Monday, 12 March 2012

Palaeontology and Politics - the last Bath Lit Fest Post (at least for this year)

Bath Lit. Fest. ends today, and the last two events I had tickets for were yesterday, with Richard Fortey and Jeremy Paxman.
I’d booked the ticket for Richard Fortey’s event having enjoyed his book, ‘Dry Store Room No.1’ about his time at the Natural History Museum, and his recent TV series, 'Survivors' (which has an accompanying book, of course!)
Richard Fortey
Fortey is a Palaeontologist, with a special interest in trilobites, but his theme today was to look at the range of organisms which have succeeded in surviving one or more of the great extinctions, and to speculate a little on how and why they succeeded in doing so.
Horseshoe Crabs, for instance (which can still be found in large numbers, coming to Delaware Bay to spawn) are found in the fossil record over 150 million years ago, Stromatolites, now found in  Western Australia are over 2.5 billion years old, and there are anaerobic bacteria in hot springs in Yellowstone, (among other places), which are even older. Some of the other survivors are Magnolia Trees, which were around with the dinosaurs, Nauteloids (which were contemporaneous with Ammonites) and the Echindna, whose babies delight in the glorious name of  'puggles', and which interests scientists both as its milk is so nutritious that it is being studied by researchers interested in anorexia, and as it has no nipples, just a slightly modifies sweat-gland which 'oozes' milk, so it represents an evolutionary step on the way towards true mammary glands. (of course, it also looks very cute, like an overgrown hedgehog, and lays eggs, just to confuse)
Fortey pointed out that most of the survivors have certain attributes in common: enduring habitat (often tidal),  a willingness to eat a wide variety of foods and/or the ability to go long periods without food, good defence mechanisms such as being difficult to eat, (Apparently the only part of a horseshoe crab which is edible is its eggs, and they taste pretty nasty!) a little counter intuitively, many of the survivors also have relatively few offspring or (like the Echidna) have slow-growing young needing a relatively high level of parental care.

It was fascinating, and afterwards, when I went to get my slightly battered copy of 'Dry Store Room No 1' signed, by Fortey, (rather than having spent £20 on the new hardback 'Survivors' book) he was charming about it, and commented that he liked signing books which had been read, which was very nice of him, whether it was true, or simply to put me at ease!

The second event I had a ticket for was Jeremy Paxman, talking about his new book,Empire (What Ruling the World Did to the British). However, as this didn't start until 4 hours after Richard Fortey's event finished, I had plenty of time to treat myself to a delicious pie and a pint in the The Raven, and still had time to visit Mr B's to drink coffee and buy books, and then to the Guildhall where, having some time to spare, I wandered around a little to admire the empty corridors, and the many splendid pictures of all of the majors of Bath, going back to about 1870. (The first clean-shaven Mayor appeared in 1899, but was clearly an aberration, as there wasn't another until 1913) Women took rather longer, there wasn't one until the 1960s.
After that little diversion, I settled in to listen to Mr Paxman. He has a ferocious reputation for his political interviews, and for his sometimes scathing comments to contestants on 'University Challenge', so the warnings, before his talk, not to annoy him by letting your phone go off during the presentation were particularly effective!
The presentation was more of a potted history of the Empire (mainly, but not exclusively, in India) than a discussion of how it affected the British and as such most of the information was not new, but it was very well presented (despite Mr. Paxman's difficulties with the remote control for his slideshow!) and entertaining, particularly his somewhat caustic asides; In describing the Privateer Henry Morgan  he explained that Morgan, seeing the Spanish exploiting indigenous people in South America, worked out that it was much less effort to wait and then steal the goods from the Spanish, became immensely wealthy so was, in the fine British tradition, rewarded with a knighthood..

He also commented on Gordon of Khartoum's decision to disobey orders and try to hold, rather than evacuate Khartoum, describing Gordon as  "Brave but deranged" -  Gordon apparently believed that he was in direct communication with the Prophet Isaiah, who, understandably, he considered outranked the Prime Minister..

Part of his theme was that the British Empire was not in any way planned, it grew as a result of a lot of opportunistic people trying to get rich, although the Victorians, in particular, liked to see it as a benevolent way of bringing Christianity and civilisation to the 'less advanced' parts of the world.

While acknowledging the many negative issues in the Empire (referencing the atrocities committed during the Indian Mutiny (1st War of Indian Independence), for instance) he did also flag up some of what he saw as positives; the introduction of in theory and principal, at least, a largely non-corrupt cadre of public servants, the abolition of slavery, including the fact that around 150,000 people were liberated due to the Royal Navy being used to enforce Britain's anti-slavery laws. He also commented that without defending colonisation, if you were going to be colonised, it was probably better to be colonised by the British than by many of the other colonial powers - Belgium and Portugal being particularly bad examples.

The American questioner had a rather rambling comment, resulting in saying "we got rid of them (the British monarchy)
Paxman; "Yes, you did. What's your point?"
American Questioner; "DO you have any comment?"
Paxman; "I wouldn't dream of intruding on your private grief"...

The Canadian Questioner spoke about the issue of Quebec and the odd partnership of the French and English;
Q "I don't know how the English ever expected that to work"
A "They probably took the view that it's your problem now. What do you want me to do?"

Perhaps not terribly serious responses to serious (if poorly constructed) questions, but most entertaining. I shall continue to watch the rest of the TV series, and will probably buy the book once it is out in paperback.

A very interesting finish to my Bath Lit. Fest.
It will be interesting to see what next year has to offer.

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