Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown

I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times.  It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect.  Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside).  There is an atmosphere however.  Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history.  And there is quite a lot of history.

shakespeares-local-the-george-inn-borough-high-street

The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence.  Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess.  The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period.  It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era.  It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived.  By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.

In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India).  Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless.  In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it.  That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?).  It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017.  Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.

History of Modern France by Jonathan Fenby

51hzPxe5euL._SX323_BO1204203200_[1]I got this book in the lead up to the French presidential election, and although it sat on the “To Read” pile until after Macron’s victory, I was hoping to pick up a sense of the forces involved in that election.  The French presidential election seems increasingly like a free for all with a baffling number of candidates; hardy perennials that turn up each time, and spin offs from the main parties.  I have tried to get an understanding of France before, with Graham Robb, but was just even more lost in the number of regions, subcultures, personalities and quirks of history that make up the country.  To misquote De Gaulle: how can you understand a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?

This history starts with a quick review of Napoleon and the Revolution before taking the reader chronologically through French history.  Starting with the Restoration and July Monarchy (which I was vaguely familar with from histories of the 1848 revolutions), on to Napoleon III (similar), then the Third Republic between the Franco-Prussian and First World War (my prior knowledge began and ended with the Dreyfus Affair), then on to the Second World War and the Fourth Republic, before reaching the Fifth Republic that exists today.  The tone of the book is straight faced and to the point, but the pacing is quick and it is remarkably accessible.  Single page biographical asides are dotting throughout the book, adding some colour.

Some parts that were initially obscure to me before reading remain clouded (the presidents and prime ministers of the third republic for instance); but Fenby has helped me rationalise that.  Lack of stability has often been a feature of France, as politics becomes fragmented and discontent with the system grows.  Fenby finds this tension running throughout the history, not just between left and right, but between shades of the left or the right.  Under exceptional leaders like De Gaulle or Mitterrand, these can be unified, but eventually the same tensions rise again.

Many of the candidates for the recent election feature in the book, but Macron possibly the least of them – relegated to a footnote on the PS picking an investment banker as an economic minister.  The conclusion to the book does stress the need for some innovation in French politics, a move away from the entrenched party politics and old battles, but it is not clear that Macron is that move.  With the elections for the French parliament coming up and Macron’s new party polling well, it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum.  In short, it is fantastic!  The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).

Ishtar

The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale.  The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.

Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing.  With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.

I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a book with a reputation.  Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds.  It has also received its fair share of criticism.  Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.

In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up.  Something to bring back some sense of optimism.  Some sense of progress.  Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill.  It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.

Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious.  His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire.  The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011.  At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.

The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating.  Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world.  Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.

14th Century Games

I came across this quote the other day:

“In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.”

(originally from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century).

Back in the days when you had to make your own entertainment!

Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘.  This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.

With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered.  Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds.  As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough.  Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on.  Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.

Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north.  Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since.  Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice.  Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland.  As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb.  The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.

The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful!  It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.

We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation.  It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.

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.

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow.  This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.

I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t.  This is definitely on the better end of the scale.  The writing is accessible,   The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.

The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed.  After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.

Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home.  This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome.  It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.

On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”).  Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader.  Decline inevitably set in.  Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.

This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars.  This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon.  It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.

Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world.  In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.

First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications.  The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).

After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians.  There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.

There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers.  There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another.  It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.

The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered.  The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar.  He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point).  In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.

The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb

I have previously enjoyed but been disappointed by Graham Robb‘s Discovery of France and Parisians. Discovery of France was more about the geography and identity of France than I had expected – in hindsight, it was inevitable for a country with such strong regional identity. Parisians told the history of Paris through a series of short stories. It was an interesting approach, but many of the stories weren’t that compelling in themselves.

With The Ancient Paths, I looked before I leaped and was a bit worried by what I found. A startling theory about the wisdom of the druids, discovered by Robb taking a map and drawing straight lines between Celtic sites? He insists it’s not like Ley Lines? One for the library then!

His theory is that the Celts located their cities and built roads along lines of meridian and solstice, often at significant intervals.  He also looks at Celtic buildings and art and traces their shapes within solar inspired geometry.  These feats would required more scientific knowledge than they are usually credited with, and Robb is eager to give them that credit (possibly too eager!).  Robb shows his working throughout and has clearly put a lot of effort in, sometimes cycling long distances to visit sites of interest.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t sit well for me.  There are too many things that could easily be coincidence; too much complexity in drawing it together.  It’s all a bit psuedo-science.

In presenting his theory, however, he tells the history of the Celts and their defeat and assimilation by Rome.  There is a lot to like here, Robb is a good writer and the story of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and various Celtic migrations are told well.  He also gives compelling descriptions of visiting these sites in the modern day.  These do give a hint at a complex civilization that has perhaps been unfairly tarnished as “barbarians”, but perhaps Robb should have stopped there.