The fox knows many tricks

As I mentioned earlier, pal Jesse Merlin and I recently started a podcast in which we talk about classic Doctor Who. It’s called Pledge Break and I can’t figure out how to embed the Libsyn player for some reason* but you can find it here.

This charming guy is our Twitter icon. 

We are both big fans of old-timey Who, of course, but we tend to have “specialties” on the show — that is, Jesse knows about acting and TV-making, and I know about history, so we each talk about our special areas. The thing is that of course the historical and historical-influenced episodes bounce around all over the place. So far on the show I have had to talk about:

  • Saladin, his family and the origins of the Ayyubid Dynasty.
  • Medieval castles and warfare.
  • The Renaissance, broadly, including its dating.
  • Bodiam castle!
  • King John and Magna Carta.
  • Iron Age houses and farms.
  • Arthurian myth and legend.
  • Historical weapons and armour.
  • The 1066 campaign.
  • The dynastic politics of 11th-century northern Europe.
  • The Jacobite rising of 1745 and Jacobites in general.

And that’s for the first season-and-a-bit, i.e. the bit where we have still have many episodes to choose from and don’t have to talk about some stuff I really don’t know anything about, like the French wars of religion or something.

It’s actually pretty good for the brain — one of the nice things about having done as much of this stuff as I’ve done is that I’m usually able to grasp new information pretty quickly. I’m sure I will know a fair amount about religious conflict in France by the time we’re done.

To summarise: listen to my podcast, it’s good. Although the intro’s a bit fuzzy; sorry about that.


*The reason is I am a dumbass.

The fox knows many tricks

I feel like making a badge

… or a sign or something.

As you know, I spend a good deal of my time talking about history to folks. And one of the things I say the most is something like “I’m oversimplifying.” That’s largely because much of that time is spent explaining things quickly — like in a history class, or a tutoring session, or a podcast, or a blog post. It’s been a long, long time since I wrote anything really long.

And honestly, I’m OK with the not-writing-long things part. I am currently writing a project that’s about 40,000 words, so that’s a nice change, but it’s not common. I find that boiling things down to an explanation that’s simple and memorable without being completely wrong is a really pleasing challenge.

But it does involve a lot of simplification.

I think I should get a badge or like a light that would go on that just says oversimplifying. That way I wouldn’t feel guilty about misleading people or feel like I had to provide constant disclaimers.

I feel like making a badge

New podcast: Pledge Break!

I know things have been quiet around here over the last few days, but it’s because I’ve been working away on a new project. Old friend Jesse Merlin and I have a shared love of classic Doctor Who, and our new podcast, “Pledge Break,” is all about that.

But it’s not just two guys reminiscing about old Who — a lot of it is me talking about history and historical fiction, while Jesse, who you may remember from such films as Helen Keller vs Nightwolves, is an actor as well as a hardcore Whovian. Our first episode is the partly-reconstructed The Crusades, and you can check it out in a number of ways:


New podcast: Pledge Break!

TV Tuesday mini-post: more Last Kingdom

So The Last Kingdom continues, and more or less in the vein I presumed it would. Uhtred doesn’t have the brains to close the windows when it snows, Alfred is the kind of devious swine who founds great nations, and Ragnar is a big dumb charming loaf.

The most interesting thing about this episode (which may come from the novel; it’s been many years since I read it and I can’t remember) is the attempt to imagine what being a hostage in the early middle ages actually means. Are you in a cell? Are you an honoured guest? What’s the deal? Presumably the answer is that it varies in awkward ways, but Guthrum’s initial intro was relatively plausible.

The fortress was a bit … castle-y for the early middle ages, but honestly if you were going to lock a dude up in a building, a church might do nicely. I thought Guthrum’s moody, brooding personality was quite good; even if we know pretty much zip about the historical Guthrum in terms of what he was like, this fits with what we know about his behaviour and kiiiiiind of Chesterton’s portrayal of him in The Ballad of the White Horse, so whatever.

I can’t decide whether Ragnar, Guthrum or Uhtred has the stupidest, least appropriate armour. I think it goes to Uhtred for wearing his sword on his back like a dingdong.

It is late and I am for bed; sorry about the delay but I was getting drunk and watching old Shaw Brothers movies (and modern ninja flicks). Living the dream.


TV Tuesday mini-post: more Last Kingdom

Small thoughts

  • My Ben Carson post was very popular; apparently I should write about current events more often. But I don’t want to, and was reluctant even to write about that one.
  • I have the same feelings as everyone else on the Lovecraft statuette decision; although I am very attached to old HPL, I totally understand why they did it and on balance I think it was probably the right thing to do.
  • I went to Ely today and visited the cathedral.
  • Does anyone know anything about the ancillary features of podcasting? Hosting, logos, all that kind of thing? I’m going to be talking about history in an unusual format on a computer near you soon.
  • I have had a couple of drinks and my face is a little numb, so please ignore any typos. Not that I’m typing with my face; that would be silly.
Small thoughts

Non-overlapping magisteria, or why Ben Carson is a bonehead but that doesn’t mean you aren’t

Welp, time to mock and belittle someone’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.

LAKEWOOD, CO - OCTOBER 29:  Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a news conference before a campaign event at Colorado Christian University on October 29, 2015 in Lakewood, Colorado. Ben Carson was back on the campaign trail a day after the third republican debate held at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Ha ha ha I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about

So, the news has been full of reporting on and discussion of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s ridiculous statement about the pyramids. In case you missed it, he thinks they are not tombs at all but the granaries built by Joseph to hold the supplies stockpiled in the story of the seven fat years and the seven lean years.

On the one hand, this is obviously untrue. The pyramids are massive damn limestone mounds with proportionately not very much empty space inside them, and we have quite detailed information about their ritual, funerary function, not to mention the fact that we have pretty good information on Egyptian granaries.

The story here has generally been understood as either that Ben Carson, wotta bonehead or, more generally, the Republican party, wotta buncha boneheads. And while it certailny seems to be true that Ben Carson is a bonehead and the fact that the Republicans are willing to treat this bonehead seriously is not a hopeful sign, I don’t think this story illustrates it as clearly as people might like.

Because the “on the other hand” here is that, if Ben Carson believes some crazy stuff about the pyramids, he’s hardly alone. Lots of people believe nonsense about the pyramids — that they’re full of unspecified pyramid power, that they were built by aliens, that they conceal mystical secrets, etc., etc. Remember, Carson dropped his ignorant bombshell as a more plausible alternative to the idea that aliens dunnit. Which I guess it is.

Essentially, Carson is really talking about Aegypt, the mythological, magical approximation of the historical Egypt that is what most people actually care about. For Carson, Egypt isn’t really real — I mean, I’m sure he’s aware that it is a country and it has a history, but when he thinks about it he thinks about it mainly in terms of mythology. And I think that for most people, that’s the most important thing about a lot of historical civilisations — the same is true of the Maya, for instance, for whom popular discussion of their mystical significance must outnumber discussion of the actual history ten to one. People think things about Aegypt that they’d never think about the country they live in, because it’s not real. It’s a magical, faraway place.

All this is mostly harmless as long as you don’t wind up making decisions based on your mythological understanding — thinking about England and Scotland based on romantic songs rather than what those actual places are actually like, for instance, or settling your opinions on the situation in the middle east based on Biblical exegesis. I think that most people are aware that they don’t really know anything about these topics — they enjoy thinking about mystic secrets and yadda yadda, but they don’t really interact with the actual history of them so the two views don’t ever come into conflict.

But to come into conflict with the actual view of a subject by experts and just assert that your magic-ass view of the subject trumps theirs, without trying to understand their view … that is a failing of character. The kind of thing that running for office can really shine a light on.

Non-overlapping magisteria, or why Ben Carson is a bonehead but that doesn’t mean you aren’t

Not-a-movie Monday: The Last Kingdom


I know it’s not a movie, and I should do it on TV Tuesday, but I’m too compulsive to change my blog-posting schedule so I’m shoehorning it in on Monday. Anyway, I’ve spoken before about my bizarre habit of reading everything with Vikings in, and that extends to Bernard Cornwell’s “warrior” series, despite the fact that I find the presentation of its protagonist, Uhtred, monumentally irritating. There was a bit in the most recent book where his son became the POV character and I was like “yes, he died!” but it was a fake-out. Curse you, Cornwell.

I don’t know why it is — I’ve never been the kind of person who cared about whether characters are likable. The protagonist of my story is an absolutely awful person. There’s just something about him, and almost every Cornwall protagonist, that annoys the shit out of me (the exception is Derfel from the Arthur books). Let’s see how it works on film. And, oh yeah, how they present the 9th-century setting!

So what have we got here? Well, obviously everything is kind of faded, because that’s what Saving Private Ryan was like and therefore what a war story is like, and everything is covered in filth, because the middle ages. It’s strongly influenced by Game of Thrones and Vikings, and the costumes are full of goofy stuff I’m inclined to excuse for artistic reasons — gotta make the characters visually distinctive, after all.

Historically it’s … well, it’s simplified and exaggerated, of course, as these things are, but some parts of it are OK, including the discussion of what English politics and geography were like in the 9th century. Some aspects of the sets are good, although again they’re kind of generally Skyrim-ed up. And it gets extra points with me just because there’s a charcoal-burning scene that stresses how much of a pain in the butt making charcoal is.

Prestige casting includes Rutger Hauer as an old Viking and Matthew McFadyen as the young hero’s dad, as well as Jason Flemyng as Saint Edmund (although rather a cynical reading of Saint Edmund).

So, OK, it’s nonsense, but it’s reasonably well-made Viking nonsense and I’ll continue to watch it as well as its counterpart, Vikings. You’ll probably learn more about English history from this than you would from Vikings, but that’s not necessarily saying a lot.

Not-a-movie Monday: The Last Kingdom

A quick update

It is late and I do not have much to say tonight. However, I have some half-baked thoughts that may be fully baked layer.

I need to catch up with recent Bernard Cornwell adaptation The Last Kingdom, as well as talking about the portrayal of the closing of the west in Red Dead Redemption. And, pleased with my recent explanation of the Treaty of Tordesillas to an interested party, I may do another reader-questions post.

Right now, though, it has been a long day and I am for bed.

A quick update

Masks and so on

So, I mentioned some time ago that I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library, but I don’t know if I mentioned that there were mannequins in Guy Fawkes masks everywhere. That’s appropriate, because the modern use of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of, er, anonymous resistance to authority is taken from V for Vendetta more than anything else.


It’s interesting to me, because of course in the Guy Fawkes celebration, Guy Fawkes is the, er, bad guy. The whole holiday is about burning him in effigy because we don’t approve of the whole idea of blowing up Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot was about replacing the head of state with a different head of state; insofar as there was going to be any change in the type of government, I don’t think we can imagine a Catholic monarchy being more representative.

So the symbol has mutated, first from the target of patriotic anti-Catholicism into a symbol of sort of, I dunno, fiery seasonal levity to a symbol of resistance to authority. The mask is the important thing, and the person whose face it represents has faded away almost completely.

Now, if I were a less self-critical type, I would just think (as indeed I used to) that this indicated that the people wearing the masks were historically ignorant, and I would either condemn them as dumbshits or shake my head about what they teach them in these schools these days. But this is just one of those things — Guy Fawkes’ day ceased to be about Guy Fawkes per se a long time ago.

This particular case interests me because there are quite a lot of holidays where people think that the holiday has drifted from its original meaning — this thing was originally a pagan fertility festival, for instance, or that thing has lost its true Christian purpose. In most cases, you can’t apply the “that’s just how things work” argument because the premise isn’t actually true. You can see that most obviously with commonly-repeated “facts” about Easter or Halloween. But in this case we do know what the holiday was originally all about, because it’s a comparatively recent one. So we can see how it and its meaning evolved over the centuries.

Or we could if we were modern historians. I don’t know anything about that stuff.

Masks and so on