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Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

Nero – From Zero to Hero

May 27th, 2021 No comments

Nero – one of the few statues to survive that didn’t get remodelled after his fall and disgrace – showing his fringed hairstyle that was even more influential than the Beatles

Another week, another fabulous British Museum show – they have been queueing up like buses during lockdown to arrive all at once.

There are similarities between the Nero show and the Becket show which they also asked me to review ahead of its opening.

Both deal with the rewriting of history. In Nero’s case, the argument cogently expressed by the curators goes, the history was written by his senatorial opponents, so blackened his image.

Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned – indeed helped rebuild itRead more…

‘Tuesday’s Child is Full of Grace’

May 17th, 2021 No comments

The Thomas Becket exhibition at the British Museum

There are two interesting revelations at this intelligently curated show marking the 900th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s birth – well it would have been the 900th anniversary last year but the show got delayed due to corona. And it’s the death that gets all the attention.

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Scotland leaving Britain – or Britain leaving Scotland?

May 6th, 2021 No comments

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Why the rest of Britain might want to leave Scotland

I was at dinner recently with a distinguished Fellow of All Souls who had served as a politician and is known for his incisive analysis. The conversation turned to Scotland and their forthcoming elections.

With some relish, my companion, English like me, listed the multiple reasons why the Scots should not want to leave the Union.

They would have problems with their currency. The Europeans would not want them back. Under current arrangements, they were considerable nett gainers from Westminster; independence would see their trade and incomes diminish.  And would Shetland or Orkney then want to secede from Scotland? Or for that matter would some of the border constituencies reconstitute themselves, like the six counties of Northern Ireland, and want to reattach to the United Kingdom, with all the attendant tensions that have occurred in Ulster?

As much to stop him in his tracks as anything else, I asked him if he had ever turned the issue on its head. If the Scots enjoyed so many advantages by being part of the Union, what exactly did the rest of Britain gain by keeping them? If they wanted to go, and certainly if they voted to go, wouldn’t we be better off by just cutting them loose? Surely there was no logical or rational reason for wanting to keep Scotland in the Union, other than the very debatable merits of maintaining a nuclear base at Faslane? Read more…

The Dig – A triumph

February 2nd, 2021 No comments

So archaeology can make for a great movie. Don’t be put off by the rather patronising review in the Guardian or some carping criticism about historical accuracy. The Dig, streaming from today as cinemas closed, is an excellent film and worth catching. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it gets a few BAFTA nominations and deserves to.

I did initially approach with suspicion as to whether it was the sort of quiet English period piece which would irritate me for being underscripted and too pleased with itself. Like too much Sunday afternoon television. But this tale of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon longship in a Suffolk field just before the war has a quite unexpected and moving performance by Ralph Fiennes – a career best – playing a deep East Anglian countryman with not just the accent, but the staggered delivery that makes the Suffolk voice so memorable. He apparently had a lot of training in ‘suffolkation’ from local expert Charlie Haylock, and it shows.

And he’s not the only reason to see it.  There is some unusually fine ensemble acting, helped by the fact that the Australian director Simon Stone comes out of experimental theatre where he has been much heralded; this is his first film and he manages to get some subtle performances all round, leaving in the silences, helped by a good script from the successful novel by John Preston. Read more…

How to Write about a ‘Plague Year’ – 1603 and Thomas Dekker

May 11th, 2020 No comments

All those writers buried away in self isolation and trying to describe what we are all experiencing could do worse than turn to Thomas Dekker’s ‘A Wonderful Year’, his account of living through the plague in 1603.

Dekker was a young playwright around town in Shakespearean London, very much on the make, and constantly in and out of trouble and prison for debt.

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Come the plague in 1603, and all the theatres closed – lockdown was always immediate if deaths from the disease reached just 30 a week – so Dekker turned his hand to pamphleteering to make ends meet.

The challenge was to attract a readership who might not want to be reminded of what they were only just escaping when the pamphlet came out. Dekker’s answer was to try to make much of it as funny as he could: ‘If you read, you may happily laugh; tis my desire you should, because mirth is wholesome against the Plague.’ Read more…

Two ‘Green Road’ walks in Oxfordshire

March 20th, 2017 No comments

Five Horseshoes, Oxfordshire

Bluebells, Christmas Common, OxfordshireOxfordshire. Image shot 05/2009. Exact date unknown.

Length: 15 miles
Time: 6 hours
Start/finish: Watlington car park (OS Explorer 171)
Grade: Moderate
Refuel: The Five Horseshoes
Picnic spot: Maidensgrove Common

The Thames makes a great sweep down from the crossing at Wallingford and below Whitchurch and Mapledurham to reach Henley. The Chilterns sprawl out from the centre of this crescent in a mess of wooded valleys. The area is relatively close to London – easily reached on the M40 – but offers some surprisingly remote walks.

The Five Horseshoes stands on the edge of a large area of common ground fringed by woods. A 16th-century coaching pub, it has a reputation for excellent, well-priced food – haunch of vension, braised rib of beef – and along with the usual range of alcohol, some exceptional homemade ginger beer for those thinking of the walk back.

Begin in Watlington, perhaps Oxfordshire’s most attractive market town, and follow Hill Road east from the crossroads towards the “White Mark” carved out of chalk on Watlington Hill. Swing past Christmas Common, and then plunge down deep beech woods and along the ancient Hollandridge Lane that comes out at Pishill (locals prefer you pronounce it “Pish – ill”). Read more…

The Marches by Rory Stewart

February 17th, 2017 No comments

Thomas de Quincey calculated that Wordsworth walked a staggering 175,000 miles during his lifetime.

He was almost constantly on the move, composing as he went, ‘to which,’ de Quincey added, ‘we are indebted for much of what is most excellent in his writings.’

To put this in context, the circumference of the globe is only 25,000 miles. So Wordsworth could have walked seven times around the planet.

Walking in Wordsworth’s day was the act of a radical; it was to ally yourself, as the young poet wanted to do, with the peasant and the peddler. While more aristocratic artists of the day might take the Grand Tour by coach to Italy, he chose to walk through France during the year of its revolution. To feel connected to the world and people; to make an atlas of his own feelings and spiritual progression.

Rory Stewart follows in that mould. His first book, the acclaimed The Places In Between, saw him walking right across Afghanistan just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, an adventure that was both brave and revelatory.  And this was just the beginning of a far longer walk that saw him cross Pakistan.  He went on to further adventures in Iraq where he was appointed a governor after the invasion and wrote memorably about the fog of ignorance that pervaded that administration.

Now he has come home, so to speak, to Wordsworth country.  In The Marches, he has written an account of a walk across and around England, beginning with a traverse along Hadrian’s Wall, built when a Roman emperor wanted to keep out alien migrants. Read more…

Art in memory of Oscar

October 30th, 2016 No comments

 

20161030_110147A visit to the memorable Artangel installation at Reading Gaol, that most Victorian of prisons with its red-brick cruciform shape and wire-grilled segregation.  I filmed ‘Oscar‘ for the BBC here when it was still an active prison some 20 years ago; it closed in 2013 and is now scheduled to be sold off.  But before it is, Artangel have continued their bold and imaginative curating of art spaces that no one normally reaches by getting artists and writers like Ai Weiwei and Anne Carson to leave messages in the cells that reflect Oscar Wilde’s incarceration here.  The finest of these offerings by far comes from Steve McQueen – a sculpture in which a prison bed is swathed in mosquito nets like a cocoon of the imagination.

20161030_111831I revisit Oscar’s cell – C.2.2.  When I filmed here, it was being used by two inmates so was even more crowded than in Wilde’s day – although he had to endure a harsh regime of physical labour.  ‘The most terrible thing about it is not that prison breaks one’s heart – hearts are made to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone,’ as he wrote in De Profundis, his book-length letter from the cell.

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Wilde’s cell with a rose left as offering

On the day I visit, Patti Smith gives a three hour reading from De Profundis in the prison chapel.  She sings a short burst from two songs at the opening and close – first from Nina Simone’s  ‘Wild is the Wind’, then from her own ‘Wind’.  There are sections of the letter where, as Patti admits (‘What did that last bit mean?  I have no idea…’) Wilde can lose the reader as he goes off on wild and lonely tangents.  But there are also passages of haunting beauty: ‘I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.’  It is a fitting tribute and one Patti delivers with passion and empathy.

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Steve McQueen’s ‘Weight’, with gold-plated mosquito netting

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Oscar, the film I made with Michael Bracewell for the BBC, is still available on iPlayer

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Stonehenge as a Recycled Monument

December 7th, 2015 No comments

Excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felinEvery year brings new theories about Stonehenge – some loopy like the one I covered in an earlier blog about the idea that Stonehenge was a platform monument.

But these discoveries in Wales come under the auspices of the respected Mike Parker Pearson.  And while it has long been known that the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills, the idea that there was an earlier monument in Wales, which was re-cycled to form Stonehenge, is a fascinating one.

It comes about from the discrepancy in dates. The Craig Rhos-y-felin bluestones seem to have been extracted around 3400 BC – but not erected in Stonehenge until 500 years later, in 2900 BC. While Wales is some way from the Salisbury plain, it can’t, the theory goes, have taken a full 500 years to transport them. So there may initially have been a Welsh monument using the stones, which was later recycled by the builders of Stonehenge who may have valued their provenance.

The possible method of extraction is also fascinating. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard  of the University of Southampton.

This is all highly speculative. But the investigation of a possible site for the Welsh monument is proceeding apace.  Professor Kate Welham of Bournemouth University thinks the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries in the Preseli Hills. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

A recent issue of Antiquity has more detail on this

Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments
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Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.