Books Environmental politics History Podcasts Politics

Podcast: Floating Coast

The history of the ecology of the Bering Coast might sound like a bit of an obscure subject, but this podcast brought it alive.

An interview with  Bathsheba Demuth, the academic author of the title of that name, is a fascinating listen.

What really struck with me is the way in which whaling was one more great extraction of resources – energy – from the periphery to the political centres of the colonial era. How much a whale is in practical terms a huge store of energy – all harvested up from the krill that teems so richly in particularly polar regions. On a smaller scale tundra lichen fed caribou, the riches from which were also transported to political centres.

Memorable phrase – “all conversion is a loss.”

The book also very well regarded in this New York Times review.

Books History Politics

Podcast: The Jakarta Method

To quote from the blurb:  “In The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World (Public Affairs, 2020) journalist Vincent Bevins links the history of the overthrow of Sukarno – a leader of 1960s Third Worldism –, the rise of the Suharto – one of the most brutal and corrupt dictators – , and the slaughter of 500,000 to one million Indonesians allegedly linked to the Indonesian Community Party (the PKI) to the Latin American “dirty wars”, including Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Central America.”

As someone who managed the Bangkok Post’s coverage of the fall of Suharto, this is all a story that I should have known, yet I confess I knew little of it. That there’s been a huge massacre certainly, but not the US role, or the way that this became a model for so many other US dirty wars to follow.

It can’t but provoke thoughts about alternative histories, how if national aspirations had not been crushed in the service of capitalism, if the world had not been divided into two camps of US and USSR, how we might be in a very different place now.

But, since I’m always looking for the hopeful side, how the ending of US hegemony, a more unstable time, frightening as it can often feel, could allow time for developments of genuine self-determination and democracy, rather than pseudo-democracies and outright dictatorships.

Arts Books History London

Notes from Chaucer: A European Life

p. 27 In 1304 a list of aliens (foreigners) who protected about paying a tax demonstrates that they were living in only eight of the 24 wards. Vintry Ward had the most immigrants, mainly from Gascony, the hub of the wine trade. Adjoining Dowgate was the home of Hermans and people from the Low Countries; those from Spain, Italy and Povence lived in the wards of Cordwainer, Cheap and Langbourn. WHile there are certainly cases where we see Londoners closing ranks against foreigners, we can also find cases in which European immigrants were treated with notable equity. One case, centering around the nonpayment of money owed for wine, which should have been paid on a quay in the Vintry, involved a Gascon merchant and a London apprentice. It went before a jurt deliberately comprised half of Gasons, before doing to the arbitration of four members of the vintners’ guild, and the decision was in favour of the Gascon merchant.

p. 91 Deschamps, a poet whose life and career paralleled Chaucer’s closely …he wrote … on the benefits of sleeping along (he discusses how annoying it is when your co-sleeper takes all the blankets”

p. 96 A great deal of high culture crossed borders with ease: painters and ministrels travelled from court to court, beautiful objects were sold and given within trade networks and beteern allies and spouses, and educated men and women across Europe read much of the same literature and valued the same leisure occupations. At the same time, this was the century of the vernacular, when local languages flourished as the languages of literature, gaining a dominance that they were never to lose. The year 1366.. was the year of the Statutes of Kilkenny, which banned the Anglo-Irish from using the Irish language, playing Irish sports, or intermarrting with Irish women. These statutes were not effective or enforced, but they reveal English political anxiety”

p. 98 Hainault was a county in which is now northern France and Belgium, incorporating the cities of Valenciennes, Mons, Cambrai and Charleroi, an independent feudal state within the Holy Roman Empire… Chaucer numbrered many Hainuyers , including of course his wife’s family, amongst his closest associates, and he certainly read the work of Hainault poets, some of whom he knew personlly. Without Hainault, English political and cultural life in the mid-14th century would have looked very different.”

p. 100 Queen Philippa’s influence on English court culture was wide-ranging. The poets Jean de la Mote and Jean Froissart came to England in her wake. She gave her husband gifts such as a silver cup and ewer decloated with the Worthies, including Charlemagne, Arthur, Roland, oliver, Gawain and Lancelot, and a manuscript that shows evidence of the labour of both English and Hainault text workers… Philippa herself helped to found an Oxford college, and she also commissioned a startlingly unusal tomb sculpture from a Brabancon artists, Jean de Liege, who depickted her in individual and realistic form.”

p. 103 “Paon’s connections with the ruling house of Hainault allowed him to place two of his daughters, Katherine and Philippa, in the households of the queen of England and her daughters-in-law. Katherine de Roet worked for Blanche of Lancaster in the 1360s and was governess to her children by John of Gaunt; in the 137s she was to become John’s mistress, mother of the Beaufort line, and, eventually, duchess of Lancaster. We do not know how Philippa’s career started. She may or may not be the Philippa Pan who appears in Elizabeth de Burgh’s household accounts alongside the teenage Chaucer… but by 12 September 1366, Philippa de Roet had become Philippa Chaucer and is mentioned in the roal accounts as a lady of the queen’s chamber.”

p. 112 In Navarre, Jews were a proinent part of the cultural mix. They lived alongside Muslims and Christinas, in a border country in which groups including Gascons, Basques, Navarro-Aragnese, and Castileans, all mingled. Many Jews worked as moneylenders, but they also did a huge rang eof other jobs: they were silversmiths, embroiderers, vets, doctors, irrigation specialists, grape growers and mill owners. Charles II had a trusted Jewish physician nad his favourite juggler was a Jew… their oaths had full value, and if a Jew went to court, he or she took a Jewish witness and obvserver. Although they also suffered many injustices, such as heavy taxation and sometimes violence, their position was better than it was or had been in most other parts of medieval Europe.”

p. 129 In choosing to write in English, he may have been inspired by Hainuyer poets’ penning poems for the Hainault patroness, and have elected to complement this trend at the English court by writing an English poem for an English prince, about his dead English wife. It might have been a way of marking himself as part of a group of contemporary poets and yet claiming his own ground. .. He chose to write a poem that is in many ways a homage to writers such as Machaut and Froissart, a poem dependant on the forms developed by those poets, positions Chaucer as a participant in a sophisticated and cosmospolitan poetic milieu, not as a combative little Englander”

p. 158 Chaucer’s visit (1372) although we do not know exactly what Chaucer was doing in Glorence, Edward had his fingers in more than one Florentine pie at this particular historical moment. Chauver’s mission was almost certianly financial and involved negotiating with the wealthy merchant companies of the city – companies that were also fundamentally connected with the extraordinary artistic revolution that had taken place in the city earlier in the century. Chauver arrived in Florence at a time of Dante fever, when members of literary, civiv and mercantile circles were likely talking about their new plan to hobour their great vernacular poet… while there is no evidence that Boccaccio and Chaicer met, Chaucer may at this point have encountered some of his poetry, as well as that of Dante.

p. 189 The surviving doccuments tell us fragments of fascinating tales: the collectors’ accounts for 1380-81, for instance,… include payments made by “Affrikano Petro” (African Peter), who was transporting wool on John Double’s ship.”

p. 205 Three years agter he started work at the Customs House, his daughter became a nun at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, a stone’s throw from Chaucers Aldgate apartment, and Elizabeth remained there for four years … thinking about Chaucer’s daughter remins us of the diverse social networks, many of them facilitated by women, in which he was embedded in his London years.”

p. 261 There is a thingly quality to medieval money lacking from our banknotes today. Indeed, thinkers have commented on premodern culture’s different valuation of things in general. Most notably, Bruno Latour argues that the scientific revolution of the 17th century involved an intense focus on dividing subject from object, people from things and nature, as man asserted his (and it was usually his) separation from the matter hthat he tested and upon which he worked. More recently, there has been a reaction against this separation, an acknowledgement that there is a continuum between human and things, and between culture and nature. Labour argues that there are asoects of the premodern mentality that are more in tune with the enmeshing of people and things than the Enlightenment mentality tends to be. He writes about premodern people’s “obsesssive interest in thinking about the production of hybrids of Nature and Society, of things and signs, their certainty that transcendences abound, their capacity for conceiving of past and future in many ways other than progress and decadence, the manipulation of types of nonhumans.”

p. 275 Increasingly, London put on spectacles, pageants, mummings and elaborate gift-giving ceremonyies, often for courtly guests. While there had in the past been formal entries into London, these had not been accompanied by the kind of performative spectacle that now became the norm. Indeed, the last quarter of the 14th century marked the behinning of a steady increase in urban spectacle, as city oligarchies gained in power and status, and cities expressed and formed their identities through cultural display. In 1382, a summer castle was erected in Cheap (probably reused from 1377) and three virgins leaned out of it to scatter leaves; there were also ministrels, elaborated painted ornaments and accessories such as “silverskins”. .. provided work for many skilled craftsmen.”

p. 301 Parliament of Fowls … in this legalistic poem, densely packed with the technical language of law and politics. the word “eleccioun” stands out: this may be the first occasion when this word is used for the formal nomination of a political representative – its primary meaning for us today

p. 305 In the last quarter of the 14th century we see a dramtica increase in the production of ‘newsletters’, ephemeral pamplets circulated for general consumption . For the first time, newsletters were produced about parliaments’ some texts were probably produced by clerks of parliament, some pamphlets may have had their origins in the households of great nobles, who found it worth their while to circulate propoganda…. The public fascination with news – and particularly with Parliament – was a novel development.”

p. 349 IN the middle of the 1380s there were two major sex scandals at court. Elizabeth of Lancaster, Philippa’s younger sister, had been formally betrothed to John Hastings, heir to the earl of Pembroke and several years her junior. In 1385, she was about 21 and he was 13. She embarked on an affair swith Sir John Holland son of Joan of Kent and therefore older half-brother to Richard II) and became pregnant before the summer of 1386. They were hastily married… At the same time Robert de Vere, now at the height of his influence as Ruichard’ intimate friend, was involved in an affair with one of the queen’s ladies, Agnes Lancrona. De Vere was already married to PHilippa de Courcy… De Vere offered a serious insult not only to his wife but also to her uncles when he repudiated her and began lobbying for a divorce; meanwhile, he married Agnes, possibly by force.”

p. 428 “The idea of a centralized nation, with inomportant and backward margins, where power circled only around London and Westminster, would not have made sense to Chaucer. Not only were the regional courts of magnates vital and diverse economic and cultural centres, but the king himselve travelled widely.

p. 461 “This aspect of social positioning is quite different from the emphasis on gentilesse, which becomes so important in the Canterbury Tales. Across several tales, Chaucer makes the point that social orgins, age and gender nare surface attributes, and are irrelevant to true gentilesse.. one of the most significant aspects of Chaucers intellectual development in the Canterbury Tales years.

p. 487 “A poem written around 1400, London Lickpenny, vividly descibes the experience of a countryside dweller arriving in the crowds of Wstminster. The poem is structured around the refrain “For lacke of money, I may not spede”. Immediately at the doors of Westminster Hall are crowds of immigrant Flemings, trying to sell him “felt harts” and “spectacles”; at the gate are the victuallers with food and drink on offer.”

Books History Podcasts Women's history

Podcast: How the case of a six-year-old slave made legal history, and human tragedy

On the New Books Network, The Case of the Slave-Child, Med.

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society won her right to freedom in Massachusetts, in a case carefully chosen because previous teen cases had chosen to remain in slavery. And Med was too young to chose.

But Med was placed into an institution, and died two years later. And so it was not the triumphant campaigning story it might have been, so was almost lost to history.

Little is known of Med, her family history or her own thoughts or understanding, but it is still a highly informative tale, and a child’s life that deserves at least to be remembered, even if she probably had scant care in life.

Books History Women's history

Podcast: Women in the US Civil War

Clara Judd, a Confederate spy whose imprisonment for treason led to a change in legal theory about women as automatically non-combatants is one key figure in the Stephanie McCurry’s Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the Civil War.

Although from the New Books Network podcast interview, what really stuck with me was the account of the individual stories of the unwinding of slavery, the abusive sexual relationships that it entailed and the fight many of those abuse victims had to rights for themselves and their children – issues that in small towns would rumble on for generations.

Books History Politics

Podcast: The Thai judiciary

When I think of the Thai judiciary, I immediately think of a phone conversation that must have been somewhere around 1998. I was in the office of the Bangkok Post, and the switchboard put through a call to the foreign news subs desk, for want of knowing what else to do with it, from a rep from the US journalists’ union, seeking advice on how to start a court case against a Thai tycoon who’d started up a newspaper, got lots of top international journalists to write for it for a couple of months, then it folded without paying anyone.

My advice was simple, “don’t”. Chances of success, zero. I still remember the bemusement of the caller.

But I realised when I listened to the New Books Network podcast with Duncan McCargo, author of Fighting for Virtue, that I really never learnt that much about the judiciary. It has all the rigidity you’d expect from something intimately associated with the royal family in Thailand, and even for Thailand, quite amazingly tight hierarchy – a fiendishly difficult exam to be taken at age 25 (based entirely on rote learning) sets the individual status of each judge who passes in the hierarchy, to continue almost certainly for their entire career.

Truly a telling, rich account of a society I’ve longed feared is so rigid as to be profoundly, terribly dangerously, unstable.