Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.

Advertisements

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

If you’ve ever (as an english speaker) listened to someone speaking dutch, you might be surprised to find much common links between the two countries.  In the 17th century however, there was a huge crossover of ideas and culture – eventually culminating in William of Orange taking the British throne.  Lisa Jardine argues in Going Dutch that William’s Glorious Revolution was more of a hostile military occupation than the standard portrayal.  William brought tens of thousands of men, his personal guard patrolled the streets of London.  He was easily assimilated however, because of a long recent history of shared culture between the two nations.

Jardine goes through each aspect of this shared culture in detail – letters and collaboration between scientists, taste in artwork, styles of landscaping gardening, and the roles of prominent families like the Huygens family.  The detail is fascinating, if often overwhelming, occasionally repetitive and sometimes over-reliant on the aforementioned Huygens family (and on Robert Hooke, who Jardine had also written a biography of).

I did  have a few other issues with the book, the tone suggests a groundbreaking change in how we should view the Glorious Revolution but the actual content is much more grounded.  While the extent of the  dutch connection might be forgotten, I’m not sure anyone really believes William’s propaganda as fact.  The subtitle “How England Plundered Holland’s Glory” is also over the top, and not really justified by the content of the book.

Ignoring this, it’s an enjoyable overview of cross-channel culture during the 17th century.  There’s plenty to enjoy and it does point towards art, architecture*, landscape and more for anyone wanting to explore their dutch heritage.

 

*It reminded me of this documentary by Jonathan Meades, which investigates the same topic with a slightly different tone.

Shakespeare Week

Apparently it was Shakespeare Week this week. I saw a display in the local library just as it was ending – a little late to actually get involved. On closer inspection, it’s not actually aimed at me. It’s designed to get primary school age children. The aim is to give them early (and fun) exposure to Shakespeare.

It seems like a good idea. I only read the Bard in secondary school, and it may have been a different approach. After reading MacBeth we watching a couple of productions – including Trevor Nunn’s dark and minimalist version with Ian McKellan and Judy Dench (probably a bit arty for kids) and Roman Polanski’s Playboy version (definitely not for kids).

On a different note – I had actually made this recipe for honey flatbread from a Shakespeare heritage site. The honey was a really good touch, it gave the bread a sweet warming quality, and the salt contrasted with the sweetness in a nice way. Stayed tuned for more top literary insights (or not) next time!

A History of the World in 100 Objects

I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum.  Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity.  I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.

The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast.  The book has a very “podcast” feel to it.  Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work.  The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected.  There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.

While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure.  They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another).  There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality.  Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.

One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives.  He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles.  The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this.  And I am very much looking forward to doing so!

Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.

This is my fiftieth post on this blog. I’d wondered if I should do anything special here, but in the end have decided to just note a couple of small things. Firstly, the History of England podcast is going on to a (hopefully brief) hiatus. It has been one of my favourite podcasts for a few years now with its mix of amateur dramatic, sheds and the ladybird book of Kings and Queens. However, David Crowther has been doing it more or less non-stop for four years and has decided to break until early next year to help keep things fresh. Here is the relevant post from his facebook group.

Continue reading Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.

Post 43: Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds

Post Punk 1978-1984

Does this count as history? I was born shortly after this book finishes, so I’m inclined to go with ‘yes’ on that. And as another blog on wordpress says If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History. Simon Reynolds, previously the author of Energy Flash (a history of Rave) and the inventor of the term Post-Rock, takes us on a fast and very entertaining trip through new music from the first stirrings of Public Image Limited in the late seventies to the downfall of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the mid eighties.

Continue reading Post 43: Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds

Post 30: Land Observations – The Grand Tour

I’ve been unsure for a while whether to post on Land Observations or not. It’s certainly history related but it wasn’t obvious what I could really add about it when some of my favourite music writers (and the artist himself) have already covered the topic so well. I also feel a bit pretentious and amateurish writing about music, though I’m sure everyone starts out that way. There’s a huge amount of music writing out there: some good, some not so good. In my opinion, some of the best music journalism in recent years has come from the website The Quietus, and it is there that I first read about and heard Land Observations. Funnily enough, it’s also there that inspired me to finally write this post – having just saw an article on their new album (linked at the bottom of this post).

Continue reading Post 30: Land Observations – The Grand Tour

Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend

British Museum, 6 March – 22 June

This has been much publicised and has not got long left to run, but I thought I’d belatedly post my thoughts on this wonderful exhibition (spoiler – they may be positive).

The Vikings created a huge international network of trade and culture, ranging from Iceland through the British Isles and Scandinavia, across northern Germany and into Kiev and the Black Sea. It incorporated influences from Arabia, the Byzantine Empire, the Franks and more. This exhibition brings artifacts from sources all over the world that display this range, with the star of the show Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship even found – a 37m long warship holding roughly one hundred men.

Continue reading Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend

Post 4 – The other side of the medal: How Germany saw the First World War

Temporary exhibition at the British Museum

9 May – 23 November 2014, Free

I happened to be at the British Museum the other day and this exhibition caught my eye. It’s just a small one in a little alcove off to the side of their Roman section but worth checking out if you happen to be in the museum in the next few months.

The exhibition contains a number of medals made by German artists between 1914 and 1919, and can roughly be divided into two sections – propaganda presenting a pro-German or anti-Entente view of the war, or expressionist art presenting views on the horror and destruction of the war. Both sections produce some very striking and thought provoking pieces of art, though not always for the reasons intended by the artists.

Continue reading Post 4 – The other side of the medal: How Germany saw the First World War