What I’ve been up to

Things have been quiet on this blog lately, due to a combination of factors — I haven’t been well, work has been busy, and I’ve felt myself a little lacking in things to say. That being the case, I thought I’d do a quick catch-up on what I’ve been doing, just to kind of get the writing juices flowing again.

Still volunteering at the museum. I continue to volunteer a little time each week at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. I work behind the scenes, in the archive, and it’s mostly paperwork and, like, putting up shelves. This is surprisingly interesting and fun. When you go to a museum, you should remember that whatever collections are on display, they’re probably on shelves. And if they’re on shelves, somebody had to put them up.

I kid, but I find this very rewarding.

I started a new podcast. It’s not really about history per se, although do get into folklore and mythology and other nerdy stuff at times. Well, I say nerdy — it’s all nerdy, just a different kind of nerdy. It’s called Monster Man, and it’s just me reading my way through the 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition Monster Manual and talking about all the monsters therein. You can check it out here, or subscribe on your favourite podcast app. Episodes are short — about 10 minutes — and they come out every Tuesday and Friday.

Teaching has started again. I usually spend the first month or two filling up my teaching and tutoring schedule, but my normal classes are underway. I feel like I’m getting the hang of the admin side of my classes, which is pretty good considering that I’ve now been teaching them for five or six years. I need to figure out some more enjoyable activities for my students. I feel like for years I’ve been trying to teach the kind of classes I would have enjoyed when I was young, which is not at all the same kind of thing as the kind of classes most people enjoy.

Some upcoming travel. It’s my birthday later this month, and I’m hoping to spend some time in London seeing the sights and maybe checking out the Scythians exhibit at the British Museum. So hopefully there’ll be writeups of whatever I see on my travels.

Anyway: this is just to say I’m not dead, and hopefully I’ll have some more posts up here soon.

What I’ve been up to

Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

“But James,” you say, “although it has a historical setting, Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch isn’t a historical film per se — it’s a horror movie.”


Well, OK. You’ve got me there. But unlike a lot of the movies I watch for this thing, it’s pretty good — the rare Movie Monday film that I wish I’d seen on the big screen, not for the visual spectacle, but just because I wouldn’t have been constantly distracting myself with other things as one does in one’s living room.

So, fine, whatever, it’s a horror movie that I liked, which is a rare enough thing. But the really interesting thing to me was the way in which The Witch uses its historical setting as part of its horror.

There are plenty of historical horror films, of course, and they’re mostly pretty dire: zombie movies but with knights, or things that presume all kinds of nonsense about witches and witch hunting. But this one tries to use its historical setting as an aspect of its horror.

That’s interesting because … hmm. This is tough to discuss if you haven’t seen the film.

A lot of horror movies deal with the idea of belief in the supernatural. You might get a film that’s couched in a belief in supernatural evil like The Exorcist, something where a supernatural evil takes out a bunch of materialistic moderns who don’t believe in it, like your typical mummy movie, or one where people’s belief in the supernatural is what leads to horror in a mundane world, like The Wicker Man.

The Witch doesn’t precisely follow either of those models. I don’t want to spoil the film, but this is a story where the historical mindset is genuinely relevant to the plot and characters, but neither the modern worldview nor the historical one is really “true.” Indeed, the audience’s presumed modern worldview is kind of … implicated isn’t the right word but I don’t know what the right word is … in the development of the horror.

This is interesting, because I think that’s quite rare for a historical piece that isn’t itself an adaptation of an older work. I’m not saying it’s some perfect evocation of 17th-century thinking; it’s a two-hour movie and I’m hardly an expert on that subject anyway. But it seems to be at least taking its effort to analyse and empathise with a pretty alien way of thinking seriously, which is something I’m always interested to see.

Anyway, tl;dr it’s pretty good.


Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

Do I have to do the monuments thing?

This chart from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows construction dates of Confederate monuments.

So, in the last few weeks, the issue of historical commemoration has come up a lot in the news, with predictable (and presumably self-interested) expressions of concern about preserving history, good and bad. I’m referring of course to the controversy over preserving or removing statues of Confederate leaders in the southern United States (and, bizarrely, in places where the Confederacy didn’t really happen, like Arizona).

I don’t want to explain what others have explained many times, so let me get the obvious stuff out of the way in bullet points:

  • Despite the name, Confederate statues do not (mostly) date from the Confederacy period. They are mostly from the late 19th and early 20th century or even from the 60s. They represent periods of racial resentment and serve to create a narrative of “our” past, where “our” specifically excludes African-Americans.
  • Many other figures of historical importance are commemorated despite their flaws. For instance, George Washington owned slaves, Woodrow Wilson was a racist jerk, Winston Churchill was Winston Churchill, and so on. But these people are not commemorated for the awful things they did (mostly), and in history classes they are usually taught in a nuanced way (at least in my experience). Quick, name something else Nathan Bedford Forrest did that would account for all these statues of him.
  • The US government has historically adopted a calculated policy of leniency toward what can only be described as traitors taken in arms against it. This was the result of specific historical circumstances, including but not limited to the desire to return to some kind of economic stability following a costly war and also a fundamental sympathy to the aims of white supremacy.
  • Not everyone who thinks Confederate statues should be preserved is a racist, but there is a significant overlap that non-racists who oppose their removal need to think hard about.
  • A museum would be a fine place for some of these things, but most could be scrapped without any real loss to the historical or aesthetic value of the areas they’re in.
  • If their purpose is to tell us about an ugly period of American history, which is indeed a valuable purpose, it’s kind of a shame that there aren’t more statues honouring the enslaved people of the era and their struggles — and if you think their purpose is to tell us about an ugly etc., then surely you agree with that statement.

OK, so those are the specific issues of the Confederate statue removal issue. It’s amazing to me that people are just coming to it now, honestly: “both sides” commemoration was something I discussed during my undergrad admission interview at Cambridge (we were talking about postage stamps in those days), and that was in 1996.

You can see parallels in British public commemoration: the most common example would be when some civic philanthropist type turns out to have made his money in the slave trade. People don’t like that because it shows some kind of ambiguity: Jeremiah Whatsisface gave money to the orphans! But he was also a slaver! Whaaaaat? Surely two things can’t be true! The problem, of course, is that statues hold up the whole person as a unitary image.

I think that a lot of people feel that way about Civil War statues, thanks to a media tendency to portray Southern generals as noble and heroic. Robert E. Lee was dignified, courteous and good at being a general. That’s good! But he fought for slavery, although he said it was reluctantly. That’s bad! People don’t like that conflict. They want him to be just a good guy. I don’t think that people who want the statues torn down want Lee to be just a bad guy; they just seem to think (correctly, I would say) that people who fought for bad causes but were not Doctor Doom don’t necessarily merit a billion heroic equestrian monuments.

We don’t seem to have this problem in other conflicts. Erwin Rommel was a nice guy by WWII German standards, which isn’t saying much, but that’s turned him into a chivalrous character in popular imagination. And yet there are not a lot of statues to him in France for some mysterious reason. People seem to have figured out which of the two factors is more important.

Ultimately, and I can’t believe I’m saying this in the context of the murderous clown show we’ve been witnessing over the past few weeks, this is a discussion about the purpose of public history. Are these statues educational? Inspirational? Are they expressions of mourning? Here we see the frustrating ambiguity of historical symbols and the ways in which bad actors can use that ambiguity to slip and slide from one meaning to another. (Well, honestly, everyone does that, just not necessarily with malicious or deceptive intent.)

Leaving out the racism and the people getting murdered, this is a real boon to some of my teaching. One of the things that I try to stress to my students who aren’t really big history fans (it’s a mandatory course for one of my student groups) is that people will use the language of history to try to influence them, and that they need to speak it in order to really understand that.

Not that I think this is some great teachable moment about public commemoration. I think it’s a mess. I’m just trying to get what good I can out of it.

Do I have to do the monuments thing?

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

Poster - Taras Bulba_02

OK, here’s the scene: it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in December 1962, you’re all tired out from a hard week at work and you just want to go see a movie. So you go to the cinema, you’re looking at the ads, and you find a movie with a silly name, but you think, y’know, it’s Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, it’s got horses and swords and jumping off things and Panavision … this will pass the time.

By those standards, Taras Bulba is a fine film. It’s got everything you want, really. Landscapes, swordfights, grappling, betrayals, a love story, people charging around on horses, poorly contextualised stunts, Tony Curtis looking intently at stuff, battles, explosions, feats of strength, a daring break-in or two. Heck, it’s even got a few songs. It’s big, it’s bright, a bunch of stuff happens, and no one was ever meant to take it seriously. It’s got a heck of a good score, too.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing, by the way: if you don’t like people brandishing sabres, this is not the movie for you.

So anyway, as I have said, by the standards of the big-screen historical epic, this definitely is one. Better than The Conqueror, I’ll tell you that much. But I have to admit I lost interest by the end; by modern standards there’s quite a lot of padding on it, and the corny stereotypes are distracting.

I’ve talked before about how much the historical epic genre owes to 19th-century Romantic nationalism, often in the form of 19th-century novels, and this one is no exception. It’s based on a short novel or novella by Gogol, which is in turn loosely based on the history of various conflicts between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The film turns a lot of the ethnic hatred in the text into generic free-people-versus-tyranny stuff, and also leaves out the Jewish stereotypes, which is nice. It also ignores quite a lot of the rest of the story, at least as I understand it (I haven’t read the novel). The book had two editions; an 1835 one that the Russian authorities considered too Ukrainian, and an 1842 one that was more solidly pro-Russian. The film just ignores all that stuff, not mentioning either Russia or Ukraine anywhere.

I don’t think you’ll learn anything about Cossack culture or Ukrainian history from this, to be honest; it’s just the usual Hollywood barbarian stuff. They’re wild! They’re free! They love life but live by a strict code! They have virtues that snooty city folk ignore! You know the kind of thing.

So, yeah, it’s OK; it’s just a mostly content-free adventure movie with a Romeo-and-Juliet love story in it and lots of guys in sheepskin hats waving sabres. But if you’re our guy in December 1962 who’s decided he wants to see a big sweeping epic movie in which people ride around on horses and it’s bright and beautiful and there’s drama and great performances, and you’re looking at the movie ads in the paper, well, you know what’s only been out for eight days at this point? Lawrence of Arabia. And as much as Taras Bulba is an OK film, well …

… you know?

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)

We are now several years into the “like Game of Thrones but in [blah]” era of historical television, and it’s been … well, interesting. Some good, some bad, like everything. This one is an interesting fusion of the traditional “admire this ballgown” genre and the newer “boobs and murders” genre. I’m talking about Versailles, which I have so far watched the first couple episodes of. Basically, it gives Louis XIV the treatment, which I guess at least fits the traditional view of that court as a hotbed of intrigue, conspiracy and seduction.


As with all of the high-budget (well, high-budget-looking; I dunno) historical dramas I write about, it does have a good set of opening credits. Performances are varied, from interesting to merely line-reading. I do like the way they give Henrietta a weird accent to indicate that she is from the exotic land of England, while all the French people have English accents.

Something that always bugs me about these shows is that although they give the characters attitudes that are not in keeping with modern attitudes, they’re carefully selected ones. So obviously everyone is always banging on about nobility and guilt and sin and whatnot, since those are 17th-century concepts we find quite cool and romantic. But you never hear Louis talking about, say, how it would be a good idea to oppress all the Protestants. Well, at least you don’t in the first four episodes. Now, I know that Louis’ early reign was marked by more conciliation toward Protestants than his later years, but I also suspect it’s partly to do with the fact that this would be seen as an unpopular view today …

… and just as I’m saying that a plotline turns up in episode 5 about how some of the characters are hiding the fact that they’re Protestants. Oh well.

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)

Doing some hands-on history

This week, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, a small museum here in Cambridge that records the social history of computers and computing, especially in Britain. It has a load of old arcade machines and games consoles that you can play, a classroom where they run computing workshops for students, and lots and lots of items from the history of computers. If you’re at all interested in the history of technology, you should definitely go.

The infamous ET landfill story, including some of the actual landfill!

Anyway, in addition to the usual setting up tables and moving things around, I’ve been working behind the scenes sorting out archive and collections material — which at present just means storing and labeling stuff in a new storage space. But that provokes some very interesting thoughts about digital heritage, which I hope to write about in more detail soon. For now, I just recommend that you check it out if you haven’t!

This 1970s office represents the era when computers started to appear in ordinary offices.
Doing some hands-on history

Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)

Many years ago, maybe in 2002 or so, I was at the Imperial War Museum in London. There was an exhibit on about irregular and guerrilla tactics, and I was struck by the section on assassination. There was a whole big placard that asked whether assassination as a tactic could ever be justified. And then right next to it, there was a huge photo of Reinhard Heydrich, to a nicer guy than whom it could not happen. This is known as framing the question.


Anyway, this thought came to mind as I was watching Anthropoid, Sean Ellis’ 2016 movie about, you guessed it, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak soldiers in 1942. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play two guys parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the British with the goal of killing Heydrich. They make contact with the local resistance and gradually plan the thing, navigating the tactical challenges of the job as well as the political challenges of dealing with the resistance and others.

OK, first: it’s good. Well-directed, good performances, and quite a lot of historical accuracy. The assassination and the subsequent manhunt are depicted in great detail, with minor characters based on historical people and (apparently) careful reconstructions of just about every move of the whole thing. This does have the effect of making it weird when there are fictional characters: for instance, Cillian Murphy’s love interest plays a historical role similar to the real Anna Malinova, but is a different character. For the most part, though, it’s very plausible (I don’t know about “realistic,” but watching it you can definitely see how it could have happened that way).

Historical accuracy in a film about an assassination by resistance fighters means things are pretty brutal in Anthropoid, and the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrible consequences for the main characters’ contacts and allies, and indeed for Czechoslovakia as a whole. Indeed, the whole second half of the film is just the aftermath of the killing: the roundup of anyone even kind of connected to anyone involved, the brutal reprisals, the betrayals, the doomed last stand against the advancing Germans. Thousands were killed, which raises the question of whether killing one guy, no matter how big a villain, was worth it. It puts the relevant arguments in its characters’ mouths a little, but particularly at the end it leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether it was a good idea to blow Heydrich up. It keeps the patriotism to a minimum, too: some Czech characters are seen as defiant patriots, while others are cautious and responsible, self-interested, or just tired of the occupation.

So Anthropoid is a good movie, even if it’s not exactly a laugh a minute with its suicides and torture and severed heads and civilian casualties. It’s well-executed; the minutes before the assassination sequence are almost sickeningly tense. What it isn’t is particularly innovative — it’s a wartime spy drama, and it’s pretty much like every wartime spy drama. That makes sense considering that this is the actual event that a lot of wartime spy dramas are based on.

Unlike a lot of the historical tosh I watch on here, it’s not really a lot of fun but it’s definitely worth a watch. If you don’t know much about the Heydrich assassination, you’ll actually learn some things from it — I was surprised when I did my usual post-film lookup to find how many historical details were replicated. If you do know a lot about it, you probably won’t learn anything new, but it’s still a tense, interesting story.


Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)