April 17th, 2011


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A History of the World in 100 Objects

Woke this morning in some discomfort due to minor but inconvenient medical complaint, and in the course of driving to doctor and then the pharmacy and then back home, I finished listening to the last few installments of A History of the World in 100 Objects, which has been my recourse when I run out of Doctor Who audios since I finished a rather unimpressive BBC history series on the British Empire four months ago.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is really excellent. A hundred thirteen-minute programmes - so 22 hours in total - each taking a single exhibit in the British Museum and telling its story. By concentrating on the material goods, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum's director, is able to take us on a journey across cultures, taking them on their own merits, knocking down preconceptions and prejudices about pre-industrial and non-Western societies. He starts with an Egyptian mummy (as a methodological marker - the rest of the first tranche of programmes are about the stone age) and ends with a solar-powered lamp, reflecting on hos that is changing the world, especially the developing world. All of the programmes are excellent and it feels a bit invidious to single out any, but I felt MacGregor's own excitement when describing two of the best-known items in the BM - the Rosetta Stone and the Sutton Hoo helmet, the latter of which features Seamus Heaney - an attractive feature of these programmes is the number and quality of the guest speakers, alternating between experts and celebrities (most of whom are of course experts in some way anyway). But really the whole set of audios is absolutely superb, and if you have the sort of lifestyle where the occasional thirteen-minute gap could be filled with some enlightenment about matters historical, you can't do better than start with this. My only serious complaint is that it is now over and I'll have to find something else to listen to.

2010 BSFA Award for Best Art

Just realised that I needed to catch the voting deadline for the BSFA awards, and I have hastily ranked the nominees for Best Art as follows, before scanning and emailing my ballot:

1) Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
2) Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
3) Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
4) Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)
5) Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
6) Dominic Harman – cover for The [sic] Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)

I don't claim to have much aesthetic sensitivity in this area, and am impressed by Maureen Kincaid Speller's analysis of the nominees in the course of which she comes to a completely different and probably more robust set of preferences.

(My votes in the other categories: Best Novel, Best Short Fiction, Best Non-Fiction. I never got round to listening to the podcasts, and have excluded one of the others, so my Non-Fiction ballot has votes for only three of the five.)

Gibbon Chapter XLIX: Iconoclasm, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire

This chapter has three parts: first, the growth of the controversy about the use of icons in religious worship, and how this drove a wedge between the Pope and the Empire; second, the rise of Charlemagne and the re-foundation of the Western Empire; and third, the subsequent re-foundation of the Holy Roman Empire and a brief sketch of its history, finishing by contrasting the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, at his coronation in 1356, with Augustus, who started it all. I must say I found it a really enlightening chapter; I had had no idea that it was iconoclasm that made possible the rise of the Carolingians and brought an end to the Byzantine presence in Italy. (Is that still the received scholarly wisdom?)

See also my reflections on Gibbon's anti-Catholicism, Pope Joan, and scholars and gentlemen.