A cowboy never dies – can a western save the cinema?

Tom Hanks and co star on setImage courtesy of Universal

Tom Hanks’s lates movie News of the World sees him once again look to history for inspiration, but it’s the first time he’s made a western.

Hanks takes his turn at the Western

Set in 1870, widowed army veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (played by Hanks) travels from town to town as a wandering storyteller and source of news from around the world. When he reaches Texas, he meets 10-year-old Johanna. Having been raised by the Kiowa tribe she is now due to be returned to her aunt and uncle, and Kidd offers to accompany her on the, at times, hazardous journey.

Teaming up once again with acclaimed director Paul Greengrass, who directed Hanks in Captain Phillips, and based on the novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, the trailer looks promising. The rights to the movie adaptation of the book were snapped up just eight months after publication, and its appeal is obvious. The nostalgia for the wilder times of the west alongside a story of two souls bonding on their journey through vast landscapes and free open spaces is the gentle escapism we all need right now.

A return to popularity for the Western genre

While many genres are often mooted as undergoing a ‘resurgence’ at various times, the western movie has never really died – quietly ticking along at regular intervals both in cinema and TV. That said, recent years have definitely seen punchier and less subtle reinventions, in strong contrast to the stereotypical ‘slow’ western style that we’re used to. Django Unchained and The Revenant have been among some of the more recent smash hit successes, and Justified, Westworld (even Breaking Bad) have kept our appetites whetted on TV. For the younger generations, Red Dead Redemption 2 has found a whole new audience for the western genre through gaming.

Can News of the World save cinema during a pandemic?

Reminiscent of the dynamic that made both versions of True Grit so popular, the premise of News of the World looks promising in the trailer, but will a western be enough to draw people back to the cinema? Due to open on Christmas Day, it seems ambitious to aim for a cinematic release during a pandemic. Tom Hanks has always been a reliable box office draw, but I suspect that even he wouldn’t be able to overcome what must be insurmountable odds. It also seems unlikely that anything less than a major blockbuster would be able to achieve the turnaround that cinemas across the world need right now (cinemas were devastated when the latest Bond movie was pulled from schedules).

News of the World appears to be a return to the slower pace of classic westerns, and this is why I doubt it will set the cinema alight – no matter how excellent the movie may turn out to be.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about Westerns or other film genres, why not book a place on one of our next online film courses?

(by Learn for Pleasure on 27th October 2020)

2,500 Year Old Egyptian Mummy Found Intact

Saqqara step pyramid

59 astonishingly preserved Egyptian Mummies have been uncovered south of Cairo by archaeologists in the last few weeks. Discovered within their sealed and elaborately decorated wooden coffins, evidence suggests they were buried at Saqqara over 2,500 years ago.

Discovery made in legendary area of Egypt

Famous for the 4,700 year old stepped pyramid of Djoser, which was built during the Third Dynasty, Saqqara is the oldest stone building complex known to have been built in history. It served as the burial ground to the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unveiling one of their finds, the archaeological team uncovered an ancient mummy still wrapped within its burial cloth adorned with brightly coloured ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

More ancient finds expected

This follows the discovery of 13 coffins just a few weeks ago, and the team on site are anticipating yet more exciting finds. The current haul were found in shafts up to 40 feet underground, and are believed to date back to the Late Period of Ancient Egypt – around the 6th or 7th century BCE.

The tourism and antiquities minister, Khaled al-Anani, explained that while further investigation will be needed, it is thought that the sarcophagi were the final resting place for important figures of the time, such as priests and senior statesmen of the 26th dynasty.

The area also surrendered a significant number of statues. Amongst them was an impressive bronze figurine of Nefertem, who represented the blue lotus flower present at the creation of the earth. The ancient Egyptians often carried small statuettes of him as good-luck charms.

The finds will be permanently added to the collection of the new Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza plateau, which is due for its grand opening in 2021.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about the Egyptians and their ancient writing system, why not book a place on our next online Hieroglyphs course?

(by Learn for Pleasure on 9th October 2020)

Day of the Seafarer

Ship's Wheel

Today, 25th June, is the International Day of the Seafarer – a United Nations observance day.

Many will know the quote from Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows when Water Rat (“Ratty”, who is actually a Water Vole!) says to Mole:

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

What is less well known is the adventurer, Sea Rat’s, speech:

“And now,” he was softly saying, “I take to the road again, holding on southwestwards for many a long and dusty day; till at last I reach the little grey sea town I know so well, that clings along one steep side of the harbour. There through dark doorways you look down flights of stone steps, overhung by great pink tufts of valerian and ending in a patch of sparkling blue water. The little boats that lie tethered to the rings and stanchions of the old sea-wall are gaily painted as those I clambered in and out of in my own childhood; the salmon leap on the flood tide, schools of mackerel flash and play past quay-sides and foreshores, and by the windows the great vessels glide, night and day, up to their moorings or forth to the open sea. There, sooner or later, the ships of all seafaring nations arrive; and there, at its destined hour, the ship of my choice will let go its anchor. I shall take my time, I shall tarry and bide, till at last the right one lies waiting for me, warped out into midstream, loaded low, her bowsprit pointing down harbour. I shall slip on board, by boat or along hawser; and then one morning I shall wake to the song and tramp of the sailors, the clink of the capstan, and the rattle of the anchor-chain coming merrily in. We shall break out the jib and the foresail, the white houses on the harbour side will glide slowly past us as she gathers steering-way, and the voyage will have begun! As she forges towards the headland she will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South!

And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!!”

The expression, running away to sea, like running away to join the circus, speaks to us of a desire for adventure, for shores anew, and for a life lived to the full, despite, or even because of the elements of danger. Life, and work, at sea can still fulfil these desires, and dangers remain – the sea is an unpredictable force of nature, personified by the ancient Greeks and Romans as Poseidon and Neptune respectively. Seafaring for work is, by definition, a global enterprise, and around 90% of goods are transported by sea. The International Maritime Organisation is marking today’s Day of the Seafarer with its 2020 campaign, “Seafarers are Key Workers” to acknowledge the work that they do, and continue to despite the pandemic, and how they play an important, if often unseen, key part in all our lives.

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Learn more about the history of seafaring:

(by Learn for Pleasure on 25th June 2020)


‘Crazy Beast’ Fossil Found

crazy beast fossil

Islands are the epitome of isolated evolution and Madagascar holds the crown for producing phenomenal plants and animals from hissing cockroaches to panther chameleons. It is the 4th largest island on earth and is where this 66 million-year-old, opossum-sized mammal fossil was found.

On 29th of April 2020, the journal Nature announced that a research team which was led by Dr. David Krause has discovered this perfectly preserved, not to mention practically complete skeleton in Madagascar. This new Mesozoic mammal was named Adalatherium which means “crazy beast’’, the name being derived from Malagasy and Greek languages.

Dr. Krause who is the Senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science says that, compared to known mammals’ skeletal anatomies, it is astonishing how an ancient mammal like this managed to evolve. According to him, it is an inconceivable discovery which even breaks prevailing theories of palaeontology.

Gondwanatheria is an extinct group of Mammals which were previously recognised from cranial fragments, teeth and a few lower jaws. These mammals lived in the Southern Hemisphere in the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, hence the name. The first fossils were discovered in the 1980s in Argentina, and other fossils were found later in other countries including Africa, India, Madagascar and Antarctic Peninsula. These mammals were assumed to be similar to Armadillos, Anteaters and Sloths.

However, according to Dr. Krause, Gondwanatheria was a failed evolutionary experiment which came to an end during the Eocene. Adalatherium belongs to these mammals that went extinct approximately 45 million years ago. This mammal, which lived among dinosaurs and mammoth crocodiles, had bizarre nerves and blood vessel supply passageways. No living nor extinct mammal had this many of holes or (foramina) on its face – its most distinguished feature is the large hole which is located on top of its ultra-sensitive snout which was covered in whiskers. The teeth of Adalatherium also had peculiar traits compared to other mammals, one of the leg bones was curved in an abnormal way and its backbone had several more vertebrae than previous Mesozoic mammals that have been unearthed.

Its other pre-eminent quality is that Adalatherium was rather large as the other mammals who lived among the dinosaurs were usually the size of a mouse. The scientific team is still baffled by the bizarre features of Adalatherium. For one, according to Simone Hoffmann from the New York Institute of Technology who is the primary collaborator of Dr. Krause, Adalatherium’s anatomy tells two different stories from its front and back, making it quite tricky to figure out its movements other than presuming it was capable of running and digging.

Adalatherium’s extraordinary traits were developed as a result of the isolation of Madagascar from the mainland being alienated in the Indian Ocean. As the plate tectonic history of Gondwana evidence suggests, this isolation helped these mammals to evolve for over 20 million years.

Over the past 25 years Dr. Krause and his team have managed to uncover other vertebrates including a predatory frog (Beelzebufo), a buck-toothed dinosaur (Masiakasaurus) and a pug-nosed, vegetarian crocodile (Simosuchus) on Madagascar.

Even though Adalatherium is just a small piece of a puzzle in the long history of early mammalian evolution, it unfolds many new opportunities to further understand the lives of Gondwanatherians.

Learn more about fossils.

(by Learn for Pleasure on 4th May 2020)


Our Top Six Lockdown Podcasts for Your Brain



Whether as a distraction from lockdown anxiety, or the need to fill our days with stimulating activities, we’re all more reliant on external forms of entertainment right now. TV shows may be running out of episodes, condemning us to more repeats than usual, and the physical library is out of bounds, but podcasts are still going strong. Most podcasts have always been fairly “homebrew” affairs facilitated by a healthy “do it yourself” ethos, with hosts recording from their own homes and studios. Thankfully for us, this has made it a virtually indestructible form of entertainment at times like these. Right now, they are the balm we all need to distract us from the lack of routine and the mundanity of our lives. So dig out your laptop, phone, or command your smart device to play one of Learn for Pleasure’s top 6 podcasts.

1. The Folklore Podcast

The Folklore Podcast is created and presented by author and folklore researcher Mark Norman. It is a longstanding podcast now it its fifth season, with, at time of writing, 73 episodes available for your listening pleasure. It’s an exploration of folklore from around the world, and features many eminent folklore authors, researchers and professors. The many episodes include “Black Dogs and the Wild Hunt”, “Gef! The Extra Special Talking Mongoose”, “Witch Bottles” and “Celtic and Western European Fairies”, so take a trip into the fascinating realms of folklore with The Folklore Podast.

Visit: The Folklore Podcast

2. The Sound Of The Hound

Chronicling the journey of the people and the technology that brought recorded music to the masses, and focusing specifically on Fred Gaisberg, who the hosts describe as a ‘nineteenth century amalgam of Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell and Indiana Jones’. Writer James Hall and music industry executive Dave Holley begin the podcast journey with the opening of the first recording studio.

Visit: The Sound of the Hound

3. Field Recordings

Understatedly, and amusingly, describing itself as a podcast where ‘audio-makers stand silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields)’ an array of human (and animal life) is here. The sound of a thunderstorm over Brittany, a saxophonist playing amidst lockdown in Rome, or the chatter of a starling murmuration that builds to a crescendo in County Meath, Ireland – this is the podcast to lift you from your lounge and place you somewhere, almost anywhere, different.

Visit: Field Recordings

4. Philosophy For Our Times

Bringing together high profile figures and leading figures to discuss the news, politics, and culture. With a new episode every week, this will stimulate the brain matter while pondering over whether the mind is part of the world, or the world is part of the mind, the myth of the self, and philosophy versus quantum theory.

Visit: Philosophy for our Times

5. Grounded With Louis Theroux

This one is a bit of a gamble, as it’s new and devised specifically during lockdown. That said, it’s Louis Theroux, and his documentaries have always been insightful, provocative, and entertaining. In his podcast he’s interviewing (in his pyjamas) all of the high profile people he’s wanted to talk to from both sides of the Atlantic . . . and occasionally interrupted by his kids. This is lockdown, after all!

6. North West Footwear Database

Last, but certainly not least, is this atmospheric podcast series, with its 1970s inspired synth soundtrack, and more than a hint of hauntology about it. It is written an performed by Tim Foley, and is described as “stories from a strange institution hidden in the Peak District”. We’ll say no more and let you discover the intrigues of the North West Footwear database for yourself!

Visit: the North West Footwear Database

(by Learn for Pleasure on 28th April 2020)