Fit to Rule; The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign; Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here

The last episode of Fit to Rule backed up a bit from the end of the second episode (post) to a time when George III was still on the throne and the future of the Hanoverian dynasty looked secure. His granddaughter, Princess Charlotte (daughter of the future George IV), had married and was expecting her first child. Worsley told us that in a departure from previous royal matches Charlotte was marrying for love, she was also looking forward to a life of familial bliss. She was a tremendously popular Princess, and all seemed bright for the future. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Worsley showed us the detailed notes taken by the celebrated male midwife who was overseeing the delivery of the royal baby. After 24 hours of labour there had not been much progress, and then there began to be signs that not all was well with the baby. Finally after 50 hours the Princess was delivered of a stillborn boy. Disaster, but not yet catastrophe – that was to come during the night after when the Princess herself went from seeming fine immediately after the birth to dead. The midwife never recovered from the guilt he felt at presiding over the deaths of 2 generations of the royal family and killed himself a few months later. The nation was in mourning for Charlotte – Worsley showed us the commemorative teapots made as morbid souvenirs. The comparisons with Princess Diana are obvious, and Worsley told us that Charlotte had even been referred to as the English Rose just as Diana later would be.

Charlotte hadn’t just been the first legitimate grandchild of George III, she was the only legitimate one. So now the race was on for an heir – all the other sons of George III married (most just had mistress at this point …) and tried to be first to produce a child. Worsley quoted us a satirical poem of the day, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. Prince Edward & his wife Victoria won the prize with the birth of the future Queen Victoria in 1819. Edward didn’t live long after that, so Victoria was brought up by her mother & her private secretary Sir John Conroy. In some ways bits of their regime made sense – Victoria was trotted around the country & shown to the public in carefully controlled publicity events. This was to give her a base of popularity for when she took the throne, an important thing to have given the unpopularity of her uncles who reigned before her and her family in general (saving only the dead Princess Charlotte). However that was the only good bit – the rest of it, the isolation of Victoria from her father’s family & from any children and the way they tried to control her every thought & deed, was not good. They tried to ensure her future obedience for after she became Queen, but in doing so over-reached themselves and meant that she shook off their influence as soon as she could.

The unhappy childhood of Victoria shaped her personality – she was imperiously keen to get her own way and prone to temper tantrums when she didn’t. (I guess because she never wanted to be controlled again, Worsley didn’t spell it out.) She was industrious in the performance of her royal duties at first, tho after her marriage this began to take a backseat to her pursuit of a happy family life. She, like Charlotte before her, had married for love. And she & Prince Albert had a brood of children, who they brought up in a “private house” on the Isle of Wight – the dynasty was secure and the Queen was mostly popular, much better than the last few decades would’ve suggested. However their eldest son, Bertie, gave them concern – he seemed slow & lazy. Victoria & Albert turned to the pseudo-science of phrenology to try & figure out what was “wrong” with him. Phrenologists believed they could tell a person’s character & capabilities by examining the bumps on his or her skull. Worsley said that the practitioner they turned to thought that Bertie had inheritied his lack of intellectual capability from his mother … but was too polite (and sensible) to tell Victoria & Albert this.

Bertie finished his education at Cambridge University, and also indulged himself in a life of luxury there. He slept with an actress, and when his parents discovered this they were horrified – Albert went off to Cambridge to have a word. Albert & Bertie made up in the course of a long walk, but soon after Albert’s health went downhill. When he died Victoria blamed the stress of dealing with Bertie’s bad behaviour for his illness. She went into deep mourning, which she never came out of – and for several years she did pretty much none of the duties of the monarch, having her doctors write medical reports saying she wasn’t capable. This came close to finishing the monarchy, after all if the Queen could just ignore her duties & government could continue without her what use was she? Worsley said that actually if Albert had remained alive it probably wouldn’t’ve helped avoid a crisis, but in that case it would’ve been because Albert was becoming more & more powerful (he did most of the work of the monarch, not Victoria).

Victoria did show herself from time to time, but never recovered from the depression she entered after Albert’s death. Her court was small & very concerned with morals, while Bertie continued to live it up. When Bertie ascended the throne it was thought that he wouldn’t make a good king, but as Edward VII he actually did a good job in restoring the public image of the monarchy. He might not’ve had as much power as his predecessors but he could put on a show and provide pomp and ceremony. He didn’t reign for long, and was succeeded by his son George V. Who even changed his name during the First World War, as a PR exercise really – no longer the German surname of Saxe-Coburg, now he was George Windsor.

Skipping over George V as being healthy, presumably, Worsley moved on to his son Edward the future Edward VIII who abdicated. From the outside Edward looked like he was going to be a splendid King. He was sent on tours of the Empire and other places for PR purposes, and brought a fresh informal style to various events. But inside he was not having fun At All. He hated all the meet & greets, and the media interest. He hated being away from whichever married lady was his mistress of the time. Worsley read bits from his letters back to his mistress that were particularly angsty & full of baby talk, he seemed somewhat emotionally fragile. This all came to a head when he became King – he had become involved with Wallis Simpson, who was married and now divorced. Somehow he hadn’t really thought that this affair would hit the press, and when it did it caused a constitutional crisis ending in his abdication. And this is where the series finished – obviously one can’t dissect the Queen’s medical history yet, and her father is clearly also a bit too recent!

An interestingly different way to look at the various monarchs of the last 500 years, with Worsley concentrating on different people and different events to the normal story we’re told. However I was uncomfortable that the sexuality of the monarchs was part of the narrative – particularly given the subtitle was “How Royal Illness Changed History”. I think I can see why they did this, because it’s part of the lives of the monarchs that was usually kept private & out of the official history and because it could affect the succession. But it’s still wrong to lump it in with “illness”.

The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign (which was presented & written by Jonathan Dimbleby) was exactly what you’d expect: a programme about the events leading up to the pivotal Second World War battle at El Alamein in late 1942. This is the event about which Churchill said “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Before it the Allies had been doing badly, afterwards they went on to win.

Whilst Egypt was technically independent by the time of the Second World War, it still had a very large British colonial presence and was strategically important to the British Empire. The ports on the Mediterranean coast (like Alexandria) were important for control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal was vital for maintaining contact between Britain & territories such as India. The initial attacks were made by Italian troops from Libya in early 1940 – Dimbleby said this was Mussolini’s attempt to prove he was one of the big boys, to make sure he’d get a sufficiently large slice of the pie in the peace treaty. At the time it seemed that Germany was poised to conquer Britain so Mussolini had to act fast. Libya was ruled from Italy at the time, and was the obvious base for the operation but the army that crossed the border into Egypt was poorly trained & far too cautious – they were easily pushed back deep into Libya by the British forces (under the command of Wavel at this point).

This caused consternation in Germany because Italy was supposed to be securing Germany’s southern border, so if they collapsed & were defeated then Germany was at risk. So Hitler sent Rommel with some German Army divisions to help out the Italians. Rommel acted decisively taking the British forces by surprise and pushed them back to the border with Egypt. There’s now some back & forth over the next couple of years but in general Rommel wins more battles than the British do.

When things are going poorly Churchill blames the generals for not doing their job. He sacks Wavel, installing Auchinleck in his place. Later (after the first battle of El Alamein in early 1942) Auchinleck is also sacked, and Montgomery is put in command. The difficulties between Wavel & Churchill were partly a personality clash – Wavel was a taciturn man who was suspicious of politicians, Churchill was bombastic and suspicious of generals. Never going to work out well. But in both cases the fundamental difficulty was that Churchill would send orders that attack must be pressed, why weren’t the army doing something?? And the generals would feel that the troops they had available weren’t adequately trained nor ready to actually win the battle. So they would delay, and ignore Churchill’s orders, because to’ve blindly followed them would mean certain defeat (and they were running into enough defeats as it was).

There were also other theatres in the Mediterranean and until late 1942 the British forces were losing in those too. There was an ill-fated attempt to invade Greece, which pulled troops away from the front in Egypt at around the time that Rommel was really starting to press forward. And they were defeated in Greece too, it was “another Dunkirk” with the British army forced into a humiliating retreat. Malta was another key place in the Mediterranean – it was under British control and played a vital part in restricting the flow of supplies to Rommel’s troops. It was captured by the German forces whilst the campaigns in Egypt and Libya were underway, and this contributed to the defeats of the British. Just before the second battle at El Alamein (the pivotal one) Malta was back under British control & so Rommel’s supply chain was once again disrupted.

Churchill was under a lot of pressure from politicians during this period – it seemed like he was presiding over a losing war, and motions of no confidence were called more than once in Parliament. This probably contributed to his pressure on the generals out in Egypt to act more decisively. He was firm in his belief that winning in North Africa was a prelude to winning the whole war, and kept pressing that in both domestic & international politics. In terms of international politics Churchill was fighting an up hill battle both to bring the US into the war despite a complete lack of public support for this in the US, and also to get them to fight in North Africa first. Eventually Pearl Harbour tipped the balance (and Dimbleby quoted from Churchill’s diary at the time where he’s quite gleeful about it, which I didn’t really think was appropriate when what he’s talking about is a lot of dead people even if it does mean he gets what he wants finally). Even after that the US wanted to fight in Europe first, but eventually Churchill wore them down and that pivotal battle at El Alamein was the prelude to the first Allied operation (which came at the Libyan based German & Italian divisions from both sides and defeated them).

I’ve missed out loads in this summary – things like the various battles for Tobruk, the anecdotes about how badly prepared the various armies were, the details of the political situation. All of it was also illustrated with quotes from soldiers as well as the generals & politicians involved. Dimbleby didn’t forget the human cost, either – talking about the horrific casualty figures & visiting the graveyards where the soldiers are buried.

The version of Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here that we had recorded turned out to be a cut down version of the full thing (20 minutes instead of an hour). But it was still interesting, if rather brisk. Jeremy Black talked about both what it was about Britain that made it fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution to get started, and how it changed society.

The driving force for the start of the Industrial Revolution was coal. Before Britain had used wood for fuel, but this was beginning to become scarce. Coal was plentiful in Britain & easily accessible near the surface. It also turned out to be a better fuel than wood. As coal mines got deeper, they drove the need for machinery to keep them operational which started the process of mechanisation of various industries.

The political & social conditions in Britain at the time encouraged entrepreneurs & inventors. Black was saying that the Parliamentary Monarchy of Britain meant that there was more stability of government. Also important were the network of societies & coffeehouses where men could meet to discuss the scientific & engineering discoveries of the day. And not only educate themselves but contribute their own ideas. It was also possible to become rich by inventing new machinery – which is a great incentive to do so!

The programme then moved on to the ways that the Industrial Revolution changed Britain. Black talked a bit about Wedgewood, who isn’t just someone who made china dinner services but also in effect the inventor of modern marketing. The demands of new mass produced goods and factories for raw materials drove the creation of a better road network, and the creation of the canal system. (And presumably the railways, but that wasn’t covered – a bit too late perhaps? or maybe it is in the full programme.)

A shame I only found the 20 minute version when I recorded it, I’ll have to keep an eye out for the full thing.

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

The second episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was all about Homo erectus, and they were building a model of Nariokotome Boy. This is a 1.5 million year old near complete Homo erectus skeleton & the most complete one ever found. They started off with context, again – Homo erectus only died out relatively recently, but was around for 2 million years, which is the longest of any human species. It’s also one of the first hominids that can be thought of as human, and we and all the other ones that were around in the recent (geologically speaking) past are descended from them. They also lived outside Africa, and were the first hominids to do so.

Homo erectus co-existed with several different hominid species over time – they talked in detail about one, Paranthropus boisei. The skull they showed had a massive jaw, a skull ridge and very flared cheekbones to fit the chewing muscles behind. A diet of particularly solid things seems plausible, like nuts and seeds. As well as that sort of food there’s evidence of wear from grasses on their teeth.

They showed us research into the climate over the time period – I loved this bit, there’s just something so neat about being able to find out what the world was like so long ago with such a simple concept. They do it using samples taken of the sediment on the ocean floor. It’s laid down layer upon layer over time, and you can look at things like the sort of mud it is and the sorts of plant seeds/pollen you find in it to build up an idea of what the weather and landscape was like on nearby continents. We got shown a particular example of a core where you could see a colour change in the mud from top (~5000 years ago) to bottom (~10,000 years ago), and told us that the changes correspond to a change in the nearby climate (East Africa, if I remember right) from wetter to more dry. Over the 2 million years that Homo erectus existed the climate seems to’ve undergone lots of swings between hotter & colder or wetter & dryer conditions and they speculate that why Homo erectus survived and the other hominids didn’t is that Homo erectus was more adaptable.

And that they were more adaptable because of their bigger brains and because of the different way they interacted with the environment around them. There’s evidence that Homo erectus used fire, and they cooked their food (at least at the end of the time period, I wasn’t clear if there was no evidence from earlier on or if they hadn’t done the analysis (yet)). Their tools are more sophisticated than earlier hominid tools – instead of just breaking rocks for a sharp edge their tools are carefully shaped and show evidence of being planned and involving skill to make. So Homo erectus seems to’ve had the cognitive ability to shape the environment to suit themselves, rather than put up with the environment they find themselves in. There’s also evidence that they took care of older members of their groups – a skull has been found where the individual lost their teeth a few years before death, and quite clearly wouldn’t’ve survived without help.

Because of the model building the programme also spent some time discussing the probable physique of Nariokotome Boy. Homo erectus show many adaptions for running, and were probably lean and hairless (to the extent that modern humans are hairless, I mean). Because of the lack of hair they’d’ve had dark skins to protect themselves from the UV of the African sun – and this limited their spread north, they don’t seem to’ve got the low melanin mutation that permitted us to live in more northern climates. Also in this section they showed us evidence that Homo erectus may’ve suffered from tuberculosis, which is astonishing – it is a disease that we get from cattle originally, and was assumed to’ve become a human disease only more recently when modern humans started living in close proximity to cattle because they’d become herders. The marks and signs on the Homo erectus skull they were looking at (not Nariokotome Boy, another one) were very similar to the ones on a modern human who’d died of TB, so seemed convincing evidence. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

We also watched the last episode of Wartime Farm, which unsurprisingly covered 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war, as well as wrapping up with a “what we’ve learnt” segment. So they were mostly concentrating on the fact that once the war was won, that didn’t mean life returned to how it had been pre-war – not only did people still need fed, but in some ways the situation was even more precarious because Britain was close to bankrupt and couldn’t afford to import food yet the fields were becoming less fertile due to a lack of manure and from being over-farmed. They also talked about the celebrations that people had (and the thing they dramatised was a firework elephant, which was awesome 😀 ). And they harvested the wheat crop they’d spent the year growing, using a brand new combine harvester (well, 70 year old one …).

This was a good series, although I’ve struggled to write more than a paragraph per episode. I’m not quite sure why, but I guess partly because there was a lot of “look at how we did things” which isn’t easy to transform into text. I did feel that they spread it all too thin, perhaps they couldn’t do it half the number of episodes, but I do think they could’ve cut it down a bit. The format of half-dramatising, half-telling still feels like it shouldn’t’ve worked, but they pulled it off very well.

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

Last night we watched the first part of Prehistoric Autopsy which was all about the Neanderthals. This is a three part series presented by Alice Roberts & George McGavin plus a whole team of experts – the format is that they have a “lab” set up with various different experts & they demonstrate some of the research that’s been or is being done about three different human/ancestral species and use this knowledge to build a life-size replica of the species in question. It suffers a little from “staged conversations” syndrome & an almost complete lack of on-screen chemistry between the two primary presenters but other than those two niggles it was a fascinating programme.

So they started by giving us context for Neanderthals – not that long ago by palaeontological standards we weren’t the only human species on the planet. If you go back to ~70,000 years ago there were 4 species as well as Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis (who died out about 12,000 years ago, which is about the same time as the Chinese were starting to make pottery), Denisova hominin (who I’d never heard of before, wikipedia tells me this is a branch from Neanderthals), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, died out around 30,000 years ago), Homo erectus (died out around 70,000 years ago). Neanderthals moved out of Africa & lived in Europe, then Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and independently moved into Europe later on.

They then talked us through lots of different evidence for what the Neanderthals looked like & how they lived, whilst at the same time showing us the building of the replica (based on an actual individual skeleton). Lots of fascinating things, quite a lot of stuff I didn’t know before, so I shan’t try & list everything that made me think “ooh, neat” 🙂 I knew that there’d been work that showed we (northern Europeans) are more related to Neanderthals than you might think, but I hadn’t realised that they’d actually sequenced the whole Neanderthal genome. And the data they showed for relatedness was quite impressive – looking at 500 people of West African descent & you see under 2% relatedness to Neanderthals (with a nice normal distribution) and then looking at 500 people of Northern European descent and you see 2-4% relatedness to Neanderthals (again, nice normal distribution that doesn’t overlap the West African one). Looks pretty clear there was interbreeding going on in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals also had more culture than one might’ve thought – there’s a painted shell with a hole that looks like where you’d put one if you were making a pendant, that was found in association with Neanderthal remains. There’s also a cave-painting that has had some of the paint dated to ~15,000 years before the first signs of Homo sapiens. They spent some time considering if Neanderthals could talk, too – but that was a little less convincing. They also looked at how Neanderthals hunted, and how they made clothes. You can tell from tools found that they must’ve scraped hides to make them pliable for making clothes, and you can also tell this from the arm bones of the skeleton. You could also tell from the wear on the teeth that they worked the hides with their teeth too.

Oh, and thinking of teeth – one of the really neat bits was that there’s a group that have examined Neanderthal teeth from a skeleton of a young girl, using a synchrotron. The images generated allow them to see and count the growth lines in the teeth – at a resolution of 1 per day. That means they could count up how long the girl had lived since her teeth came in, and instead of the 6 years estimated from the state of the bones it turns out she’d lived for about 3 years. So Neanderthals matured at a much quicker rate than us, and they speculated in the programme that this might be part of why we still exist and are thriving & the Neanderthals aren’t. That we have more time to learn while we grow up, and this makes us more adaptable & gives us an edge in competition.

I could ramble on for longer, but I shall stop there. I’m looking forward to the other two programmes when we get to them & I’d definitely recommend watching this one if you have the chance (and are interested in that sort of thing).

The other programme of the evening was the seventh episode of Wartime Farm – covering 1944. We had carrier pigeon training (because they were extensively used during the war in particular to relay messages during the D-Day landing), POWs being used as farm labour (the expert on this segment was a German chap whose Grandad had been one of those POWs which was a neat touch), the troops gathering pre-D-Day, basket making, flax harvesting. Oh and some terrible German bread – bread was never rationed here, but it was in Germany. And in desperation there were recipes for wartime black bread that were appalling – the one they demonstrated was silage, grass clippings, sawdust, fermented rye (better hope for no ergot!) and honey. It looked a bit like black bread once it had been cooked, and they ate it and said it didn’t taste too bad – but pretty much it was the sort of thing you’d eat if you were reduced to eating grass, this was at least a palatable way to do it.

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

The third episode of “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” started in the 1770s when the British had just made peace with the French, and went through to the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar (when the British again made peace with the French after a couple more wars). The thread used to tie the whole episode together was the life of Horatio Nelson – who started his career as a midshipman in 1771 at the age of 12, and died as he commanded the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805. (Although we didn’t get told that much about Nelson, just that he was mentioned in each segment of the programme.)

At the beginning of this period the Navy was in decline – no wars means less money for the military, and ships were being mothballed. One of the things the Navy was tasked with during this time was to explore the Pacific – Captain Cook’s voyages were part of this. They were part scientific expedition, but were also about expanding the British Empire by laying claim to whatever lands they found which turned out to include Australia. A French explorer had nearly discovered Australia the year before Cook, but had turned back at the Great Barrier Reef because it was too dangerous – I imagine he was pretty upset later when he realised he could’ve claimed a continent for France. Another way the Navy earnt their pay during this time was to enforce the customs duties charged on goods entering the American colonies, which of course lead to the American War of Independence. Dan Snow implied that actually the loss of the colonies that became the US wasn’t really that much of a loss – by far the more important part of the war (with France) that started with the Americas was when the French attacked the British colonies in the Caribbean – if the British lost those their economy would’ve been crippled. The French didn’t learn from this defeat any more than the last one, and after the revolution they declared war on England again – this conflict would end with the defeat of the French & Spanish at Trafalgar.

One of the themes of this series is how the needs of the Navy have had an impact on the social, economic & political history of Britain – so in this programme we learnt that income tax was originally instituted as a temporary measure to fund the Navy. And part of the driving force behind the industrialisation of the country was the decision to sheathe the Navy ships in copper – this was proposed as a way to protect merchant ships from ship-worm and the dragging effects of seaweed, and a bureaucrat (Middleton) in charge of the Navy realised that this should also make the ships more manoeuvrable. Middleton persuaded the King that this was a good idea, and the needs of mining enough copper and turning it into sheets to be bolted onto the ships helped drive technological advances for mining (both for copper and coal) and to generate more jobs on land. And then the faster ships were decisive in keeping the Caribbean colonies in British hands.

In the sixth episode of Wartime Farm we were up to 1943, which was just before the turning point in the war. Morale was low, as rationing was getting ever tighter and farmers were trying to grow ever more food even though they had already stretched production far beyond pre-war levels. This programme had segments on such diverse things as hay-making from grass in the churchyard (because the rest of the land was growing crops instead of grass, but the dairy herd still need hay for their winter feed), children who were sent out to camps to provide labour for farms during harvest, collecting herbs to sell to pharmaceutical companies and clothing, make-up & entertainment in the 40s. And other things too. I was particularly struck by the idea that mascara was originally for men’s beards, not for ladies’ eyelashes!

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

The second episode of “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” started with the defeat of the English Navy by the French in 1690 – still one of the most humiliating defeats of the Navy. At this time the French were the dominant sea-going nation, and the programme covered the recovery of the Navy over the following 70 years until in 1759 it really could be said that Britannia ruled the waves.

Along the way it covered how the country reorganised both financially and in terms of industry in order to better support the Navy. I hadn’t realised that the Bank of England was initially set up to loan money to the government for the Navy (and as a side note, I really should find myself a (readable) book about economics one of these days because I don’t really understand it). The industrial side was entrepreneurs doing things like moving nail production to the north-east where the coal for the forges was, and employing several blacksmiths in workshops near the river Tyne so that the nails were easily shipped to the shipyards in the south.

We also got told about the life of a sailor during this time – mostly unpleasant and full of hard work. The presenter, Dan Snow, tried some of the food that these sailors would’ve eaten – it looked pretty repulsive (tho the biscuit he had wasn’t full of weevils, it wasn’t that accurate) and apparently tasted as bad as one would expect. It also wasn’t a balanced diet, and one of the challenges that faced the Navy was getting their military campaigns done before the sailors got too ill from disease and malnutrition. He took us on a modern Navy ship to show how it’s dealt with these days (walk-in -20°C freezers full of about 90 days worth of food), and told us about a successful campaign where the British fleet blockaded the French Navy’s headquarters for 6 months by actually figuring out how to ship fresh food to the fleet and keep the sailors healthy.

Another segment was about the execution of Admiral Byng – which I knew the “catchphrase” from, but had never actually heard the story before. Byng was tasked to come to the aid of the British troops on Minorca who were being attacked by the French in 1756, but felt that an attack was unlikely to succeed so withdrew. He was court-martialed for this, under the regulations against cowardice in battle and executed by firing squad. Voltaire wrote satirically about it (in Candide) – “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” (“In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others.” – French taken from wikipedia, so hopefully it’s accurate). It did indeed encourage the others – the aggression of the Navy was unmatched, and Snow told us about a couple of examples of times when this undid them. But overall the Navy grew from a ruined and bankrupt fleet at the start of the period, to the première naval force in the world.

The fifth episode of Wartime Farm covered what life was like in 1942. Even more shortages of food and petrol meant that ever smaller scraps of land were being reclaimed to grow crops & ever more ingenious solutions were being devised to run vehicles. I was very impressed by the coal burning furnace that they fitted to an old ambulance so that they could use it as a general purpose truck on the farm without using any petrol. Basically they bolted a coal furnace on the front and ran a pipe from the top through another container filled with heather to purify the coal gas produced, then that went into the engine. They also showed us some old footage of vehicles in towns that had been adapted to run off gas from the mains – they had great balloons on top filled with the gas, and we both winced watching the driver light up his cigarette as he got back in the truck after refilling the gas bag. They also told us about the coal miners – Bevin Boys – who were conscripted for the army and ended up working down the mines instead. I knew that happened, but I hadn’t realised it was 10% of the recruits for the army that did that.

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

Started TV night off last week with the first episode in a series we’d recorded back in February – “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World”. The theme of the series is the history of Britain over the last 400 years, seen through the lens of the Royal Navy. This first episode (Heart of Oak) started with the growth of the navy from a loose coalition of mostly independent ships through to something that is more akin to the modern navy at the end of the 17th Century. The presenter, Dan Snow, started by telling us about the defeat of the Spanish Armada – or rather by telling us about the context for the Spanish Armada. So he told us about Francis Drake’s early career as a slave trader, and of an incident where the Spanish caught him & his cousin trading slaves in Spanish territory in the Americas (which was forbidden to foreigners) and attacked his ships, capturing and executing many of his crew. Drake bore a grudge about this, which he indulged (and was encouraged by the state to indulge) by attacking Spanish shipping and Spanish ports such as Cordoba – and by stealing their treasure. The Armada was thus partly a retaliation for this state sanctioned piracy.

The successful defeat of the Armada encouraged later Stuart adventures such as sending the Navy to harass Cordoba again, but this was an abject failure – because there was no charismatic leader like Drake, and the individual ship captains did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. And this lack of co-ordination, and lack of planning, meant they were not successful. Snow then told us that the first rebellions of Parliament against Charles I were about this poor organisation and funding of the Navy, which isn’t something I’d heard before. After the Restoration Samuel Pepys (the man with the diary) was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, which meant he was in charge of all the administration of the Navy. His talent for organisation was instrumental in starting to form the Navy into a professional military organisation rather than a collection of individual vessels.

It’s an interestingly different take on the history of this period – as it draws out different aspects of things I already knew about. Like I wasn’t aware that Drake had been involved in the slave trade, nor was I aware just how important Pepys was to the Navy. Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.

Episode four of Wartime Farm was primarily about the government inspections of farms during the war to see if they were producing food efficiently enough. By midway through the war the War Agricultural Executive Committees had the power to remove farmers from their land if they weren’t productive enough. Apparently 2000 farmers had their farms taken over during the war, and the programme included the story of one man who refused to be put off his land and in the end died after a siege & a shoot out with police. Not at all the sort of thing I associate with WWII.

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.