Heck, it’s Friday

My holiday schedule has thrown my sense of timing off, and as a result I forgot it wasn’t Saturday. So I tell you what — let’s have a quick poll. Tuesday of next week is TV Tuesday, and I have a few historical TV series I could choose from. So here’s your chance to vote! Leave a comment or catch me on social media and tell me what I should watch next. Your choices are:

Mary, Queen of Scots drama Reign


Turkish Ottoman palace drama Magnificent Century


Chinese historical epic Empresses in the Palace


Australian prison thingy Banished


Whatever you choose, I will watch at least one episode of it and blog about it on Tuesday.

Heck, it’s Friday

Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

I mentioned earlier that some of my tutoring students are doing a unit on the history of migrant and minority communities in Britain. As part of that, they watched this film: a biopic about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a West Indian woman named Maria Belle (or Bell). Raised by relatives in England, Dido Belle had a pretty unusual life for a mixed-race woman of the time. We don’t know every detail, but she seemed to live with the family — and her uncle was the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, so a pretty high-ranking family — on conditions of some (although perhaps not total?) equality.


The film fictionalises the story (since, as I said, we don’t know as much as we might about Dido Belle’s life) and focuses on a couple of things: the legal battles concerning slavery in 18th-century England and Dido’s romance with serious-looking legal student John Davinier. She did in fact marry a John Davinier, but I don’t think this guy has much in common with him.

So it’s clearly going for a sort of Austen-movie style, with young ladies worrying about finding suitable husbands and who’s got £2,000 a year, and might the stern son of a local clergyman have feelings for our heroine? The romance, of course, ties in to both Belle’s race and the issue of social class — the challenge set up by the film is that Dido is from an aristocratic family, and therefore shouldn’t marry beneath herself, but because she’s mixed-race British people of the correct social class won’t be interested. Unless, that is, they are handsome fortune-hunters being pressured by Miranda Richardson to do it.

The legal plot focuses on the Zong case, which was a court battle relating to insurance payments on slaves killed by the crew of a slave ship. Mansfield’s decision is seen as a stepping-stone toward the abolition of slavery, and it plays a big role in the film, but the question of romance (with an abolitionist) is definitely foremost. Which is fair enough; I am not a legal historian, but I am given to understand that a) Belle wasn’t particularly involved in the Zong case — that’s just something Mansfield’s critics said as a jab — and b) the idea that Mansfield was moving toward abolition in that case is probably an overstatement. Publicity surrounding the case did stimulate anti-slavery activism, though, and it was seen as important that Mansfield had ruled against the slavers, who were an important economic pressure group.

Mansfield’s summation in the Zong case in the film is actually taken from another important anti-slavery case, the Somersett case, in which he famously said that slavery was “odious” and “incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political,” but it glosses over the more complex context of what he was actually saying — that slavery couldn’t be supported by common law but only by “positive law.” This was the decision that established that slavery was illegal in England and Wales, and is usually given as more persuasive evidence of Mansfield’s anti-slavery position than the Zong case.

It looks good, it’s well-shot and it has a lot of good people in it: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is good in the title role. But the dialogue is … well, it could be better; it sounds stiff, and not quite authentic. Some of the exposition is pretty obvious. And it is a little slower than it might be. Perhaps a lot slower in places. That would be fine if the slowness came from character-illuminating digressions or scenes that were genuinely funny or exciting by themselves. But a lot of them are just slow expository scenes in which very good actors explain things to each other in a stately, dignified way.

So as a drama it isn’t completely successful, and as a period piece it has to be treated with caution, simply because we know so little about its very compelling subject. But it’s an interesting piece, and especially good, I thought, in its portrayal of the hurtful racism of people who weren’t trying to be hurtful racists — indeed, who were being as much of the opposite as practicality would allow. Social norms are a hell of a thing, and even people genuinely trying to be kind and caring can use them to hurt others, which is something that often gets overlooked in films about prejudice in historical periods. It’s a shame, then, that much of the rest of the film is kind of … rote.

A note about the painting: one of the subplots is about the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, once thought to be by Zoffany (who I only really know from Gilbert and Sullivan) but now attributed to an unnamed painter.


In the film, the painting is portrayed as a statement of the characters’ equality — the two women are on the same eyeline, which is something art historians have pointed out about it. But there are also a lot of signs of racial difference in the image — the seated, reading white woman and the almost impish black woman carrying the platter of fruit representing a distinction between culture and nature that was often given a racial edge in the art of the era.


Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

Teaching and learning

In addition to teaching history, I tutor students in both history and English. Usually I’m much more in demand for English, which everyone takes, but this year I seem to have quite a lot of history students so far. My students all go to different schools, and as a result they’re all doing slightly different topics in preparation for their exams.

Although I’m mostly used to it by now, there’s still something a little odd to me about the way the British system teaches history. Not bad at all, but odd; where US schools tend to go for the broad sweep of world or American history, with a focus on local history in younger years, the British system focuses in the teen years on a very limited number of topics but in great depth.

The idea behind this is that it’s supposed to give the students skills in source analysis, critical thinking, and so on, rather than just memorising a simple timeline and some key dates. Once you’ve developed those skills, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re studying the history of surgery or the rise of Hitler or whatever. The skills are, as they say, transferable.

My point isn’t to argue that this is or isn’t a good idea — like any teaching strategy, it has good points and bad ones. But in some cases, it can be quite hard to separate the specific unit you’re teaching from the background knowledge the students need but don’t necessarily get in this system.

For instance: one group of students are currently doing a thing on the history of migration into and out of Britain. Interesting stuff, actually — they’ve done some stuff on the Jewish community in the middle ages and the early modern period, and they’re just moving on to the Huguenots. Now I have never known much about the Huguenots — like, I could say “they were French Protestants who moved to England to escape persecution in the late 17th century,” and maybe add a few details about the, er, evolving position of Louis XIV on religious topics. Um, and I guess there are some legacies of the Huguenot presence in English names and stuff?

Huguenots were essentially a “model minority” for many English writers and artists, portrayed as pious, hardworking and respectable compared to their London neighbours. 

So I was a little unsure about this unit and brushed up on the Huguenots a bit before we got going. I’m glad I did; it was interesting stuff. But talking to the students I discovered that the whole thing started with explaining to them what the different between a Catholic and a Protestant was. And … I mean, basically in terms of how decorated churches were supposed to be.

And that took me aback. There’s an immediate impulse to go “what the hell?” but honestly it’s not that surprising. For most British kids, religion in general and the differences between various flavours of Christian in particular — these are not terribly important topics. Most are probably not aware of the religious proclivities, if any, of their classmates or neighbours. And when you zoom in on specific periods or themes only, a lot of the kind of basic background stuff can get lost. Of course, the idea is that this unit teaches kids what the difference between Catholics and Protestants is, what an absolute monarchy is, etc., etc. But if you came up in a system that did it the other way around it can be a little perplexing.

(I may be biased because for me, university was the experience of being thrown in at the deep end in British history, an experience that was certainly educational but also frustrating and confusing.)

Teaching and learning

Some upcoming real-world stuff

Apologies to readers elsewhere in the world, but I have a couple of events coming up here in Cambridge that I wanted to plug! Well it’s just the one event, really, but I’m doing two things at it.

Saturday 22 October is ExiliCon, a little event devoted to geekish indie creative projects, including art, game design, writing, filmmaking and more. I’m going to be there playtesting a card game that I’ve been developing with pal Luke, but I’m also in a couple of talks.

At 1.45 I’ll be giving a talk on “Myth, mystery and archaeology in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.” I know a lot of my readers are also Lovecraft fans, so hopefully that’ll be fun. I’m also participating in a panel on using history in creative projects. That’ll be later in the day, but I don’t know the exact time yet — I’m filling in for someone who was unable to make it so it’s all a bit up in the air at the moment.

Anyway, ExiliCon is on Saturday at St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church from 11 AM to 5 PM. In addition to my talks, there’s going to be plenty of other fun stuff going on, and admission is free, so if you’re in or near Cambridge you should drop by and check it out.

Some upcoming real-world stuff

“And always after that it grew much worse.”

Well, here we are — the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I’m not sure that 950 is a big milestone, but since I wasn’t around for 900 and can’t guarantee I’ll be around for 1,000, I’ll take it.


Hastings is a story told so many times it assumes the quality of legend: the frantic march, the feigned retreat, the shower of arrows. We all have somewhere in our heads the idea that it’s a romantic moment, a tale of doomed heroism, a day when a sympathetic character lost and a scoundrel one, but both villain and hero are so attenuated by time and cultural distance that there’s no real pain in the thought. Karbala it ain’t, or even Gettysburg.

And yet it’s a fundamental part of the national myth, seeming heavy with importance even though over the years it’s shifted meaning. I was astonished when I learned that the stereotypical storybook narrative of the battle used to be about what a good guy William was — or maybe I just read a lot of Catholic authors. I don’t know. My point is that everyone knows that Hastings was important, but unlike a lot of historical battles that nebulous importance has never really settled into a single meaningful narrative. We just … care about it.  There’s something about the moments where a kingdom hangs in the balance, something so fascinating and horrible that it blinds us to the fact that the balance would be a problem for years to come — and that the kingdom hanging in the balance had been the norm for a while.

Anyway, Hastings. Good to see the attention being paid to it, both in class by the kids I tutor and nationally by the media. More history without clear narratives is probably a good thing.

“And always after that it grew much worse.”

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)


Today’s film is another one of those ones that just cropped up on Netflix and I thought I’d give a spin. At the risk of national stereotyping, my assumption before starting this is that it’s going to be a searching look at the extent of Dutch complicity with the Nazis in WWII — a theme that was famously explored in what (I think?) is the big-name Dutch war movie, Soldier of Orange. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Anyway, I guess my point is that a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity or outright condemnation is the norm in European films dealing with this era, which I have to say forms a refreshing contrast to the rah-rah-rah tone in a lot of the other foreign films I watch. But since this movie’s about an asshole who helped the Germans kill Dutch Jews and got away with it, I bet I’m not going to be super happy about the movie, no matter how refreshing it is. Let’s watch.

It’s an interesting approach — we see Riphagen at first as an ambiguous figure, resenting the Germans he works with and seeming to want to protect the hidden Jews he discovers in hiding. And outwardly this seems like a premise with which we’re familiar — a Schindler’s List kind of deal in which someone working within the Nazi system, morally compromised perhaps but ultimately trying to do some kind of good, is going to save some Jewish lives.

Thiiiiis … ain’t that kind of movie. And I almost feel bad about writing it up, because I think that if you went into it cold the twist could be very effective. But who does that? The summary of who Dries Riphagen was is in the Netflix description, and of course I always go and look things up when I’m writing a Movie Monday post (although I don’t speak Dutch, so I’m a bit limited in this case).

There’s a B-plot, as well, in which baby-faced goodie Jan (a cop by day, charged with rounding up Jews and so on) and his buddies in the Resistance try to outwit the Germans and so on. He’s romancing another young patriot, but she might not be all she seems — and perhaps he is not such a baby-faced goodie after all.

There’s a good deal of working the audience based on similarities to other film genres going on here, I think — so a lot of Riphagen’s style (and this seems to be historical) is very based on the kind of American mobster look, and the film plays on that as well; we’re used to seeing really bad, dangerous people as principled in some way or as romantic scoundrels, and the movie plays with that a bit.

But, as it turns out, Riphagen is only helping Jews hide from the Nazis as a means of getting money and valuables out of them for his supposed assistance; once the well is dry, or they start to get wise, they get fed to the Germans, and off strolls Riphagen, pocketing the cash and putting up his mistress in a hapless old Jewish lady’s comfy flat.

One of the Things I Always Say is that it’s a mistake to assume that police states are efficient; most of the time, they’re the same blend of venality, careerism, infighting and incompetence that characterises any human endeavour, but amplified by increased power and lack of oversight. This is a common misconception — perhaps because police states work so hard at presenting an image of ruthless efficiency, or perhaps because people assume that if you try harder at something you get better at it — and I think it’s quite a dangerous one, since it gives people mistaken ideas about public safety policy (to say the least). This isn’t to say police states aren’t dangerous, of course. That was one of the things about The Lives of Others that I really enjoyed: it portrayed the East German police state as a genuine threat without making it seem superhuman.

But actually, most of the film isn’t about Riphagen’s wartime activities: the Allies show up by the halfway mark. A lot of it is focused on Riphagen and his wife and their experiences as the Netherlands fall to the Allies, including his stint as a counter-insurgency type, looking for arms drops for the Resistance and that kind of thing. He keeps playing the double-agent card, and you keep hoping that he’s going to get caught up with, even though you know he won’t. The real people involved in his postwar pursuit and escape, Wim Sanders and Frits Kerkoven, also start to show up as larger characters. It also starts to get into the disorganisation of the late- and post-war Netherlands, including the usual division between Communist and pro-Western Resistance types, just in case you needed a reminder that the good guys aren’t necessarily any better organised.

They do a fine old job of making a city being liberated at the end of WWII — usually portrayed as a sort of joyous holiday — seem sinister and menacing.

So it’s a historical biopic, a crime movie and a spy thriller. It’s a useful corrective to some common notions about the war and at the same time a really frustrating and depressing film. It’s well-made, although to be perfectly honest I’m not sure it quite fills its two-hour-plus running time. Still, I’m glad I watched it, and to the best of my limited knowledge it seems like a reasonable and nuanced portrayal of the complexities and betrayals of wartime Holland.

And in the end, baby-faced goodie Jan comes up short. Virtue is punished, vice rewarded, and everything goes to cold, hard hell.

So … maybe not the ideal viewing choice for a guy like me.

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

This! Is! Historical! SPARTAAA!

So my history class is currently in the middle of its unit on the ancient world, much of which focuses on forms of government — y’know, monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, all that kind of thing. And that means contrasting classical Athens and Sparta.

One of the problems of teaching history in the overview kind of system the curriculum we’re using demands is that you tend to pick particular places as examples and then not look at how they changed over time. It also tends to reduce things to a simplified view of what they were like, but that’s unavoidable when you’re teaching a lot of material in a limited space of time.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with generalisations per se. They’re just part of how we think, and they have upsides and downsides like everything else. But it is a problem when we take the simplified version of things — which is naturally a little extreme — and then use it as evidence of a society that was super extreme.

Take Sparta for example. Ever since 300, the classical wargamer’s obsession with Sparta and the Spartans has spread into popular culture in a way that is … unfortunate. Partly this is a success for the way that the Spartans viewed themselves, but partly it’s a problem, since people draw conclusions about what is or isn’t likely or possible in the real world based on an example that is itself a distorted view of the real thing.

Let me therefore just introduce some additional info about Spartan society and the Spartan military that you might not be aware of. People who really study classical history in detail know all this stuff, but since I wasn’t really one of them for most of my life, I didn’t know any of this until a year or two ago. I am still not an expert, so please forgive me if I overgeneralise; I hope that my main point will still be clear.


So: the Spartan military. It is absolutely true that Spartan citizens — that is, male members of Spartiate families — did undergo a rigorous programme of military education that produced people who were essentially full-time professional soldiers. Indeed, Spartan law prohibited citizens from having jobs so that they could focus on army life and training. Supporting a full-time army is an expensive task, and it required a lot of commitment from a state that wasn’t super wealthy. If all the Spartans had to rely on militarily was their actual citizens, they would never be able to meet the manpower demands of a prolonged conflict.

Of course, most people in the Spartan (or Lakonian or Lakedaimonian or whatever you want to call it) state weren’t citizens at all. And I’m not just talking about women and helots, either: the citizens of surrounding towns weren’t Spartan citizens, since they weren’t Spartiates, but they were also required to fight in the army. In the campaign leading up to the battle of Plataea, we hear that the Spartans supplied 5,000 Spartan hoplites and a further 5,000 perioikoi hoplites. These perioikoi were inhabitants of other areas ruled by Sparta — the name literally means “near the house” — and unlike Spartiates they were allowed to have actual jobs. However, they also fought in the army and indeed served, in the later Spartan army, in the same morai or divisions as Spartiates.

In addition to the periokoi there were also skiritai, inhabitants of another Spartan-controlled region who served as peltasts, or medium-light infantry. Once the skiritai gained their independence the Spartans were forced to fill the gap by hiring mercenaries. And there’s some evidence that the Spartans used their helots (slaves or serfs) as psiloi or light infantry.

In fact, we even find evidence of helots fighting as hoplites. In the late 5th century, helot hoplites fought for the Spartans and were freed at the end of the campaign. These former helots were called neodamodeis (“new citizens”), and clearly they were able to fight effectively despite not having had a lifetime of brutal military education. In the aftermath of the battle of Leuctra in 371, the Spartans tried to make up the loss of men (they got whomped by the Thebans) by offering to free any helot who volunteered to fight; they got thousands of volunteers.

So far from the picture of a society focused exclusively on war and crunches, we get a more complex picture of a society with a military aristocracy who pride themselves on martial virtue and who form the elite corps of a larger army which has all the regular-Joe soldiers you’d expect from an army of the age. That’s much more plausible than the idea of a society where all the men are made of leather and abs and just think about fightin’ all the time.

But if that’s the case, where do we get these exaggerated ideas of Spartan manly-manness? It’s a combination of factors. First, both contemporary accounts and the work of later historians tend to focus on the things that are unusual about a given society. So when Plato talks about Sparta as a “timarchy” — a military state — he’s talking about the ways in which it was different from other Greek societies, and perhaps taking the ways in which it was similar for granted. Additionally, Greek sources tend to think about citizens first and foremost, with others often being kind of invisible. When we think about ancient Athens, for example, we tend to think of the political role of an Athenian citizen, which is certainly an interesting thing to think about — but even in that famed democracy, actual citizens probably made up only 10% or so of the Athenian population (citizens were free adult males born to two citizen parents). So when Greek writers talk about “Spartans” they mean Spartan citizens, even though Spartan citizens were actually a minority of all the people living in the Lakonian state. Most of the written evidence concerns Spartan citizens, and most of the good stories are about Spartan citizens, so it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that Spartan citizens were typical.

Anyway, I know I’m always going around saying “it’s more complicated than that” when I look at portrayals of historical periods in the media, so I thought I would take a moment — more of a moment than I anticipated, actually — to give a worked example of that greater complexity.

This! Is! Historical! SPARTAAA!

TV Tuesday: The Pinkertons

While recovering from binge-watching Luke Cage (or possibly while warming up to binge-watch Luke Cage), my wife and I found this thing on Netflix. It’s a 2014-15 Canadian detective show based on the career of Civil War spy and detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton (Angus Macfadyen), his son William (Jacob Blair) and fascinating historical character Kate Warne (Martha MacIsaac). Like perhaps a lot of historical television dramas, it suffers from the fact that both Kate Warnes and Allan Pinkerton were actually stranger and more interesting in real life than their fictional counterparts (although we’re only a few episodes in, so perhaps they’ll weird up).

We’ve watched a couple of episodes, and it’s … OK. It plays down all the weird things about Allan Pinkerton and just makes it into a classic bickering-detectives police procedural show in a historical setting. Now, as it happens, I like a good bickering-detectives procedural show as the sort of narrative background noise of an evening. It is, I am not making this up, officially licensed by the Pinkerton detective agency, which immediately makes it both dorkier and shadier.

The other funny thing about this show is that MacIsaac and Blair play their roles completely straight while Macfadyen is, well, Angus Macfadyen, playing the genial version of the nutcase he plays on Turn.


It drags in a lot of historical figures — there are cameo appearances by a lot of people who might have been around in 1865, from a young Jesse James to Edwin Booth and Abraham Lincoln’s lazy-ass former bodyguard. This was actually weirdly educational for me, although most people probably don’t watch a TV show with Wikipedia open, constantly going “is that really true?” I knew some of them, but a lot of the characters were new to me (American history is not really my strong suit).

It’s not … I mean, it’s a perfectly average TV detective show, a cut above Houdini and Doyle but maybe a cut below the mainstream. The leads are fine, the production is fine, it’s better the more it leans toward comedy, and it’s an enjoyable way to pass the time. The historical setting is moderately well-realised in a way that acknowledges some of its complexities — like lawlessness in the post-war west and its relation to politics — and that makes it interesting from this blog’s perspective.

TV Tuesday: The Pinkertons