Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

TV night last week included the last episode of the Andrew Marr series – this time taking us from the aftermath of World War 1 through to the present day (roughly speaking). So a lot of what it covered were atrocities – we had Nazi atrocities (tho not actually discussed, what was covered was Hitler’s rise to power with an emphasis on the fact that not only was he legitimately elected after a failed coup but that he hadn’t hidden any of his nastiness beforehand), we had Stalinist Russian atrocities, we had Communist Chinese atrocities, and we had American/Western atrocities (Hiroshima/Nagasaki). To offset that, pretty much all we got was a segment on the pill & how effective and safe contraceptives made such a positive difference to gender equality. And then a segment at the end about the future which was a bit too close to “and we’re doooomed!” for comfort 😉 I don’t want to give the impression that it wasn’t an interesting programme – just at times made for difficult watching because he did a good job of personalising the victims of these things.

Overall a good series, I’m pleased I watched it. A few times I had niggles about things being oversimplified when I knew more about the subject, but to be fair here you’ve got to simplify it otherwise you can’t tell the “history of the world” in 8 episodes of an hour each. Despite in general not liking dramatisations of history much I thought the ones here were well done – primarily because they didn’t take themselves so seriously. I also thought they did a good job of picking lesser known stories to present, or the beginning of something rather than the end point we all know (see above, about Hitler). And a good job of presenting more than a history of the Western world, although the last two or three programmes did end up there at times (I think inevitably) there always seemed to be an attempt to look at the other perspective rather than the familiar one.

I’ll be buying the book, and adding it to my (growing) pile of books to read 🙂

We’re onto the third episode of Wartime Farm, which was focused on evacuees and on Christmas 1940. The perspective on evacuees wasn’t the one I’m more used to hearing about, in that it wasn’t “oh those poor children sent off on their own”, it was more about how the country folk reacted to it. Because after all, suddenly there they were having to find beds and food for a bunch of strangers who had different ways of life and were in many ways a burden. It did gloss over any serious difficulties, though, preferring to concentrate on how in the end it mostly worked out fine. The bits about Christmas were partly tied in with that and partly about how rationing and all the other associated problems made people cling to trying to provide as normal a Christmas as possible. Even if the turkey was actually a “murkey” made out of sausagemeat stuffing shaped like a turkey with roast parsnip legs … They also showed us pamphlets the government sent out showing how to recycle scraps and rubbish and make them into toys, like a model spitfire made out of old tin cans. Which made me think of something Dad was telling me about when we last visited – he had a toy when he was very little which was a home-made warship to push around the floor, complete with bits of wire for antennae & funnels made out of lead pipe. Made me wonder if whoever had made it for him had got one of these pamphlets.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

We held TV night on Tuesday this week, so that J could play Assassin’s Creed III as soon as it arrived yesterday. This also meant we fitted three programmes into the evening & caught up with ourselves with the Andrew Marr one.

The two episodes of the History of the World that we watched covered the birth of capitalism (also including early colonisation of the Americas, the Reformation, British dealings with India & the Dutch and British in Indonesia) and the age of both Enlightenment & Revolution. The problem with having watched two episodes on the same evening (and then neglecting to write about them the day after) is that they’ve got a bit tangled up in my head. And the bit of my current book that I’ve just got to is covering the same era from a different perspective so that’s tangled in as well. The birth of capitalism as the stated theme for the first of the two felt a little stretched – it’s got to be hard to organise a chronological history into episodic themes, but this did feel like one of the weakest so far. I could see what he was trying to do – we started with Columbus “discovering” America and the Spanish moving in to plunder it, and ended in an era where speculative bubbles and stock market trading were an important part of wealth creation and companies as we think of them had begun to exist. So that’s a definite shift from gold and land as wealth to something closer to our modern economics. But still, it also felt like the story of exploration that that era is more often cast as. The age of Reason & Revolution worked better as a theme though, and he didn’t shy from pointing out the hypocrisy involved in both running a slave trade and claiming “all men are born equal”.

And in between those two we watched the second episode of Wartime Farm. Which concentrated on 1940, and on rationing and the black market and on the Land Girls & the WI. The bits that particularly have stuck in my head were how you could take the dye out of red petrol by filtering it through bread – I didn’t expect it to work any more than the historian who was doing the experiment did. But it did! The other thing was the story of the black girl who was originally refused entry into the Land Girls because the people in charge said no farmer would hire her so what was the point. But after the story got picked up by the press a farmer came forward to say of course he’d employ her. So it wasn’t really the prejudice of the farmers that was as much the problem as the prejudice of the people running the Land Girls.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance – but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can’t really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver’s 3 part series – the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols – Marr told us some of Temujin’s early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire – allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren’t really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn’t already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more – ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed …) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land – the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as “the Dark Ages” – concentrating on the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it’s right! He’s the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo’s economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper – which (along with lots of Leonardo’s other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn’t a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though 🙂 ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV 🙂

For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We’d been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn’t like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I’d feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would’ve been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain’s food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn’t continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn’t quite’ve been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The “modernisation” of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses – much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going … easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who’d been 7 and a farmer’s son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer’s wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting – and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn’t tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it’s easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended – it’s history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.