“Things they never taught you” redux

I was back in California over the spring, as I may have had cause to mention, to attend my wife’s sister’s wedding. On the day before the ceremony, we made a quick stop by a craft shop to pick up some decorations for the reception. While there, I saw something that really took me back: a whole section of supplies for building one of these.


Now, if you are a Californian this will make perfect sense to you; at some point or another — usually in fourth grade, I think — California schoolkids build a model of one of the missions set up by the Spanish and later Mexico in Alta California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because everyone does it, craft shops actually have a section that’s just full of little brass bells and pantiles and so on. There is an accompanying report; I can’t even remember which one I did (San Francisco Solano?), but I remember that I tucked some authentic string or something into the report as a piece of evidence that I had been there. And someone in the class made a model out of sugar cubes, which if you think about it are more or less the right colour and probably quite easy to work with.

Anyway, my point is that this is a shared historical experience, something that seems common only across a quite limited pool of students — well, OK, millions of them in California, but still not many compared to the world at large. If I recall correctly, it is (or was) part of a philosophy that starts kids out with the history of California, then moves them on to the history of the United States, then the world. Which sounds like a sensible idea in theory, but I don’t recall it actually working like that, so maybe I’m wrong.

Whenever I teach history, I run into these weird little land mines of ignorance. I frequently get students — teenagers, I’m talking about — who don’t know who the Pope is, for instance. And I don’t mean the current Pope, I mean they don’t know what a Pope is. And it’d be easy to decry that as the ignorance of the young, but I don’t think that’s it, necessarily. I mean, there is a lot of stuff to take in, and people often don’t know what students don’t know.

I’ve spoken in the past, I think, about how there will always be these articles about the things they don’t teach you in school, and how whenever I read one of those it turns out to be about something they taught me in school. Like, you’ll often hear that schools don’t teach about west African medieval empires, but mine sure did. I still remember seeing a full-page painting of a king of Mali sitting there contemplating a block of salt. Or maybe Ghana.


Although certainly many don’t cover that topic. But that’s what I mean; there seems to be a lot of variation, and my schools left out a lot of stuff as well. What they didn’t cover I didn’t even know about until I came to university here in the UK and realised I knew nothing about British history. And I thought of myself as an Anglophile …

Part of the problem is that history doesn’t have a natural progression like, say, math. I’m sure there’s some discretion in the order in which you teach math, but fundamentally you need to know how to do this thing before you do the next thing, at least at a basic school level. With history, not so much. Everything connects to everything else in every direction, and even if you adopt a strictly chronological model you’re going to leave some parts of the world out. I would guess everyone has some part of history that they just remained profoundly ignorant about until it was embarrassingly revealed.

What’s yours?

“Things they never taught you” redux

TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

Having ploughed my way through various other historical series over the last few weeks, I turned to Turn, which has been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon since forever. The show is based on Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, which I picked up the last time I was in the US and then seem to have somehow left behind. So I know not as much about the specific history as I should, although I’m pretty up on my American War of Independence, having read it up a year or two ago.

So the show follows a farmer from a Loyalist family, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) who becomes a spy for the Continental army. He teams up with some childhood friends and his former sweetheart, while a shitheel British officer (Burn Gorman) and various other ruffians pursue him. The organisation is what would go on to be known to historians as the Culper Ring. And the show … it’s OK, I guess.

But boy oh boy, this is the least tense spy show I have ever seen. I have not risen above historical curiosity at any point in the proceedings. It’s like nobody told them that espionage shows were supposed to be deadly games of cat and mouse; I do not give a shit if Abe Woodhull gets on with his father or the gruff Scottish officer tracks down Seth Numrich’s idealistic young dragoon, especially not if he’s going to take umpty-million episodes to do it. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but damn. Things start to pick up around episode 6 or 7, with some intrigues and battles and stuff, but that is way too far into a 10-episode season for things to start to pick up.

And yet I keep watching it with apparent enjoyment. Why is that?


Partly it may just be that I have a certain amount of historical drama that I consume to stay happy. Often I’ll be painting, or tidying or doing something else that doesn’t require too much language, and I’ll just throw a bland historical show on, or a cop show where two people bicker while they solve a crime. I know it’s not high drama, but I’m OK with that fact. So maybe I just like my usual dose of old-timey houses and muskets and so on. Also Stephen Root.

Partly I think that this show is good with a few things that I like in my history, namely ambiguity and fun details. So, for instance, Anna Strong (Heather Lind) is outraged by the government confiscating her family’s property because her husband is a rebel. But the scene where this happens is interwoven with a scene of her slaves receiving the knowledge that they’re going to be freed. And when she goes to complain to Major Hewlett, he just tells her that slavery is bad, mmkay, and is illegal in Britain (since 1772!). One of the pro-British characters is Jordan (Aldis Hodge), an ex-slave who gets the usual tough-guy soldier story, complete with dazzling likable baddie Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) with his mad capoiera-or-equivalent-thereof skills. I’m not sure that’s quite historical exactly, but it’s the kind of exciting stuff a white guy would get to do in a show like this one, so hey.

Anyway, I guess I’m just saying that it would be possible to do a show like this one as a conventional heroes-and-villains thing, and this programme doesn’t. There are decent, civilised British officers, there are thugs and bullies on both sides, and the issues of the war are not ignored.

I think I like the little details quite a lot more, though. I’m trying to think of some good examples, but the only one that really leaps to mind is that when Anna turns up to infiltrate the drunken party that Abe is also infiltrating, they’re singing a drinking song with a familiar melody:

There were a few niggles, I felt:

  • I wasn’t wholly convinced about some of the language. Did 18th-century people really say things like “all clear” (possibly) or “chunder-bucket” (less sure)? Other examples: “the way forward,” “cross-reference,” “one-time deal.” Maybe these really are all Georgianisms; I haven’t checked.
  • The story of the Culper Ring has been moved back in time slightly; the show is set in 1776 and 1777, although the ring wasn’t actually formed until a little later. I guess this is to fit in with well-known historical moments like the battle of Trenton, so fair enough.
  • The usual simplifications and make-this-seem-like-a-new-idea-isms.
  • Jamie Bell’s leather coat may be authentic, but it looks idiotic. By contrast, his little woolen hat is amazing.
  • Also, either he is minute or he has been put next to some huge actors, like Samuel Roukin, who plays Simcoe and just absolutely towers over him.
  • It is not OK to put the Turtle submarine in the opening credits and then not have it in the actual show. What the hell.

I’m definitely going to give Season 2 a watch; it’s not the world’s greatest thing, but it has some good moments despite its overall lack of tension and drama. Apparently the second season is better than the first, which is the wrong way to go about it. I just worry that the things I like about it are the things that actually make it frankly pretty uncompelling television.

(Edit: Jamie Bell, not Jamie Bamber. I always get those two mixed up.)

TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

Movie Monday: Pompeii (2014)

I know this isn’t strictly a Movie Monday type of film, but I was bored and it was on Amazon.


I’m not going to bother summarising the plot, because there’s a wonderful review by our own skerryflower over on sister blog The Bad Movie Marathon. So I’m just going to say that I spent the first thirty or forty-five minutes of this thing wondering about some of the oddball choices the filmmakers had made, such as calling Jon Snurr “the Celt” in a setting where the vast majority of people, insofar as anyone said “Celt,” would think of themselves as Celts.

And then I realised something about the structure of this film which I will express in visual form.


All of it makes sense then! Russel Crowe is “the Spaniard,” which makes (sort of) sense since he isn’t actually in Spain and therefore it’s a distinctive trait. So Kit Harrington is “the Celt” even though that’s like a guy in Texas calling himself Texas Pete.

Though I’m not convinced that term was in common use any more than I’m convinced that Pompeii saw itself as a totally distinct polity menaced by Rome rather than a part of the Roman empire. But whatever; this is a Rome movie, so Rome has to be the evil empire no matter how wildly inappropriate that concept is.

Movie Monday: Pompeii (2014)

A Pint of Science

Last night we went to a science festival in a pub. Specifically, we went to The Boathouse for a Pint of Science session. This is a series of talks by scientists in different fields, with the talks grouped around a particular theme. Six venues have a session each over the three days of the festival, and I believe each session has three talks, for a total of 54. Ours was Into the Darkness, which was about death. My background being mainly in funerary archaeology, I was really interested to see what would come up; I was familiar with the work of two of the three speakers and excited to hear more.


The talk sold out — indeed, I believe every session sold out, which is pretty impressive considering this is all also happening during the Cambridge Beer Festival. The venue for our talk was the upstairs room at the Boathouse; I used to game there, which was a slightly odd contrast. They even had a special beer for the festival, which I did not have any of. Again, clever.

One unusual feature of this festival is that each speaker is paired with an artist who creates something based on the subject of the talk. There’s an exhibit of these artworks on Thursday, so if you’re reading this in Cambridge there’s still time to check them out. It’s free!

I’m not going to go into huge detail about the talks: I took 12 pages of notes, though, so there was a lot to take in. This is just edited highlights.

First up was Dr Corinne Duhig, who talked about her experiences as a forensic archaeologist/anthropologist in Kosovo. Way back in 2007, I co-edited a volume of ARC about “the disturbing past” — Ian Hanson wrote a fascinating piece on the same topic for it. People who know more about forensic archaeology than I do were probably less alarmed by phrases like “then, in went the mine-detecting dogs.” The centre of the piece was “the clothesline,” which was also the topic of the painting by Barbara Nasto that went with this piece. Once the investigation was done, Duhig and her colleagues washed the victims’ clothes and the blankets their bodies were wrapped in, then hung them up on a long series of clotheslines outside the morgue. Bereaved relatives would walk along the ever-lengthening rows looking for clothes that had belonged to their loved ones. The painting is a bright scene of colourful blankets hanging on a line with a bright red building or shipping container in the background; the container is full of dead bodies and the blankets are from murder victims’ graves. I was particularly struck when someone asked Dr Duhig about her motivation and she replied “hatred.” She also told a story about going to the Hague to a different part of the war-crimes tribunal just to get close to Slobodan Milosevic — “to get as close as possible to … one’s enemy, I suppose.”

I thought Duhig was going to be a tough act to follow, but I had confidence in Dr John Robb, who did not disappoint. His talk was on “how to achieve a social life after death” and was about the active role that the dead continue to play in the social lives of communities — and how modern Western society, in which this is downplayed, is really the exception rather than the norm. However, he pointed out that “we believe different things that are incompatible” about the dead — we simultaneously view death as an instant transition to an inanimate state and we treat the dead as if they’re still around. Consider the idea of “owing something” to the dead — it’s ridiculous to think you can owe something to an inanimate object. He also mentioned the story of a woman who received texts from her dead grandmother, the precaution of burying Osama bin Laden at sea, and the Hand of Glory, so this was a wide-ranging talk. I was pleased to see the “Robb Scale of Research Believability” which ranges from “Publish in Nature” at one end to “mention in the pub, but only after five pints; deny at all other times.” The accompanying artwork by Liza Read was a hologram in a little black casket; once you got close enough to look at it, you saw a little frog skeleton staring back at you. It reminded me (intentionally?) of Dead Like Me: 

Last up was Professor Clive Oppenheimer, who talked about volcanoes, their potential for death and destruction and the ways in which this is sometimes overlooked — but also some of the good sides(?). I had much less background in this one, and I’m sure there are things I didn’t know that would be obvious to someone who knew anything about the subject — like that 10% of the world’s population lives within a relatively short distance (100 km?) of a volcano. I also discovered that Cambridge contains something called the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which studies events that could wipe out the human race. That is baller extreme. I missed the name of the artists who created the “Angry Mountain Pendant” that went with this talk, though.

So yeah — three great talks, audience seemed to like it, congenial surroundings, home in time for bed. There was also a pub quiz; I missed one question, but still won a t-shirt. My wife won a goodie bag that also contained a t-shirt as well as various other goodies; notepad, pen, that kind of thing.

There are no more spaces left for this year’s talks, but I definitely recommend it for next year.

A Pint of Science

TV Tuesday: Black Sails

Ads for Black Sails were plastered all over the place when it hit Amazon/Lovefilm last year, presumably because ol’ Number 2 wanted something to rival the various prestige dramas Netflix had. And it’s …

… it’s OK, I guess. I keep watching it for some reason. It does have a great title sequence.

I like pirates; that’s no secret. I mean, everyone likes pirates, but I’m fascinated by the history behind the yarr-me-hearties stuff. The golden age of piracy is one of those periods in that mushy zone between a weak state and total anarchy where all kinds of odd stuff happens — and our knowledge of it is brought to us mainly by a sensationalist British press that simultaneously wanted to condemn pirate barbarity and tell thrilling tales about their adventures.

So not much has changed there!

As a TV show, this thing is all over the map. It’s a prequel to Treasure Island, which is kind of a neat idea, but it’s got the usual problem where it can’t decide if it’s an episodic adventure show or a long-form drama so it keeps going in narrative circles. It can only afford to do big battles with ships and cannons and stuff every now and again, so the middle of each season is a wasteland of people talking in brothels. And as for the brothel … uch.

No, hang on, I will say that for all this series’ corny porny brothel bullshit its main heroic character is (spoilers) a gay pirate, and his same-sex love affair is his big noble motivation. So good on them for that; it was getting weird to see a show about sailors with no homosexuality at all. But there’s still a lot of “the viewers might think this scene is boring so we’ll put some titties in it.” And, as always, the prostitutes in the 18th-century Bahamas are suspiciously attractive. But then so are the pirates! Some of them, anyway, in that rugged outdoorsy way we’re finding attractive again these days.

The thing that I think is really interesting about this setting is its insistence on making people look “realistic,” even when that may not be anything like the historical sources. So in the show, Charles Vane looks like this:

Hello, ladies.

You can tell it’s realistic! He’s covered in grime! He has lots of greebling, with bracelets and bracers (for why?) and a tiny dirty scarf! But insofar as we know anything about what the historical Charles Vane looked like, it’s:

Good day, gentlewomen!
Good day, gentlewomen!

I understand that they want to make people look visually distinct and so on, and there is one pirate captain who dresses much like he does in A General History of the PyratesBenjamin Hornigold. But I think that the typical viewer sees Vane above as much more “authentic” than Vane below, despite his … leather … girdle … thing.

For all I know, there’s a historical inspiration for the leather girdle thing somewhere, but it has a certain Hollywoody whiff about it to my admittedly-inexpert senses.

There are some very broad historical themes in evidence, like the British government’s attempt to bring the Bahamas in line without spending too much money on it, or the way that piracy and respectable trade were closely connected to each other, or the fact that there were lots of ordinary people just trying to go about their lives with all these damn pirates around. There’s even kind of a Utopian political aspect, which is either a nod to the idea of Libertatia or a desire to emulate Deadwood.

So anyway, yes, it’s been two seasons of looking for that One Big Score in an ever-widening circle of complications, and although it makes pleasant noise to have on when thinking about something else, and although there are actually some clever bits in it here and there, I’m not sure I can recommend the whole twenty hours or whatever it is. I just watch a lot of television because I like having noise and colour around when I’m working alone at home.

TV Tuesday: Black Sails

Diversity and complexity

A recent discussion about diversity on television prompted me to take a look at something I didn’t know much about: the history of African-Americans in Federal law enforcement. It all started with a conversation about the renewal of Agent Carter and a comment by veteran comics editor Rachel Edidin that it would be nice to see greater diversity in the series (of which she is a fan). I have not seen the show (which is not out in the UK), but the conversation this started raised some interesting points.


Some people on Twitter responded by saying that a US government agency in the 1940s would not be a place where you’d find a lot of minorities. Edidin replied by pointing out that in fact the first African-American FBI agent, James Wormley Jones, joined the Bureau in 1919 — by which point he’d already been a police officer in Washington, DC and an officer in the army.

So a) it isn’t necessarily implausible for there to be black agents in an intelligence agency and b) even if it were, Marvel has a long (if not always consistent or particularly well-managed) legacy of promoting inclusion. Take the original lineup of Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos, which included a black soldier, Gabriel Jones, even though the US military was not integrated during WWII (that is, there were many black soldiers, but they served in all-black units).

Curiously, colourists do not always seem to have got the message that Gabe -- the guy with the trumpet next to Dum Dum -- was black.
That’s him there with the trumpet. Kirby adds black character with cornball gimmick — hold the front page.

Anyway, James Wormley Jones. An interesting guy — but what I hadn’t seen mentioned in this discussion is what Jones did at the Bureau. After all, why did J. Edgar Hoover need black agents? He needed them to spy on “subversive” organisations campaigning for black rights — like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was Jones’s beat. I’m sure he did other things as well — after all, he was a regular cop in Washington, not some undercover red-hunter. But that’s the one that stands out the most.

I realise tradition demands that I present a photo of Marcus Garvey in a big silly hat, but nah.

So on the one hand, yes, there were African-American FBI agents early in the agency’s history. On the other hand, they were still at least partly agents of a racist agenda. On the other other hand, they present Hoover’s agenda in a more complex and interesting light, with lots of potential for character development and compelling story. But if you don’t want to do that — like, say, if you’re just a spy show about action and hijinks and stuff — you can’t hide behind “but they didn’t have black people back then.”

Which isn’t to say that every period of history in every part of the world looked like modern America, which some people sometimes assume it did. But this is modern America we’re talking about here. More or less.

Anyway, I thought Jones was an interesting guy and I was pleased that that discussion pointed me to him.

Diversity and complexity

Movie Monday: Joan of Arc (1999), Part Two

It's the same movie, OK?
It’s the same movie, OK?

Following last week’s cinematic delight, I fired up the ol’ Amazon again this week and watched the second half of 1999 Leelee-Sobieski-vehicle-stroke-The-Messenger-mockbuster Joan of Arc. I feel sort of guilty because I’m going to do this write-up without being particularly funny. I am torn between two impulses.

My first thought is that in terms of filmmaking, this is not what your cineastes call a “good” film. I would feel bad comparing it to The Messenger except that it’s so clearly intended to be. And it’s … I mean, it’s clearly got a big budget for a 1999 TV series, and it’s got some good actors in it, even though many of them are kind of weirdly cast. But over it all hangs that cloud of made-for-TV inadequacy, with its grommet shirts and its stringmail and its occasionally-clever, often-clumsy dialogue.

Thing is, it is in many ways actually a better account of the life of Joan of Arc than its contemporary film. Partly this is just because it’s longer; it doesn’t condense so many characters because it actually has time to introduce the various minor ones; similarly, it can show more of the complexities of the situation. Partly it’s because it’s more grounded in the medieval period than in individual psychology; that might just be me that considers that a good thing.

Allow me to summarise: Joan is riding high after the coronation, but she starts to harbour secret doubts. She leads an attack on Paris that goes disastrously wrong, basically because Joan, uncertain of her faith, doubled down and went extra-fanatical on it. Her brother is killed in the attack and she has a big crisis of faith. La Hire also loses his conviction.

Meanwhile the king wants to make a deal with the Burgundians but Joan is against it. She goes to reconcile with her mum and dad, but it doesn’t quite work out; still, we see that Powers Boothe misses her and worries about her. She squabbles with Bishop Cauchon, and a panicky church reassigns him — to Burgundian territory. Charles begins to think that an impetuous, fanatical commander with the loving loyalty of the army is not such a great thing to have; he sends Joan on a suicide mission into enemy-held territory.


Joan is captured — she sees that this is all a trap but wants Charles to learn how to be a good king or something — and the trial goes along, with Cauchon presiding. But as it progresses, it becomes clear that Cauchon is actually trying to get to the bottom of Joan’s perceived heresy, while everyone else is just trying to railroad her to the stake. Shirley Maclaine has a basically uncalled-for cameo.

Meanwhile, love interest Jean teams up with La Hire to stage some kind of desperate last-minute rescue mission. This is all a bit pointless, since as we all know Joan gets burned at the stake. A text bit at the end informs us that her heart didn’t burn, which seems like a weird thing to care about if the rest of you did.

I mean … it’s the story of Joan of Arc, and that’s more or less what it is. But like all well-known historical stories, the filmmaker doesn’t seem to be quite sure where to locate the story’s conflict. Some versions of the story try to take it in the direction of wondering whether the voices are divine or demented, while this one tends to take a more political tack, as well as trying to have the thwarted love story or the tension between Joan and her father. But no one thing really takes off as the central conflict, and it just becomes a stroll through the history, simplified and often quite directly explained.

I have no idea why Part 1 got only one-star reviews, while Part 2 got four- and five-star reviews. They’re not that different, and this movie is neither that bad nor that good.

Movie Monday: Joan of Arc (1999), Part Two

Robot Face Smith: Holidayish Special!












I’m not making this up, like I said. Loyalty Day! Pro tip: when someone says there are parades in communities like Batavia, that means they don’t have anywhere more exciting than Batavia to talk about.

Ah, I dunno. People want to have a parade, they went to celebrate the military, that’s cool; they should do whatever they want. It just irks me that millions of people turned out back in the day for that shit.


Robot Face Smith: Holidayish Special!