The Living Dead

Economist Paul Krugman talks about “zombie ideas” — that is, notions that have long since been disproven either by economics or just experience but which nonetheless continue to be part of political discussions, possibly because they just sound right and possibly because they provide a political or social reward for their adherents.

I think about this at Halloween, not just because zombies are seasonally appropriate but because the story of Halloween itself is something of a zombie idea.


That is, anyone who knows anything about European history knows that the idea that “Halloween is an ancient pagan festival” is pretty much guff — it is on the same date as a pagan celebration, but there’s no evidence they have anything in common, and there’s no continuity between the two (note that the Ronald Hutton article I’ve linked has a headline that suggests some kind of deeper meaning to Halloween, but the text of the article doesn’t support it).

And yet, it’s an incredibly persistent idea, together with the broader idea of pagan survival in Christian Europe. Presumably, then, it fulfills some kind of other need. But what? I don’t know, other perhaps than that it’s just a better story that way. People do like a good story.

The Living Dead

Enthusiasm and astronomers.

When I was in high school, I remember reading the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. Even then, reading it made me mad. Observe:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Now perhaps I am being uncharitable to this poem; perhaps it is just the record of an emotion, the expression of a particular experience. To me at the time it symbolised the idea, to which I was constantly exposed, that you can’t appreciate the beauty of something if you study it or know a lot about it — that analysis and beauty, or analysis and art, are opposed. If you’re reading this, I expect you disagree with that too.
Anyway, I was reminded of that while I was reading a book I’m doing a review of. It’s Werewolf Histories, and I am really looking forward to finishing it up and seeing my review come out:

As it happens, I know one of the contributors to this volume and I happen to know for a certain fact that he is not only the man to deliver an in-depth analysis of shape-changing and animal identities in medieval north-western Europe, but also a dude who just likes werewolves. Like, enjoys a good werewolf movie, digs on werewolf games, just likes monsters. And I don’t want to speak for him, but I know that I wouldn’t have wound up studying the things I studied if I weren’t excited about them, if I didn’t appreciate and enjoy them on a fundamental level.
And for a certain type of person — perhaps not everyone — when you really like something, one way you can express that enjoyment is by studying it. And knowing a lot about doesn’t affect how much you enjoy it — in fact, to me it usually enhances it, unless it turns out that the thing is fundamentally boring.
There are people who struggle to communicate that joy when they talk about the thing they love, but that can also just be because they’re explaining advanced material. That doesn’t mean they’ve taken all the fun out of the thing — sometimes it just means you need to get on their level.
Enthusiasm and astronomers.

Movie Monday: Helen Keller vs Nightwolves (2015)


If you’re a product of the American educational system, you’ve probably been through the story of Helen Keller at least once — usually in the form of the play The Miracle Worker  (which is in turn based on Keller’s autobiography). This heartwarming, inspirational stuff about a dedicated teacher helping a deaf and blind girl learn to communicate is the image most of us have of Keller. What most schools don’t mention is Keller’s lifelong career of radical activism; she helped found the ACLU, supported Eugene V. Debs and was a member of the IWW.

That’s the usual course for a historical icon — the controversial aspects get smoothed over and they get Hollywood-ised. We’ve seen it happen to others, so it’s no surprise it happened to Keller.

But there’s another part of Keller’s history that doesn’t get mentioned much in schools, and that is her complex history with wolf attacks. Until now, that is: director St. James St. James has finally brought the tale of Keller’s battle with these unholy predators to the small screen. You can check out the whole thing free on Youtube:

I learned a lot from Helen Keller vs Nightwolves, mostly about the dangers of nightwolf attacks in small-town America in the early 20th century and the heroic measures needed to resist them. I also didn’t realise that there were quite so many swords or Tombstone references around the Keller household. I found it nearly as informative as Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter. There are a lot of similarities, although the bitchin’ theme song in Helen Keller comes at the beginning rather than at the end, which I feel is probably an improvement.

Movie Monday: Helen Keller vs Nightwolves (2015)

I am throughly weary

Some combination of talking a lot and being ill has laid me low today, so don’t expect anything very exciting from me until next week (but my post for Movie Monday will hopefully be very exciting). I am mainly catching up on paperwork, drinking lots of chamomile tea and feeling sorry for myself.

Sorry, everyone. I have some time off next week, so I will try to make up for it with some more detailed blog posts.

I am throughly weary

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

I have made no secret of my ambivalence about the new version of Doctor Who — I recognise that it isn’t for me, and clearly people do like it, and yet I still can’t quite get over its combination of fun, creative episodes, strong performances, cringe-inducing schmaltz and absolute disregard for the basics of plot construction.

But this one has Vikings in, so let’s have a look.

The opening is a fun little bit of business, but I confess to being unreasonably annoyed by the horned helmets. Goofy-looking ornate helmets were OK when you did them in 1964 (or ’65, whatever), but in 2015 it is literally the one thing that everyone knows about Vikings.

The houses of the Viking village are OK, which makes me wonder if they filmed it at some kind of open-air museum and then added a bunch of dipshits in studded-leather jerkins. Also, the Vikings thump themselves on the chest like primitive warriors do in every TV show ever.

Aliens show up in actual wobbly, goofy power armour and do a Valkyrie bit. I am legit astounded that they did not make them sexy lady valkyries. There is a mid-episode cliffhanger — does this show have ad breaks? It doesn’t, right? Anyway, Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones is in it and she doesn’t have a lot to do initially.

Guys in early medieval outfits necking vials of glowing stuff makes me think of Terminus.


Anyway, the baddies are apparently “one of the deadliest warrior races in the galaxy,” a field which, as a colleague points out, is getting pretty crowded.

It seems petty to quibble about these characters identifying themselves as “Vikings,” which is of course a much more complicated term. But then we all use it generically even when we say we shouldn’t.

There’s a runestone in the background of one shot that’s painted in bright primary colours, which is a nice touch — but then there are wooden dummies with Roman helmets on them. So it’s got these little touches that are quite clever, but most of it is just panto.

The plot hinges on the Vikings having a load of electric eels in some buckets, which is impressive considering that electric eels only live in South America. Again, it seems churlish to complain, but this is the kind of kiddy science and kiddy history that used to be the only thing Doctor Who could kinda-sorta get right. I guess they do do some schoolkid science with an electromagnet.

I wonder if you could make a list of all the Doctor Who villains who have snarled “what trickery is this?!” at the Doctor.

Everyone is very happy at the end considering all their dads and husbands and brothers and neighbours were rendered into a testosterone-laden slurry yesterday. But I guess not dying is important.

There is a completely uncalled-for Giant Emotional Moment, of course, and a last-minute twist that is not set up at any point earlier in the story. It’s like they write them as they film them. Look, guys, I am not an award-winning screenwriter, but here’s a thought — when you have an idea for a shocking revelation, that’s cool. Now go back and put in some words in the script earlier that make it seem like you didn’t just pull it out of your asses. It’s easy and it’s fun! Like, if you are going to use a device that has miraculous powers, maybe mention its existence before your main character suddenly and inexplicably remembers it right at the end. For instance, he could refer to that technology when describing the alien race who created it. See how easy and fun that was? Now you try it!

Doctor Who historicals have always been about blending science fiction with historical adventure stories, more or less, and this is no exception. It would have been nice to be able to say that the modern show, with its huge budget and prestige, was doing a better job of the history than the show in the Hartnell era, but no such luck.

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

Things I know nothing about.

At the moment I’m teaching and tutoring a lot of different students doing a lot of different subjects. In addition to the class I teach — which is your basic overview world history class — I’ve also got kids doing a range of different historical periods, including at least two that, I’m gonna be frank, I know less than I’d like about. One includes an area I have pretty good coverage on, so I’m just waiting for the war to start so that I can be knowledgeable again. The other … pffft.

I mean, I take my teaching seriously so I’m doing my reading and trying to catch up — and most of what I teach is ‘how to history’ rather than dates-and-places stuff anyway. But it’s been a long time since I had to really stretch my brain outside my comfort zone like this. It’s an interesting feeling.

I am not really a real teacher, but I do spend quite a lot of my life teaching and tutoring; funny how that works out. But it’s amazing how much you discover you don’t know. I would be astounded if anyone came straight out of a history degree knowing all the areas you’re supposed to cover. Some of them are very specific (that’s the nature of the British system; anyone who’s taken an American high school history class could theoretically teach one as long as they could teach, but British courses go very deep on a very narrow set of subjects). There’d definitely be areas you’d need to read up on, and probably at least one topic you knew absolutely nothing about.

I don’t know how true that is in all subjects — I’m sure English teachers wind up being asked to teach books they’ve never even heard of too.

Anyway, that is my teaching-related thought for today. Come back next week when we’re going to be doing some TV-watching … and the week after that, I’ve got a special American history episode of Movie Monday!

Things I know nothing about.