Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

apocalypse now, kurtz, willard, francis ford coppola, marlon brando, macguffin

There are only fleeting glimpses of Kurtz when Willard meets him face to face in the closing acts of the film, but the character of Kurtz drives the action of the film from the very beginning.

Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.

The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

titanic, heart of the ocean, blue diamond, billy zane, kate winslet, leonardo dicaprio. macguffin

Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) gives Rose (Kate Winslet) the blue diamond necklace as an engagement present. To keep Rose away from Dawson, Hockley has the diamond planted on Dawson, who is then arrested, but the diamond plays little or no further part as the Titanic has already collided with the iceberg.

What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.

It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.

The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

39 steps, thirty-nine steps, richard hannay, robert donat, mr memory, macguffin

In the theatre, Hannay asks Mr Memory ‘what are the Thirty-Nine Steps?’. Mr Memory compulsively answers that it is a secret organisation of spies but is shot before he can finish. Backstage, the dying Mr Memory recites the details of the aircraft engine he has memorised, the MacGuffin, and says before he dies ‘It was the biggest job I ever tackled …. I’m glad it’s off my mind.’

In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike. In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.

Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.

Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.

‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’

Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.

In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.


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large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. (more…)

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imitation game, alan turing, benedict cumberbatch, bletchley parkThe Golden Globes and the BAFTAs are behind us, and the Academy Awards ceremony for the best films in 2014 will be held this Sunday 22 February. Leading with the way with the most nominations for an Oscar are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel with nine nominations each, followed by The Imitation Game with eight nominations.

I saw The Imitation Game and I thought it was a stirring and persuasive film, particularly its portrayal of the last few years of the life of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing following his prosecution in 1952 for homosexual acts, and his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954. However the statement in the film credits that the film was ‘based on the true story’ stretched the claim to the limits of its meaning. There were so many inaccuracies in the film, particularly those that served to exalt Alan Turing’s role in the Second World War to quite ridiculous heights – as if that should have been necessary considering his genius and pivotal role – that the film is a sad distortion of history. For the film to have received eight nominations, including that for best picture and best adapted screenplay, says a lot about the superficiality of our emotions and our disregard for the truth. The quote from Mark Twain ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better’ is most apt, and The Imitation Game is a dashing good story.

Bletchley Park and Ultra

bletchley park, mi6, gc&cs

The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ at Bletchley Park in August 1938 was the cover for a visit by members of MI6 to see whether it would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence work by GC&CS.

The Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing played a key role in the allied victory in the Second World War in the cracking of German radio messages, or signals, which had been enciphered using Enigma machines. This decipherment yielded high-grade German military intelligence, dubbed Ultra, from ‘ultra secret’, which had a dramatic impact on the course and duration of the war. (Strictly speaking when one letter is substituted by another to make a message secret, it is a cipher, not a code, which is when letters or symbols are used to mean whole words or phrases. Therefore when codes or code breaking are spoken of it is usually ciphers and decipherment that are being referred to).

Turing started working part-time at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire in September 1938. Bletchley Park was the central site during the war of the government’s secret code and cipher school (GC&CS). Every one of the 12,000 staff who had ever worked at some point at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and the government continued to enforce their silence long after the war was over. This was mainly because Britain’s code-breaking success had to remain secret during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but also because Enigma machines were still in use around the world and Britain wanted to be able to read this signals traffic. Therefore the relatives of the staff at Bletchley Park never knew more than that they had done some kind of secret war work, or were told a cover story about clerical or statistical work. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the war referred to the staff at Bletchley as ‘The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’. It was only with the publication of Frederick Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret in 1974, some thirty years later, that the public began to learn of the secret of Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game

alan turing, cambridge university, universal computing machine, turing machine

In 1936, Alan Turing (23 June 1912–7 June 1954) was a shy, eccentric student at Cambridge University, but he conceived in his ‘universal computing machine’ the basic principle of the modern computer, that is, controlling the machine’s operations by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computer’s memory.

In the film, the Second World War has just broken out, and the British intelligence agency in September 1939 recruits Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing to join a team at Bletchley Park who are attempting to decipher Enigma messages sent by the German military, that cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. Turing wants to build a machine to help crack the messages, but the head of Bletchley Park, Commander Alastair Denniston opposes this. Turing appeals to Winston Churchill for funding and is put in charge of the team. Turing sacks two members of the team, and recruits Joan Clarke, with whom he subsequently becomes engaged.

Turing successfully builds the machine – which he names Christopher after one of his childhood friends – that deciphers the messages. The deciphered messages, called Ultra, are used by the team to warn Britain’s armed forces of Germany’s detailed war plans, thus shortening the war. Some years after the war, Turing is prosecuted for indecency (at a time when homosexual acts were illegal) and he accepts chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He deteriorates physically and mentally with few people knowing of his crucial role.

The screenplay was written by American screenwriter and author, Graham Moore and was said to be based on the 527 page biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. The main characters in the film and the actors who played them are Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), and the other members of the team, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and Jack Good (James Northcote).

So what was wrong historically with the screenplay?

Characters in the Film

Turing’s social difficulties – he is brusque, arrogant and narcissistic, he doesn’t understand jokes, he avoids eye contact – are exaggerated in the film to the point of depicting him as being on the autistic spectrum. While it is true that Turing had his share of eccentricities, Turing had friends and was viewed as having a sense of humour with good working relationships with colleagues.

gordon welchman, cryptanalyst, alan turing, bletchley park, bombes

Like Turing, Gordon Welchman decrypted German messages, and they both worked on the re-design of the code-breaking machines called Bombes, but Welchman doesn’t appear in the film.

Hugh Alexander plays Turing’s boss at the start of the film, though he never was in real life. Turing joined Bletchley Park in 1938 before the outbreak of war and Alexander didn’t arrive until 1940 as until then he was head of the John Lewis research department. A better counterpart to Turing would have been Gordon Welchman, who was in charge of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park breaking German army codes, when Turing was in charge of Hut 8 breaking German naval codes. The two also worked together designing the code-breaking machines, called Bombes. But Welchman doesn’t appear in the film perhaps because Turing would not then appear so pre-eminent. Turing did not get involved in organisational matters at Bletchley Park. Welchman was the man who realised the necessity of setting up staff into three shifts to handle intercepts 24 hours a day. Hugh Alexander eventually took over the running of Hut 8 from Turing, and eventually became head of cryptanalysis at Bletchley.

Turing originally worked on the naval Enigma on his own and he does break it. He was joined by Tony Kendrick and Peter Twinn, who are not featured. Clarke, Alexander, Good and Hilton only joined later, in that order.

The film sets up Denniston, the operational head of Bletchley, as an antagonist to Turing, portraying him as an overbearing rigid officer bound by military thinking and eager to shut down the decryption machine when it failed to deliver results. Denniston’s grandchildren have said that the film takes an ‘unwarranted sideswipe’ at their grandfather in showing him as a ‘baddy’. He was a gentle man with a completely different temperament than the one portrayed in the film. There is no record of the film’s depicted interactions between Turing and Denniston.


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lunchbox, irrfan khan, dabbawala, mumbai

A lunchbox, prepared by a young housewife for her husband, is delivered in error to Saajan Fernandes (played by Irrfan Khan) at his office in Mumbai.

I recently watched an enjoyable film The Lunchbox made in 2013 by first-time director Ritesh Batra, set in modern-day Mumbai. A lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person, and this leads a young housewife, who is ignored by her husband, and an older man, who is about to retire, to correspond with each other through notes in the lunchbox, both seeking an escape from the frustrations of their lives. It is a delightful and engaging film.

The backdrop to the film is Mumbai’s remarkably efficient lunchbox delivery system that collects stacked metal boxes containing lunches that have been prepared by wives and mothers, from the suburban homes of thousands of workers in the morning, delivers the boxes to workplaces in time for lunch, and then returns the empty boxes to the customer’s house in the afternoon.

lunchbox, nimrat kaur, dabbawala, mumbai

Saajan, curious as to where the lunch has come from, places a note in the lunchbox that is then sent back to Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur), and they start exchanging notes.

In the credits at the end of the film it mentions that the film was made with the support of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association. Tiffin was originally the name in British India for a light meal taken in the heat of the day between breakfast and dinner, and the container in which the food was stored, usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container, was known in Urdu as a dabba, meaning a box. The person who carries a tiffin box is known as a dabbawala (also spelt dabbawalla or dabbawallah), and the film shows hundreds of dabbawalas in action. ‘Wala’ is a suffix used to denote a person performing a task relating to a particular thing, so the closest meaning of dabbawala in English is ‘lunch box delivery man’.

The lunch delivery service was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche with about a hundred men. In 1956, a charitable trust was registered in  under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust, with the commercial arm of the trust being registered in 1968 with the name of Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. In Mumbai, between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are transported by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all for the extremely low charge of 300 rupees per month (about £3.20 or $5 in 2014) with the utmost punctuality and reliability.

dabbawala, lunchbox, dabba, mumbai

A dabbawala loads up his bicycle with lunchboxes collected from homes nearby, to take them to the nearest sorting point.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects the dabbas either from a worker’s home or from dabba makers, who prepare the meals in central kitchens. The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put on trains at railway stations, usually in carriages designated for the boxes. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy, the dabbas are marked in several ways: (1) abbreviations for collection points, (2) a colour code for the starting station, (3) a number for the destination station, and (4) markings for the handling dabbawala at the destination, to identify where the box has to be delivered to ie. the building and the floor. A detailed explanation of the markings can be seen here.

dabbawala, lunchbox, dabba, mumbai

Dabbawalas push a cart loaded with dabbas from a sorting point to the local railway station.

The service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. Dabbawalas are familiar with their local area, using shortcuts to deliver their goods on time. In the past, people would communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes, as in the film, but this practice is disappearing with the rise of phone texting. Delivery requests are now often made through text messaging.

Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of a bicycle, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and white topi or cap. Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit, and each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid about 8,000 rupees per month (about £80 or $125 in 2014). Many dabbawalas belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra in which Tukaram’s teachings of helping each other is central to their efficiency and motivation. (more…)

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The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said in 1905 ‘those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it’. This concise thought (or aphorism) has been much quoted and has been re-phrased as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’. The meaning then is that one should look back in history to see the mistakes that were made and avoid repeating them.

But like many subjects such as science, sociology, archaeology and so on, facts are open to interpretation, and in the case of history, it is the job of the historian to research the facts and put forward an argument for the whys and wherefores of events from the past. But what if the facts themselves are distorted? Does this diminish the worth of history? Two quite different instances come to mind, of how history can be twisted.

first world war, joan littlewood, richard attenborough, musical film, satire, music hall, tommies

Oh! What a Lovely War was a musical film directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the stage musical of the same name developed by Joan Littlewood as a satire on the First World War at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. The title was a popular music hall song written originally in 1917. Many of the songs were the witty and cynical ones sung by British soldiers, ‘Tommies’, during the war. The film was released in 1969 and the cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article about the First World War published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove wrote of the government’s efforts to restore the importance of history in the school curriculum and give children ‘a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.’ and in referring to the war he said that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. He said:

‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled   Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

In particular Gove criticised Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian, for arguing that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think that they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom.Gove argued that whilst the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, it was a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the aggressively expansionist war aims of Germany and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. He said that it was also a noble cause, that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order. Gove added that:

‘Evans’ case is more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

Unfortunately Gove in acting as the scholar shows his ignorance of history and his own preference for myth-making. In saying that the war was a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, which was ‘fought by men to defend the western liberal order’, he forgets that one of Britain’s main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, whose brutal autocracy was far more ruthless than that of Germany’s authoritarian Kaiser Wilhelm. And what was the western liberal order? Germany was certainly more democratic electorally than Britain. 40% of adult males in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918, whereas every adult man in Germany had the right to vote since before the start of the conflict, and the largest political party, the Social Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed annexations and the militarism of the German elites.

british empire, queen victoria, global power, london, exploitation, first world war

This map shows the British Empire in 1901 on the death of Queen Victoria. By this time, Britain had been the foremost global power for more than a century and London was the economic capital of the world. This was derived in large measure from the exploitation of the natural resources and cheap labour in its colonies. The empire reached its largest territorial extent in 1922, though because of the impact of the First World War it was no longer the only major industrial or military power.

The German elite was certainly expansionist, they envied Britain and France with their vast colonies overseas. By the early 1900s, Britain had become the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. It was ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Germany wanted its ‘place in the sun’. But were these British colonies, dominions, protectorates, and mandates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. For example, in the period 1896-97, about five million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain. In the period 1901-02 in British concentration camps in South Africa, 28,000 Boer people died from starvation, 22,000 of them children, which is about 10 per cent of the Boer population, and about 20,000 black people died in other camps. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in south-east Asia became part of French Indochina between 1887 and 1893, France’s motive being to exploit the countries’ resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations, with millions of people forced to work long hours for wages that were pitifully small in debilitating conditions for the benefit of their French overlords. Up until the First World War, and beyond, thousands upon thousands of native people died through malnutrition and disease on the plantations.


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The Nile in the Ancient World

ptolemy, geographia, north africa, mountains of the moon, lunae montes, nile

This map of north Africa by Jacob d’Angelo (author) and Nicolaus Germanus (artist) based on Ptolemy’s Geographia, was published in 1467 in Bavaria. The Mountains of the Moon are shown as Lunae Montes in the bottom right of the map, with rivers flowing north from the mountains to several large unnamed lakes.

The success of ancient Egyptian civilization from as far back as 4000 BC came partly from its ability to adapt to the conditions of the Nile River Valley. The predictable flooding and controlled irrigation of the fertile valley produced surplus crops, which fueled social development and culture. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC, wrote that ‘Egypt was the gift of the Nile’.

The Nile in north-east Africa is 4,160 miles (6,695 km) long and is the longest river in the world. The Nile’s two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum before flowing 1,857 miles (2,988 km) through the desert to the Nile delta on the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria in Egypt. The longer White Nile rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, and its most distant source is considered to be the Ruvyironza (or Luvironza) River in Burundi.

Finding the source of the Nile fascinated the Ancient World. Herodotus, Alexander the Great, and the Emperor Nero all puzzled how the river could flow through thousands of miles of desert without the support of a single tributary. Both the Greeks and the Romans tried to find the source of the Nile, but failed.

Ptolemy’s Map

In the 1st century, a merchant named Diogenes is said to have travelled inland from Rhapta in East Africa ‘for a twenty five days’ journey and arrived in the vicinity of two great lakes and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. He reported that the natives called the mountain range the Mountains of the Moon because of their snow-capped whiteness. These reports were accepted as true by Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greco-Roman mathematician and geographer living in Alexandria. Ptolemy wrote a cartographic treatise, Geographia, on what was known about the world’s geography in the Roman Empire at the time.

Only copies of the original maps in the atlases in Ptolemy’s Geographia survived, so early Renaissance cartographers produced maps from these copies based on the coordinates in the original text. In the maps of north Africa, the source of the Nile, as depicted by Ptolemy, are rivers at the foot of the Lunae Montes, or Mountains of the Moon, which flow into two large unnamed lakes.

The Search for the Source of the Nile

nile, white nile, lake victoria, blue nile, lake tana, mountains of the moon, lake albert, uganda, democratic republic of the congo

Map of the River Nile showing the source of the White Nile at Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The Mountains of the Moon lie south of Lake Albert along the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It would be another 1,700 years before an expedition commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society set out from Zanzibar in 1857 to ‘find’ the source of the Nile. It was led by the British explorer Richard Francis Burton with John Hanning Speke as his junior. Burton was an army captain and intelligence officer in India; blunt, bold, enigmatic and resourceful (though he was to be seen later as a slightly disreputable intellectual). Speke had also been in the army in India as a lieutenant. He was said to be upstanding, charming, and fanatical about fitness, and he had been a surveyor and a naturalist. Speke had already been on an expedition with Burton to Somalia in 1854, and although their qualities appeared complimentary, they had not got on well. Their personalities turned out to be totally incompatible, and a poisonous rivalry developed between them.

In February 1858, the explorers, each suffering ill-health from a variety of causes, reached the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika (known to the Arabs as the Sea of Ujiji), which Burton was convinced was the headwater of the Nile. After three months, they started back towards the coast but they heard of a large lake to the north. By now Speke had recovered and he set off with a small party, but without Burton, to find the lake. After 200 miles, he reached the southern shore of Lake Victoria (known locally as the Sea of Ukerewe) in August 1858. After calculating the height of the lake above sea level, he concluded intuitively that this lake, and not Burton’s, must be the source.

He then hurried back to Burton to announce his great discovery. Burton demanded what proof Speke had that it was ‘the’ lake. Speke suggested that they should both go and investigate the lake’s true extent, but Burton rejected this. This was a tactical blunder by Burton. Speke began to see the ‘discovery’ as his own, and perhaps Burton’s scepticism reflected his fear that he had made a fatal mistake.


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PointofViewIn the UK, the BBC is often seen to be the protector of the English Language and in particular how it is spoken. It is not unusual for listeners and viewers to contact the BBC to express their dismay about one programme or another because the characters have not spoken clearly enough.

It’s interesting to learn that the new BBC DG, Tony Hall, has taken to heart viewers’ criticisms of actors mumbling their words in TV productions, and generally not speaking clearly.

tony hall, director-general, bbc, actors, lines, mumbling

Tony Hall, the new Director-General of the BBC, has declared war on actors who mumble

It might be said that it’s not unrelated to age, but I increasingly find it difficult to keep up with the dialogue in dramas and films etc., which, in some cases, is of no great loss as I can usually catch the general drift by simply watching the visuals.

I have a hunch that Mr Hall’s decision to tackle this trend is touching on a wider problem and not just the mumbling. Is it just coincidence that the popularity of European, and particularly Scandinavian, crime dramas like Wallander and The Bridge, has grown enormously?  Is this connected to the use of sub-titles? I know that some people hate having to rely on sub-titles, but personally I find them a boon and they allow me to keep pace with the dialogue despite the characters speaking an obscure Danish dialect understood by just a few rural pig farmers in northern Denmark? It’s no exaggeration to say that I find it much easier to keep pace with Inspector Montabello as opposed to Midsummer Murders, the UK’s closest equivalent.

life of brian, film, cheesemakers, monty python

‘What’s so special about the cheese makers?’
Life of Brian (1979)

Then there is the issue of music superimposed over dialogue in the questionable quest to enhance the emotional impact of a programme. Sometimes the accompanying music almost obliterates the sound of voices and the viewer is left to guesswork and speculation about what exactly the actors were saying. It reminds me of one of my favourite comedy scenes from Life of Brian, where the crowds have gathered of the hillside to listen to a sermon by Jesus. The people at the back can hardly hear what Jesus is saying and a growing murmur spreads with people asking each other ‘what’s he saying’. Some bloke straining to hear says ‘I think he’s saying blessed are the cheese makers’ adding to the general confusion and to the annoyance of others. Someone asks what’s so special about the cheese makers. What about the tailors and the cooks? What Jesus was actually saying was ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’. It just shows what confusion can flow from a misunderstanding of what some character said.

Maybe producers and directors are regressing back towards the silent era where whole films needed to convey a story by just visual depiction and the limited use of sub-titles. Maybe they think that the words spoken by characters are not so important and that mumbling and music are not issues to be overly concerned about.

Perhaps the answer is to turn on the sub-title option on your tellys, even for English spoken programmes, and then provided you can read them, you won’t need to worry. I must also add that US-produced programmes are often much worse than UK ones in their excessive use of music and mumbling.

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