This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

This Week’s TV Including Anglo-Saxons, Jewish History, Dogs & the A303

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons

The last episode of Michael Wood’s series about King Alfred & his descendants was about Æthelstan. He was the only of King Alfred’s grandsons to be born while Alfred was still alive, and was the son of Edward who was King of Wessex after Alfred. Yet his ascension to the throne was still controversial. Edward had 14 children, by three different women – two of whom were crowned Queen (consecutively, I imagine, but Wood didn’t say). Æthelstan’s mother wasn’t one of these more important wives, and so Edward’s designated heir was one of his younger sons. However Æthelstan believed himself to’ve been chosen by Alfred (having met the man, and been “knighted” by him). He was brought up in Mercia by his aunt Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia, and after Edward’s death he lost no time in taking control of first Mercia and then Wessex. He was crowned in Kingston on the border of the two countries. He didn’t stop there, either – he was the first King of all the English, fulfilling Alfred’s dream. He claimed overlordship of the King of Scotland and the Kings of the Welsh too, although that may’ve looked different from the perspective of those countries than it was represented by Æthelstan in his charters etc 😉 He was a King in his grandfather’s mould – both warrior & learned. He too looked to Rome for a certain degree of legitimacy, and was well read in religious texts. He had no children, Wood suggested that this might’ve been as the result of negotiation with one of his brothers – that Æthelstan would rule, but his brother’s children would inherit.

I enjoyed this series 🙂 One thing I particularly liked which I’ve not mentioned so far is that there was a lot of reading from the original texts in Anglo-Saxon (with subtitles, obviously). I like the way the language sounds, alien yet just on the edge of familiarity.

The Story of the Jews

In this episode of Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews he discussed the Jews of Eastern Europe & their impact on the world. Schama’s mother’s family were Lithuanian Jews so this was personal history for him. A lot of Jews had moved to Poland during the period where that kingdom was one of the more tolerant places on the continent. After Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria & Russia at the end of the 18th Century it became less welcoming to Jews, but many still lived there (of course) – mostly restricted to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Schama described how finding joy in the harsh environment of the Pale lead to the development of Hasidic Judaism – an ecstatic & less rigid form of the religion than more orthodox traditions.

The harsh conditions, and increasing pogroms, lead to many Jews emigrating from the Pale to the USA – seen by many as a promised land where they could be people rather than outsiders. There they had a large impact on US culture. Schama talked about the lower East Side of New York where many of these emigrants lived, and he talked about the many song-writers who came from that area and wrote some of the memorable songs of early 20th Century US music. Names like Gershwin and Harburg, songs like “Over the Rainbow”, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”.

The programme was bookended by the Holocaust, so despite the moments of beauty & joy in the middle it was still a sobering piece of viewing.

The Wonder of Dogs

Having finished off several series recently we started up a new one. When I’d spotted The Wonder of Dogs in the listings we’d not been quite sure about it, so we started watching it soon after recording so that we could cancel it if we wanted to. No need to worry tho, this first episode was entertaining & interesting. In the series Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman are talking about all things canine – they are based in a village in England and are using the dogs of the village to illustrate many different aspects of canine biology & history, and also talking to various experts. So in this programme they were mostly looking at the astonishing variety of dogs.. Goodman looked at the history of a few of the different breeds – like chihuahuas, greyhounds and bulldogs. Up until Victorian times dog breeds weren’t really formalised, there were different sorts of dogs for different sorts of jobs (or fashion accessories) but there weren’t defined types. They also looked at the underlying biology of the dog – how the bone structure is always the same, just different in scale or precise configuration. Humble talked to an genetic expert who said that all the variety in modern dogs is down to just 50 or so genes, and that the rest of the dog genome is the same as their wild grey wolf ancestors. Quite a lot of “look at the cute dog” to the programme, but some interesting facts in there too 🙂

A303: Highway to the Sun

This programme was a one-off that we’ve had sitting on the PVR for months & months and never quite got round to watching. I’m not sure it was quite what I was expecting, but this was rather fun 🙂 Tom Fort (who I’d not heard of before) drove a Morris Minor Traveller along the A303 from start to end, stopping at places with historical significance and covering approximately 5000 years of the history of England. So we had the Amesbury Man for prehistoric stuff as well as Stonehenge, we had some stuff about the Romans where the road runs along the old Roman road, we had some stuff about Alfred (someone’s 18th Century folly on the site of a battle of Alfred’s), and more modern stuff like toll roads and even the many many attempts to shift the position of the A303 away from Stonehenge (which have all failed so far). Fort also met a variety of interesting people … including a man who uses the A303 as the perfect place to collect roadkill for his dinner.

Fun, and worth watching 🙂

The Iraq War; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The last episode of The Iraq War covered the time period from after immediately after power was handed over to an elected Iraqi government through to earlier this year. Unlike the previous two episodes there isn’t a familiar well worn storyline for the whole of this episode – partly because the later bits are too recent to have a narrative yet, and partly because once the US & UK etc troops had gone then Iraq stopped being headline news so often. The story this episode told was one of a country that had descended into all out sectarian violence, then looked to be pulling out of it only to start slipping back.

In the time immediately after the Iraqi government was elected the country was divided by fighting between Sunni & Shia Muslims – the Sunni fighters were dominated by Al Qaeda, the Shia fighters were various militias plus the Mahdi army. And the ordinary civilians on both sides were caught & killed in the middle. Some (all?) of the Shia militias were state sponsored – they got weapons, transport, ammo, logisitics from state officials & departments – which only served to make the Sunnis fighting against them more determined.

Given it didn’t seem like the elected Prime Minister was able to do anything about this violence the US & UK governments replaced him. While it was dressed up as “suggesting” that he step aside for someone else, it really was the replacement of an elected leader of a country with a hand-picked alternative who was more “suitable” to the US & UK. Nouri Maliki, the replacement, was then to be propped up, sorry “supported”, by the US. And for all my scare quotes in the last few sentences it was a stratagem that initially seemed effective. Due to the US succesfully managing to get non-al-Qaeda Sunnis to work with the government, and Maliki himself suppressing the worst of the Shia militias (and pacifying Basra) some degree of unity and stability returned to Iraq … and the US & UK managed to get their troops home & to leave Iraq to look after itself.

But it hasn’t been a long term success, and violence is getting worse again. Maliki’s regime are arresting people who were involved in the sectarian violence, but it seems that it’s Sunni leaders & opposition politicians in general who are being targeted while Shia politicians remain free. In the last election several of the opposition politicians were disqualified from standing for election – again for reasons that didn’t seem to be a problem for Maliki’s own party’s candidates. The opposition gained a lot of seats in the election, to an extent where to form a government Maliki had to negotiate with them & set up a power-sharing deal. That hasn’t been honoured, say the opposition politicians, it’s still the Prime Minister Maliki show. So the feeling is that Iraq is slipping into a dictatorship with a figleaf of elections, and violence is rising.

An interesting series, particularly because it was primarily told through interviews with the people who were making the decisions (or their aides). Although obviously they’ll’ve been edited to fit the story the series was telling (worth reminding myself of because the message plays to my pre-existing bias on the subject).

I think I was right about Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble following the past, present, future theme for its episodes – this last episode was about sheep farming in Australia which is the future in two or three different ways. The first half of the programme focussed on what you could think of as the globalisation of sheep farming (I suppose this could count as “present” rather than “future” but for most of the world this sort of sheep farming is still the future). Humble visited a sheep station called Meka which is in Western Australia and is about the size of the county of Kent. There are several thousand sheep on this land, which mostly roam free, and five people. Handling this many sheep with this few people is pretty hard work & involves a lot of modern tech – to keep them watered there are windmills pumping up water to automatically fill troughs in each paddock (which might be 10km by 4km in size). And to muster the sheep in each paddock, which they only do a couple of times a year, requires planes & motorbikes.

Most of these sheep are bred to be sent to the Middle East, which has a growing & more affluent population but not the land to raise enough extra sheep to meet the growing demand for meat. For another market (like the UK) the sheep would be killed locally and then the meat exported, but the Middle Eastern market buys live sheep to slaughter themselves (i.e. the family who will eat the sheep kill it). This is a controversial practice, and the farmers Humble spoke to were open about the fact that in the past poor regulation of the shipping meant that losses of sheep on the voyage could be 3-10% of the cargo. However regulation has been tightened up, and Humble visited the holding pens for sheep before they were shipped and they were kept in good conditions & seemed relaxed. Losses these days are significantly lower (I can’t remember if they said 0.1% or 0.01%). But there is still the problem that the slaughtering once they reach their destination may not be humane (if nothing else because it may well be untrained people doing the slaughtering).

So that was the future of sheep farming as a large scale enterprise with the consumers on a different continent to the producers. Humble next visited farms where the breeding of sheep is done using modern genetic technology. The technique used is embryo transfer – they induce a ewe to release several eggs, then artificially inseminate her. The embryos are then removed, and viable ones are transplanted into other ewes as surrogate mothers. This speeds up the process of selective breeding because it allows you to get several more offspring from your best breeding ewes than you otherwise would. J noted while we were watching that it would also narrow the gene pool & wouldn’t that be a problem – but the programme didn’t mention that. I’m not sure if the various breeds of sheep might already be fairly inbred (because many of the breeding ewes would have the same father already).

And a third sort of future was a farm where the farmers are what Humble called “very hippy-dippy”. The sheep lead very stress free lives, with a lot of interaction with people & many lambs hand-reared. So they’re happy sheep, and the farm wins awards for the quality of the meat. A future for the elite – where quality over quantity counts.

It was a fun series to watch, with lots of interesting stuff about how different people live as well as about the sheep (or alpacas).

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble; The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England

The second episode of Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble was all about alpaca farming in Peru. In the first half of the programme she stayed with a family who herd alpacas in a traditional way. To feed themselves they grow potatoes and keep guinea pigs. The guinea pigs have free reign of the house & are fed on the potato greens so they’re combination pet, recycler & dinner. According to Humble they taste like dark chicken meat. The alpacas are kept for their fibre – it’s not wool apparently, but that’s a technical distinction of some sort because it’s the equivalent of wool in all ways. The family shear the alpacas by hand with a kitchen knife, and then keep some of the fibre for themselves to spin and then make the very brightly coloured cloth that the region is famous for. The rest of the fibre is sold to a middleman who sells it on to the cloth industry. Because their herd is not pure-bred alpaca they don’t get much money for the fibre. In general their lives are hard, but they prefer it to moving to a city where the standard of living would in some ways be lower.

The second half of the programme took us through the way that the alpaca cloth industry in Peru is moving from this traditional style herding into the modern world. Humble started with a cousin of the subsistence farmers she’d been staying with. He’s both a collector (one of the middlemen who buy the fibre) and a farmer. Having seen where the fibre is sold to & the requirements he realises that the sort of herds that he & his cousin have aren’t the best – so he’s bought himself a pure-bred male alpaca & is gradually breeding his flock to have better quality fibre. Next Humble visited a man who herds alpacas in a large scale way. His ranch has thousands of alpacas (instead of the 60 or so that the first family have), and they are a particular breed that has very high quality fibre. Instead of just letting the animals mate as & how they choose he selects his best males & best females & breeds those. And being a large scale ranch owner I guess he also sells direct to the cloth industry rather than through a collector.

She then visited a cloth making factory. The cloth they make is mostly exported with China being the biggest buyer. They are particularly interested in helping to improve the herd quality of all their suppliers (including small farmers like the first family) because places like China & the US are starting to herd their own alpacas, so Peru’s advantage in the market will be in having the best quality fibre. And so Humble then went to visit an alpaca breeding research centre which is part funded by this cloth manufacturer. They’re working on developing artificial insemination techniques for alpacas with the idea that small farmers might not be able to afford a pure-bred male, but might be able to afford the semen to produce better quality offspring for their female alpaca. So the alpaca industry is just at the point where it’s optimising for the modern world and a global market, but it’s not quite there yet.

Translating the Bible into English doesn’t seem like a big deal in the modern world – I think I own 3 different English translations (plus a New Testament in Scots) – but in Tudor England it was heretical and punishable by death. One of the programmes in the BBC’s recent Tudor Court Season was The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, which was a biography of William Tynedale presented by Melvyn Bragg. Tynedale’s English Bible eventually formed the basis of the King James Bible, but Tynedale himself was regarded as the most dangerous man in England for producing it and executed for heresy.

Tynedale was born on a farm in Gloucestershire near the village of Slimbridge, which is still a working farm today. He was educated at Oxford – first in Magdalen College School, at the age of 8 in the early 1500s, then at Magdalen College. Bragg used this introductory bit to set the scene for Tynedale’s later translation. At the time the Bible was only available in Latin – the language of the Church and of scholars (the two groups overlapped to a high degree). The Catholic Church had built up over the centuries a collection of doctrines & traditions that weren’t actually in Bible (like Purgatory, the requirement for confession & penance to save one’s soul etc), and the hierarchy of the Church was positioned as necessary to save the souls of the congregation. Tynedale (and other Reformation thinkers) saw the way the Bible was only available in Latin as a power play on the part of the Church – keep the congregation from reading the actual text & you keep them reliant on the priests to explain it. And you keep anyone from noticing that the Church has these non-Biblical traditions.

Tynedale had always had the ambition to translate the Bible into English so that everyone could read it, and his education had only served to reinforce that. Bragg was telling us that when the students studied the Bible they only looked at verses in isolation, rather than reading the whole Bible & getting a feel for the overall text. During this time Tynedale learnt of the ideas of Erasmus who promoted the idea of reading a text in the original language to get the best handle on the text. For the Bible this would be Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Greek (for the New) and Tynedale learnt these and other languages.

After Tynedale had graduated & been a priest for a little while he came into conflict with other clergy over his emphasis on the Word of God rather than the Church traditions. Bragg quoted from a description of an argument where another clergyman said that it was better to do without “God’s law than the canon law”, to which Tynedale reacted angrily – declaring that he would “cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”. This crystallised his desire to translate the Bible, and his first step was now to go to London to visit the Bishop of London & try and get backing for his project. This was the first of a few naive sounding things that Tynedale did in his life. The Bishop of London at the time was Cuthbert Tunstall, and Bragg described him as being a part of the Church orthodoxy & a close associate of people such as Thomas More. Unsurprisingly he didn’t back the heretical project that Tynedale proposed.

Realising that this would not end well, Tynedale eventually left not just London but also England and moves to Germany to work on his translation. Just to orient ourselves in the wider history I should point out that by this stage Martin Luther has started the Reformation in Germany, and it’s spreading through Europe. Henry VIII is on the throne of England, and had written his defence of the Catholic Church that earnt him the title of Defender of the Faith. So in moving to Germany Tynedale is aligning himself with the Protestant Reformation, and against the English Crown as well as the Catholic Church.

Tynedale completed his translation of the New Testament, and sought out a publisher in Cologne. Cologne was Catholic, but nonetheless he found someone who would produce the book and plans were made to print a few thousand copies & to smuggle them into England. Unfortunately for Tynedale his publisher was also contracted to work on a text for a member of the Catholic orthodoxy from England (Bragg told us who this was, but I’ve forgotten the name :/ ). The plans for the English New Testament were discovered & Tynedale had to flee with the project incomplete. He moved to Worms, and found himself another publisher so that he could restart the project. Tynedale’s life work wasn’t over with the printing of the New Testament, he continued to work on translating the Old Testament – going back to the Hebrew. Before his death he finished the first five books, which were also printed & subsequently distributed in England.

Bragg took the time at this point in the programme (and later on, near the end of it) to wax lyrical about Tynedale’s translation. He didn’t just translate it into English any old how, it was vivid & poetic language which sticks in the mind and has flavoured the whole of modern English – as much as Shakespeare did. Turns of phrase that Tynedale employed are still a part of our idioms today. But Tynedale didn’t just choose his words for maximum impact & memorability he also picked them to advance his Protestant ideas. So a word that was traditionally translated as “priest” became “elder”, and one that was traditionally translated as “Church” became “congregation”.

The authorities in England were obviously on the lookout for Tynedale’s Bible’s arrival in England, but several thousand copies still made their way into the hands of the more Protestant-minded members of the public. Bishop Tunstall preached against the English Bible, saying that it had errors and was heretical & blasphemous, and he presided over a bonfire outside St. Paul’s burning copies of Tynedale’s Bible. This didn’t quite go all the Bishop’s way – even those who might not’ve read the Tynedale text themselves weren’t entirely comfortable with burning the Word of God even if it was a potentially heretical version of it.

Thomas More led the hierarchy’s campaign against Tynedale’s work. There was a very amusing segment of the programme here where there were two Braggs on either side of a church aisle reading passages from More & Tynedale’s publications where they held forth on how dreadful and corrupt the other was. This had developed into a personal feud, not just an academic & political difference of opinion, and More at least started to resort to very vitriolic & foul-mouthed tirades against Tynedale. Including writing things like “You have kissed the ass of Luther and are now covered in shit”.

When Henry VIII was seeking to divorce Catherine of Aragon it looked like Tynedale would come into favour in court. This was because with the Pope refusing to grant the annulment Henry was searching for other ways to get what he wanted. Tynedale had published a treatise called The Obedience of a Christian Man, which was primarily arguing for everyone to read or hear the Word of God directly (so vernacular translations of the Bible are required so that the congregation as a whole can understand). But as part of it he said that Kings should not be subservient to the Church authorities – that God has anointed the King as the secular authority over a country and so the King should answer to God, not the Pope. Obviously Henry liked the sound of that, and used this as a plank in his splitting of the Church of England from Rome. But Henry still found the rest of Tynedale’s theology heretical (like the idea of an English Bible), and Tynedale went on to publish other treatises that didn’t sit as well with Henry including one opposing Henry’s divorce on the grounds that Henry’s use of scripture to justify it was an incomplete summary of the scriptural references to marrying one’s brother’s widow.

So Tynedale was still considered heretical, and Thomas More (amongst others) was still violently against Tynedale & all he stood for. Eventually Tynedale’s downfall was engineered by an agent of the English. This man, Henry Phillips, wormed his way into Tynedale’s good graces – he pretended to be a great admirer of Tynedale’s and to be interested in his theology. He then set up a trap – he came to Tynedale saying he had no money and got Tynedale to take him out for dinner. He then persuaded Tynedale to lead the way along a particular narrow secluded alleyway, and straight into the hands of soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire. Tynedale was imprisoned, and sentenced to death for heresy. Thomas Cromwell tried to intercede on Tynedale’s behalf, but was unsuccessful.

Tynedale was burnt to death, the typical punishment for a convicted heretic. As an act of mercy he was strangled before the fire was list, but this strangulation was incompetently carried out. Tynedale revived during his burning, but witnesses say he was stoic & silent as he died. (Which seems somewhat unbelievable.)

His Bible translation did not die with him, and Tynedale regarded that as more important than his own life. Cromwell eventually persuaded Henry VIII to endorse an English Bible, and the text of this was primarily that of Tynedale’s translation. Tynedale wasn’t credited, however, because he was still regarded as a heretic (and Henry still carried a grudge against him for not approving of the divorce). The Henry VIII Bible fed into the King James Bible translation, and so Tynedale’s words and work still lived on.

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World is part of a loosely linked series of programmes that each examine the life & work of a pivotal figure in Western history of the last couple of centuries or so with an emphasis on science or invention. We’ve watched the Newton one recently (post) and the Turner one last week (post) and on Monday we watched the one about Marie Curie. And it was interesting, a look at both her life and the work that made her famous. But my enjoyment of it was tainted by the way they chose to frame it.

For the Newton programme the opening segment talked about how he wasn’t just interested in things we’d think of as scientific today, he also worked for several years on alchemical experiments and developed his own theological understanding of Christianity. For the Turner programme the opening segment talked about how he’d lived through the Industrial Revolution and painted works that were of that time – they talked about his painting of the Temeraire being towed by a steam tug to be broken up and how that symbolised so much about the age. So the focus in both is on the achievements of the man in question – intellectual or artistic.

For the Marie Curie programme it started off well enough – the opening segment runs through her achievements (2 Nobel Prizes, a woman who succeeded in a man’s world, someone who refused to conform to societal expectations etc). But then the voiceover said something akin* to “In every great life there’s a pivotal moment and the reaction to that is what comes to define their life”. And this moment that they chose to present as “defining” was the discovery of her relationship with a married man by the press & the resulting scandal. Rather than, say, her Nobel Prizes. Or if you’re after a human interest angle what about her work driving a mobile X-ray unit during the First World War, which they suggested later in the programme was what lead to her death. But no, they’d rather frame it as a woman who had a scandalous love affair (while doing science on the side). Gah.

*We’ve deleted the programme already so I can’t check the exact wording.

I hadn’t even heard of that before, I know of her as “Polish woman who discovered radium, married Pierre Curie, eventually died from radiation related disease” – so I don’t see that relationship as something that’s permeated into the zeitgeist as defining. Gah.

To be completely fair, they did later in the programme make the point themselves that the press & public interest was because she was a woman, and that this was sexist. Einstein had affairs & no-one talked about them instead of his physics, why should it be different for Curie. But that doesn’t let the programme off the hook for centring this scandal, and presenting it as at least as important as her work (if not more so).

Two other irritations before I talk about the interesting bits. Firstly, every time they showed us a photograph they did this jerky pan across & around it which was intensely distracting. And secondly, the soundtrack was very obtrusive and the choice of songs not nearly as funny as they thought it was.

So. Despite my irritation with the programme on a philosophical level and on a technical level it was still interesting. What I knew about Marie Curie before was fairly bare bones & it was nice to get that fleshed out a bit (even despite the above). She was born Maria Skłodowska in Poland and grew up in Warsaw during a period where it was ruled by the Russians. At that time there were supposed to be no schools or universities in Polish, no Polish music or dancing – basically the Russians were trying to wipe out Polish culture. Her mother died when Maria was 12, from tuberculosis. Her father was a teacher of physics & maths, and he taught his children these subjects. Maria and her elder sister Bronisława made plans to move to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. They had to move because the Russian run universities in Warsaw at the time would not admit women, whereas the Sorbonne did. The scheme was that Maria would work as a governess in Poland to earn money to support her sister at university, then once her sister was established Maria would move to France & her sister would support her at the Sorbonne. While working as a governess Maria fell in love with the eldest son of the family (not one of her charges) but his parents wouldn’t agree to the match because she wasn’t a suitable class of person – he was unwilling to go against his parents’ wishes and this rejection sent Maria into a depression.

She had at first given up the dream of studying at the Sorbonne, but she enrolled at the illicit “floating university” in Warsaw and studied chemistry (and other subjects?) there. This was a Polish run, Polish language, university and was forbidden by the Russian rulers – and they would teach any Pole who wanted to learn whether male or female. This rekindled her interest and she went on to join her sister in Paris. She excelled in her studies, graduating first in her class. And then she went to work in the lab of a man named Pierre Curie. Her first studies were on magnets – this was relatively lucrative work, because there were commercial interests that would pay for the development of new alloys to make better magnets for better electrical generators. Over time she & Pierre fell in love, and when the homesick Maria talked about returning to Poland he talked about following her there. However in the end they married & remained in Paris (I can’t remember if the programme said why – wikipedia suggests that Warsaw University wouldn’t have her as a PhD student because she was a woman, whereas she could do research in France).

Marie Curie started to work on radioactive materials not long after the initial serendipitous discovery of the phenomenon by Becquerel. She developed (and with Pierre’s help built) apparatus to measure the radioactive rays coming off a sample, and analysed a large number of different substances which was painstaking & tedious work. One sample, pitchblende (a uranium containing mineral), was more radioactive than anything she’d previous analysed including uranium itself. So she theorised that there must be some new element present – and set out to isolate it. This was a mammoth task, as the element was only present in trace amounts. They had some footage of her stirring a great vat of what I think was pitchblende & nitric acid. Eventually she and Pierre isolated and purified their new element – Radium. So called because it glows.

During this time period the Curies had two children. Marie Curie was more interested in her work than her children and they were mostly brought up by her father-in-law. This caused a rift in the family, although Curie and her eldest daughter reconciled by the time she grew up. Curie & her younger daughter didn’t reconcile until Curie was dying many years later. Both Marie & Pierre Curie suffered increasingly from ill health during this time – the effect of their work with radioactivity. Pierre tragically died – not as a direct result of his ill health, which I hadn’t realised. He was actually run over by a horse & carriage, the implication was that if he’d been in better health he might’ve got out of the way.

Curie’s first Nobel Prize was in 1903 for Physics – originally this had only been intended for Becquerel & Pierre Curie but Pierre complained and insisted that Marie’s name should be on the award too otherwise he wouldn’t accept it (good man!). The second one came in 1911, 5 years after Pierre’s death, in Chemistry. This came at the same sort of time as the scandal of her relationship with a married man broke – and the Nobel committee made noises about how if they’d known she was that sort of woman then they wouldn’t’ve given her the prize. Her displeasure with this broke her out of the depression she’d fallen into after the scandal and the end of the relationship*. (The man in question kind of didn’t quite fight a duel to restore his honour, and came away reputation intact, somehow *eye roll*)

*The programme spent more time on this, but I’m irritated by that so I’ve skipped the details here.

In the First World War Curie read that shortage of X-ray machines meant that the French army was losing soldiers who might’ve been saved – and she designed a mobile X-ray unit and drove one (of several?) herself. She and her elder daughter operated this unit for most of the war. There was still no idea at the time that X-rays or radioactivity were dangerous, so Curie didn’t have any protection from the X-ray machine. The programme later said that this is now thought to’ve lead to the aplastic anaemia that killed her (her body wasn’t radioactive enough for it to’ve been the radium).

After the war Curie continued with her work on radium, founding an institute for investigating the element. She was a respected scientist, attending invite-only conferences with other prominent physicists (like Einstein). And was the only one of them to have two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines – an achievement that is still unique. Despite all this she still had difficulty securing funds for her research & at one point didn’t even have enough radium for her work to continue. This came to the notice of an American journalist (Marie Mattingly Meloney) who had written articles about her, and who organised a fundraising drive throughout the USA to buy Curie’s Institute a gram of radium. When the money was raised Curie visited the US and toured the country giving many lectures before being presented with the radium by the President in a White House ceremony.

Curie eventually died of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation or X-rays, and was buried with her husband. In 1995 their bodies were exhumed (hence knowing how radioactive she was) and re-buried with a full state funeral in the Panthéon in Paris – she’s the first (and only) woman to be buried there because of her own achievements.

So, an interesting but flawed programme. But I did at least learn more about Marie Curie and her work.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble is a new series about sheep farming. The hook for it is that Humble owns and lives on a sheep farm in Wales, and for this series she’s visiting sheep farmers in other countries. I think the three episodes will also roughly speaking cover past, present & future (the intro segment hinted at that) but I won’t know that for sure till I’ve seen them all!

This first episode was set in a very remote village in Afghanistan where they still farm in traditional ways dating back thousands of years. The people Humble visited live in the Wakhan Corridor which is part of Afghanistan due to European colonialism. To the north of this narrow strip of land is Tajikistan, once part of the Russian Empire, to the south Pakistan, once part of the British Empire. The Russians and British didn’t want their Empires to meet, so the borders are drawn so that a finger projects from the east of Afghanistan to separate the two countries. The programme opened with Humble travelling through Kabul (the most dangerous part of the whole trip) because this was the only place they could fly to the Wakhan Corridor from. After flying for 250 miles across the mountains they landed in the valley where the Wakhi people live in winter. During the summer months (Humble arrived towards the end of summer) half the population live here, and grow wheat & barley. The other half travel over the nearby mountains to a plateau called the Great Pamir where they graze their flocks of sheep.

After walking to the plateau, with the help of some locals & their yaks to transport their gear, Humble & her camera crew stayed in a couple of different villages to see how these shepherds live. In the first one they were made welcome immediately & encouraged to film whatever they wanted. Here Humble saw the everyday life of the shepherds – a routine of driving the sheep out to graze, bringing them back to be milked in the middle of the day and then at night to protect them from predators. The grazing here is better than in the home valley, and there’s not the space to both grow crops and graze sheep, so the increased risk of predators is worth it. Humble pointed out how the sheep didn’t look like her sheep in Wales – they have much bigger bottoms where they store fat for the winter ahead. They’re also tamer as they’re milked every day, unlike Humble’s sheep which are grown for meat and so not handled by people often. She also seemed envious of their good health, despite the harsh conditions – there are diseases sheep get in the damp climate of Britain that they don’t get in places like Afghanistan which are drier & more like where sheep evolved.

After a bit of time in this first village Humble moved on to another village, because she wanted to film the migrations that these people do as winter starts drawing in – they move progressively down the valley away from the winter. The first village was already quite low (relatively, a mere 4000 feet above sea level …), so they had to go elsewhere to film. This second village weren’t so keen to have foreigners come in & film, and negotiations were protracted. At first a faction among the men were refusing any access, but the women encouraged Humble to sneak a camera in & film them cooking food. The next day the overall chief turned up from the other half of their village (the wheat growing half) to supervise the impending move & he was happy for them to film & quashed the refusals.

Through the whole of the programme Humble showed us how these people lived, and how hard their life is. She talked in particular to one woman who listed the people in her family who had died – two brothers, two sister, her husband, and of her seven children only one was still alive. An appalling list of grief. Their diet is very basic, and mostly the stuff they produce themselves – bread and (buttery) tea for everyday. A sort of flour & butter porridge for more special occasions. And every once in a while they’ll eat meat – one sheep will be spread around the whole village (50 people or so in the second village). A lot of babies die – 1 in 5 before they’re one year old. Half of all the under-twos are malnourished. For the little that they don’t produce themselves they need to buy – and the only way they have of earning money is to sell off a yak. Humble filmed some traders who’d walked up the the Great Pamir to buy yaks, they said they came to the area because they would get good animals and a cheaper price than anywhere else. But while they were talking about how hard this subsistence farming is they were also talking about how they’re glad they’re not closer civilisation and to the war.

I like Kate Humble’s programmes – we saw the ones she did about the Frankincense Trail and the Spice Trail a few years ago. She’s got a knack of not ever making it seem like “look at these funny foreign people”. In fact in this one the sympathies of the narrative (so’s to speak) were clearly with the Wakhi people as they were vastly entertained by how this grown woman didn’t know how to do any of the basic necessities of life. One woman was consumed with laughter as Humble tried to milk a sheep – “what’s she doing? she’s just tickling it!”. Another got Humble to help her churn butter and then could barely believe how she wasn’t strong enough to really help out.