Mon, 29 Jun 2015
Like Grandfather like Grandson

Athelstan, First King of England
By Sarah Foot

A fairly academic book in places (it is part of the Yale English Monarchs series) but mostly very readable to the lay person.

The main problem with Athelstan is that his life has a very limited documentary record, especially compared to his grandfather, Alfred the Great. This is a shame since he is a very important early king, the first King of England really, and even someone who could claim overlordship over the whole of Britain to some degree.

Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford, and has appeared a few times on the BBC's In Our Time radio programs. On radio, she has taken part on programs that went through the Life of Bede, Alfred's Battle of Edington and, of course, Athelstan. It was on this program that I first heard of the battle of Brunanburh, a decisive victory of the Anglo-Saxon army over the combined forces of the Scots, Welsh and Dublin Norse.

The site of the battle was probably the North West of England around the Wirral, but no one knows for sure and the battle and its significance has been all but forgotten. In some ways, rather like Athelstan himself. Maybe this was due to his background (some question over his mother's lineage) or possible accessory in his brother's death shortly after his (probably) contested coronation. Whatever the reason, Alfred has well and truly eclipsed his grandson.

If you want proper detail about what we know about Athelstan however, this is the book for you. For a more accessible guide. Michael Wood made a very good documentary for the BBC called In Search of Athelstan and you can watch it all on YouTube.

Sun, 14 Jun 2015
SWA 2015

I was at the Society of Women Artists last week at the Mall Galleries. As usual a great show of art, and some favourites are below (but really, too many to show). A couple of photographs below are a detail only, and one or two have an indecipherable description (sorry).

Marigold Plunkett, Lost in Thought. Oil.

Annie Ward, A Democracy of Pots: The Gathering. Acrylic.

Marjorie Collins, ... (detail). Watercolour.

Orsi Cowel-Lehoczky. Parakeets, Number 1. Oil.

Jan Hunter. ... Acrylic.

Patricia Clements, Three Apples (detail). Pastel.

Angela Brittain, Lark Song. Acrylic.

Wed, 10 Jun 2015

Not sure who this is now (perhaps Hadrian) because I didn't get the description, but it's from photograph I took in the British Museum :

20x25cm, acrylic on Daler Board

I thought it would be a chance to have a go at the "classic" art practice of drawing (or painting) a sculpture, looking for the light and shade. I'm quite happy with it, although the painting is much better in real life.

Sun, 07 Jun 2015
The Mighty Dead

The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters
By Adam Nicolson

One of those uncommon books where you have to savour the writing in the reading of it. A beautifully written, poetic book that digs deeply into the origins of one of the foundations of Western Civilisation: Homer's two epics The Illiad and The Odyssey.

This is also a very personal tale at times. Nicolson does not flinch at his own past, using it to reflect on the way Homer's world works, however brutally.

And as he points out, the Greek Heroes are extremely brutal. Blood drenched, selfish, pumped up and boorish: a gang of thugs who revel in shouting and killing. There is a well placed analogy with the sort of life a modern inner-city gang member lives, where violence can be a way of life, and "respect" is a dangerous thing to slight or ignore. It's almost a meeting of two worlds: the civilised and settled city (Troy) and the warrior society from the Eurasian steppe (the Greeks). Nicolson posits that, in effect, there may be some historical truth to this. From such beginnings, what timeless beauty can be spun though.

On the beginning of the age of bronze in the near east :

At the same moment, but further north, the new metal had an equally powerful effect on human history. A cluster of economic, social,military and psychological changes came about in a wide swathe of country which stretched from the steppelands around the Caspian Sea through the Balkans and on into Northern Europe. These changes created the civilisation of which Achilles is the symbol: not a city world but a warrior elite, ferociously male in its focus, with male gods and a cultivation of violence, with no great attention paid to dwellings or public buildings,but a fascination with weaponry, speed and violence.

Left: The so-called "Mask of Agamemnon", a gold sheet funeral mask that covered the face of a buried man in a Mycenean shaft grave (Circa 1500 BC). Discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.

There's plenty of archaeology here and not just the muddy sort: we also have to dig into the literary past and even more, the linguistic levels of history to see what odd, pre-Greek words still exist as a memory of a more ancient existence. How long can such a memory exist and be passed down the generations in song and poem, orally? Perhaps a surprisingly long time. "Homer" is supposed to have put these masterworks down in written form in the 7th or 8th Century BC, the actions in the books having taken place around 1200 BC (500 years earlier).

The Illiad is suffused with blood and a pleasure in its cold-bloodedness. Achilles is the preeminent figure in the violence he unfurls, but the cunning Odysseus and the other Greeks are not far behind in the love of fighting and killing. The conjecture Nicolson expounds is that perhaps the actual events are much older, and he makes the case that we might push the siege of Troy back another 1000 years, or at least to the earlier 2nd Millenium BC. Whatever the truth of this (and I understand it is controversial and not necessarily backed up), it is an intriguing idea.

Penelope welcomes Odysseus home to Ithaca. This looks very civiised, but in the book, he wades in blood having slaughtered not only her suitors but various serving girls as well.
It is actually quite shocking to a modern sensibility.

The whole book is poetic and thought-provoking and perhaps as importantly, makes one want to re-read Homer. Not only that, but with a greater awareness of the translation. Excellent work.

I also decided to rewatch Michael Wood's BBC documentary series from 1985, In Search of the Trojan War. I've blogged about this before: the series is very good. I'd love Wood to do at least one more program to update us on the latest of Troy, and Greek prehistory.

Sun, 31 May 2015
Inner City Southwark

As a follow-up to the post about the Ravilious exhiibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, I had a wander in the neighbourhood before it opened.

It's hard to believe that these leafy, quiet, tidy and well-to-do streets are actually in the London Borough of Southwark.

As you can see on the right, Southwark actually covers a tremendously long strip of land, all the way from the river (London Bridge, Borough Market, Tate Modern) down to suburban Dulwich (Dulwich College, Dulwich Picture Gallery). At the top, it is directly across from the City of London (4 on the map). Lambeth, where I live, is to it's left but at the river end, it gets quite confused as to which borough you're in.

White picket fences ... can this be Southwark?

Or this ...

There's actually a tollbooth on this road, which appears to be private. Lots of private roads in the area in fact, and well tended lawns and sports fields.

Brixton's a few minutes cycle away, but that's crossing into the borough of Lambeth.

Southwark's actually one of the oldest parts of London, but that's the river end.

A pretty nice place and I'm ashamed to say that I haven't even had a look in the park yet. So, how much do these places cost? Let's start at a million ...

Sat, 30 May 2015
Eric Ravilious at Dulwich

I almost didn't go, but seeing such different journalists as Peter Hitchens (Mail) and Ian Jack (Guardian) give such high praise changed my mind. It's always a pleasure visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery and this time I also took a look around the surrounding area a bit.

Eric Ravilious was only 39 when he died, coming down in a plane somewhere in the North Atlantic in 1942. He ended his life as an official war artist. His pictures are mainly watercolour and pencil, with a muted palette but a certain lightness watercolour is so good at expressing.

The lovely thing about his paintings is the bygone world it represents, perhaps a particular Englishness. There's a feel for a civilised suburban middle-class existence in the 30's, a world that was wiped out by the devastating interruption of the Second World War and its aftermath. A lot lost, not just in human lives. It seems almost mythical now.

Train Landscape, 1939 :

Chalk Paths, 1935 :

The Wesbury Horse, 1939 :

Mon, 25 May 2015
Britain After Rome

Britain After Rome
By Robin Fleming

I mustn't let this book slip by without a short mention. Britain After Rome covers the period from the early 400's to the mid-11th Century in pre-Conquest Britain. From a peripheral part of the Roman Empire, we move into a very different world of British, Romano-British, Germanic and Scandinavian "interaction". Fleming has written a detailed and semi-academic book with some real history backed up by actual archaeology.

A little tough going at the start but as she says in the introduction, she wants to try and concentrate on the archaelogical record to uncloak as much of the ordinary life of the people of the period as possible. This means less concentration on the great lives, or written sources (such as they are) and more on burial custom, building and economy. Fleming only briefly covers Wales but this an interesting section on how the Viking micel here (Great Heathen Army, arriving around 865 AD) affected the Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog.

Scotland and Ireland also figure less prominently although another interesting section covers the possible reason for finding the remains of a 9th or 10th century Yorkshire woman in a Viking/Norse cemetery in Cnip, Isle of Lewis :

How did an English-woman end up living at the center of a vast, Norse-colonial, North Atlantic world with a group of grave-goods-using Norse settlers? The most likely explanation is that viking slavers derailed her life in some unrecorded raid and, as a conequence of it, she spent her final years among foreigners who owned her.

One is often reminded about the ubiquity of slavery through-out history.

On the left: An Anglo-Saxon burial urn. The body was cremated and then placed in the urn and buried. There was a great variety of burial custom in use, including cremation and inhumation (burial of body in ground, either directly, or in a coffin of some form). Grave goods got less common as christianity took hold.

This is a book worth a read by anyone seriously interested in what might have happened in Britain during the six centuries that passed before the country's reintegration to the continent as part of the Duke of Normandy's domain.

Tue, 19 May 2015

There is no shortage of advice around; books or web sites offering all sorts of helpful thoughts on how to live a good life, be happy, fulfilled. How to live without regrets.

I don't tend to linger on this sort of thing but occasionally something comes along that I think is worth the read, and worth passing on. Sam Altman, a silicon valley entrepreneur, programmer,venture capitalist and blogger, recently wrote something that triggered this reaction :

The Days are Long but the Decades are Short

2) Life is not a dress rehearsal—this is probably it. Make it count. Time is extremely limited and goes by fast. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled—few people get remembered hundreds of years after they die anyway. Don’t do stuff that doesn’t make you happy (this happens most often when other people want you to do something). Don’t spend time trying to maintain relationships with people you don’t like, and cut negative people out of your life. Negativity is really bad. Don’t let yourself make excuses for not doing the things you want to do.

Number two is fairly standard, but still needs saying again sometimes, and pondering on occasion. Some other points he makes are more aligned with work, perhaps even the type of startup culture he moves in, but this culture also tends to infuse many more places that just Silicon Valley nowadays.

More at the link.

Fri, 15 May 2015
A New Beginning

Well, it is possible to get a dirty, greasy five year old white brompton clean, it just takes T-Cut and Turtle Wax. Plus a lot of elbow grease.

I put my white brompton into Brompton Junction for a service (turned out to be the "factory service") and it came out sparkling. I could never get it like this; never managing to get all the grease and grime completely off. A discussion with one of the engineers let me in on how they do it. But as they said: a lot of hard work as well to polish it up.

The engineers in the shop not only know their stuff but are also very happy to help out and answer questions.

Of course, now I want to avoid showers as well, and mud. I've failed in that already this week.

Sun, 10 May 2015
Dunstable Swan

About 1400, England or France, gold and enamel jewel. In the British Museum.

The Dunstable Swan jewel was found in a Dominican Priory, Dunstable. It may have been worn to indicate an allegiance to the de Bohun family or to the House of Lancaster. King Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413) took the symbol of the swan when he married Mary de Bohun in 1380.

It is made from opaque white enamel fused over gold, a technique known as émail en ronde bosse that developed in Paris in the second half of the fourteenth century. The chain and coronet attached to the swan's neck are also of gold.