This weekend we went on a flying visit to London, mainly to see the Babylon exhibit at the British Museum before it closed, but also to cram in a few other things along the way.

We had a chilly but beautiful night time walk around the embankment via the London Eye and Big Ben, a pleasant meal and a glass of Hoegaarden in the White Hart, and Janet got to buy half the stock of Falkiners a lovely little shop selling hand-made paper and bookbinding supplies.

The Babylon exhibit itself was an unusual blend of fact and mythology, including the many artistic interpretations of the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, but despite a couple of beautiful items it didn’t inspire me in the same way that last year’s Terracotta Army exhibition did.

If anything we enjoyed the new Egyptian room at the Museum more. The room contains items from the Tomb of Nebamun, including some fantastic and lively wall paintings. This image of a cat is excellent and surprisingly naturalistic.

And of course Janet got to commune with the Rosetta Stone again.

We also booked to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum (the Darwin exhibition was sadly sold out) which showcased some stunning photography that was only enhanced by being displayed on vivid high definition screens rather than prints. Despite allowing people into the exhibition in booked slots it got rather crowded, particularly in the corners, but it was well worth it. Then I queued for 30 minutes to get a cup of coffee while my legs begged for mercy.

The Natural History Museum is one of those places that’s always fantastic to visit. The building itelf is so lovely, like a secular cathedral, and is stuffed full of wondrous things. I’d have loved to have stayed longer but the urgent need to fall over won out.

I’m absolutely knackered, but it was a good trip. Photos can be found on my Facebook here.


Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years ago an ancestral species, almost certainly Homo erectus, had already evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.”

This is truly fascinating, particularly with the accompanying photograph. I love little glimpses like this into the distant past, and a footprint is such a vivid and relatable image (and a ready-made metaphor of course.) 1.5 million years ago someone who was not yet fully human but with a foot essentially the same as ours walked upright, and we can see their footprint. For some reason this really touched me.

The only earlier prints are apparently more than twice as ancient, and much more apelike.

Here is the News

1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi found in Newcastle. That’s not far from us! I learn from this story that they’re apparently building a Great North Museum in Newcastle including antiquities, a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, and special exhibitions from London. This could be very nice for us as it’s not always convenient for us to get down to the British Museum. I’m only amazed that my wife’s normally excellent Archaeology Radar hasn’t tipped us off to this sooner. The website banner appears to feature Egyptians on chariots hunting Dinosaurs, but I’ll assume there’s some artistic licence involved…

Of course if that recent bonkers think tank report was listened to there’d be no point in doing any of this because everyone in the North should just give up on their cities, which are beyond all hope of revival, and move south. This is so patently absurd that it probably isn’t worth getting upset about, but Exhibit A would surely be the fact that any number of Northern cities have already succeeded in transforming themselves and their fortunes into thriving centres of business and culture. Like Newcastle & Gateshead, for example. Sunderland is one of those named by the think tank as “beyond revival” yet — although it’s hardly the largest or most cosmopolitan of cities — in the relatively short time I’ve known it Sunderland has transformed itself from a shipbuilding town to one with a beautiful riverside and coastal area and a strong service industry base (including the University), not to mention the famous Nissan plant. The fact that anyone could seriously suggest otherwise reflects blinkered attitudes to the ‘North’ of England (i.e. anywhere north of the M25) that are quite surreal. It’s the equivalent of saying that the London Dockland area was beyond revival prior to Canary Wharf being built.

And finally…

A sensible, evidence-based story about the British Summer. Will wonders never cease.

Mmmm… stuff…

My birthday yielded The Absolute Sandman, Volume 3 (the kind of gorgeous object of desire that’s so heavy, nicely bound and on good quality paper that you’d want to own it even if you weren’t interested in the contents). Also Alice in Sunderland, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, unchillfiltered Laphroaig whisky (which I’m sampling as we speak), two Raymond Chandler novels, wine, Fererro Rocher and the finest of foodstuffs, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. I’m led to believe a few other presents may be en route, and my wonderful wife even baked me a chocolate cake. With candles. Best Wife Ever.

In order to spread my feelings of goodwill far and wide, have a few links on me.

Ittybittykitt really does feature some of the most brain-meltingly cute kittens ever captured by CCD. Every time I see one of their photos I think that kittens couldn’t get any cuter, but somehow they do. I want to adopt them all.

One for veggiesu: I notice that ITV3 are doing a six-week season of crime thrillers leading up the allegedly “glittering” ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards. What’s interesting is that each week they’re showing a specially commissioned documentary profiling “the six best crime writers working today” aka Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, PD James, Lynda La Plante, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell. (I leave it up to the reader to decide whether these are in fact the six best crime writers working today whose TV adaptations ITV3 happen to own the rights to.) Could be interesting.

One for swisstone: Head of Roman empress unearthed near the previously unearthed statue of Hadrian in Turkey. Our local news is also banging on about visitors to Hadrian’s Wall being up on last year, which they’re — not implausibly — linking to the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibit and associated publicity. I shudder to think that it could have anything to do with Bonekickers instead.

I’ve put this on Facebook already but look: Chewbacca mouse! Awwww.

The Weekenders

It’s been a fairly hectic weekend all told. By which I mean not even remotely hectic by most reasonable standards, but the kind of weekend which involves constant socialising – very pleasant, but also tiring!

On Friday we went to see Tom McRae and an ensemble of other singer-songwriters at the Carling Academy 2 in Newcastle. Lengthy rambling about Tom McRae

Of Documentaries and Dramas

I’m increasingly unimpressed by the docudrama as a medium for… well anything. The BBC’s Ancient Rome series being a case in point. I’m very happy to have my historical movies be dodgy bastardisations of the truth with minimal relationship to reality (see: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot), because their primary goal is to entertain and to generate emotion. I demand a great deal more attention to detail from a documentary, whose primary goal is to inform. The problem with the docudrama is that it claims to be a documentary while deploying all the tools of entertainment, and winds up being neither factually rigorous nor particularly entertaining. Instead it’s a half-baked compromise: a supposed drama in which characterisation and dramatic storytelling are almost entirely absent, but which bends the truth as much as a drama.

The problem is that while composed of fictionalised scenes the docudrama does away with all those pesky dramatic elements such as character development. It has no need to establish a set of dramatic characters with whom we empathise – instead the authoritative voice-over handily skips all of that – or to involve us in a personal viewpoints or develop themes and meaning. Instead what passes for a narrative is more like a series of edited highlights, lazily skipping from scene to scene with the illusion of authority, presenting only the most lurid exploits or moments of violence. This might be excusable if the sequence of events were detailed and informative, but unfortunately it’s impossible to tell. The generally sensationalist tone transforms everything into the style of a TV mini-series. Despite solemn assurances in the opening captions that everything is based on historical advice, it’s impossible to tell how solid a basis there is for any of the things we’re watching. Are these facts, accounts, interpretations, opinions, the most likely of several alternatives? Which is which, and how can we tell? We get no sources for what we’re seeing, no debate, no discussion of alternative possibilities.

The first two episodes of Ancient Rome have portrayed an insane Nero in a sensationalistic light with a performance of barely restrained hammery from the ubiquitous Michael “Not Martin” Sheen (depicting Nero as some kind of bizarre blend of his recent turns as Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams). The second showed a more restrained but still overblown depiction of Julius Caesar’s ruthless rise to power. What’s always fascinating when viewing a familiar historical tale in a new version is the massive differences between them. This docudrama seemed no more or less plausible than any other tale of Caesar, including the recent BBC/HBO co-production Rome (from which this series seems to draw most of its sets) and yet one portrays Caesar as charismatic and shrewd, the other conniving and brutal. One portrays Pompey as weak and hesitant, the other as noble and commanding, undermined by scheming politicians. Neither version varies the key facts and events, but both drape an entirely different interpretation on them. It’s obvious to say, though never more clear, that we can never truly know what historical figures were actually like, moment to moment, day to day. We can only interpret, thinking our interpretation logical and plausible. And that’s the real problem with the docudrama, because it does away with uncertainty as surely as any drama. What we get is a single account lent the weight of an authoritative version, possibly based on painstaking research, or possibly just the most entertaining of all possible histories.

Speaking of Michael Sheen, this weekend we also watched the dramatised biographical piece about HG Wells on BBC2. HG Wells


Having now seen the whole first season of Rome (delivered by Mercury Couriers, delivery service to the gods) I can still heartily recommend the show. Even if your wife isn’t obsessed with ancient Rome.

The series is an odd creation: at times high brow, at times sleazy and voyeuristic, but mostly just human. Having edited the first three episodes into two, creating an impression of breakneck pace and non-stop sex, the BBC have reverted to the HBO episodes for the remainder of the season. Which is not to say that the impression left by their hatchet job is misleading… but it does perhaps overbalance the show towards its more sensationalist tendencies and away from the human drama at its core.

No plot details…

Friends, Romans, BBC2 viewers…

Tomorrow sees the debut of the drama series Rome on BBC2, with a first season of 11 episodes (the second season is already confirmed). It’s a BBC-HBO co-production, which means that it has a lot of British actors in it but otherwise leans towards the HBO house style in every respect. Although the BBC are trailering it as if it’s the next big costume drama, it bears far more resemblance to HBO’s Deadwood.

Opinions without spoilers….

Don’t make me put you on The List

Things that annoy Iain1, Volume 1, Chapter 2:

Dear diary

2) Idiot documentaries that assume you haven’t seen or retained anything before the last commerical break, and waste achingly long minutes recapping the things they explained in great detail not five minutes earlier. And they do this after every single break. It’s like one of those “Previously on the first half of Tru Calling” things that would insult the intelligence of a Sky One viewer.

Come to think of it, this documentary was on Sky One, which would probably also explain why it was the most low-brow and salacious documentary on the Roman Empire that it’s possible to imagine. But it’s not just this one. I’ve noticed an increasing trend on all documentaries to assume that the audience has the mental reasoning capabity of a Celebrity Love Island viewer.

(Spinning off on a different tack, hurray for Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica ditching the spoilery “This Episode”-style credits sequence!)

1Don’t worry, there won’t be many more of these. Hardly anything annoys me. I’m like a mild mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, only without the silly underwear.

Time Team

Well, there’s a distinct possibility that I may be talking to Tony Robinson on Time Team tonight. 🙂

We entered their photo competition, and I was woken from my hangover this morning by someone calling to say that we might have won and would I mind talking on the phone during the show. Our pic is of Hardknott Roman Fort, halfway up Hardknott Pass in the Lake District. It can be seen as one of their many banners on the Big Roman Dig website. It’s not the greatest photo evah, so I can only assume they didn’t have a lot of entries. It’s a crop of a photo taken around the same time as this one. The picture had to be a very specific size, but I think the severe cropping actually helped the composition:

So assuming that the broadcast isn’t the usual chaos, that they manage to get around to me, and that Tony Robinson (or whoever) actually listens to a word I say, I might well be on the phone to them during the show tonight some time EDIT: around 8.20 to 8.30ish. Cor.

I think this is a good thing. A much better thing is the rather nice camera which is the prize. 🙂

EDIT: I survived! After all my fretting beforehand they hardly gave me a chance to say much, but it wasn’t too scary. It’s weird – they ring you a few minutes beforehand and then basically put you on hold, listening to the TV but about 5 seconds ahead of where the broadcast is up to.