It being that time of year, my annual review post is up on the Aqueduct Press blog. It was a little late this year due to my being in Montréal for part of December, but I got there in the end. It went live on Christmas Eve, but I didn’t think there was any point in publicising it then. There are lots of other great contributions too. You can read mine here.
Up on the Aqueduct
My annual review of the year post is up on the Aqueduct Press blog. Mostly it covers what I have written about in Salon Futura, but it is in a condensed and accessible form and there is a little bit of other stuff too. You can find it here.
Thoughts on Extreme E
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have a strong interest in motor racing. You mainly see comments on Formula 1, but there are other race series out there, and this year a new one has been unveiled.
Extreme E is an off-road series for electric cars, with the additional concept that the purpose of the series is not just entertainment and development of electric vehicle technology, but also raising awareness of climate change. In view of the latter, the races all take place in remote parts of the world where the effects of climate change can be seen, and the series has a philosophy of minimal carbon footprint and “race without a trace” — that is they tidy up after themselves. The commitment to the environment has attracted interest from some of the top names in the sport — Sir Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Carlos Sainz Sr., Sebastien Loeb — and there is a fascinating mix of drivers from different disciplines.
Unlike slick operations such as Formula 1, Extreme E is very much a seat-of-the-pants job at the moment. The team behind the series is still learning a lot about how to stage an entertaining race, and they are deliberately self-hobbled by their decision to minimise the at-venue presence. The inaugural race over the weekend was interesting, but showed up some of the cracks, not least in the TV coverage.
From a driving point of view, Extreme E is just what it says on the tin. The Al-Ula circuit in Saudi Arabia is a stretch of rocky desert that eschews even the dirt roads in the region. At one point the cars crest a blind ridge and drop 100 metres at a 45 degree angle. I certainly shouldn’t be let anywhere near roads like that, and I have huge respect for anyone who can actually drive it without crashing, let alone do so at speed.
Because the series is brand new, so is the car. The Odyssey 21 is an electric sports SUV designed specifically for the series by Spark Racing, the same people who build the Formula E cars. Inevitably with a brand new car there are teething problems, and the biggest issue with the Odyssey appears to be the power steering. Accoring to the good folks at Inside Electric, the teams basically have a choice of settings: you either run with full power steering and risk it breaking while you are out on track, or you run a lower setting and have to do a lot of the steering yourself, which on a track like this is seriously hard work. Failure of the power steering was apparrently why Sir Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team did so poorly in the final.
Also brand new is the battery, which has been developed by Williams Engineering (who also build an F1 car). I missed the first Qualifying session on Saturday because it started at 7:00am UK time, and when I watched the second session several drivers were commenting that they were running reduced power. The Sky commentary team had no idea what this was about, but again the folks at Inside Electric have been doing the work. Given the heat of the desert venue, the Williams engineers found that the batteries were not cooling down as quickly as they had expected, and consequently they could not be fully charged between the two qualifying sessions.
I shouldn’t be too hard on the Sky team, because they were not at the circuit. Commentating on something happening thousands of miles away is not easy. But I’m sure that if Ted Kravitz had been with the Sky team he would have wanted to find out what was going on, and would have found a way to get the information.
This sort of thing is important to the TV coverage because for much of the time there isn’t anything interesting going on. There are some fabulous camera shots from drones, and from inside the cars, but watching a driver wrestle with a steering wheel is never going to be as exciting as wheel-to-wheel racing. More about that later. For now I’ll just note that the commentators need to find interesting things to talk about.
They had them too, because Extreme E is the first series to insist on gender parity in the drivers. Each team has one male driver and one female driver (no place for non-binary drivers yet) and they drive equal numbers of laps, with the drivers changing places half-way through. What we (and by “we” I particularly mean female fans) wanted to know was how well the women were doing compared to the men. The commentators didn’t seem interested in that. Indeed, they often forgot the names of the women drivers, or referred to “the Button car” even when Jenson’s teammate, Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, was driving. I know that Jenson owns the team, but that’s a bit poor.
One thing that did catch the attention of the commentators was the performance of Catie Munnings for the Andretti United team during Qualifying 1. She got a puncture in her right-rear early on in the lap, but still managed to bring the car home with a respectable time. It was an astonishing feat of driving.
What we didn’t get were lap time splits. The timing screens only reported the joint time of the team. However, Matt Warwick of the BBC has been digging. He reports that Catie had a faster time than her teammate, Timmy Hansen, during the final. Also Christine Giampaoli Zonca of the Hispano Suiza team regularly out-paced her partner, Bristol’s Oliver Bennett.
What Warwick didn’t report was how the times recorded by Rosberg Extreme Racing’s Molly Taylor compared to the men in the other teams. Molly regularly beats male drivers back home in Australia, which is why she’s the national rally champion. She and Johan Kristoffersson were clearly the class of the field at the weekend. I’m sure she must have out-paced most of the men, in identical machinery.
You will have noticed that I mentioned two local drivers. Jenson Button is from Frome and Ollie Bennett from Bristol. There is a third West Country driver in the series: Bath’s Jamie Chadwick. Sadly she didn’t get to drive at all. In Quali 1 her teammate at Veloce, Stéphane Sarrazin, hit a large lump of desert grass and rolled the car. It was by no means the worst crash of the weekend, but by some freak accident it bent the roll cage on the car. That’s not something that the team could repair in a tent in the desert, so for safety reasons the Veloce team had to withdraw from the race with Jamie never having got to drive.
Qualifying was interesting, and included a couple of spectacular crashes, but it was Sunday’s races that most fans would have been looking forward to. The qualifying, and a couple of semi-finals, sorted the nine teams into three groups, who then raced for position within that group. (I am not going to call anything “The Crazy Race” unless Dick Dastardly and Muttley actually compete in it.)
The bottom three cars were actually only two because the Veloce team had withdrawn. That left the two other teams that had experienced crashes in Qualifying. It had become obvious in the semi-finals that serious racing would be impossible save for the long straight at the start. The cars were throwing up so much sand that visibility was zero for a car trying to follow close enough to pass. Kyle Leduc in the team entered by IndyCar mogul, Chip Ganassi, proved this conclusively by trying to overtake Claudia Hürtgen in the ABT Cupra car. He had no idea where she was on the road, and slammed into the back of the other car, ending the race for both of them.
The other races all settled down into the male drivers having a short race from the start to the first corner, and the two who didn’t get there first backing off to make sure they had enough visibilty to get to the end. This does not make for exciting racing. It also meant that the women drivers were under orders to bring the car home safety and not take any risks, because they had a 30 second cushion on the car behind.
Because each race takes place in a very different environment, this may not be a problem for other races. Alternatively the management may decide to make the series more of a time trial challenge. The series is young, and they have time to adjust. I’m sure they’ll be spending the month that it will take for the ship that carries the cars around the world to get to Senegal thinking hard about this.
However, as well as the actual racing, I do hope that they think a bit about the TV coverage. It wasn’t only covering the racing where they fell down. The stated purpose of Extreme E is to draw attention to climate change. Wherever they go, the drivers get to see and help with local conservation efforts (Jamie Chadwick posted pictures of her working on beach clean-up to Twitter). Also the ship carries a science team with a fully equipped laboratory. What were thet doing? We don’t know. The TV coverage relied only on pre-recorded material supplied by the Extreme E management. There was no reporting on the environmental issues from the venue.
If I had a hotline to Alejandro Agag, I would be telling him to get an science reporter out there with the teams, and ask her to do live coverage of each venue. I’d want to see what the drivers were up to off-track. I’d want to talk to the team crews about setting up and tearing down the paddock area. I’d want to talk to the science team and local conservationists about the local wildlife and the specific threats that each venue faces from climate change. This is your message, guys, get it out there.
Up On The Aqueduct
It being that time of year, I have once again contributed to the annual Aqueduct Press “The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening” series. If you want to know what I have been spending my leisure time on over the past year, you can read all about it here.
There have been a bunch of other great posts in the series this far, and I’m sure there will be many more to come.
Coronavirus – Day #132
Cricket, accounts, Worldcon prep.
Oh, and I binge-watched the final four episodes of Doom Patrol season 1. Wow was that good.
I’m trying to avoid the news because all of the hand-wringing over poor, oppressed people being forced to wear masks and dying as a result is getting a bit much. Before we know it, masks will have killed more people than the virus. You heard it first in the Daily Malice.
Talking of the virus, the official government stats has had the number of new cases per day at under a thousand since early June. Whereas this medical study group has the current number at almost 2,000 per day. I have no idea who or what to believe any more. The only thing that is hard to fudge is the actual number of people who die (of all causes) and that data runs at several weeks in arrears for obvious reasons.
Coronavirus – Day #98
I appear to have spent much of today watching TV. There was housework as well, and an online meeting, but lots of TV. Or, to be precise, Netflix.
So, yes, I have watched Disclosure. It is rather painful to be reminded of the many awful ways in which trans people have been portrayed in film and TV, but it is also quite powerful to be reminded of what the media has done to us. Because something that has been done can be undone.
After which, I needed a reward, so I binged the rest of season 4 of She-Ra. Tomorrow, season 5.
Wait, no, tomorrow back to work, what am I saying…
In the outside world, the 7-day rolling average of deaths in the UK ticked upwards again. Its only one day. We’ll be fine. I hope.
Coronavirus – Day #48
Well that was great. Museum from Home was hugely successful. I’m really happy for Dan and Sacha, who have put a lot of effort into this. Who knows, maybe they’ll get their own TV show one day.
In among all the museum and free ebook excitement I found time to sling some chicken curry into the slow cooker, so that’s food sorted for a few more days.
Bozo has apparently announced that the UK is past the peak as far as virus cases goes, and the data is still supporting that. On the other hand, we are still running at well over 500 deaths a day, so if we lift restrictions now things could get a lot worse very quickly. And the government has still not made any significant steps towards managing the exit process.
Coronavirus – Day #18
Today was a day for me to be visible, so I went out.
Well actually that wasn’t the reason. I was starting to run out of fresh food, and today was forecast to be fine weather. If I was going to have to queue to get into a grocery store I didn’t want to have to do so in the rain. So today had to be the day for the expedition.
I decided to try the big Tesco mid-afternoon. I figured it would not be too busy at that time on the Tuesday. Even so there must have been around 100 people in the store. However, it was all very smoothly marshalled. The staff were great, and everyone behaved themselves. This was a great relief after some of the stories I have been seeing on Twitter. And I only had to queue for about 10 minutes to get in.
Also the car started, which was a relief. That meant I was able to buy a lot more that I could carry.
There was plenty of food in the store. Certain things were close to unobtainable: flour, pasta and rice were all in short supply. And there are certain brands that Tesco are not stocking during the emergency. But I came away with almost everything I wanted. I even got some eggs, so there may be some baking experiments in the coming days. There was plenty of toilet paper. Not that I needed any. I don’t go through it that quickly and I have one pack of 9 in store.
Aside from that it has been a very busy day. There was all of the social media fuss over Trans Day of Visibility. There was the Unjust Cause cover reveal. And I’ve just put a new issue of Salon Futura online. I’ll talk more about this tomorrow, but if you are keen to read it you can find it here.
Oh, and I watched the first episode of Batwoman, which was very promising.
Coronavirus – Day #14
Two weeks in, and my life shows no sign of slowing down. Today has been mostly a Wizard’s Tower and Ujima Radio day. Huge thanks are due to all of the lovely people who agreed to be recorded for a slot on my show.
Today was also the final episode of Star Trek: Picard. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in Salon Futura next week, but basically I think that Michael Chabon has done a good job in what was a very difficult task.
The national news has been abuzz with the fact that both the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have tested positive for COVID-19. I’m not in the least bit surprised. When a junior health minister announced that she had tested positive a couple of weeks ago I expected the entire Cabinet to go down with it. This thing is incredibly infectious and also has a long incubation time, which is why it spreads so effectively. The UK had 2885 new cases and 181 new deaths today alone, and there’s no sign of it slowing down because most of the people testing positive now are people who have had it since before the lockdown began. As the only people getting tested in the UK are the very rich, no one has any idea how many actual cases there are.
That said, the vast majority of cases are in London. Most of the rest of the country is relatively quiet. Here’s hoping that it stays that way.
Coronavirus – Day #12
One of the interesting things about the current crisis is how quickly things have changed. Only a couple of weeks ago we were wondering whether travel would be affected. Now conventions as far out as August are being cancelled. And you can get caught out. I’ve been watching a documentary series about British Rivers on Channel 5. It is basically an excuse to do some local history of the back of the region that a major river flows through. The latest episode I watched was on the Warwickshire Avon. (There are lots of rivers called Avon in England because afon is Welsh for river, and the English are stupid.) This is the one that flows through Stratford, but it is also known for Rugby and its sport, Warwick for its castle, Leamington for its spa and several other things. The river is also prone to flooding. At the start of the show the narrator said that 2020 would be remembered as the year of terrible floods on the Avon. Ha, no mate. Nice try.
Keeping up with the pace of change has been hard for some organisations. Today I got email from Tesco to say that they have finally implemented a queuing system (with enforced separation) for getting into stores, and at checkouts, plus a rigorous cleaning regime. They’ve also cut down on the range of products they stock to make sure they have enough basic necessities. I’m not going to risk heading out there for a while though. Goodness only knows how people will be behaving.
What does seem to be working is the Internet. Today I had a long video chat with my friend Otto in Helsinki. That sort of thing is easy. Also Disney+ seems to have got through its UK launch with no capacity issues. But utility systems are complicated. We still have power, water, and connectivity, but what happens if things go wrong? I’ve just had email from my internet provider, Zen, who have been great, but they don’t own vans. If something were to go wrong on the network out in the country somewhere, it is a company called Openreach that would send an engineer to fix it. They have just announced that they can no longer keep to their advertised service level. If your internet goes down, and you are not a priority industry, then you are screwed. In theory I still have the mobile phone, but hopefully I won’t need it.
Without the Internet, of course, I would be completely cut off. I think I would probably still be OK for a while. I’m slightly boggled at the people who are getting cabin fever after a day or two of working from home. Obviously I don’t have kids, which helps a lot, but I’m used to this. I’ve been working for myself, mostly from home, since 2003. What’s more, as a trans person, I’m used to going 2 to 3 weeks over Christmas with no in-person social contact every year. In effect I have been training for this for a long time.
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.
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.