was pregnant. The Queen also reported feeling the child move. But as the due date came & went, no baby was born. Worsley discussed the possible reasons – a phantom pregnancy (i.e. all in her head), a false conception (i.e. some misshapen mass of flesh that wasn’t a real foetus) or possibly cancer which is what killed her a few years later.

Elizabeth I is next, but the programme pretty much skipped past her – she didn’t have interesting ailments. Neither did James VI & I, her successor, but his more or less open homosexual affairs later in life affected the politics of the realm so we dwelt on him for a while. He also was the first monarch for sometime to come to the throne already in possession of an heir and a spare. His heir, Henry, was the epitome of a Prince – charismatic, handsome, virtuous. Unfortunately at the age of 18 he died of a fever devastating his family, in particular his father. James VI & I’s favourites became more prominent after this, in particular George Villiers (later Lord Buckingham). Diarmaid MacCulloch was the expert Worsley talked to for this segment and he was telling us how having male favourites destabilised the court in a way that a King having mistresses didn’t. Women weren’t regarded as important, so were more easily ignored. But men were potentially political rivals so couldn’t be ignored by the court in general and the closeness of Buckingham (in particular) to the King was resented. Early in his reign James VI & I was an accomplished statesman, but after Henry’s death his infatuation with Buckingham lead to poorer judgement.

And last monarch of this episode was James’s son. Charles I was originally the “spare” and as a solemn, shy child this may’ve lead to his feeling less important and to feel he needed to prove himself. He was also not a very healthy child, Worsley showed us boots that were probably his as a young child. They have particularly reinforced heels & ankles, and she said that his would be to help him stand & walk – he’s known to have had rickets. When he was made Duke of York as a child there were worries he might not manage to stand through the ceremony, so two courtiers were positioned one either side to catch him if he fell. Worsley tied his childhood need to prove himself, and to cover up his weaknesses, to his later conviction he was a divinely appointed monarch who didn’t need Parliament interfering with his governance of the realm. Of course this was to have fatal consequences in the Civil War, ending with his execution. Worsley also showed us one of the two shirts Charles wore as he walked out to be executed – he put two on so that no-one would see him shiver in the January and think him afraid … still trying to hide any weaknesses right to the bitter end.

The second episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane was about Saffron Walden – a town in Essex near the border with Cambridgeshire. I’ve never been to it, but when I worked in Cambridge the year before I did my PhD at least one of my colleagues lived there.

Saffron Walden is an older town than Oban (the subject of the first episode), dating from Saxon times. Back then it was just called Walden & wasn’t all that big. After the Norman Conquest the de Mandeville family built a castle next to the town & moved the market there from a nearby town. The town was then renamed Chipping Walden (Chipping means it is where the market is, which I didn’t know before). The town was fortified at that time, and despite expansion remained within the lines of its fortifications until the 19th Century (I think that’s what Crane said). It since expanded considerably with more expansion on the cards. The town was also the centre of a saffron crocus farming area, hence the modern name. These days the market for home grown saffron is small, because it’s cheaper to import it from overseas, but Crane talked to a man who is starting to farm it in the area again as a speciality product.

Coming up to the present day there’s a lot of surviving medieval housing & other architecture in the town, and Crane spent some time talking to a plasterer who does pargeting designs on new buildings. When we were watching this bit J & I commented that this looked like the decoration on Ancient House in Ipswich – and I was amused when I looked up pargeting in wikipedia to find that one of the two examples pictured is Ancient House. Crane also visited nearby Audley End house, the seat of the Lords Braybrooke, which is now run by English Heritage and open to the public. He spoke to the oldest daughter of the current Lord Braybrooke who sadly won’t inherit because she’s female (and so are all her siblings – there was no mention who would inherit).

While the market still exists it’s no longer the primary focus of the town – nowadays it’s a commuter town, the train journey to London from Audley Station takes under an hour and the M11 is also conveniently close. Crane visited the newsagents at the station, which is also an off-licence. As well as normal sorts of wines it also sells much more expensive wine – between £100 & £500 per bottle. The chap who runs the shop said he sells 2 or 3 of these per week to people popping in on their way home from work. Which gives you a flavour of the sorts of people who commute from there, I guess!

There were also some spectacular displays of NIMBYism from the townsfolk that Crane spoke to. There’s a development being planned of a reasonably significant amount of housing on the outskirts of the town, and consensus appeared to be that the residents didn’t want it to happen at all. Several of them mentioned it as “affordable housing” and I couldn’t help but feel that part of the objection was that they felt they lived somewhere posh and now there might be riffraff moving in. I’m being a bit unfair here, people did also bring up the problems there would be on the roads given that the proposed development is on the opposite side of town to the railway station. But even so, I think that just means some thought should be put into planning how the road network will cope. The population of the country is growing whether people approve of that or not, and those people need to live somewhere.

Isaac Newton: The Last Magician was a biography of Isaac Newton partly told by interviews with a selection of historians, and partly by dramatised interviews with Newton & contemporaries (using the words of letters by & about Newton). Oh, and some dramatised stuff by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote a biography of Newton back in the 1940s based on papers of Newton’s that Keynes bought at auction in the 1930s. The dramatised bits were a bit hammed up, but that kept them entertaining rather than over-earnest.

Newton starts life in inauspicious circumstances in 1642. He was been a small & premature baby and wasn’t expected to live long. His father dies when he is very young, and his mother abandons him to be brought up by his grandparents when she re-marries when he is 3. He did well at school, not so well with other people (in the sins he listed in code he included things like threatening to burn down the house with his mother & her husband in it), and started on some of the obsessions that would stick with him for the rest of his life. For instance he turned the attic into a giant sundial – marking out how the light changed in the room with time.

At the age of 17 his mother pulled him out of school to come & run the farm now her husband had died. He did sufficiently badly at that that he was sent off to Cambridge to study instead (which also reinforced his sense that he had a destiny to study & to work out how the world functioned). He studied natural philosophy, what would now be called science. He then began to experiment and investigate time, light, optics and many more subjects for himself. It’s during this period that he did some of the things he’s remembered for – he did the experiments with the prisms showing that white light can be split into colours but these coloured lights cannot be further split. He did the experiments on optics that could’ve blinded him – looking at the sun in a mirror to see how it affected his vision, inserting a bodkin under his eyeball to see what effect deforming the eye had on vision. He also invented calculus (but didn’t tell anyone about it). The programme made no mention of Leibniz, I guess so as not to complicate the story.

Eventually his peers at Cambridge brought him to the attention of the Royal Society & Newton started to share his work & thoughts. He published a paper on his work on splitting light into colours, but this was reviewed by Hooke who pronounced it not of much worth. Newton flounced off in a huff, and took his toys with him. He did no more scientific work for the next 12 years – and until Maynard Keynes bought up some of his papers in the 1930s it wasn’t known what he had been doing. He was engaged in alchemical experiments – trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone which would transmute things into gold. And trying to figure out what made things alive (I think this fits into this bit). During this time he also developed his theological ideas into a sufficiently extreme form as to count as heresy. He did not believe in the Trinity, in particular insisting that Christ was a man and not the Son of God.

Newton returned to non-occult science via a correspondence with Halley about the orbits of the planets. Inspired partly by the idea that his enemy, Hooke, couldn’t figure it out Newton set to working out why the planets orbit how they do – leading to his theory of gravity, and his laws of motion. His publication of these ideas (as the Principia Mathematica) was well received, except by Hooke who tried to claim that he’d thought of it all first. The two men had an undignified spat, but Newton won out this time.

Newton had a nervous breakdown in 1693, the causes of which are unclear. The various talking heads on the programme suggested reasons ranging from him having recently worked with large quantities of mercury to the breakdown of a particularly close friendship with a Swiss mathematician immediately before. After his nervous breakdown they were saying that he never really did any more work – he refined some ideas, but that was it for novel ideas.

In later life he became more of a politician – he was made Warden of the Royal Mint, and was also the President of the Royal Society. He remained arrogant and poor at dealing with people, however. In a letter to the Royal Astronomer he orders the man about demanding that he provide data that Newton wants. This rather predictably puts the man’s back up as he regarded himself as a peer of Newton, not a servant.

After Newton died he was buried in Westminster Abbey, in with the Kings & Queens, despite his extreme Protestantism (the extent of his heresy wasn’t really known at that time). His reputation afterwards was as the first rationalist, the start of the Enlightenment. The experts on the programme were saying that to keep this reputation intact any papers of Newton’s that referred to alchemy or religion were kind of shuffled under the carpet – locked up in a box until sold off at auction in the 1930s.

An interesting & informative programme – the dramatisation of the bits from the letters really brought them to life. And it showed how much more there was to Newton than the myth.

Ice Age Giants; Australia with Simon Reeve; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The last episode of Ice Age Giants looked at why there are none of these large animals left. The first half of the programme concentrated on North America where there were the greatest proportion of extinctions. Roberts started by talking about the idea that it was people – we were treated to a proper true crime documentary moment where the voiceover was all “but beneath the peaceful streets of this Tennessee town lies a dark secret” etc etc. And saw how there is an excavation pretty much in someone’s back garden – of mastodon bones that look to have been hunted & butchered by humans. So was it people? Roberts pointed out the problems with that theory – not many people in North America at the time, lots of megafauna, and a few thousand years of overlap of people & megafauna.

So what else? How about the floods that created the coulees (also known as the Channeled Scablands) in Washington (the state). These features of the landscape are vast vast canyons that have been scoured out of the rock, but there’s no sign of a river. The theory to explain what caused them is that as the glaciers melted a great lake of meltwater was formed in Montana which is known as Glacial Lake Missoula, this was penned in by a dam formed by the melting glaciers. When it broke through it did so catastrophically and the water rushed to the west of the continent carving its way through the rock as it went. This happened several times as the glaciers advanced & retreated, I think she was saying a couple of hundred times over just a few thousand years. This would’ve killed anything in it’s path (and created what still looks like a blasted landscape today). But that can’t’ve killed all the animals, it would just’ve got the ones in its path.

How about climate change? This isn’t a case of it just getting a bit warmer all over – the melting of the ice sheets released more water into the rainfall systems, so the world got wetter as well as warmer. Still not quite that simple, the swamps that the glyptodonts lived in dried up & became desert because the rainfall moved north as the ice sheets retreated and the more southern regions warmed up. Roberts now skipped across to Europe and the woolly mammoths & woolly rhinoceroses of the Mammoth Steppe. These enormous herbivores relied on the dry grasslands to provide them with sufficient food all year round. As the world warmed up, and got wetter, forests grew where there had just been grassy plains. And it started to snow in the winters on the Mammoth Steppe. Woolly rhinos couldn’t cope with that – snow covers the grass and makes it harder to find, it’s also hard to walk through so you need more energy to move around and so more food. So that’s what killed off the woolly rhinos – an Ice Age Giant killed by it snowing too much, not at all what you’d expect.

And now we circled back to the mastodons of North America. There is research being done on fungal spores in soil that can indicate how many herbivores have left their dung on the land – if you look at soil from the past you can estimate herd sizes (or at least changes in herd sizes) over time. And these show that the large herds of mastodons & other herbivores died out before the climate change changed the vegetation (which you can tell by looking at seeds & pollen in the same soil samples). So probably not climate change as the whole story here. Roberts then talked to a palaeontologist who thinks he has an answer for the mastodon extinction. He has looked at the types of injuries on female mastodon specimens, and also looked at the types of mastodon that show signs of butchering. In modern elephants (which are close cousins of the mastodons) preferential hunting of mature adult males destabilises the herd structure. Normally a dominant male swoops in to a female plus offspring herd when the females go into heat and mates with the females. He also suppresses the behaviour of the adolescent males. When there is no dominant male, the younger males that still live in the female herd will go on a rampage when the females come into heat – and can injure females & calves (and each other) in the process. This palaeontologist thinks he sees evidence of this happening to the mastodons, so it was people that caused their extinction but in a very slow process caused by preferentially hunting solitary adult males which they wouldn’t’ve been able to see happening.

Last up for extinction were the woolly mammoths – which survived on a remote island north of Sibera until around 2000BC (when people arrived on the island). Apparently from the evidence on this island the mammoths were becoming dwarf mammoths … by mammoth standards anyway. Roberts talked a little bit here about the potential cloning of mammoths that is now becoming possible due to the extraction of DNA from very well preserved frozen specimens.

And Roberts ended the programme with a romantic notion of how we’ve also saved some of these Ice Age Giants – like horses. They became extinct in America, their ancestral home, but survived across Europe & Asia and were then domesticated. She was talking about it as a beautiful partnership, but I’m afraid I was amused by it rather than moved by it 😉

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the series. The CGI wasn’t perfect (something always looked a little off about the way the animals moved, and there was a lot of repetition of sequences that made it a bit too obvious it was generated) but it was good. And the science was presented in an un-sensationalised way – lots of “we think” or “this is a possible explanation” rather than grand solutions to mysteries.

Having finished watching Brazil with Michael Palin (post) we started to watch another travelogue we had been recording – Australia with Simon Reeve. We’re both pretty sure we’ve seen Simon Reeve present another programme in the past, but neither of us can quite remember what it was.

In the first episode of this series he started in central Australia then headed south to the coast followed by west to Perth. In central Australia he focused on an animal you don’t expect to be the subject of a programme on Australia – the camel. Camels were brought to the country as a means of transport, being well suited to the desert conditions in the centre. With the advent of cars they weren’t needed any more & were released to the wild where they now roam freely. Unsurprisingly they cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem and to the farms in the region & so they are regarded as pests. Some farmers just shoot them when seen, but Reeve talked to one farmer who was rounding them up and selling them back to the Middle East for food & for racing.

Next Reeve went to visit a winery – a vast commercial winery with gallons & gallons & gallons of wine in big tanks, supplying relatively cheap wine to supermarkets across the world (this was owned by Hardys). This segued neatly in to a segment about how water is a limited resource & it’s being over used in Australia as a whole. Reeve then visited another limited resource – tuna, which is being overfished in the seas near the Australian south coast. He visited a facility where they’re trying to breed tuna in captivity, which involves conning the tuna into thinking they’ve migrated by changing the lighting and so on as it would change if they really were migrating.

From there to resources that are booming – he visited an area which has a modern day gold rush & talked to some weekend hobbiest prospectors, and also visited a huge commercial mine. Next, Reeve visited a village where an aboriginal community lives having been moved off their land when the mining companies discovered resources underneath it. They haven’t been compensated for the loss of the land, nor have they earnt anything from the metals being dug up from under what they still regard as their land. Reeve said that the situation is complicated & the government is trying to help, but the aborigines are still living in third world conditions.

From there he went to the other end of the spectrum – he took a train to Perth where he visited some British ex-pats who are living the dream. The man he spoke to had been a bin man in Sheffield, he’s now teaching people to drive trucks so they can work for the mining companies. His pupils earn more than he does, but he earns about £60k and has a big house with a pool etc, just what he came out to Australia for. And the episode finished up with Reeve visiting an airport where “fifo” commuters fly from – that’s “fly in fly out”, the commuters work in the mines (doing things like driving trucks for lots of money) and live in Perth getting back & forth by plane.

The second episode covered the north of Australia, which is particularly sparsely occupied. He started out in a national park (Kakadu) helping to trap & cull cane toads. These are a non-native species that was introduced to eat beetles that were pests … they didn’t eat the beetles, and being poisonous & non-native they have no predators amongst the native animals. So they’ve spread & are killing off the wildlife in the park which dies trying to eat the toads. The cull seemed a bit like it would just make the people doing it feel like they were trying – if there’s millions of toads then catching & killing a couple of bin bags full won’t do much good.

Moving towards the east Reeve visited the Australian army, first one of their tank regiments then he spent a bit of time on patrol with a unit doing observation in the outback. This segment reminded us that Australia is actually right next to Asia, rather than being a stray bit of Europe stuck in a southern ocean. In the bit with the patrol they talked about how the unit was mixed race & that this didn’t cause problems in a way that made it sound like that was an unusual situation. They also talked about how the aboriginal members of the team were vital in teaching everyone how to live off the land – they made green ant tea for Reeve, which apparently was quite nice … not sure I’d’ve been keen to drink it. The follow up to this section was a visit to an asylum centre, Australian law is that asylum seekers must live in these detention centres while their application is processed which can take months or years. Reeve spoke to activists on the behalf of these immigrants who say that conditions in the centres aren’t good – lots of the inhabitants self-harm or commit suicide. Reeve spoke through the fence to some of the inhabitants, who’d come from the sorts of places you’d expect – Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

From there we moved on to the slightly more cheerful subject of another aboriginal village which owns resource rich land. Whilst it looked as depressing as the place in the first episode the ray of hope here is a young woman who has set up her own company with the long term plan of the village itself doing the mining on the land closest to them. At the moment she rents 4 bulldozers out to the company who’re doing the mining, which I got the impression was proof of concept.

And the programme finished with another couple of segments looking at the natural world – first Reeve joined some scientists who were taking samples of the stinging tentacles from box jellyfish. These jellyfish are extremely poisonous, and live in shark & crocodile infested waters. From the way the scientists were acting (and not letting Reeve do much but observe) they weren’t exaggerating the dangers. The venom from the stings is useful for drug research – there’s a lot of complex biochemistry involved that does things like target the actual poison to particular areas of the body and other stuff like that. So understanding it might help make better more effective drugs.

Last up was the Great Barrier Reef. Changes in the water (due to increased use of fertilisers etc on land) have lead to destabilisation of the ecosystem there, and Reeve was shown how people are culling the starfish that are killing off the coral. He also joined a ship pilot who guides coal ships through the reef – there’s not much room to spare & it’s a dangerous task, but the wealth generated by the coal industry means that they are still permitted to run their ships through the area.

In our quest to free up some space on the PVR we’re watching all the programmes we have recorded in HD first – and only recording new stuff in SD. Just before that decision we started to record TOWN with Nicholas Crane in HD so it’s come up to be watched a little quicker after airing than I think we might’ve got round to it otherwise. It wasn’t quite what we expected, guess I didn’t read the description that closely when I set it recording. Instead of being about towns as a general thing each episode is about a particular town.

The first episode is about Oban, a town on the west coast of Scotland that’s where you go if you want to get a ferry to the Western Isles. And the main theme of the programme was that that isn’t all there is to Oban, that the town is itself a worthwhile place to visit.

Oban wasn’t a town until comparatively recently so his talk about the history of the place started off with nearby Castle Dunollie which was the seat of the Chief of Clan MacDougall until 1746 when the Clan Chief moved to a new house nearby. Surprisingly “Battle of Culloden” and “Jacobite Uprising” weren’t mentioned during Crane’s discussion of this. I had a little poke around on wikipedia and it seems like the 1746 move was a coincidence as the MacDougall Clan Chief wasn’t involved in that Jacobite Uprising, but I’d’ve thought that was worth mentioning on the programme just to say it wasn’t involved. Oban became a town after this – the first industry in the town was tobacco but this collapsed once the ship that brought the tobacco over from Virginia sank. After that the primary industry in the town was whisky, Crane visited the distillery which is still making whisky today. In the 19th Century Oban was finally linked by road & rail to the rest of the country. It was a tourist destination, partly due to the links with the Western Isles but people did visit the town itself. Queen Victoria was one of those tourists. After that it fell into decline & most people who visit aren’t stopping, just moving on to the ferry. One more recent bit of history is that Oban was where the first transatlantic telephone line ran to, and this was an important link between Washington D.C. & Moscow during the Cold War.

In terms of the modern town Crane spent a bit of time looking at the major employers in the area. Oban is the hub of the postal service for the Western Isles, and everything there has to be run like clockwork to match up with the ferry services. Another major employer is the granite quarrying operation a bit north of Oban – all the people who work there commute by ferry because there are no road links to the quarry. Crane also visited a few of the cultural offerings of Oban. He met a local painter who paints a lot of the landscapes around the area. He also visited a cèilidh bar where there is a traditional band & traditional dancing. And he also ate at a gourmet restaurant which is on the harbour so that the fish & shellfish are very very fresh.