Today on Ujima: Feminism, Black Queerness & TV Careers

Today was my first day back at work that involved leaving home. I was back in the Ujima studios for another Women’s Outlook. It had been a bit of a challenge pulling this one together because no one was answering email before Monday, so I had two days. Nevertheless, we had some guests.

The first slot was empty so I played some music to talk about the unpleasant prospect of at least 5 years of the UK being ruled by Blue Meanies. I then played a few songs to send a message to a certain orange-faced person over in the USA.

My first guest was Carolyn from Bristol Women’s Voice. There was a time when people like me were distinctly unwelcome at that organisation, but I’m pleased to report that they have turned a corner and are happy to include all women again. Carolyn was particularly there to promote their Volunteer Network Event later this month, but we also discussed current campaigns, and of course the International Women’s Day event in March.

Next up was Helen from Royal West of England Academy. She was on the show to talk about the amazing Celebrating Black Queerness event coming up in February, and the associated Africa State of Mind exhibition. Celebrating Black Queerness is a joint event with Kiki, Bristol’s QTIPOC organisation, and will feature luminaries such as Lady Phyll and Travis Alabanza.

My final guest should have been Jo from Diverse Insights, but she suffered a transport malfunction on the way to the studio so I had to fill in for her as best I could. The event she was due to talk about is Screen Futures 2020, which is an amazing day of workshops for people interested in pursuing a career in television and radio.

You can listen to the show for the next few weeks via the Ujima Listen Again service.

Here’s the playlist:

  • Ike & Tina Turner – A Little Help from My Friends
  • Aretha Franklin – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  • Angelique Kidjo – Once in a Lifetime
  • The Temptations – War
  • Culture Club – The War Song
  • Eddy Grant – War Party
  • Alicia Keys – Superwoman
  • Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
  • Little Richard – Good Golly Miss Molly
  • Bessie Smith – A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Bow Wow Wow – TV Savage
  • Andy Allo – If I was King
  • Janelle Monáe – We Were Rock ‘n’ Roll

In Search of the Dora Milaje

One of the more striking aspects of the Black Panther movie is the reliance of Wakanda on an all-female elite fighting force, the Dora Milaje. Those of us who have an interest in women warriors know that this was inspired in part by the real African kingdom of Dahomey which boasted its own female army. The Agojie, or Mino, made up around a third of the nation’s fighting force when they were first contacted by Europeans. Although they were disbanded after Dahomey became a French protectorate in the late 19th Century, memory of them lives on.

Lupita Nyong’o, who plays T’Challa’s girlfriend, Nakia, in the movie, has made a film for Channel 4 about the historical inspiration for Wakanda’s women warriors. Some local historians feature in the film, and the historical advisor for the programme was my good friend Professor Olivette Otele.

During the course of the programme Lupita meets a number of people who have connections to the Agojie, and is helped by the current Dahomey royal family. She also witnesses a Vodun ceremony that invokes the spirit of a dead Agojie warrior (CN: animal sacrifice).

It is a fabulous piece of history, exposing both the admirable and horrific aspects of an all-female army in an African society. One thing I picked up was that life in the Agojie was a common choice for young girls who did not want to marry, which shows that Dahomey made space for lesbians in its society, albeit a fairly brutal one. In theory all of the Agojie were married to the king, but he wasn’t likely to take advantage of that when he had a harem recruited for non-military skills.

The programme will be available for a few weeks, at least to viewers in the UK. If you want to watch it, you can do so here.

Channel 4 Goes to Kush

As part of their celebration of Black History Month, Channel 4 has run an archaeology programme about Kush. As is the way of such things, it is fairly superficial, and spends more time dramatising the activities of modern (white) archaeologists than it does talking about the Kushites. Nevertheless, it does have some lovely shots of the inside of the Temple of Amun at Jebel Barkal and some great panoramic shots of other Kushite settlements. I was particularly impressed by the statues of the 25th Dynasty pharaohs fround at Kerma, which you can see in the photo above.

The programme does mention the great Kushite pharaoh, Taharqa, noting that he ruled over a kingdom stretching all the way from Khartoum to the Mediterranean. It did not mention him fighting alongside King Hezekiah of Judah against Sennacherib of Assyria. Nor does it mention that he survived both Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, but was eventually defeated by Ashurbanipal. Assyria v Kush (with added Israelites) for the control of Egypt has to be one of the greatest stories of the ancient world, and I’m rather sad that nothing seems to have come of Will Smith’s planned movie.

The programme also didn’t mention that there is a shrine to Amun built by Taharqa in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is the biggest single item in their collection, and it was made by Kushites, for a Kushite pharaoh.

There is brief mention of Meroë being the successor kingdom to Kush, but there is nothing about that kindgom preserving Egyptian culture long into the Roman period. Nor does it mention Queen Amanirenas beating up the Romans.

In short, it could have been so much better, because there are such great stories to tell. I need to dig out the audio from the radio show that Olivette Otele and I did last year and get it back online.

Off With Their Heads!


On Tuesday I found time to visit the Game of Thrones exhibition here in Belfast. If you are into costuming it is well worth it as they have costumes from most of the leading characters in the series.

However, because making waxwork busts of all the actors would have quite expensive, the costumes are all shown on headless dummies. It seemed to me very appropriate for the show that all of the characters had their heads chopped off.

There are several photo opportunities for visitors too. You can have yourself green-screened onto riding or petting a dragon. You can sit on the Iron Throne. And for all of Team Arya, you can have your photo taken wielding Needle.

Here’s a few photos.

Up on the Aqueduct

More of the “that time of year” thing. This time it is the review of the year posts on the Aqueduct Press blog. The lovely folks at Aqueduct keep asking me to write these things, so I keep doing them. This year I was a bit late due to the Austria trip, but my contribution is up at last. You can find it here.

On Non-Euclidian Geometry

I have been catching up with Hannah Fry’s BBC 4 series, Magic Numbers, which is a history of mathematics. Today I watched the second episode in which Hannah touched on some of the revolutions in mathematical thinking that took place at the end of the 19th Century. One of those revolutions was the development of non-Euclidian geometry, which is a perfectly respectable field of mathematical study. I, of course, started to think of something else.

These days we tend to think of Lovecraft as a horror writer, but I suspect that he saw himself as much more of a science fiction writer. Many of his stories involved aliens, and he seemed to keep up with what was happening in science, and in maths. He was very much disturbed by the way in which the foundations of human knowledge, which had been accepted for hundreds of years, were being eroded.

Euclid’s geometric theorems had been the basis of much of mathematical thought since the time of Classical Greece. They still hold good today, but only in certain circumstances. Because the Earth is so large we can approximate living on it to living on a flat surface. On such a surface, if you follow a path that turns through four right-angles, with equal distances between each turn, you get back to where you started. But, as Fry demonstrated in the program, that’s not the case if you live on the surface of a cube. In that case you only have to turn through three right-angles to get back where you started. That’s very weird.

The program also touched on the story of the German Mathematician, Georg Cantor. He was responsible for the development of Set Theory, as part of which he discovered that some infinities are bigger than others. This too is very weird. In the latter part of his life Cantor had very poor mental health and was institutionalised on several occasions. You can just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Famous mathematician driven mad by contemplating infinity!”

If you then throw in the development of quantum physics, which was also happening around the time that Lovecraft was writing, it is easy to see how one might come to the conclusion that unravelling the mysteries of the universe might drive men mad.

Catch Me On The Beeb

It is always an honour to be asked to represent the trans community on TV. This time, it was an appearance on Points West to discuss the making of the Talking LGBT+ Bristol film. I was on with Jake Smith of Tusko Films, and Daryn Carter of Bristol Pride. We got interviewed by Alex Lovell, which would have made my mum very happy had she been alive to see it.

Normally I am very critical of my TV appearances. This one wasn’t too bad, though of course I badly need to lose weight if I am going to be on TV a lot. At least I managed to smile a few times. And I said sensible things, I think.

If you have access to iPlayer, the programme will be available until 7:00pm tomorrow at this link. They delete shows very quickly because it is a daily programme. I’m on about 17 minutes in, after the story about fertilizer (Somerset, don’t you love it?).

I love the background that the Points West team made for the interview.

To watch the whole of the Talking LGBT+ Bristol film, go to Bristol 24/7.

My thanks once again to Bristol 24/7 for commissioning the project, to the Heritage Lottery Fund for their support, and the Tusko Films for doing such a great job on the production.

Life Goal

If you are going to be EVIL, you might as well be EVIL with style.

For those of you who don’t have Netflix and are not enjoying Star Trek: Discovery, our heroes are currently trapped in an alternate universe where the humans are the bad guys and most of the crew has an evil self. Cadet Sylvia Tilly, a wide-eyed, nervous goof in our world, has become “Captain Killy”, the most feared starship captain of the Terran Empire. It is very silly, and a lot of fun. And I want that uniform.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how so much American TV these days is all about alternate worlds in which the bad guys have taken control. I wonder why that could be…

David Olusoga on Empire

For those outside of the UK, David Olusoga is a British TV historian. He’s charming, erudite and witty, which is exactly what you need for a TV presenter. He’s also black, which is a very rare thing among British historians. Yesterday he gave a talk at Bristol University as part of Bristol Museum’s winter lecture series. It was excellent.

The subject of the talk was the British Empire, a topic on which Olusoga is currently writing a book. It also ties in with the Empire through the Lens exhibition at the Museum. As a Nigerian-British person, Olusoga has a very different view on this history than your typical white male British historian. He’s not shy in expressing his political opinions, but equally he is very honest about the complexity of the subject.

Some of that complexity is, of course, historical. The British Empire as a project began in Tudor times. (It was, in large part, John Dee’s idea.) From there the British went on to found a vast empire in North America, lose half of it to revolution, found a new empire in the far east, go on to colonize large parts of Africa, and then give that empire away because it no longer had the means to hold it. As Olusoga noted, there are Nigerians who were alive before their country became part of the Empire, and who lived to see it free again.

The complexity also arises from how we teach and remember empire. If we did so well, surely idiots like Boris Johnson and Toby Young would not be able to get away with waxing all nostalgic about our supposed glory days, and dream of Empire 2.0 as an outcome of Brexit. Olusoga described them as being like some lonely bloke looking up his exes on Facebook and wondering if they might get back together again. He didn’t mention the bloke’s rather poor record of domestic violence, but then he didn’t need to.

Part of the remembering is about how we connect with Empire. As a man of black and of white working class ancestry, you might expect Olusoga to regard himself as morally above the whole “our Empire” thing. And yet he confessed that his genealogical research suggested that his white ancestors might have been involved in slave trading, and his black ancestors might have sold slaves to the British.

That willingness to confront complexity also came through in a brilliant answer that he gave to a young Bangladeshi woman who asked about Churchill. Her own family had been badly affected by the famines that Churchill refused to try to alleviate. Olusoga notes several other examples of Churchill being a deeply unpleasant human being. And yet there was that one moment when, had he not been there, the Tories would have made peace with Hitler and the world would be a very different place now.

Sometimes Nazis need punching, and you may need someone who is prepared to do that.

I was a lot kinder with my question. I tossed him what I hoped was a juicy half volley and he obligingly whacked it out of the park. I asked him about the ridiculous notion that the British Empire somehow brought “civilization” to the world. He noted that when the Empire began the Chinese and Mughal empires were far richer and technologically sophisticated than the Europeans. The Ottomans weren’t bad either. The idea that there is somehow a single strand of human civilization stretching from Greece through Rome to London is ridiculous. He didn’t mention, though I would have done, that one of the most egregious acts of barbaric vandalism wreaked by European colonialism on the world was the spread of homophobia and associated neuroses to previously far more sensible cultures.

Those of you who have access to BBC iPlayer are warmly recommended to try Olusoga’s current TV series, A House Through Time. I loved the first episode. The second was broadcast last night. I didn’t get home in time to watch it, but I’ll be catching up this evening.

Of Myths & Monsters

Myths & Monsters is a 6-episode, British-produced documentary series on Netflix which looks at a variety of mythical themes and the reality behind them. Numerous historians are used as expert commentators, including Liz Gloyn whom I have chatted with on Twitter and who is currently writing a book on Medusa (though the Classical version, not the Bronze Age version which is far more interesting to me).

I binge-watched the series over New Year and enjoyed it, though I didn’t encounter anything much new. There were times when I wanted to disagree with things they said, particularly when they strayed into psychological explanations for myths. On two occasions where they stated firmly that no Norse woman ever went viking, let alone fought. This was based in part on an assertion that there was a psychological function for the Valkyrie (a sort of reverse birth thing) and that therefore all references to women warriors must be purely mythological. Even more bizarrely they used Thor’s silence at Thrymm’s Wedding (for which he had the good reason that his voice would give away his masquerade as Freya) as proof that Norse women were not allowed to speak much at home.

That said, there was a lot of good stuff to the series. I was particularly interested in the bit in episode 5 on social change where they started to talk about the witch panic of the 17th Century being a result of harvests failing due to climate change. I still haven’t read the new Ronald Hutton book, but it did sound plausible and, rather more scarily, it postulated the general theory that people are more likely to believe fake news, no matter how bizarre, during times of economic stress.

Anyway, it is still up on Netflix, so if you have access why not give it a look and let me know what you think.

Up On the Aqueduct

It is that time of year when the Aqueduct Press blog blossoms with posts from Aquedistas talking about things that they have enjoyed reading, seeing and hearing over the past year. Today it is my turn. Obviously I can’t talk much about fiction because of the Tiptree judging, but I still managed to go on rather a lot. You can read my post here.

Rick Stein Does Mexico

My attempts at catching up on the enormous backlog of science fiction television I’m facing have floundered somewhat because I have found a new cookery series to watch. I’m not a big fan of celebrity chefs, but I do like Rick Stein. There are several reasons for this. His restaurant is in Cornwall. He started his career focusing on fish. And of course the shows are directed by David Pritchard who also discovered the mercurial genius that was Keith Floyd. Stein has nowhere near the personality, nor capacity for alcohol, that Floyd had. However, his shows are refreshingly free of lecturing about diets, healthy eating and so on, majoring instead on simple enthusiasm for good, fresh food well cooked.

The new series, Rick Stein’s Road Trip to Mexico, obviously features Mexican cuisine. However, it started out in San Francisco because there is a tale of Greater Mexico here, before the USA took so much territory away. There is also the story of Mexico’s influence on American cuisine, and of course of the current political fuss over immigration. Safely back in England after filming, Stein can’s resist the occasional dig at the orange-faced monster.

It is the food, however, that is the rightful star of the show. I have long been of the opinion that Mexican cuisine is one of the finest in the world. The combination of chili, lime juice and coriander is irresistible. The slow-cooked meats are utterly delicious. And the burrito is one of the world’s great portable food inventions. All of which is before I get onto the subjects of cooking with chocolate, and the Margarita.

Anyway, I’m hooked. Given that the Winter Solstice holiday is the only time of the year I ever get the time to do some serious cooking, I am looking forward to trying some of Stein’s recipes. I shall sit back on my couch and imagine that I am basking in the warm Mexican sun rather than listening to the rain pour down outside.

Nero’s Trans Wife on TV

Earlier this year I made the case that Sporus, or Sabina as she should be more respectfully called, could easily be viewed as a trans woman rather than as a male-identified eunuch who was a victim of Nero’s eccentricity. The stories we get from Roman historians don’t show an unhappy victim, they show someone fitting comfortably into the role of a high status woman in Roman society and being accepted as such by the people.

Last week’s episode of the Bettany Hughes series, Eight Days that Made Rome, focused on Nero. I watched it with some trepidation. This is Channel 5, after all. If Sabina featured at all I was expecting her to be the butt (literally) of transphobic jokes.

What I saw was very different. Though she was named Sporus (which anyone who knows Latin will recognize as a male name), Sabina was portrayed as very feminine with no mention of her origins. She was simply the woman who shared Nero’s bed in his final days, and who loyally accompanied him on his flight from Rome. She was played by cis woman.

I find this astonishing. Not only did a very populist TV show eschew the opportunity to make smutty jokes, but someone, possibly Hughes herself, might agree with me that Sabina probably identified as a woman. Of course it is also possible that the show made this choice in order to avoid any hint of queerness, but that’s not been a problem for British TV for years. Unless I hear otherwise, I’m citing Hughes as a source the next time I talk about Sabina.

So, thank you Bettany for giving support to one of my pet theories about Roman history. And much kudos to Daniela Marinova for bravely taking on the role.

Unexpected TV

After the radio show yesterday I was having lunch in a cafe with a friend (plotting feminist revolution, as one does) when I got a message from the lovely people at ShoutOut Radio. Apparently the BBC were looking for someone to come onto Points West, the regional news program for the South West, and talk about trans issues.

So I got in touch with them to see what they wanted. As it turned out, they were running a feature on pioneering Bristol trans woman, Rosalind Mitchell. They wanted someone to comment on how things have changed for trans folk since she transitioned back in the 1990s.

That was an easy one for me except for the timing. I was due in Bath for a Women’s Equality Party meeting at 6:00pm. The show was due to air at 10:30pm, and I’d need to get a train home. Thankfully we were able to pre-record an interview and get me back to Temple Meads for the 10:22pm train. My thanks to everyone at WEP Bath and the BBC who helped make this happen.

Of course I wasn’t otherwise prepared. I’d managed to forget to pack a lipstick and didn’t find out about the mistake until I was at the WEP meeting and it was too late to go and buy one. My hair needed washing and I was wearing very much the wrong thing for hot studio lights. But I got it done.

If you have access to iPlayer you can watch the broadcast here up until 10:45pm today. Sabet Choudhury was great to work with, and I was pretty pleased with my responses. Sadly I still need a lot of practice on controlling my facial expressions while on TV. I frown way too much, mainly because I’m being serious. But every opportunity to practice is good.

The Gifted – First Impressions

Sky is putting a lot of marketing effort behind The Inhumans right now. As everyone who has seen it tells me the series is awful I am not inclined to bother. However, rather more quietly they have also shown (on Fox) three episodes of another new Marvel series, The Gifted. This is set in the X-Verse rather then the main Marvel Universe, and Bryan Singer directed the first episode. The story takes place after anti-mutant laws have been put in place in the USA, and the X-Men and Brotherhood have both vanished from the scene. It follows the adventures of an upstanding white family who discover that their teenagers are mutants and therefore wanted criminals.

From an X-Men point of view, it features Thunderbird, Polaris, Blink and a number of others running a Mutant Underground. This makes me very happy because a) Johnny is not fridged, and b) having Lorna around takes me back to those heady days when there were suddenly two girls in the X-Men rather than just Jean. It was a Big Thing for me as a teenager.

From your point of view the interesting thing is that, like SHIELD, this show is heavily political. It is all about people being declared un-citizens, about them being rounded up by clandestine, quasi-military government organizations, about lynch mobs, and about clueless white people discovering just how hard life is for the less privileged.

The Emma Newman TV Clip

I promised you the clip of Emma Newman and I being interviewed on the Crunch the Week show on Made in Bristol TV. Here it is.

I think Emma did a fabulous job. Also you get a great view of my octopus necklace. Thanks as ever to Steve LeFevre for making us so comfortable.

Of course Emma didn’t win the Clarke, but being a finalist is a huge achievement and there’s no shame in losing to a book that has already won a Pulitzer. I am continuing to keep my fingers crossed for the Hugo.

And while I’m here, my radio interview on BBC Bristol is currently available on Listen Again. You’ll be able to find it here for a few days.

TV Stars

Emma Newman and I, with special guest Hugo, did our TV slot yesterday. We were on the same show as Sue Mountstevens, the local Police Commissioner, and Martin Booth, the editor of Bristol 24/7. I had come hot foot from the Creative Histories conference. My cab had been half an hour late arriving so I was a bit frazzled. Hopefully I managed to get myself smartened up a bit before I went on air. At least I did better than poor Martin. There had been a desk last time he was on the show, so he figured he was safe turning up in shorts. Now there is a sofa.

Emma was great. Very assured for her first time on TV, and had an answer for every question. Pete Newman was watching the show in the Green Room and he seemed very pleased with how it went. We were only on air for 7 minutes, so my apologies if we didn’t get in a mention of everything.

As I said last night, the TV people are normally good about giving us MP4 files of our slots. If I get one I will stick it online for you.

Mad Day

This morning my social media alerts went crazy because I have a new history blog up the the University of Sheffield’s History Matters site.

Hopefully that didn’t interfere too much with my tweeting of Ronald Hutton’s brilliant lecture.

There was lots of other good stuff at Creative Histories today, though I was a little distracted by the need to have a conference call with Stonewall about a new campaign which I’ll be telling you about in August.

I got to present my steampunk paper. It seemed to go down well. Sonja and Joe, who presented in the same session as me, were both brilliant. It was an honor to follow them.

And then I rushed off to Filton to be on Made in Bristol TV with Emma Newman to talk about the Clarke and the Hugos. Em was brilliant as always. I took one of my Hugos, which outshone me effortlessly. Hopefully I will have the video for you next week.

Now I need sleep. I have to be off to Bristol first thing tomorrow for more history and a spot of dinosaur hunting.

Em & Cheryl Do TV

Today, and Thursday and Friday, I am at the Creative Histories conference in Bristol. I’m there primarily to talk about steampunk, though I do hope to come back with some photos of animatronic dinosaurs that they have on display. Selfie with my head in a T-Rex’s mouth? I’ll see what I can do.

However, I will be taking a short break on Thursday evening because the amazingly talented Emma Newman and myself will be on Made in Bristol TV that evening. We’ll be on The Crunch some time between 7:00pm and 9:00pm. We will be talking about the Clarke Award, After Atlas, the Hugos, Tea & Jeopardy, and doubtless Doctor Who as well.

Don’t worry if you miss it, or are outside of the catchment area. The Made in Bristol folks are normally very good about letting guests have an MP4 of their segment, and I’ll stick it online once I have it.

Say Goodbye, Parsley

The UK papers are all full of fine obituaries for Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, who died yesterday. Like many people of my age, I loved Paddington as a kid, but I have never been a huge fan because, well, I don’t much like marmalade.

Bond, however, created much more than Paddington. My favorite of his creations is The Herbs, an animated TV series that ran on BBC and featured a group of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic herbs. There were Parsley the Lion, Dill the Dog and Sage the Owl. There were Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary, and their rustic gardener, Bayleaf. There was bumbling Constable Knapweed. There were Mr & Mrs Onion and all the little Chives. And there were occasional guest characters such as Belladonna the Witch, and Tarragon.

Who was Tarragon? Well the best thing to do is show you. Here is the story of how Bayleaf spilled his sack of plant food, and how Tarragon (with a little help from Parsley and Sage) came to live in the magic herb garden.