Archive for the 'history' Category

My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…


Ulugh Beg and historical fiction (again)

July 8, 2018

51kf4K3tuJL._AC_US160_This is the novel that prompted my reflections on historical fiction a few days ago; I’ve now finished reading it, and I quite enjoyed it, but I’m still not quite there with my approach to historical novels. There is no plot! And then, I realised, that if you’re writing a novel, almost completely peopled by real characters who actually lived, and the places they lived and worked, and their times, then there can’t really be a plot in the way we usually understand it unless a novelist is going to play fast and loose with the truth… there’s a whole can of worms here!

What I enjoyed about Luminet’s book – I hesitate to call it a novel, though he does, in a brief post-face – is the fleshing out of the historical facts about the world of Arab science in the time of the early Renaissance. There is local colour, description of places, characters and events are sketched out. But only sketched, never really developing beyond outlines, and never really feeling like fully developed characters, again because to do so would be to invent and superpose on a historical truth which we can never know, because we don’t have those facts to go with the real people. I’m interested in the Middle East, the past of those countries, their achievements, Islam as a religion and the ways it resembles and does not resemble the Christianity of our world.

But the lack of a plot is a real issue. We don’t even get a clear and logical explanation of the progress of Arab science at this time, and the book is populated by a wide range of characters who we lose track of, and need to remind ourselves about from time to time using the helpful index of persons, rather like the huge lists at the start of various lapidary Russian novels. Nothing unifies the text other than the idea of science, which can’t really sustain a novel.

The times, in the wake of Tamburlane and Genghiz Khan and various other empire-building characters, were chaotic, with all sorts of princelings jostling for power and advantage; there was also religious fundamentalism which Luminet explores, of the same kind that was to hamper the researches of Galileo in the Christian West; in short, not times conducive to unhampered and free scientific work. And if one of the key scientists is also meant to be the emperor and neglects the empire, then things will quickly unravel. No difference between the Islamic and Christian world, then.

Although I’m glad I read the book, I can’t see it’s one I’ll go back to, because of its deficiencies. But I will dig out again a history of Islamic science I read a few years ago…

On historical novels

July 2, 2018

What, exactly, is a historical novel? I realise that I’ve probably been quite snooty about them at various times in the past, and dismissive of the genre, as not being ‘proper’ literature. But recently I’ve been thinking, particularly as I suspect I’ve been reading and enjoying them without realising…

What I mean is, does any novel set in the past count as a historical novel? Does it depend on how historical personalities and events are integrated imaginatively into the plot? And what, if anything, makes one of these novels count as ‘proper’ literature? I’m not interested in novels populated by kings and queens, aristocrats and royalty, for instance, and I didn’t choose to read Hilary Mantel’s recent novels set at the time of the English Reformation. But that is a historical period I’m interested in, and the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar I reviewed recently was set then, and certainly involved some real persons from those times, as was the case with Luther Blissett’s Q, which I also drew attention to in that same post.

I found myself questioning my attitude because of a novel I’m currently reading, set in the Middle East and Central Asia at the time of Tamburlane, but centring on a number of Arab scientists rediscovering the knowledge of the ancients, as well as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. And Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Ulugh Beg isn’t that good: almost non-existent characterisation, and tenuous plot that seems to exist just to flesh out the history of Arab science. I was reminded of John Banville’s novels featuring scientists from history; I tried the one about Copernicus but was so annoyed I gave up. On the other hand, Gilbert Sinoué’s novel about Avicenna I found thoughtful, detailed, interesting and quite moving at times; I got a real picture of people, places and science of the times he was writing about.

Back to my question: is War and Peace a historical novel? Yes, obviously, and so much more. There are real people from history in that novel just as there are, for example, in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; all three of those novels go into my – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ literature category.

So I find myself wondering about proportion. You can have a story set in a particular historical context, but with fictional characters; a great deal of care will ensure its plausibility. If you don’t try and weave in too many real characters and events, a reader will suspend disbelief sufficiently for the story to have the author’s desired impact; too many historical characters, as in Luminet’s novel, and I may as well be reading a history book. Thus, for example, Rybakov uses a few carefully crafted and plausible scenes involving Stalin and some of his henchmen, but most of his story involves imagined characters plausibly deployed in accurate background which accommodates them without challenging the reader’s response or credulity too much. With too many historical characters, we perhaps begins to feel more as if a writer is developing a fantasy involving real people and we start to think, would Tamburlane really have spoken/ acted like that? The sense of proportion is wrong and the reader is jolted into noticing that something here isn’t quite right… our credulity is over-stretched.

The imaginative effort also counts for something here, both on the part of reader and writer, I feel. I’m rarely reading a historical novel to escape into the past, I’m reading because I hope the writer’s imagination will be powerful enough in her/ his creation to develop my understanding of a particular time and place in history, to flesh out what I’d have got from a textbook, in the same way that, for instance, a poem by Wilfred Owen develops my understanding of the experience of the Great War.

I’d be very interested in any thoughts on this topic from you, dear readers: it’s quite a new area of reflection for yours truly…

H V Morton: In the Steps of St Paul

June 30, 2018

51iaTd64KmL._AC_US218_This writer’s travel books from the 1930s are often still seen in second-hand bookshops; I read his fascinating travels in the footsteps of Christ a while ago, and was interested finally to come across an affordable copy of this book.

Morton contextualises well: there’s an excellent chronology of figures from the wider Roman world who were Paul’s contemporaries, and this is interesting because we so often read early Christian history in relative isolation from what was going on in the rest of the world at the time. He’s also a true travel writer, for my money: through words he creates vivid visual pictures of the places he visits, and reflects intelligently on them, too. Today’s writers, perhaps too much part of an ever-visual world, often neglect description, I find. However, Morton was also prone to giving free rein to imaginative re-creations of what might have happened in various situations; fine if these are noticed and taken with the proverbial pinch of salt… but he does evoke scenes from two millennia ago most effectively.

One thing I hadn’t fully taken on board was the relative importance of Asia Minor in the world of that time. By Asia Minor is meant today’s Turkey and adjoining countries – the Levant and Greece too. Morton explains how one travelled in those times, and the perils involved, and fills out the picture with references to other classical writers and travellers. It’s also interesting to read of the enthusiasm for the modernising visions and creations of Kemal Ataturk, against the darkening background of contemporary Turkey.

In terms of religious history, the background to Paul’s various epistles to the early churches I found very informative, and I will go back to this should I ever feel the urge to re-read them. I hadn’t known, for instance, that the Galatians were actually marauding Gallic tribes that had wandered far afield and settled in Asia Minor, nor made the connection between the Philippians and the battle of Philippi from another context… Here, Morton’s imagination is useful in enabling the reader to visualise what the earliest days of the development and spread of Christianity might have been like.

It’s impossible not to be a little moved by the story reverently told, even if a good deal is speculation rather than fact, with very little being verifiable. And, although today we tend to judge Paul as misogynistic and authoritarian, as well as anti-sex, contextual background to these attitudes is also enlightening, even if I still find a lot of what he wrote unacceptable.

All-in-all I enjoyed this and would recommend it as a way of broadening one’s understanding of the complexity of the times, and how the early church emerged into the world, no matter what your current judgement may be.

Guidère: Au Commencement était le Coran

May 8, 2018

61lnfOoUoKL._AC_US218_This is a very useful little book, and it’s a shame that things such as this don’t seem to get written in English. I’ve been interested in Islam for a long time, and have read fairly widely in what is available, and up until now Karen Armstrong‘s book Islam: A Short History has been the best thing I’ve come across.

This book is written by a Western expert; it’s very clearly written, and carefully balanced, taking no sides, but clarifying much that might seem obscure and mysterious to the ordinary (non-Muslim) person who tries to keep up and understand, without offending – I hope – anyone in the process. There’s a very wide scope: various schisms in Islam are explained, as are the various different versions of the Qur’an, its history, and various changes and alterations which have occurred. I even understood fully the controversy about the Satanic Verses for the first time (I did read the novel, and found it unremittingly tedious, I’m afraid).

Guidère explains the different currents in Islam and in Islamic jurisprudence; he clarifies the past and shows how it operates in and affects the world today. The complexity of the various rules (and various interpretations of them) regarding sexual behaviour, and the covering of women’s bodies, are examined.

He also points out that much of the knowledge which he is sharing is not widely known in the Muslim world, and it is very clear that there are real dangers for Muslims who would like to read, explore, analyse and challenge; to a considerable extent the Qur’an is a book imprisoned in its past, and he finds this sad.

For me, the most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of abrogation or annulment. This was new to me, the idea that one injunction that had been divinely revealed in one place in the book was annulled and superseded by another one that was revealed later. There’s a certain (human) logic to this, but then by the time Guidère explains the concept and exemplifies it, he has already made clear how much is unknown and uncertain about the compilation of the Qur’an, including when various parts of it were given to Muhammad. So, in short, what supersedes what?

Developing greater understanding of the complex issues that shape and trouble our world is a necessary and valuable enterprise: this book helps do that.

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…

My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

Balance-sheet of the First World War – concluded

April 7, 2018


For some reason I find this section the most jaw-dropping, the most shocking of all; I knew about the human toll of the war in so far as it’s possible to take it in, but the sheer waste of resources is truly mind-boggling…

With the money spent on the war…

You could have provided a furnished villa with garden and outbuildings to a value of 100,000 francs to EVERY family in the following countries: USA, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia, and afterwards you could have built, in all towns with more than 200,000 inhabitants in each of those countries: a hospital for 125 million francs; a library for the same value; a university for 250 million. That done, a reserve fund could have been set up which, at 5% interest, would have provided annuities allowing 125,000 teacher or professors, and 125,000 doctors or nurses to be employed at an average salary of 25,000 francs. And that’s not all! This building finished, and the capital set aside for investment, there would remain a sum equivalent to the total value of property in Belgium and France before the cataclysm!

(concluding the series of posts I introduced here; I hope some readers have found it informative…)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 21

April 7, 2018


War at sea Total navy and merchant marine force losses during the war 86,000

England alone suffered more than half the losses: 2,468 officers and 30,895 sailors of the Royal Navy,

and 14,661 officers and men of the Merchant Navy.

Tonnage torpedoed or sunk during the war:

England 8.610,000 tonnes

USA 613,000 tonnes Norway 1,287,000 tonnes

France 972,000 tonnes

Italy 923,000 tonnes

Japan 182,000 tonnes

In total, 12,587,000 tonnes with a value of 50,000,000,000 francs, corresponding to 5,000 ships.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
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