Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Scribe

Somebody asked me the other day about my avatar. I'll be honest, it was my girlfriend, but it was nice that someone showed an interest! He is supposed to be the 'humble scribe' personified - the workaday hack churning out words to a deadline, as I do in my day job, and he is also obviously supposed to connect with my love of history and specifically the Middle Ages. But the correlation goes a bit deeper than that, because I am an editor and in fact the picture is actually of a medieval proof correction mark.

When I first started work in publishing, 20 years ago, one of the first things I had to learn was BS5261, the industry standard for proof correction marks. A version of them can be seen here. The company I worked for was late in getting into digital publishing, and so in those days we still sent raw text - typed or even hand written - to our printers, where typesetters would then type them into their own composition machines and send us back A1 sheets covered with neatly typset columns ('galley proofs'), which we would then literally cut out and stick down onto page make-up sheets to show where the text was supposed to flow. 'Cut and paste' really did use to mean exactly that. Of course typesetters worked quickly and made frequent mistakes, or couldn't read our terrible handwriting, so we would then have to mark the proofs for correction.

Medieval scribes were often just as much part of a production line, but at least had the option of waiting for the ink to dry and then scraping it off the page if they made a mistake. However, occasionally, when copying, they would miss a word or even an entire line, and only discover it some time later. Parchment being far too valuable to waste, it would almost never be thrown away, so the text would have to be corrected on the page. To insert text they would thus have to write it at the bottom of the page, or in the margin and then indicate where it should go in the body of the text. A whole little game of amusing marginalia surrounds this practice, limited only by the imagination and artistic ability of the monk; I have seen one where several little monks in the margin are using a block and tackle to apparently haul the missed word back into place. The scribe figure I use is pointing to where a missing word should go, and I suspect that he is probably a self-portrait of the overworked monk who has made the error in the first place. The monks who wrote medieval manuscripts are often anonymous, but you can get little glimpses of the real person behind the text on the page, especially at the end of a piece, when the book or scroll will often end with the heartfelt words 'Explicit, Deo gratias' - "It is finished, thanks be to God." I know that feeling all too well! So I don't know who my humble scribe is, but I like to imagine him as me, if I had lived in the 13th century - he gives me a feeling of connection to a tradition of writing and publishing going back hundreds and indeed thousands of years.

Monday, 12 December 2011

I'M Spartacus!

I've had Spartacus: Blood and Sand on loan from Lovefilm for ages now, and never quite overcame my apathy enough to watch it. The DVD has accompanied me on three foreign trips now, and even in a lonely hotel room it has never quite managed to make me think: you know, I'm bored enough to watch that now. Yesterday I had made lunch and faced a Sunday afternoon with absolutely zero on the TV, so I thought I'd finally give Blood a chance. I'm glad I did.

It's notionally about Spartacus the Thracian slave who led the great slave revolt in late Republican Rome. But it's about as much about history as '300' is about Herodotus. It's a romp, and ups the ante on BBC/HBO's Rome by going for even more blood (well, it is about gladiators, so fair play I guess) and sex. It's pretty ludicrous, although to be honest not especially more ludicrous than the Kirk Douglas film, with its ridiculously cheesy Quo Vadis style Christianity before Christ.

So, let's be clear to begin with; it's not quality television. There's a cartoonish quality to the gore, like something from an 80s Arnie movie. Limbs are hacked off left right and centre, by a gladius of all things (a stabbing weapon). Women go out to pick fruit in the snow (eh?) miles from their village. Muscles are oiled. It's the WWF with stage blood. Breasts are bared, and poor CGI effects march across the screen looking for all the world ripped from a computer game (as they probably were). There is no attempt at continuity of accents, and the international cast speak a mixture of their native Kiwi, Scots, American and cut glass English, although to be honest I barely noticed that most of the time.

The programme goes for the standard 'decadent' view of Roman culture, as though every Roman behaved like Caligula. In fact, even later on, in the Empire, things were probably not quite as debauched as they are in Spartacus, and the Republic was actually for the most part pretty straight laced (a few notorious wayward wives being the exception rather than the rule), especially in a quiet provincial town like Capua, where the first series is set. Still, it's undeniably entertaining. And having complained about its lack of historicity, there are surprisingly many real facts squeezed in. There is some genuine Latin, the Thracians begin - credibly - at war with the Getae (and it's not often you hear the Getae mentioned in a TV programme!), an early sub-plot is based around the Mithridatic wars, and the storyline sticks to the few known facts about the hero - it makes Spartacus as he was (according to Florus) a deserter from a Roman auxiliary unit, and his wife (as she was according to Plutarch) a seeress who is captured with him; his quest to be reunited with her provides his motivation and plot arc. An early rivalry is set up between Spartacus and Gaius Claudius Glaber, a genuine Roman general, who here is the cause of Spartacus' desertion in Thrace. In history Glaber later failed to recapture Spartacus during the slave revolt in 73BC. There are also some gems of casting, such as John Hannah as the struggling lanista (gladiatorial trainer) who buys Spartacus, and Lucy Lawless as his shrewd wife. And after the first couple of scene-setting episodes which set up relationships and storylines, it begins to twist and turn quite nicely, with various levels of rivalries between the gladiators, their owners, and the Roman nobility that employ them. I'm five episodes in now, and really enjoying myself. It's a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Soylent Green is PEOPLE!!

My attention was drawn to a startling fact today. The global population in classic 60s overpopulation dystopias 'Soylent Green' and John Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' was 7 billion. Exactly the same number of people as currently exist here in 2011. Brunner was even spot on about the year - his book was set in 2010. The film version of Soylent Green was set in 2022, although it was based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel 'Make Room, Make Room', set in 1999. Either way, in spite of persistent food production problems in some parts of Africa (especially war-torn parts like Somalia), you'll have noticed that people aren't being forced to sleep on fire escapes (or only by poverty, not lack of available accomodation) and we aren't having to eat recycled human bodies. It's worth reflecting a little on why that is.

The books were part of a wave of eco-doom novels that were kicked off by the first beginnings of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring arguably began the whole thing, in 1962, but by 1968 the concern had moved beyond her focus on very real and widespread pollution and on to the looming population crisis, care of Paul Erlich's neo-Malthusian 'The Population Bomb' - its title designed to mirror then-current concerns about the other Bomb - the hydrogen bomb - and predicting that its effects would be just as devastating. Erlich wrote: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." He said that India might as well be written off - there was no way it could feed more than 200 million people (for the record, its population is currently six times that). We should concentrate on saving ourselves, via mandatory sterilisation and closing our borders against the inevitable tidal wave of famine refugees.

Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said: "it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." The fact that all this didn't come to pass was as a result of what has been called the 'Green Revolution'. A combination of irrigation, increased cropping area, fast-growing strains of wheat and rice, and increased use of fertilizer has tripled world food yields. The godfather of this was an American scientist named Norman Borlaug - a man who deserves to be far more widely known than he is. It is arguable that half of the world's population is alive today thanks to his work, especially in India. Now modern agriculture has many critics, and it's certainly by no means perfect, but we mustn't overlook the almost miraculous way it has saved the world from mass starvation. As Borlaug himself put it: "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels... If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

We're not out of the woods yet. Global population continues to grow, although the rate of increase is falling rapidly and it will probably peak somewhere above 9 billion in 20 years or so. Water resources are becoming scarce in some parts of the world, and careless use of fertilizer has caused side effects like the seasonal 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico - although it ought to be noted that fertilizer use in the developed world has actually been falling for 30 years. And then... the Green Revolution is still under way. Africa has still yet to benefit from it in the same way that China, India and South America have. Meanwhile more targeted use of fertilizer and new genetic technologies also offer the promise of even more increases in yield. I'd never argue that all in the garden is perfect, and we owe a great debt to the environmental movement for cleaning up our industry and agriculture and making the world around us a much safer and cleaner one. But let's also remember that technology let us dodge this particular bullet (or Bomb), and it's our best hope for keeping pace as population continues to rise.