Archive for September, 2018

Alberto Angela: Empire

September 13, 2018

513gjr37JhL._AC_US218_51e2Ocif+5L._AC_US218_I bought this book from a bookshop called De Natura Rerum on my first day in Arles: a bookshop devoted to Latin, and things Roman, was too good to pass up. And it was an amazing book; I really enjoyed it and was pretty much gripped throughout.

The premise itself seems a pretty cheesy one: a journey around the Roman empire following the ownership of a one sesterce coin; it’s the kind of thing we used to be made to write essays about at school: ‘A Day in the life of a Penny’ and such tosh. But Angela does it well: the coin passes from hand to hand and travels far and wide, no respecter of social class or place in this EU of two millennia ago. You can have a similar experience in any European country examining your small change and seeing which country it was minted in… and Angela recognises that he is describing the first globalisation in history, a real precursor of the EU.

So, it’s actually an imaginative way of visiting, exploring and describing the different parts of the empire, detailing customs and practices, daily life and routines, all taking into account the latest historical and archaeological researches in many different countries.

It’s a really good read, not too heavy and yet avoiding the trivialising and chattiness so often evident in works that seek to popularise. Angelo knows where to pack in the interesting detail: for instance, he makes really good use of the Vindolanda finds – I know because I visited recently. He’s very thorough on the methods and tactics of the Roman army and how it became such a formidable fighting machine, how it controlled through intimidation and sheer ruthlessness. All very different from the personalities and battles and conflicts as I learned about them in Roman History at school over forty years ago. Clearly so much more information has been coming to light in recent research: there’s fascinating stuff on daily life, roles, emancipation, childbirth, all evidenced in case we suspect him of fantasy. Literacy was clearly widespread, especially in the towns and cities of the empire.

One think I particularly appreciated was the ease and helpfulness with which he draws parallels between specific aspects of life in Roman times and nowadays. And I also learned just how far Romans had got via their traders, doing business as far afield as China – for silks – and India.

Although I read the French version of this book, I did discover that it has been published in English as The Reach of Rome if anyone feels moved to hunt down a copy. I really recommend it.

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On photography

September 13, 2018

I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, when a Polish cousin gave me a basic Soviet 35mm camera on my first visit to Poland. He was a keen photographer who had a darkroom of sorts at home, and when I got back to school in England I spent more time with a friend in the school darkroom learning about processing black and white film.

One of the first things I bought myself when I moved to Lancaster in the late 1970s was a good quality camera, an Olympus OM10, and I’ve never looked back since then. I’ve never been able to get my mind around very much of the technicality of exposure, depth of field and the like, sadly, having been rather useless at physics at school, so I’m sure I’ve never fully explored what this very rewarding hobby has to offer.

Whilst I do take some portraits from time to time, what I really like most is outdoor photography, of landscapes, nature and buildings, and this is where I take most time and care, because I want my shots to be good. I will spend ages waiting for people to move away out of shot so I get my picture without them; the same with trying to avoid having traffic in my pictures. I like to frame my shots carefully: when I used a film camera this was important because it was expensive to waste shots, and I suppose this is where I learnt the little I know about how to get a decent picture; now that it’s possible to take almost unlimited numbers of pictures with a digital camera, I’m still as careful with framing a shot, obsessive sometimes about getting the exact image I want in the frame. I try to remember the effect of a picture taken from a different height, ie not just at eye-level when I’m standing, and I also like shots that aren’t necessarily level, looking upwards in order to capture interesting aspects of an object or building. And finally, of course, photography allows me to create a record of my travels to enjoy later and bring back memories.

I enjoy going to exhibitions of photography, and am often astonished by what true professionals achieve. When I went to the Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool last autumn, there was an exhibition of portraits from the 1930s by the German photographer August Sander which was truly stunning, and while in Arles the other week I saw some fascinating monochrome landscapes and close-ups by a French photographer from the 1940s whose name I have, annoyingly, forgotten.

I also found myself reflecting on why I detest all those painted portraits in art galleries – old masters? – which seemed to me to be attempts at photography before its time, if you get my meaning, and yet which I almost invariably find utterly unbelievable and unconvincing. Photography does it perfectly, for me. It has something to do with sharpness of image, as well as use of light and shadow, and the close-ups that are possible with the newer medium. And somehow monochrome can enhance the image, whilst at the same time being less true to life than the colours of the portrait painters of the past. Maybe it’s also the informality that photography allows, that portrait painting couldn’t…. It seems to me, in my relatively limited understanding of both art and photography, that it was the invention of the latter that finally allowed art to break free of the constraints of being representative, and to move in new directions.

It took me a long time to accept digital photography, and to buy a digital camera -a modest Nikon D3100 – but I now do like the ability to take as many pictures as I like and then select and keep the most successful ones. And they don’t clutter up the world like packets of photos and albums did, and it’s a lot easier to spend time revisiting them…

Back home

September 11, 2018

The blog has been quiet for the last two weeks because I have been on my travels, to the south of France. When I’m away, I usually hatch a few ideas for new posts, so the following topics are likely to appear over the coming weeks: thoughts about the Romans, and about their empire something on Latin; reflections on photography – I came back with about 600 pictures! Reading, teaching, travelling, good English, the internet, sex in literature, the joys of teaching… it’s good to get away but it’s also good to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.

Watch this space.

 

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