Roman Wall Blues …

I’ve recently been reading Charlotte Higgins Under another sky1 – an account of her journey around the sites of Roman Britain.

I will admit to also being fascinated by the Romans – when we lived in Europe I spent way too much time visiting Roman sites from Vindolanda to Volubilis.

I started out being fascinated by the monuments, but as I saw more changed to being fascinated by the small things, such as the wooden bath pattens in Vindolanda decorated with a drawing of feet – something that gave a connection to the Romans themselves – someone with a sense of whimsy had chosen them over standard plain pattens.

Higgin’s book is much more than simply a recounting of her travels and her meetings with archaeologists and historians – rather than as a straight travelogue it can be read as a book about the encounter between early modern and modern British culture with the Roman past – either the imagined past or the reality.

One of the first quotations in the book is from a play about Boudica by John Fletcher – Fletcher is little known now but he was a contemporary of Shakespeare and also wrote for the King’s Men, becoming their lead writer after Shakespeare’s death collaborating with a number of other writers.

And that sets the tenor, Higgins quotes extensively from Camden, and from other early modern writers as well as more recent writers such as Auden and his poem Roman Wall Blues, and Conrad.

Conrad, and the quotation from Heart of Darkness I found especially telling. Conrad, was of course writing about the Congo, but in the opening passage of the book he imagines the early Roman settlement that became London, twitchy scared soldiers, not sure why they’re there, with a small scrappy settlement of whores hucksters and associated hangers on.

Perhaps because I’d recently watched the ABC’s production of The Outlaw Michael Howe, a bleak story of early Tasmania, with the convicts and settlers clinging to Hobart town, half out of control soldiers and always outside the frightening scary otherness of the bush and the aboriginals, and their supposed violence and cannibalism. (in reality it was more the violence of fugitive convicts and their occasional descent in cannibalism when lost in the bush that was scary) I could imagine parallels with the early settlement of Australia both with Conrad and the Roman colonisation of Britain.

And that is what Higgin’s book is about. On one hand we have the physical remains of the Romans, their forts, their tiles, even their toilets, but culturally they are something else – they live on in our imagination from everything from detective novels to bleak canvases for tales of colonial exploitation.

Even though we now know from the Vindolanda tablets that as military postings go, Hadrian’s Wall not especially bad, yet Auden used it to as a backdrop to his poem encompassing the state of bored fright of squaddies everywhere from Afghanistan and Vietnam to the borderlands of south Armagh.

They have enlivened and enriched our culture in many ways, as a source of fine phrases, as an inspiration for monumental architecture (why does the old parliament building the Colombo look like a Roman temple standing on the waterfront?) to a backdrop for bleak stories about things too uncomfortable to discuss in a present day context …

  2. As well as Auden’s original, and the slightly arty version made available by the Guardian,  Alex Harvey recorded a slightly different version some thirty or so years ago. Not only that but the poem and the Vindolanda tablets seem to have inspired the British metal band Skyclad to come up with Not the Roman Wall Blues


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Francis Kilvert and the Franco Prussian war

Having finished with Bruce Chatwin’s correspondence I’ve now moved on to rereading Kilvert’s Diary, a book I last read in the seventies, long before I lived in mid-Wales, not far from Kilvert’s Hay and Clyro.

I read it so long ago I don’t really remember what I thought of it at the time, save that I found it interesting – rereading it I find it amusing, and perhaps a little more frank about human relations than one might have expected the mid Victorians to be – but then there’s plenty of evidence that whatever their publc personas middle class Victorians were as unconstrained behind closed doors as anyone else.

One thing though that I found interesting is that the first part of his diary is written against the background of the Franco Prussian war and he makes references to it in his diaries, and to newspaper reports.

Yet despite his ready access to newspapers and his frequent use of railways, the general tenor of his comments is one of things far away, despite on one occasion mentioning that a newspaper had received a report overnight by telegraph

It is almost as if he had not acquired the habit of reading, and keeping up, with the news on a daily basis – in other words they were not part of life’s panoply.

I’m sure that Kilvert was not unique in this – that the use of newspapers was something that people adopted.

When I looked at ninteenth century telegraph links to Australia it was clear that commercial news took the lead and other news came second, in other words newspapers developed as a tool in support of commerce.

Kilvert of course was a clergyman and hence less interested in commercial news.

So the question would have to be, at what point did reading the newspaper become a middle class meme (and why?)

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And now we have a cockatoo …

This morning’s Guardian Australia brings news of the identification of a cockatoo in a Renaissance painting  dated to 1496, which is just too early for any of the European voyages of discovery to have brought the bird back from New Guinea or Australia.

Unlike the drawing of the kangaroo in the Portuguese liturgy I wrote about in January, we can be reasonably sure that the cockatoo didn’t get to Venice on a European ship. Well, not all the way.

Venice, in the fifteenth century, had a near monopoly of the spice trade in Europe, dealing with Arab traders in Alexandria, who bought spices from India and Sri Lanka via the Indian Ocean trade.

And while, as the Guardian article says, the bird could have been traded on via trepang or sea cucumber traders, through Chinese trade networks and eventually ending up on the silk road, it is important to realise that the Moluccas or Spice Islands are very close to the Wallace line, and that the wildlife of the area contains a mixture of Australasian and South East Asian species.

The Moluccas are also not that far from Sulawesi where the Makassar trepang traders came from, and we know from the discovery of pre 1788 European glass beads in Australia that the Makassars where probably also engaged in the spice trade as well as supplying the Chinese community with sea cucumbers.

Rather than invoke trade via China, one could also hypothesize that a trepang trader acquired the bird as a curiosity, and like all parrots cockatoos are vaguely endearing, and traded it on, and that somehow the bird ended up taking the fancy of a Venetian spice trader in the market in Egypt.

It is also possible that the bird did come via China – after all the Chinese did like parrots as cage birds.  It might be interesting to look fore references to white cockatoos (or parrots) in both Chinese and Arabic literature before 1500 …


Update 25/03/2014

I’ve just read a preprint of Heather Dalton’s paper on the Wiley journals website. The full paper is worth a read and rather more detailed than the initial newspaper reports which fastened on to the silk route connection.

Gratifyingly for me at least, Dalton assembles quite a lot of evidence to suggest that trade via the Indian Ocean spice route is possible, and that there is evidence of parrots being traded from India to renaissance Italy before the Portuguese voyages of discovery.

She also mentions Niccolò de’ Conti – a Venetian merchant who travelled overland to the Persian Gulf and on by sea to the Spice Islands – and by inference if Conti could do that so could a cockatoo in a cage make the reverse journey …

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Under the Sun – the letters of Bruce Chatwin

Some time ago I promised I’d post a review of Under the Sun once I’d finished it – it’s been one of my lunchtime books this year – a book to read a few pages of over lunch – the idea being to draw me away from the screen and curb my bad habit of doing stuff at lunchtime.

I’d been fired up to start reading this book by my rereading of his In Patagonia, which can best be described as ‘magic realism meets travel writing’.

It’s a book I’ve always had an affection for, and some of his more exotic nomad inspired pieces of journalism. Whil I’ve read most of his other books, I must admit none of them ever grabbed me the same way as In Patagonia with its description of a vanished almost fantastical world.

I thought, if I read under the Sun I’d get more of an insight into the thought processes and the journey that went into in In Patagonia. In that I was disappointed.

Instead I got a portrait of Chatwin – not necessarily a nice person, but clearly someone who was immensely likeable, an easy conversationalist, and someon bursting with ideas and enthusiasms. Someone you’d enjoy talking to over dinner, but possibly only once.

The other thing that emerges is his priviliged gilded lifestyle, Chatwin having clearly mastered the art of living grandly on little money – something that I must admit makes me a little envious, the idea of being able to borrow an old fort in India to write in certainly has class.

And that’s the pciture of Chatwin that emerges – he clearly had class, style and wit, and on the whole engaged and entertained his friends.

Of course it’s a selection of his correspondence, and for all I know letters that reflect badly on him have been suppressed. That doesn’t really matter, the picture that emerges is consistent enough of someone capable of immense charm, though perhaps ever so slightly disreputable – but then that’s perhaps to be expected of someone who began as an art dealer …

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Shillings and Kangaroos …

In January we had the nine days wonder of something that looked to be a drawing of a kangaroo turn up in a pre 1600 liturgical manuscript from Portugal and now we’ve had the minor drama of an Edward VI shilling being pulled from the mud of Victoria bay in British Columbia.

None of this is really remarkable.

During the sixteenth century European expansion sailors went everywhere, and sometimes they weren’t even very sure where they went. And quite often when they did know, they kept it secret for reasons of possible commercial advantage.

It would be quite reasonable to expect that a ship sailing up the west coast of the Americas would pitch up in the islands and bays between where Vancouver and Seattle are now looking for shelter from a storm.

It’s also not impossible that some unlucky sailor dropped a shilling – a day’s pay for a tradesman, a soldier or an actor in the mud.

Of course it doesn’t mean that the unlucky sailor was one of Francis Drake’s men as has been claimed. Coins were basically lumps of silver of known weight and hence value, meaning that they were readily exchangeable on the basis of the amount of silver in them.

This probably meant that in ports, especially where there was shortage of coined money, such as during the early days of the Spanish colonisation of Mexico, the pool of circulating coins could well be a mix of common coins from half a dozen different seafaring countries.

Now there’s some suggestions that some other English coins of the same period have turned up in roughly the same area, so perhaps it was an English ship, but a single coin does not prove anything – all it means is that by the 1550′s European ships were already penetrating that far north …

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Migration’s legacy …

Following on from looking at the Linux distros developed in Argentina and Venezuela, I thought I’d broaden my scope a little and see what information I could track down on the use of Linux in other Latin American countries.

Now when searching for information like this you sometimes end up going down strange rabbit holes for reasons that you don’t quite understand but seem promising at the time. And that’s how I ended up looking at the TVPeru website.

I didn’t find what I was looking for but I couldn’t help noticing that one of the news anchors was called Josefina Townsend – which seemed a little odd given that Townsend is such an impeccably English name.

On second thoughts not so strange. My rereading of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia had reminded me of just how many English Welsh and Scottish people migrated to Latin America in the nineteenth century.

Some made good, some lost everything and some made good and then lost it – in one of his letters Chatwin recounts a story of a successful British family living in Iquique making a good living from guano – that was until chemical fertilisers came along.

Overnight, they were ruined, or if not exactly ruined, had lost the source of their prosperity. The daughters of the family lived on among the tattered remains of their former grandeur stuck between two worlds. Always the emigrants curse – not quite belonging where you are, and no longer belonging to where you came from.

Chatwin wrote that the history of Argentina could be seen in the Buenos Aires phone book – he meant that there were so many surnames from recognisably different heritages that you could see the history of migration in a country …

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Following on from rereading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia I’ve moved on to reading Under the Sun and anthology of his letters and correspondence.

As Chatwin was not given to voluminous letters, in fact he seems to have preferred short scribbled notes on postcards, this makes the book an ideal one to read in small gobbets over lunchtime to make a break away from my desk.

Almost unconciously, a picture emerges of his world, which was rooted in class and privilege, in a way one hopes might not be the case today but probably is. While his parents were not rich, they were well connected and through these connections effected the introductions that enabled Chatwin’s ever so slightly gilded life.

This is not to decry his obvious talents, and his correspondence certainly contains a lot of interesting and amusing material. I’m only partway through and I’ll leave a full review until I’ve finished the book.

One thing however has struck me – we can only have this book because people kept his letters and his postcards, in part because the postcards were themselves intrinsically interesting. In other words much of his correspondence has survived by happenstance.

That wouldn’t be possible today – or at least not in the same way. A twenty-teens reincarnation of Chatwin would undoubedly use email, might well have a facebook page to communicate with his immediate circle, and perhaps a blog and flickr account.

Now we know that what happens to your content after you die is a moot point. However sooner or later it will go, but there might well be a mechanism to archive it. People worry about this and because they worry about this there will sooner or later be and answer.

There’s only one problem with this – people don’t keep the same email account for ever, and perhaps don’t keep the same services forever. And services disappear – for example there once was blogging service called Journalspace – it disappeared a few years ago, and while there was another similar service of the same name it’s not the same thing. My content only survives because I had the presence of mind to archive a copy on my Dropbox account.

Basically, services die. And when they die, content is lost.

The same is true of email. In my time I’ve had email provided by:

  • four employers – only one of which is still valid
  • Compuserve
  • Freeserve
  • Rocketmail
  • The Irish Times
  • Yahoo
  • Hotmail
  • Gmail

as well as a two or three ISP’s and a couple of specialist hosting services. During that time I’ve kept the same email address because I’ve used an email forwarding service and used fetchmail and various other email aggregators to consolidate my email.

I’m also probably pretty unusual in this aspect. However I don’t have anything like a full archive, as inevitably I’ve deleted stuff that no longer seems relevant.

Some of my professional email to mailing lists is preserved but most of it is not. I’ve probably got the last five or six years of my private email correspondence, plus a few random archived emails.

Some of my email possibly lives on in other people’s archives, but anyone foolish enough to try and trace my correspondence would come to a dead end.

Now, you might argue that I’m no Bruce Chatwin, and I’d certainly agree with you about that, but Bruce Chatwin was once only a bit-player in the social comedy of life, but we have some of his letters and postcards from then, just as we have the letters and notes of other people. And in the main they’ve survived because people see some intrinsic value, be it an interesting picture, a pretty stamp or a witty comment – for years I used to keep a big pinboard in the kitchen with interesting postcards and things stuck to it – a sort of correspondence installation.

Technology has changed the world and in the process has made things more ephemeral and as a consequence the nature of literary scholarship will be changed forever

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