Bernard Cornwell: Powerhouse

So, yeah, it’s been a while. Reasons, excuses, back to the main event. In the intervening time, I have been reading. First it was Sharpe’s Triumph, then it was Sharpe’s Tiger (which is definitely the wrong order). My local bookshop stocks nowhere near enough Sharpe books, so I have moved on from Sharpe.

Sharpe.jpg
Poor, sad, Sharpe

In any case, I am now reading the first of the Starbuck Chronicles, ‘Rebel’, which is also by Bernard Cornwell. I decided to skip ‘the Saxon Stories’ because I don’t want to spoil The Last Kingdom TV series for myself. It’s a weird world where I avoid the original novel, to preserve my enjoyment of the adaptation, but there you go.

In any case, Starbuck is actually pretty good fun, once you get past the 15-year-old pregnant statutory rape victim love interest. Yeah, that bit freaked me out…

Having now read of few of his novels, I’m enjoying Cornwell’s work. The guy can write a good war story. It’s 9/10ths preparation, baggage and worry, and 1/10th rollicking adventure. His baddies are appealing because you know they are baddies. Real bastards. The goodies are usually the dashing rogue types. Willing to steal from their own side if they have to, but equally willing to muck in.

For all their boy’s-own-adventure qualities, they have regular seams of ugly reality. Cornwell’s plots play out like an RPG. For every step along the journey that the heroes take, there are three or four side-missions for them to go through.

All in all, Cornwell’s novels are fun. And really, that’s all I want. If I want unbridled misery and death I’ll watch Game of Thrones. Occasionally, I just want a good time.

Rhodes, Ba’al, Bel, and the destruction of heritage

In 2015, ‘so-called’ IS militants captured the ancient city of Palmyra. They promptly destroyed some of the most historic buildings in the world, using the destruction as part of elaborate executions for added levels of atrocity. At the centre of this, was the temple of Bel (or Ba’al, I am confused about this point). To most in historical circles, this destruction was particularly upsetting. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons I have avoided writing about it until now.

However, to put a positive spin on such a shitty story, it’s nice to know that part of that temple is to be recreated as part of a temporary exhibit in Trafalgar Square, London.

(And if one positive story isn’t enough, you should also check out the Army, which is signing up ‘monuments men’ to go into war zones and rescue at-risk heritage.)

However, this is not the only time in recent history where the subject of destroying historical objects has reared its head. In America, over the last year, the subject of race relations on campus has been especially heated. Among the many changes that students are demanding is the removal of mascots, crests, statues and names of racist founders. This mirrors the banning of Confederate flags as symbols of white supremacy.

In the UK, one of the focal figures for this campaign is Cecil Rhodes, a man who played a huge role in the development of the British Empire. He was also, as were many of his peers, massively racially prejudiced. Fun fact; he also started the De Beers diamond company, who are also pretty shady characters. But, he also gave a lot of his money to education, including things like the ‘Rhodes Scholarships’, which has provided more than a few future heads of state with the chance to study at Oxford University.

This is what the UK’s imperial history looks like; a fat white dude who probably rendered at least one species of animal extinct

So, should Oxford University tear down Rhodes’ statue? Think very carefully, because if you said ‘yes’, that’s a similar sort of logic to that of those ‘so-called’ IS chaps. Granted, you probably weren’t going to murder anyone in the process, but that’s because you’re actually a pretty decent person, rather than a homicide-tourist.

IS destroys statues, temples and ancient monuments because these don’t agree with the IS philosophy. Are we going to damn the memory of our own historical figures because they don’t agree with our modern philosophy? On a day when Germany is finally reprinting Mein Kampf, should we monumentalise only our heroes? Or should our villains stay on plinths as well, so that we might never forget them?

This will always be an impassioned subject. We remember when Iraq was overthrown, images of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. However, in the Ukraine, which is currently still engaged in conflict with Russia, a different reaction has taken place. Rather than tear down one statue of Lenin, a local artist has turned it into something radically different:

Lenin Vader Statue

Perhaps the best way to maintain our history, is to accept that it did happen, but that it can still be relevant to the world we live in today.

Things we did to history in 2015

So, another year on, and more of our past lovingly screwed with. It’s time for our annual rundown of the 12 things you most enjoyed reading about this year.

#12 Swords in films

Even in sci-fi, we cannot get away from the fact that swords are popular in Hollywood. Too popular. On the battlefields of medieval Europe the sword was a bit of a niche weapon. So why is it so popular now? I dig a little deeper!

highlander swords

#11 Men and Gods; why Greek myths rock!

I ain’t saying that Greek myths are the best stories. It’s just that, in many cases, they are. I sat down with a mixed bag of DVDs and some popcorn, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I want Henry Cavill to be the next Bond.

immortals-battle

#10 Time Team vs Restoration Man

When it comes to historical documentary programming, you can’t escape the fact that Channel 4 can put out a belter. With suspense, drama, and (occasionally) utter catastrophe, both Time Team and Restoration Man follow this trend. But which is better?

Time Team Vs Restoration Man

#9 A quiet word with New Byzantine designer Andrew Gould

Over in the US, there is a fantastic architectural design studio called New Byzantine. They are doing really cool things to revive colonial architecture, and give the States some style. I interview designer Andrew Gould.

otranto house
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

#8 Five actors who can’t keep away from history

If you watch historical TV shows, films, and the like, you may have noticed that a few faces keep cropping up. I went through a top five regulars to look out for, and the kind of things you can catch them in.

The-Duchess

#7 Classical swag

Sometimes I just see something awesome that I have to share with you. This was one of those occasions. Red figure converse anyone?

Ancient Greek Converse

#6 Why horned helmets are the best thing to have never happened to the Vikings

Were it not for the horned helmets, Vikings would probably be best known for their love of looting monasteries. But somewhere along the line (looking at you, Wagner), someone thought they weren’t interesting enough and added some extra details. Now they are best known for something that wasn’t true.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

#5 Why Blackbeard was never the big bad

Blackbeard was a pirate captain, but he lived in an era when the best pirate captains had seats in the house of lords. I look at some better candidates for top villain of the seas. And come to the conclusion that, whoever they were, they were probably Welsh.

Blackbeard

#4 What’s wrong with Wolf Hall?

This was the year that Wolf Hall came to our screens. It was big, it was bold, it wasn’t very bright. But that’s what you get when you film by ambient candlelight. It was a good series, but there were a couple of things that need to be straightened out before we get another one.

Wolf Hall
That classic blank face we saw so much of.

#3 The Musketeers and their place in history television

We love the Musketeers. It’s so cheesy. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good. No-one important gets shanked on a whim (curse you GRRM)! Does it deserve a place in historical media though? That’s for you to decide.

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

#2 A reality TV show set #10000BC

A weird one, Channel 5 decided to dabble in the trend for reality TV  survival shows. The premise; a mix of people would be sent to live in a prehistoric camp. Shit went down.

10000BC

#1 A quiet word with @SPQRBlues

The most popular blog this year was our interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the author and artist of the SPQR Blues webcomic. The series has just had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and should eventually be available as an IRL thing. Check it out!

SPQR Vesuvius

The Mummy, an appreciation

With the news that there is going to be an unnecessary Mummy reboot, I felt that it was time to reflect on just how good the 1999 reboot was.

My favourite moment of the last franchise was when someone pointed out just how tenuous a concept Scorpion King 2 was. It was a sequel, to a spin-off, of a sequel, to a reboot. Say what you like about the movies, the fact that they could drag them out that far must be an indicator of just how successful they were.

The key to this was, undoubtedly, good writing. The characters were well-rounded, honest and human. Brendan Fraser is perfectly-cast as a rough-and-ready soldier-for-hire with a great streak of humour. Rachel Weisz is perfect as his counterpart who transitions from a timid, clumsy librarian to a kick-ass femme fatale. And there are plenty more moments like it!

John-Hannah-in-The-Mummy

The whole thing is a tour-de-force of half-remembered Egyptian history. There is the army of Arabic guardians, the French Foreign Legion and enough fezzes and pith helmets to shake a stick at.It cuts corners with the factual side of things. But sometimes this approach is actually a good thing. It means that the viewer can instantly relax into the story, rather than having to sit up and figure it all out first.

It is what I’d call a B-movie. It is heavily reliant on CGI, which was not as good as it could have been. It is also a little bit cheesy in places. The rascally coward Beni is way too weasily. And Brendan Fraser’s wisecracking in some life-or-death situations seems pretty insincere. But beyond that, the film is almost perfect.

So beat that, Tom Cruise. I dare you!

Slavery Reparations: Paying For The Past

This week UK Prime Minister David Cameron went on a trip to Jamaica, and didn’t apologise for slavery. He couldn’t apologise because that might open the path for legal action by any country that has a claim to reparations. The UK has been on the recieving end of historic claims for a while; give the Falklands back to Argentina; forgive criminalised homosexuals like Turing and Wilde; give the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

We’re not the only ones. When the EU was attempting to claw back its loans to Greece, the understandably upset Greece demanded unpaid war reparations from Germany. In almost every case, the answer is the same; the nation of the present cannot be responsible for the actions of the nation of the past.

In many cases, this is because the UK cannot afford to set a precedent. If it starts giving things back, making amends, then more claimants will come a-knocking. The power dynamic is also a relevant point. Greece is never going to persuade Germany to just give money back, and the same is true of Jamaica and the UK. For all that we’re no longer the same empire that benefited from slavery, we are definitely in a position to ignore demands like this.

But there’s also the problem of just how much time has passed. There’s no way to wind back the clock on history. Jamaican culture has been irrevocably changed by slavery. If reparations were made, then the native Caribs would be justified in demanding that all those of African descent went back to Africa. And that is plainly ridiculous.

Yes, our antecedents were well out of order. But there are better ways to repay the situation. Possibly not by building a prison and shipping their criminals back them, but still…

Film Noir: a Genre Built on Stereotypes

Fallout New Vegas is Noir

In recent years, Film Noir has been a source of inspiration for a broad range of media. In the 40s and 50s, this was a skewed way of looking at culture at the time, which, in part, sprang from cliche-stuffed pulp fiction. These days, it’s a way of throwing a very stylised set of restrictions at a media, and possibly even retrojecting it into the era. Nevertheless, it remains very popular. For example, films like LA Confidential, Sin City and The Spirit all borrow heavily from the genre.

Sin City was one big homage to the genre

Hell, even The Incredibles takes cues from the genre. A lot of the early action happens at night. There are stake-outs, police radios, mysterious ‘dames’, over-the-hill government types, a lot of the action happens in alleyways, yada, yada, yada.

The Incredibles definitely had shades of noir

This may help with the whole Art Deco old-fashioned thing they have going on, but the reality is, the ‘modern’ Incredibles live in a relatively current world. Sure, one where tablets seem futuristic, but not so far into the past that the 40s and 50s would be a relevant time period for Elastigirl or Incrediboy.

In games as well, noir has seen a resurgence. Fair enough, ‘LA Noire’ was always going to be a straight homage to the genre, but even the Fallout series has characters like ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, any number of hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, and so on. The series was built on the premise that the Fallout universe had diverged from ours in the 50s, and the music (and that Art Deco style), among other things, never changed.

A still from the newly announced Fallout 4

Film Noir is absolutely still having a big impact on popular culture. Perhaps this is thanks to its simplicity. Yes, the tropes been been overused to the point they have been cliches. But now that is helpful. When we come across a character called ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, we know what to expect. So when those expectations are subverted, things get interesting.

East Meets West: The Bizarre Mash-ups That Are Rewriting History

the good, the bad, the weird

This blog is about two films in particular: ‘The Man With The Iron Fists’, and ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Weird’. You should see them both!

So, yeah: the era and location are wooly at best, and some of it is just silly. But it’s pretty fun nonetheless.

More of a re-imagining of an old classic, but carried out with more style than I realised the Korean film industry had.

And really, I just wanted to draw attention to both of them. ‘The Man With The Iron Fists’ had a straight-to-DVD sequel, which came out earlier in the year. It looks roughly the same level of ridiculous, but with none of the big names. ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Weird’, to the best of my knowledge, was left as a one-off. I guess they didn’t want things to get too… weird.

One is a Korean film, set in China, playing on tropes from Westerns. The other is an American film set (allegedly) in China, playing on tropes from martial arts films. Of the two, I have a bit more time for ‘The Good, The Bad…’. It has a bit more polish, and both its comedy and its pathos are solid. ‘The Man With The Iron Fists’ is more of a vanity project. But, for all that, it is still a very fun one.

This kind of crossover is a great way to reinvigorate a market that has, in some ways, become quite stale with reboots and sequels. What I’d like to see next? How about a buddy cop movie set in medieval England?

A Quiet Word With: New World Byzantine Designer Andrew Gould

This week we were lucky enough to steal some time from Andrew Gould, a partner from the New World Byzantine architectural design studio. If you’ve got a house that you want to look old, and you live in Charleston, South Carolina, maybe you can hire them! A lot of the people we’ve interviewed before work in a digital space, but these guys are totally concrete.

The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

History Mine: How do you decide where to balance historical design with modern functionality?

Andrew Gould: I don’t see that as dichotomy, because I don’t consider my buildings “historical design” – I consider them “traditional design”. Architectural tradition is simply a loose cannon of sensible and pleasing ways that things have always been built. It is a broad cannon from which to choose inspiration, and the choice of which traditional materials and details I use is driven in large part by modern practicalities. For instance, solid brick buildings are historically prevalent in Charleston, but not practical to build nowadays due to earthquake codes. So I build from concrete block and stucco and use brick as accents. Even though concrete block is a fairly modern material, it’s still solid masonry, and still traditional if detailed right.

HM: The Mugdock Castle must’ve been an inspiring project. How does something like that come about? 

AG: It’s an unusual story. My first building in Charleston was the Orthodox church I designed in the I’On neighborhood – a prominent new-urbanist development outside Charleston. The developer wanted churches in his subdivision so it would function as a traditional town. Well, that developer also wanted to get an Episcopal church in there, so he bought a deconsecrated historic stone church on Sullivan’s Island, a few miles away. He planned to move the building to I’On, using a barge, but Sullivan’s Island enacted a historic district to prevent him from removing their building. Being stuck with the old stone church, he decided to renovate it as an estate for his family, naming it after the Scottish castle of his ancestors. He turned the church into a great hall, and needed to build an addition to house the bedrooms. And he wanted to it to be quite tall to get a view of the ocean. He was so impressed with the massive medieval architecture of the church I had designed in I’On, that he asked me to design his castle addition. He said he wanted it to look older than the Gothic church, so I did it in a sort of whimsical Scottish Romanesque style. It was a wonderful project because I was able to design every little design over the course of several years.

Mugdock Castle is a massive edifice, far more unique than most mansions.
Mugdock Castle is a massive edifice, far more unique than most mansions.

HM: As a European, I find that Americans are fascinated with history. Is this a reflection of the fact that America is still a very young country?

AG: At least with regards to art and architecture, I think the American obsession with history can be ascribed to our dearth of beautiful buildings. Most Americans live in very bland and artificial environments, and rather desperately crave some connection to historical beauty. Unfortunately, this is usually manifest in ridiculous commercialism, like Thomas Kinkade paintings and suburban shopping malls called Ye Olde Towne Centre. It is very rare in America for new buildings to actually revive tradition, and not just superficially reference it. So the few actual historic buildings and towns we have are treated with a lot of reverence.

HM: Leading on from this, would you agree if I was to suggest that part of what you are doing is reinforcing that early colonial history?

AG: Yes, definitely. In colonial times, America had really fine art and architecture. It was distinctive, not quite the same as European styles, and in many ways, better. It was something to be proud of. By building new traditional buildings I am encouraging people to identify with their cultural heritage – to think of it as something relevant – something that is still part of American life. 

Fortunately, the revival of American tradition is thriving in many other fields, such as craft brewing and distilling, heritage cuisine, graphic art, folk music, etc.

The Mountain Residence is one of Andrew's projects, a masterpiece of early American architecture.
The Mountain Residence is one of Andrew’s projects, a masterpiece of early American architecture.

HM: Do you have any current or future projects which particularly excite you? Could you tell us a bit about them?

AG: I’m working on a big Orthodox church in Greenville, SC. It’s interesting because it is Byzantine in form (cruciform with a dome), but all built honestly out of wood in the style of a Victorian American church. It’s an experiment in uniting the liturgical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy with the building traditions of South Carolina, and I think it will be quite successful. I enjoy projects like this, which result in a building that is wholly traditional, and yet does not particularly resemble any building that was ever built before.

Thankyou Andrew, and please be sure to check out the New World Byzantine website.

3 Casting Decisions That Could Have Been Made Better

Gerard Butler would make a better William Wallace

I didn’t go to see Exodus recently.

I have three main reasons for this:

  1. It’s a bible film, and they generally suck.
  2. It’s a CGI-heavy film, and I’m getting sick of those
  3. It has a Welsh American playing a Hebrew Egyptian in the lead.

Between those three factors, I really couldn’t bring myself to see it. But it did get me thinking, which other historical (or close historical) films could have been better cast?

#1 The Lone Ranger

2013’s Lone Ranger pic flopped in a big way. One of the biggest issues with the film was Johnny Depp, playing a sidekick with higher billing than the main character. This despite the fact that that character has the word ‘Lone’ in their title. With such a major player in the role, it upset the whole dynamic of the movie. Casting a first nations actor like Cowboys and Aliens’ Adam Beach would have lent a bit more credibility to the Tonto role, while putting the focus back to the title character.

Johnny Depp should've left this role to serious players, like Cowboys and Aliens' Adam Beach.
Johnny Depp should’ve left this role to serious players, like Cowboys and Aliens’ Adam Beach.

#2 Alexander

I get that you don’t want to cast a Greek/Macedonian/Whatever actor in this role. For a film of this size, they need to be world-famous, with the charisma to match. With that in mind, why the hell was Farrell cast? His biggest roles before this had been in Minority Report opposite Tom Cruise, and in Daredevil, opposite Ben Affleck, both of whom would have been better in this role.

Ben Affleck would've made a better Alexander
Ben Affleck would’ve made a better Alexander

#3 Braveheart

Ok, now we’re really risking arguments. Braveheart was a great film. But was Mel Gibson the right person to play William Wallace? It’s debatable. These days Gerrard Butler would be a shoe-in, but he didn’t really break until 2004. The only major-league Scots actor at the time was Sean Connery, who might not’ve done the film any favours either (see Highlander for more details). Other potential contenders include Ewan McGregor and Kevin McKidd from “Rome”. I still feel like I’m missing someone though…

Gerrard Butler would make a better William Wallace
Gerrard Butler would make a better William Wallace

Say it with me: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take… Spartaaaaa!”