Histories of the World

Recently, there has been quite a bit of general conversation about on history, and especially on histories of the world.

I, speaking on the most basic level, am quite against any attempt to put together a history of the world. The most basic reason for this is that no matter how it is done, a large portion of what should be in it will be left out. (And, in all likelihood, a lot of what won’t be necessary to include will be included).

I guess I’ll just have to take a look and see what Mr Andrew Marr has built with his new show. But, until that time I can throw a few ideas of my own around…

Say, what I would most certainly not include.

That is by itself a very difficult question to answer since first it would be necessary to decide on a balance between culture and politics. I would probably aim for a more political-military approach because that is the one I personally prefer. Even so, I would probably cut out a large part that usually concerns itself with Napoleon and Alexander. Mind you, I am not saying that is not an important area but I find that far often Alexander is covered in reasonable detail and no mention is made of his successors. [Indeed, the fact that I don’t have to specify even Alexander of Macedon or Alexander III, expecting people to realize, is a sufficient example of how well-known he is.] I find that the Diadochi who came after are a far more worthy subject of discussion in detail, especially considering them determining the fate of the region for the next few hundred years.

Why get rid of Napoleon? Again, maybe just crop him… but thoroughly. With respect to him two less mentioned things which are of greater importance would be the selling of Louisiana and the Congress of Vienna. Overall, all of his military victories combined only to make for one large defeat — so that would be noteworthy, but very much dependent on how much space and time there is to attribute to cases.

Anything else that comes to mind immediately?

Probably the idea of trying to explain the way Southern Africa developed would be a reasonable idea due to it being an often ignored part of the world.

Less time in medieval Europe, more in the Asian lands. Discussing the actual role of companies such as the East India Company (Dutch/British/Portuguese) in colonizing new lands. How Southern America developed and splintered. The failure of the Ottoman Empire. Existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (oh yes it does annoy me how often this is overlooked and marginalized or simply mentioned as an introductory sentence to the partitionings of Poland).

Probably a decision would also have to be made with the political-military approach whether to take up random stories or related to certain people, and how to introduce things from there. I would think the people based approach is the one I’d prefer to use, very much because of the ability to then introduce relatively little known figures like Alcibiades or Vauban or any number of people most history-people can name in instants. Suvorov. Yep, just proved the case once again…

‘Map of a Nation’, R. Hewitt

“Many Hanoverian officers and soldiers turned to drink while working in north and west Scotland, and the Chief Engineer there was forced to apologise to the Board of Ordnance for the ‘scandalous Scrawl and form’ of one of his underlings’ reports, commenting with wry displeasure that ‘I fancy he has consulted the Dram bottle.'”

‘Map of a Nation’ is a brilliant work detailing the long and important, I dare say, story of the Ordnance Survey through a century from the mid-18th to the mid-19th. This story is portrayed mainly through the actions and dealings of the the chiefs of the Survey.

Rachel Hewitt has woven us a story of how Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland were first (officially) surveyed through incredible difficulties, and all that due to an infatuation with mapping. The added bits of information of how the people and newspapers reacted to the publishing of maps for areas which people frequented — and maybe, most of all, how people reacted to their lands being surveyed — likewise adds a certain level that is maybe not as present in many books which try to deal with history.

So, aside an interesting book on history where the main characters have been well used as the anchorpoints of the story, we also get an astonishing variety of viewpoints, and maybe, on a lesser scale, a fair amount of rather interesting but overall less related information. [I could say it is one of those things that will be useful in the future in the pub though… “so, you know why the Ordnance Survey moved away from London? Oh… you didn’t know they used to be in London? :)”].

Maybe I should mention that though I do praise the book, it did not captivate me entirely all the way through, but I think that might have had a fair bit to do with my own motivated state of reading it. So, not all flowers and gold, but close enough for what we’re dealing with.

“William Roy had been arguably responsible for the Ordnance Survey’s foundation, but William Mudge had taken charge of it for twenty-nine years. Under his watch, the Trigonometrical Survey had travelled all the way from Land’s End in Cornwall almost up to the Shetland Islands.”

BBC’s ‘Ancient Rome’

While I’ve usually been a fan of historical documentaries, a recent try at BBC’s Ancient Rome series proved to me that these creatures can be deadly to sanity.

So, as a person who is relatively well versed in history, I would rather advise to stay away from the genre, or at the very least from this specific series.

Maybe it would not have been *that* bad if nearly every person who was commented on didn’t just freak out and start yelling at everyone in the room. It quite left the impression that everyone in leading positions for the 550-odd years covered by the series might have had a tad problem with the concepts of patience and listening to advice. Which, maybe they did… but I seriously doubt that.

Leaving that “small” issue aside (after the second, of six, episodes, I was dreading any scenes in command tents just because some officer was bound to say something which made the commanding officer yell at everyone about “Rome/duty/his-own-awesome-ass-that-needs-no-advice”) it might be considered passable. Although the directors certainly did not choose the best episodes, or maybe, the best ways of depicting said episodes to create some sort of a link going through the entire series, the one saving quality might be that most of the actual history seemed intact.

I had the important quantifier “most” there, for there certainly were a few quips I had. Say, not mentioning the double-fortifications that Julius Caesar built at Alesia (I mean, why else even mention the damned battle), insisting that Carthage was salted (which I believed to be a refuted myth that sprung up sometime after the actual events but well refuted by modern historiography due to several reasons, the least of which not being the price of salt and the fact that the settlement intended to be the harbour for North Africa reverted back to Carthage sometime soon after that moment due to the unstable silting conditions in the new place), and other smaller issues. As on insisting calling everyone “Emperor”. Well… could possibly grant them that, but I am not feeling inclined for that.

For some reason it just seems to me that the directors considered all of this and then left it out because the “average person” (if one exists, let me know) not suitable enough to just give him/her accurate information instead of what they would think is true. But maybe, Rome was a different place than what my memory wants me to believe. In which case, well done filming crew, but I still won’t watch this again. It’s just not worth it.

Quoting Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one’s utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very difficult to discover, but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow. If one does not understand this on his own, it cannot be known. There is a method of getting to this Way, however, even if one cannot discover it by himself. This is found in consultation with others. Even a person who has not attained this Way sees others from the side. It is like the saying from the game of go: “He who sees from the side has eight eyes.” The saying, “Thought by thought we see our own mistakes,” also means that the highest Way is in discussion with others.”

These are the words of Yamamoto Tsunetomo from his book ‘Hagakure’, which I read an age ago, and have been meaning to re-read for a while now. Unfortunately, I have thought to keep all the things I wish to go over again for next year, which will mean that I have to wait a bit longer.

However, I have looked at the quotes posted elsewhere from the book, and have enjoyed them thoroughly. What I enjoy about ‘Hagakure’ more than the other books (such as ‘The Book of Five Rings’) is that it is in many a way a far more general treatise on how to be a “good” person , contrary to actual teachings on the way of combat.

The quote above however seems to bring out what I believe to be the case as well: people are willing to say that they are working for the highest of principles while in reality… well, things are different. 🙂

Permanence

Is it a paradox that when one thinks of oneself as permanent, it is not difficult to do things placing the same person into the greatest of dangers? And when it is clear that there is no permanence, that end will be there, then preservation of self gains importance.

What do I mean by permanence here? Certainly not the actual body of flesh, that fades quickest. Instead of that, it might be the name that one leaves behind, the ideals that were believed in…

Maybe, but how can we know without actually feeling the same? Is it possible to reproduce any feelings as they might have been in that, that instant?

“For the samurai to learn 
There’s only one thing,
One last thing –
To face death unflinchingly.”
— Tsukahara Bokuden

 

 

Crusader Kings II

Having recently bought the new Paradox game Crusader Kings II, I have already managed to spend a fair amount of time trying to carve out a realm that I could rule as I wish.

The game itself is quite good — Paradox has in many ways overdone itself though I am not that familiar with the company itself. But here at least I am not with the objective to review the game, but more to review a game — given we’ve got tens of goods general reviews as is, I would hope that this try of a more specific one will be of interest.

So, starting in the December of 1066 (so that the Normans would have finished the conquest of England) I played as Ernst I, Duke of Österreich (Austria) . Starting out with one county does not seem very promising, and by now I have little indication of how I actually managed to get past that stage — but I have the recollection that as one of my first conquests I took over Venice. That might have been around twenty-thirty years into the game, certainly not any sooner. That conquest was followed by the assimilation of de iure Austrian lands just north of the county of Austria (Steiermark was taken over around two-hundred and thirty years into the game).

Titles slowly accumulated: Duke of Austria and Venice, then also Anjou and Normandy. Some time after that, I assimilated my first realm by marriage (Dauphine) so my holdings as the Duke of Austria spanned Northern France, Burgundy, Italy, and Austria itself. Crusades into Lithuania made another county join the Holy Roman Empire, the good and loyal Duke that I was. A different holy war in Sicily won me a province on that island as well as Malta, which was the height of my extent for a lengthy period of time.

I mentioned crusades — indeed, I’ve just recently seen my luck turn with those: before my current character to whom I will come in due time, I had led at least six unsuccessful crusades into Aragon and Castille to reconquer those lands as well as two to the Baltics (one successful) and one into Anatolia (failure).

In the beginning of the 14th century, I got relatively bored of the political situation (France was at no Crown Authority and getting destroyed by Muslims; England in constant civil war; Eastern Rome owned the Middle East; and the Holy Roman Empire at Absolute Crown Authority). The good and friendly Duke I was, I succeeded in two consecutive plots to lower crown authority, after which I kindly told the Kaiser of the HRE that I would like to rule in his stead.

And from that point — starting with Kaiser Simon I the Old von Babenberg, Duke of Austria — my dynasty has kept that throne. My present status — as Kaiser Adam III von Babenberg, King of Poland, Duke of Austria and Anjou — is a relative indication that things have just got better since the low-point where we almost lost Barcelona to the infidels (mind you, they already owned the entirety of western France). Indeed, three recent wars have seen the reconquest of Aragon, Gascony, and Toulouse — all areas now under the safe protective sphere of our Holy Roman Empire (which also includes Northern Finland, most of Central Europe, Southern Sweden, and Jerusalem with the adjacent areas).

All in all, a most interesting game, though I dare say playing as Emperor is hardly as interesting as I hoped it would be — only so many times I wish to kill my wife again in a plot after all.

‘The House of Flying Daggers’

Ah, this one movie is one of my certain favourites — not only does it portray a most excellent change in life itself, but it is also action-packed and enjoyable to the highest degree.

So, this soon-to-be decade old Chinese movie speaks about a group of anti-governmental fighters (i.e., thugs)  named the House of Flying Daggers who have exceptional skills with… daggers. Well, the last wasn’t really said but we could see as much from the movie.

I certainly enjoyed the sights of the Tang warriors fighting with perfectly choreographed moves but even beside that the movie had so much to say — the topic at large was again love (or so it could be described), and while my personal thoughts on it are not that well articulated in any specific work, then at least I enjoy the dramatic take on it.

Now listening to some of the songs from the soundtrack (with my certain favourite in this movie having been the Chinese song of the northern beauty, apparently taken from a poem by Li Yannian, that goes like this /the in-movie English translation was somewhat different/):

In the north there is a beauty; surpassing the world, she stands alone.
A glance from her will overthrow a city; another glance will overthrow a nation.
One would rather not know whether it will be a city or nation overthrown.
As it would be hard to see a beauty like this again.

I have to say that the entire movie was thrilling and the soundtrack was one of the biggest supporters of the plot that could have been. In any case, the song above is named ‘Jiarenqu’ (or ‘Jia ren qu’ as I found it sometimes on YouTube) and I’d suggest people to listen to it as presented in the movie:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpyP4hVK1W4&feature=related]

I think the picture ratio is a bit off but the music is the important part here. * Sorry, the original video didn’t stream so I changed it to another one which has still pictures instead of a proper video. Search it up by its name or movie title on YouTube if you want the proper one.

Now, aside from that song, the other very wonderfully played scene in this movie was one during the final duel — with the landscape changing and everything. But I will say no more, for if you know it, you know it; and if you don’t, you should. 🙂

But I’ll add that it might have brought to my mind now the writings of that Polish master of literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, who so well detailed the change of the steppes with the passings of seasons.

Overall, a most excellent movie (and certainly one of my favourites of the Chinese cinema alongside ‘Hero’), no doubt in that.

‘The Emperor and The Assassin’

So I took up this film with the hopes that it would be a good one and very entertaining. Needless to say, the reviews on Amazon were rather positive in most respects, quite a few naming it as a great epic of our time. I think that one described it as “The LOTR before the LOTR” (speaking of the movies, obviously). This seemed a good introduction to a topic I’ve already seen one cinematic take on (‘Hero’) and quite liked, so I went ahead.

What awaited me could not be compared to the Lord of the Rings (either the cinematic masterpiece or the literary work) in no way — indeed, I am more than likely to question whether we were watching the same film at all. The pace was slow! This, coming from me, a fan of Caprica and other similar shows, should be a condemnation that to a normal person signifies that “nothing goes on for the entirety of the show” which would be a bit off but not by much.

Aside from the very disturbingly slow pace (which was not even graciously acted out as in ‘Confucius’ or similar movies) we go into the world and we find a scheming nest of vipers. Which, describes politics quite well… only that in this case, the nest of vipers sheds all trails of polity and we see kings yelling and rolling on the ground and laughing out loud in midst of rather important ceremonies; princes acting discourteously — possibly, *human* moves but not ones that I’d consider possible from an actual person that’s been taught and trained how to lead others. Yes, there are certainly people with weak constitution but I’d find it hard to believe that the Prince of Yan would just roar out at his captor for pretty much no reason and then run around with a sword yelling “Ying Zheng must die”.

Possibly something was lost in the deleted scenes as I understand it lost quite a bit of stuff in it, but in no way is this comparable to something as wonderful as ‘Red Cliff’ or other movies of similar build — and when we come back to the Hero I originally mentioned, that again was compelling : the hero and the emperor both (lest your read on it was that the Emperor was the hero) had good stories which were well played and with intriguing captivating dialogue and soundtrack. Not so in this ‘The Emperor and The Assassin’ which might be closer to the historical truth but certainly at the expense of viewability.

 

‘Naval Warfare’, J. Thursfield

I thought of writing about dreams, about illusions, of people, possibly about anger/disappointment. Those are, briefly, what I’ve thought about in the last few days. There was also the possibility of perfection. But then I remembered, I finished sir James Thursfield’s ‘Naval Warfare’ earlier today, and that kind of told me that I’ll speak of that book.

Firstly, I feel it important to say that despite being written in the beginning of the previous century, Thursfield manages to convey the fact that most of it that he writes there may well be outdated in a short amount of time but that he will not devolve into speculation — even though the claims he makes (mostly on the differentiation of ships, and how different types will evolve) are well reasoned and logical.

Well reasoned. That is the pair of words that can best describe the book — nearly everything that the naval historian mentions is supported by a daunting amount of logical reasoning which might just make the book a horrific read but somehow it survives this. Truth be said, I nearly did fall asleep while reading it, but that was more a fault of mine than the book’s for I was tired indeed at that specific moment.

Thursfield begins the book by explaining why it is worth to explain naval warfare to the average reader, a quote which I will very happily repost for anyone:

In these days when national policy is at the mercy of the ballot-box, it is not too much to say that a right understanding of the principles of maritime warfare is almost as desirable amongst civilians as amongst professional sailors.

This, in more than one way, captures the soul and spirit of the work — much of it explains what a certain aspect of naval warfare is meant for and how is it used, bringing about quotes by both Alfred Thayer Mahan and other notable admirals (all the rest British though) with examples of the theory at use from mostly Nelson and Togo and a mention of Torrington (of whom I had previously not heard). Likewise, as with the concentration of naval personae being mostly British so also are most of the theoretical situations that are described — which is understandable and does not detract from the value of the book.

To add to the previous explaining bit, what Thursfield does is that he takes the common (and usually misunderstood) claim of what a naval term is meant to mean, and rebuilds it with what it really is. This is true for both the necessary phrases “fleet in being” and “command of the sea” the latter of which he also uses to display a MP being rather not aware of the realities of warfare. This professionalism might well be said to be overly present (as he himself acknowledges in the epilogue) but I would say that he does what he promised to do.

I have therefore lost no opportunity of insisting on them, knowing full well  that it is only by frequent iteration that sound ideas can be implanted in minds not attuned to their reception.

The topics that he covers are rather straightforward: we are introduced to the concept of the command of the sea, then how naval warfare works (all carefully proven with both logic and examples), after which the special occasions of invasions are considered alongside maritime commerce as well as the future of naval warfare in a brief setting.

I will quote another passage which relates directly to the matter at hand:

It is unbecoming to assume that in the crisis of his country’s fate an admiral will act either as a fool or as a poltroon. It is the country’s fault if a man capable of so acting is placed in supreme command, and for that there is no remedy. But it is sounder to assume that the admiral selected for command is a man not incapable of disposing his force to the best advantage. “We must,” said Lord Goschen, on one occasion, “put our trust in Providence and a good admiral.” If a nation cannot find a good admiral in its need it is idle to trust in Providence.

And on that note, I conclude. In short: a perfection of a different sort.

‘Types of Naval Officers’, A.T. Mahan

Full title being ‘Types of Naval Officers Drawn from the History of the British Navy’, this book by the great (and reknown) Alfred Thayer Mahan took me longer to read than I thought it would but it also had content that I appreciated more than I would have considered possible.

As the title says, this book is an account by Mahan of the great 18th century British admirals (Howe, St. Vincent, Rodney, Hawke, Saumarez and Pellew). In their biographies he describes the reasons some of these are so well known (or rather, why they should be well known for I am confident that aside from select naval historians very few people actually knew of them) and how they achieved their greatness (mostly through innovation and drowning French).

What I really loved is how he described the actions — the style he writes in is rather winding but rather perfect to convey the image of naval conflict. Likewise, he has often brought in first hand accounts (such as the verdict of Admiral Byng, if I remember correctly) to help write the image of these navy-men.

I would otherwise say that the language is much as you’d expect from a 19th century author (though I would read his long and overly complex sentences over Thackeray’s every day of the week) he has also taken the effort to describe some of the naval terms for the layman (which is more considerate of him than the actions of his many colleagues).

I will add two quotes from the book:

Imagination is fondly impatient of warning by the past.

To do his own part to the utmost, within the lines of the profession he knew, was his conception of duty.

[Or well, I tried to keep to two but I found a third that I very liked as well in my notes so here it is:]

 Hawke died October 16, 1781. On his tomb appear these words, “Wherever he sailed, victory attended him.” It is much to say, but it is not all. Victory does not always follow desert. “It is not in mortals to command success,”—a favorite quotation with the successful admirals St. Vincent and Nelson.