Recommend me history podcasts

Now that I have a new phone and new headphones, I’m listening to podcasts as I’m out and about. I just realised that although I have various comics and gaming and movie podcasts and so on, I don’t have a whole lot of history podcasts on my subscription list: just 12 Byzantine Rulers and the Norman podcast by the same guy. So what history podcasts should I add? I’m all caught up on my main ones and I’m bored.

Recommend me history podcasts

Not-so-local history

I had a few minutes to kill on Monday, so I stopped in a charity shop, as is my wont, to look at books. Of all things, I found this:


It’s a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table history of the town where I grew up, which would make more sense if the town where I grew up weren’t thousands of miles away. Still, I suppose there must be a fair amount of interchange between Palo Alto and Cambridge.

Anyhow, it’s 21 years old already, so many of the “modern” things in it are gone, making it both an informative look at the town’s history and an unintentional little nostalgia trip. Anyway, it turns out I actually know very little about Palo Alto’s history. I don’t know why — it just seems like the kind of thing I never bothered to ask about when I was younger, although I picked up a thing or two just from the plaques and so on. These days, when Allison and I go back, we try to act more like tourists, which means I’ve learned a little more about history: you can read about visits to historic houses, more historic houses and quirky local attractions on this blog.

So there’s going to be a little while of me flipping through the pages and saying “oh, so that’s who Walter Hays was!” It won’t matter to anyone but me, but that’s OK.

Not-so-local history

Movie Monday: The Grandmaster (2013)

Maybe the evening of a lazy Sunday was not the right time to watch a Wong Kar-wai film. I will own up to that. The Grandmaster is pretty much what you would expect from the Wong catalogue of Tony Leung Looking at Things With Wounded Gravitas and Everything Being Shot Super Beautifully. I’m making fun, but it’s an interesting, beautiful film. The weird thing is that it’s about 50% of a kung fu movie as well.


I have said before that the habit of making movies about historical kung fu masters in the form of kung fu movies is a weird one, because their lives seldom fit that structure. But that isn’t quite what I want to talk about in this post.

As I have said before, Ip Man was basically a former cop who taught martial arts informally and opened a martial arts school in Hong Kong in the 50s. But most films about him don’t mention the cop thing. It looks like I didn’t review Ip Man on here, which surprises me — I’ve definitely seen it.

This is presumably because Ip was a copy for the Guomindang, the Nationalist party that ruled China until the 1949 revolution. This movie totally skips that, suggesting that Ip moved to Hong Kong to find work and leaving out the whole “fleeing the Communists” thing.

I guess that’s not surprising, but it is probably an additional factor in the way the story of Ip’s life — which was not all that exciting in the first place — gets warped even for a proper serious movie like this one (and warped into drug fantasy by some of the other Ip Man movies I have covered).

Aaaaaanyway, it is a good film, beautiful and thoughtful. But it’s characteristically languorous, and even the fight scenes are more impressive and dramatic than exciting. I haven’t mentioned the actual main plot, which is about Zhang Ziyi’s character. She’s got a quest to avenge her father and a sort of frustrated romance with Ip, and arguably she’s the actual main character of the story — she has the most noticeable dramatic arc anyway.

Movie Monday: The Grandmaster (2013)

Medieval mirth: as dumb as, if not dumber than, modern mirth.

I recently finished a review of E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots for Fortean Times. The review should appear in due course, and I don’t want to discuss its content other than that I quite liked the book. However, I thought I would talk about an extract from a medieval source that appears in the book — I mention it in the review but didn’t discuss it in much detail.

Anyway, in the 15th century, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, paid a shocking amount of money to have the automata at the chateau of Hesdin repaired.

There is a bill for the repairs from 1433 that goes into great detail about what the various automata are, and it’s amazing. Here are some highlights:

Item: for … painting the three figures that squirt water and wet people at well. And at the entrance to the gallery there is a device for soaking ladies when they tread on it; and with it he also made a machine at the entrance to the said gallery; which, when the knobs are touched, strikes those who are underneath in the face and covers them with black or white, and also there is a fountain in that gallery, and which spouts water when one wishes and always when ladies come before it. Item: at the exit of this gallery there is another machine that will strike and cuff all who pass through on their heads and shoulders. Item: in the room before the hermit, a machine makes it rain everywhere … Item: … there is a wooden hermit that speaks to people … And also for paving the place where people go to avoid the showers, where they then fall from on high down onto a sack filled with feathers … a bridge that, at will, makes people who walk on it fall into the water. Item: There are machines in several places, and when one touches the knobs one causes a great quantity of water to fall on people. Item: In the gallery there are six more figures … which soak people in different manners. Item: At the entrance to the gallery [there are] eight pipes for soaking ladies from below and three pipes which, when people stop in front of them, [cause them to be] whitened and covered with flour. Item: there is a window and when people wish to open it a figure in front of it wets people and closes the window on them. Item: there is a lectern with a book of ballards on it and when people try to read it they are all covered with soot … Item: There is a wooden figure that appears above a bench … and it tricks people and can make a cry on behalf of my lord the duke that everybody should go out of the gallery; And those who go because of that cry will be beaten by large figures like idiots … 

And there’s more of this. I love it. You think about the refined pleasure gardens of the aristocracy, and this guy strolling around them to the accompaniment of lutes:


But actually his lovingly-crafted automata, and please remember that the repairs on these things cost a thousand pounds, which is a lot of money today let alone in 1433, just spray water up ladies’ skirts, dump flour on people and beat them about the face and neck. He’s like the world’s most powerful eight-year-old.

Medieval mirth: as dumb as, if not dumber than, modern mirth.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9

I keep feeling conflicted about Vikings, and it’s episodes like 8 and 9 that do it. The key plot here — in addition to the usual West Saxon malarkey and some politics back in Paris and of course Harbard — is that Ragnar is taking his ships and portaging them upriver so that he can attack Paris from the side not defended by Rollo’s forts. Clever! And the show uses its budget well to show what an immense and complex technical and organisational undertaking this is. Also great!

And then in the same breath it just does all this stuff that’s so dumb that I have to wonder what’s going on. Like: Bjorn enquires whether Harald and Halfdan killed a local family — because otherwise they might tell the Franks they’re about. Bjorn, you have cut down like a thousand trees, effectively built a road, and there are thousands of you dragging dozens of ships at a snail’s pace while simultaneously shouting at the top of your lungs. How could they possibly not notice you? But I bet they haven’t.


Similarly, they have to portage their boats “over the mountains.” The … mountains? This show is set in a world where there are just mountains everywhere, I guess.

Aaaaanyway, Ragnar kills Yidu as well, an end that goes nowhere to a story that was never anywhere to begin with. Presumably this will have some later effect, but maybe not; there is a definite sense that they’re just marking time. The Alfred the Great origin scenes are well done. This series continues to look great, but I can’t help but feel that the looks are guiding the writing perhaps more than is healthy.

Plus all kinds of people die, including whatsisface, further developing the idea that politics in this show is useless and only violence matters, which is fine and all except it’s weird that no one has noticed. Like, why would whatsisface say to himself “well, I have Sheepy’s vulnerable son, so she won’t do anything to me. Of course, we’re in France, so she could just stab me to death or have her famous warrior boyfriend who’s twice my size do it, and then I’d be screwed, because why would any minions I had watching the kid effectively sacrifice their lives out of loyalty to a dead jerk? Well, enough thinking about that, I’d better hand her a loaded gun.” Like, surely all these people have noticed that no one ever benefits from devious political negotiation except Floki, who has the Script Immunity of the Gods?

Also yay, Cwenfrith is dead. I wish that I thought that this show was getting rid of superfluous smexy smex, but whatserface is still in it, and I also wish that getting rid of the plots that posit that the richest man in the country can’t get laid didn’t mean just knifing or drowning a bunch of the female characters. I guess we’re getting some superfluous gay sex plot, which is fair enough, but naturally it just cuts to a tastefully dozing Roland instead of three minutes of candlelit chest hair.

Something is going on back in Denmark, with young Sigurd emerging as an unlikely hero while Aslaug falls apart. She even drowns little Siggy, the daughter of Bjorn and Thorunn. I feel like the cleaning-out of superfluous characters is getting a little obvious here.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9

Here’s the thing about swords in movies

We all have some thing that we get weird about on television. For a lot of people, it seems to be swords and guns. They don’t think that the way fights are portrayed on TV is realistic. And I daresay they’re right. I have been watching The Musketeers, and it is a rollicking adventure show, but it is absolutely fuckin’ outrageous in terms of the clothing, the politics, the … the everything. And the sword fights are absolutely full of people spinning around to attack an opponent from the opposite side.

I am … there is every reason to suspect that I am the worst sword fighter in the world. I guess I have practiced a few times with weapons for re-enactment, but a) I usually used a different weapon, and b) in re-enactment you are trying not to hurt people. Without training, experience or physical fitness to rely on, I am willing to bet that I am pretty terrible in a sword fight.

But if we are fighting and you spin around like that in front of me, I will stab you in the goddamn back. I may not be the world’s greatest swordsman, but I’m not asleep. Currently, anyway.

And people get very upset about this kind of thing, and I understand that. It can feel frustrating. The thing is …

… I want you to watch a TV show or film set in the modern day. Wait for a bit in which a character has some information that they need to communicate to another character and watch what they do. If it’s most dramas or procedurals, the character will do something that no person in real life would ever do. They will go talk to that character in person without calling them first. So someone who wants to talk to you will get in their car, drive for — how long does it take to get from one side of most towns to another? Plus return trip, let’s say, what the heck — half an hour minimum, and then park, and go to your house and knock on the door, all on the off chance that you’ll be home.

Does that sound like something an actual person would do? It does not. But it’s much more dramatic and interesting to have a conversation between two actors rather than just showing some guy with his phone up to his ear. It makes dramatic sense if not actual sense sense.

And that’s using the telephone, something pretty much everyone knows how to do. If they don’t care about getting using the telephone right in the face of dramatic necessity, how much do you think they care about whether or not it’s a good idea to turn your back on someone in a sword fight?

I am still going to complain about Vikings, because I am me. And because it can be fun sometimes. But I’m going to try to keep it in perspective.

Here’s the thing about swords in movies

More things that are what they are

The eponymous St Edmund’s Abbey in Bury St Edmunds was once one of the largest Benedictine houses in England. It got destroyed during and after the Dissolution, as these places do, and most of it is now gone, although various picturesque ruins still stud the park that now stands in its place. But not all of it is gone. Some of it was reused in a charming and practical way.


This used to be the west front of the absolutely frickin’ massive abbey church — much larger, if I read my map right, than the present-day cathedral. And then someone came along and turned bits of it into houses. Why waste a good wall? Hell, why even bother knocking down the ruiny bits? It is what it is.

There’s something about the ruins of the abbey that looks organic, like the tufa towers you get at Mono Lake.


Anyway, these days we see medieval buildings as priceless historical treasures, but right up until they were priceless historical treasures they were old eyesores that had to be turned into something practical. I like that.

More things that are what they are

Movie Monday: The Long Riders (1980)


Sometimes it’s nice to just clear the Movie Monday palate with a film that you know is going to be pretty good. Directed by Walter Hill, soundtrack by Ry Cooder, got some decent actors in it … this is probably not going to be a total shitshow. It’s based on the story of the James-Younger gang, and Hill did a little bit of stunt casting by casting actors who were brothers in the lead roles: James and Stacy Keach play the James brothers, three Carradines play the Younger brothers, the Quaids play Ed and Clell Miller and Nicholas and Christopher Guest play Bob and Charlie Ford, or possibly the other way around.

Early impressions: it’s very 70s-y in its easy pace, which is not what you’d normally say about a movie that starts with a gunfight and is only an hour and 40 minutes long. But seriously, there’s a hell of a lot of just country music and dancing in the first half-hour of the film.  Also, David Carradine says “I’ll be go to hell,” which is an amazing expression.

Some of the bits that seem like they should be exaggerated — like Pinkerton detectives bombing the James residence while the brothers weren’t even home and killing a young boy — turn out to be historical. In fact, it’s toned down; in real life, the kid was even younger and the James’ mum lost an arm. But the extended pursuit by the Pinkertons is, I think, fictitious, presumably because outlaws on the run from the Man are more fun and sympathetic than redneck shitheads terrorising the innocent.

There are some occasional odd moments, such as the one where James Remar turns up in a leather vest (I guess this is a Walter Hill movie?) and has a knife-fight with David Carradine. I have to say that Kung Fu or no, David Carradine does not look like a man that could take Young James Remar in a fight. He looks like he’s in pretty good shape.

Anyhow, this film shares a trait with Tombstone, in that it struggles with the undramatic structure of, y’know, real life. The obvious place to set the climax of your Jesse James movie is with the Northfield raid, a foray into Minnesota that basically saw the gang get wiped out in a huge gun battle with locals. The battle is portrayed as a little more even than it was in reality; the real event was a whuppin’ celebrated with an annual fair in Northfield. Do not antagonise peace-loving Midwesterners, nor mistake their politeness for a lack of toughness.

Anyway, the last act after Northfield leads up to the killing of Jesse, but it’s so short that the whole thing feels a little out of place. Still, it’s a good movie, and reeeeeasonably historical, although it tends to heroise the characters a bit and does the usual exaggeration and condensing you get in films like this. On UK Netflix and worth a watch.

Movie Monday: The Long Riders (1980)

I liked some towers

So we were in King’s Lynn the other day, walking around, looking at historical things, breathing in the fresh sea air, all that sort of thing. I was particularly pleased by some towers I saw.

The one on the right is the objectively better one.

This is Saint Margaret’s church, also just called King’s Lynn Minster, and it’s pretty cool. My favourite part of the facade is, of course, that right-hand tower. See how the towers don’t match at all? The lower level of the one on your right is original, dating (I believe) to the very late 11th or very early 12th century. The foundation itself is 1095, but you know how these things go. I don’t know why the complete asymmetry of the towers appeals to me so much, but it does; I love it when things are the way they are rather than the way they “ought” to be.

I also like the still-standing tower of the former Franciscan friary.


I like that they knocked the whole thing down except for the bell-tower, apparently because it was a handy landmark for sailors. That’s using your noggin. I also like the little side-turret thing there on the right, which I believe contains a staircase — a very cramped staircase to judge by the size of it.

Anyway, I saw some towers. It was nice.

I liked some towers

TV Tuesday: More Vikings Season 4


So, here’s the thing I can’t figure out about this show: is it a historical drama, or is it a cartoon? Because sometimes …

… let’s take Episode 7, in which the Vikings attack Rollo’s forts and get the absolute hell beat out of them for their troubles while Ragnar stumbles around off his face on drugs and part-time King of the Gods Harbard dispenses spiritual truths to the lady folks back home, much to the possible displeasure of young Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Ragnar’s plan in this episode is dumb as hell. Knowing that he’s been sold out by his own guy, knowing that said guy knows exactly how Viking strategy works and has had a year to prepare, and without any scouting or other preparation, he orders a cunnin’ two-pronged assault that Rollo, who let’s remember is supposed to be the dim one in this family, sees coming and bloodily repulses. To add insult to injury, Duke Whatsisname remembers that horsies exist and stages a raid on the camp that gravely wounds Helga.

Now everyone should be mad at Ragnar, and some of them are, although they don’t have much place to speak, having all fallen for the exact same baby-talk-stupid trap themselves. But it’s actually hard to blame Ragnar, because, and here’s the key point, back in the first and second seasons this kind of nonsense worked all the time. Ragnar could disembark his army in the face of a disciplined enemy, hit the beach swinging an axe and inexplicably come off victorious. So why wouldn’t he think that the Franks were asleep at the wheel? He’s been betrayed not by his brothers but by the writers.

I half-expected Odo to discover when he tore off his mistress’s dress that she was wearing a wire. Speaking of police work, Bjorn seems very concerned to gather convincing evidence against Erlandr, which seems superfluous given that Hedeby runs entirely on stab-logic and he’s twice the little weasel’s size.

Am I supposed to think that the Norwegians are bad guys? Bjorn seems unhappy with their treatment of prisoners, which would be a pretty selective approach to the issue of the rules of war.

Anyway, this show continues to be silly but look good.

TV Tuesday: More Vikings Season 4