Post 51: Myths and History of Ancient Greece

My last attempt to familiarize myself with Greek myths didn’t go too well. Robert Grave’s book on the topic was written in a rather affected style and contained interpretations and footnotes that could best be described as a bit mental. After a bit of a break, I recently made a new attempt with Paul Vincent’s Myths and History of Greece and Rome podcast.

It’s not a bad idea for a topic, and I can picture a series that works to tell the stories dramatically while dropping out now and then to explain them. How should we interpret these myths? How do they relate to other aspects of ancient Greek culture? How did they change over time? What impact have they had since? It would be fascinating to hear answers to these, preferably while staying well away from Robert Grave’s mushroom hallucination trip. It was disappointing then to find this series a bit ‘no thrills’.

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Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.

This is my fiftieth post on this blog. I’d wondered if I should do anything special here, but in the end have decided to just note a couple of small things. Firstly, the History of England podcast is going on to a (hopefully brief) hiatus. It has been one of my favourite podcasts for a few years now with its mix of amateur dramatic, sheds and the ladybird book of Kings and Queens. However, David Crowther has been doing it more or less non-stop for four years and has decided to break until early next year to help keep things fresh. Here is the relevant post from his facebook group.

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Post 49: Historical Pubs: The Turf Tavern, Oxford

FrontSituated in a little alleyway just off Broad Street, the Turf Tavern is one of the big tourist sights in Oxford. Over the years Bill Clinton has “not inhaled” there, the Australian PM Bob Hawke has set an ale-drinking world record, and Inspector Morse has visited more than once. With its unique, and occasionally odd, history, handy city-centre location and large beer gardens it has become a draw for anyone visiting Oxford and many of the residents. You may be pleased to hear that it does not disappoint (unlike The Eagle in the other place, from one of my previous posts).

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Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy

Book CoverA few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.

Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.

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Post 47: Russia by Martin Sixsmith

A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East

According to Churchill’s famous quote, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. After reading this book things are slightly clearer – at least in certain areas. Published in 2011, to accompany a BBC Radio 4 show, this book is perhaps slightly out of date now with Medvedev being sidelined again and things in Ukraine having sparked off, but the theme of the book remains applicable (if anything it is only supported by more recent events).

Martin Sixsmith is perhaps most famous at the moment for his film and book Philomena, but he started out as a BBC’s foreign correspondent in Moscow. He then had a stint in the civil service, ending in the controversial Jo Moore email scandal. Following this, he began a career as a novelist and starting to write and broadcast on Russia again, using in experience and expertise. This experience gives him a great perspective on Russia (both past, present and future) and he uses this to great advantage in the book. It largely focuses on the twentieth century and is far from taking a neutral stance on the politics of the country. However, this slant is presented in a open and accessible style (even if the material is often fairly grim) and shouldn’t put anyone off.

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Post 46: Iggy Pop on Edward Gibbon

Iggy Pop has recently been presenting a show on BBC Radio 6. He’s actually been doing this for a few months now, but I listen to the radio so little nowadays that I’ve only noticed this week. He’s got a very eclectic taste in music (in a good way) and his shows are well worth listening to. The most recent at time of writing – “Here Come The Germans” – has a great mix of classic krautrock like La Dusseldorf, more recent stuff like Rammstein and older tunes from Bertolt Brecht. There’s even some Wagner in there. They can be found, on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yblbx. He is also soon to deliver the John Peel Lecture

Anyway … I also happened to stumble upon a short piece of writing by Iggy on the importance of Edward Gibbon to his life and outlook. It’s short and pretty succinct, but well worth spending thirty seconds or so reading. The point that particularly resonated with me was number 2:

“I learn much about the way our society really works, because the system-origins – military, religious, political, colonial, agricultural, financial – are all there to be scrutinized in their infancy. I have gained perspective.”

It’s one of the things I enjoy most about history (not just Rome, but it does stand out as shining examples of this), the way one can see the modern world built up on what had been before – slowly adding complexity, correcting the mistakes, often making more mistakes in the process. As well as his show on BBC, Iggy is soon to deliver John Peel Lecture on the concept of free music in a capitalist society. I’m not sure if he’ll take much from Gibbon on that one, but I am sure that it’ll be an interesting talk nonetheless.

I’ll leave this post with his final comment: one that would be a good tagline for a history blog,

“I urge anyone who wants life on earth to really come alive for them to enjoy the beautiful ancestral ancient world.”

Post 45: The Egyptian History Podcast

This is yet another in the History of X mould – the name happens to be flipped around to Egyptian History, so I guess its already breaking that formula, but how will it stand up against its predecessors? On first glance things look good – the presenter Dominic Perry is actually a graduate student in Egyptian history. As much as I love David Crowther’s ‘man in a shed’ amateurism on History of England podcast, Egyptian history is an area with so many conspiracy theories, myths and general nonsense that it is reassuring to have someone who can give a modern academic view. It’s also great to have someone with access to and experience of materials and locations that wouldn’t be possible for the amateur podcaster.


I should say at this point that I’ve struggled with Egyptian history in the past. Even recently, I attempted to read Toby Wilkinson’s epic history of Egypt but balked halfway through in the face of incomprehensible names and a seemingly never ending succession of kings that we know little about. That’s the potential problem with such a show, the kingdoms of Egypt lasted for so long and the culture changed so much over that time – pacing things correctly can be difficult.

Previously I was barely able to get a handle on things before a new king or god or style of temple would pop up and blow everything out of the water. With this said, it is very much to Dominic Perry’s credit that he has managed to bring me along with him. The show does move quickly, but things are well placed with a special focus on new concepts as they arrive. This is balanced well, with episodes often split between a narrative and another topic (for example, women or the economy).

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Post 44: Science & Islam: Mathematics

Most people will probably know that the mathematicians of the Islamic world have played a big part in mathematics as we know it – terms like “algebra” and “algorithm” is a bit of a give away, and the invention of zero is a common bit of trivia. Not as many people may be familiar with the characters and setting behind these inventions or the full extent of their mathematical achievements. These weren’t just abstract creations either, they often had practical uses for both everyday life and for other academic arts. This post is a bit of a deviation from a book (Science & Islam by Ethan Masood) I reviewed in a recent post – I’ve given a bit of a general run through of the general history there if you want to check it out (please do, views are always nice to have), but I’ve tried to keep this post relatively self contained.

Why?

Why did they study mathematics? Well, much like anyone else it was a mixture of the practical and the academic. Some of these scientists and philosophers would investigate more and more complicated work for its own sake, but there were also more down to earth reasons. Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra was explained as a way to speed up the complicated process of Islamic inheritance, and work on trigonometry was needed for new techniques in navigation and astronomy (okay, maybe that last one is a bit less down to earth). The work was, as with more scientific work, generally funded by a patron or ruler.

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Post 43: Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds

Post Punk 1978-1984

Does this count as history? I was born shortly after this book finishes, so I’m inclined to go with ‘yes’ on that. And as another blog on wordpress says If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History. Simon Reynolds, previously the author of Energy Flash (a history of Rave) and the inventor of the term Post-Rock, takes us on a fast and very entertaining trip through new music from the first stirrings of Public Image Limited in the late seventies to the downfall of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the mid eighties.

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