Memoir 1989: A Day of Infinite Possibilities

November 9, 2019

Thirty years ago today: It was 9th November 1989 and I was watching TV, watching the news from Berlin.  And soon a dozen people are hacking at the Wall from both sides and the party has begun and CNN’s cameras bring this extraordinary and historic wish-fulfillment into the living rooms of the world, and my living room in particular that November night.

And within moments, it seemed, there were thousands singing and candles blazing. And even though I was in Vancouver at the time, my heart was with them because at heart I was and remain a Londoner. And Berlin is VERY close to home to Londoners, especially to those who had spent decades watching people die as they tried to go over and under and around the Wall. And I wept openly and for days when the Wall came down.

It was a day of ultimate possibilities because here was an impossibility happening in front of our tear-misty TV-mediated eyes.

Babylonian Northern Lights

October 27, 2019


There are many wonderful sights to see in northern Canada, and one of the great joys are the Northern Lights.  But as new research reveals, these majestic celestial shows have been fascinating people for thousands of years — and thousands of kilometres from the Yukon.

The earliest records of the aurora have now been identified as coming from the middle of the 7th century BC — almost 3,000 years ago — and from the royal archives of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire.  Three separate observers — known by cuneiform specialists for their regular and accurate astronomical observations — report “red glow”, “red cloud”, and “red sky” in reports to their royal masters. Exact dates are elusive, but they appear to be from about 660 BC.

We may wonder how the “Northern” lights could be seen in the Middle East.  The researchers explain:

“the Middle East was closer to the north geomagnetic pole in the Assyrian epoch. While the north geomagnetic pole is situated near the region of North America today, it was situated in the region of Eurasia in the mid- to early 7th century BCE due to the secular variation of the geomagnetic field.”

When we are lucky enough to witness these sky dances, we are sharing the pleasures and excitements of hundreds of generations of those who have gone before.

1066 And All That

October 14, 2019

Nine hundred and fifty three years ago today, one of the most important events in English and European history took place.  Harold Godwinson, King of England, met William the Bastard Duke of Normandy in battle near Hastings on the south coast of England.  Harold lost and died, and the Normans became masters of England. William was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066.

The consequences were enormous.

  • Most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had been killed in the various campaigns Harold fought against invaders that year. They were replaced by William’s followers;
  • The victorious William expropriated virtually all lands in the country by virtue of conquest.  The feudal system, which was in its infancy in England during the late Anglo-Saxon period, was firmly established when William granted lands to his followers in exchange for fealty and military service;
  • All important government and religious offices were taken over by Normans;
  • Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French, became the language of the elite and of government service; many Romance-based words came into common use in England;
  • The foundation of towns and urbanism generally was accelerated by the building of Norman castles.

Although Middle English would eventually establish itself as the national language, it and the society in which it grew was enormously influenced by the Norman conquest and its aftermath.  Moreover, the roots of English interference in continental European politics and all that followed from that involvement can certainly be traced to 1066.

England would never be the same again.

Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.

A History of Typography

October 6, 2019

This is a wonderful 5-minute animated history by Ben Barrett-Forrest that I was directed to on Twitter.

History of the World in Twelve Maps

October 5, 2019

I read Jerry Brotton’s “History of the World in Twelve Maps“.  It is an incredibly well-researched and beautifully written homage to the power of image to influence one’s view of the world.

He covers Ptolemy, Al-Idrisi, the Hereford Mappamundi, the Kangnido Map, Martin Waldseemuller’s World Map (the one that names America), Diogo Ribeiro, Mercator, Joan Blaeu, the Cassini Family, Halford Mackinder, Arno Peters, and Google Earth.  Each chapter is a detailed history of the zeitgeist of the time period, and examines the philosophical, intellectual and political uses and abuses to which contemporary maps were put.

From the introduction:

Throughout most recorded history, the overwhelming majority of maps put the culture that produced them at their centre, as many of the world maps discussed in this book show.  Even today;s online mapping is partly driven by the user’s desire to first locate him- or herself on the digital map … But if such a perspective literally centres individuals, it also elevates them like gods, inviting them to take flight and look down upon the earth from a divine viewpoint, surveying the whole world in one look, calmly detached, gazing upon what can only be imagined by earthbound mortals.  The map’s dissimulating brilliance is to make the viewer believe, just for a  moment, that such a perspective is real, that they are not still tethered to the earth, looking at a map.”

An excellent and stimulating study that I thoroughly recommend.

Earliest known world map: Iraq 700-500 BC

Earliest known world map: Iraq 700-500 BC

Unscrambling Eggs

September 22, 2019

I do a lot of cooking and I am often caused to wonder how certain culinary matters were invented or developed.  Who first mashed potatoes, for example?  Or who, indeed, first thought those ugly brown tubers were of any value at all?

A while ago, I was making a meringue topping for a cake I was experimenting with.  As I was whisking the egg whites my mind automatically wondered who on earth could ever have thought to do that first?  After all, without a  mechanical whisk, beating egg whites to a stiff peak takes an age of hard work; it isn’t something you would stumble across accidentally.  It turns out, of course, that the discovery of meringue is disputed but it apparently took place sometime between 1604 and 1692.

Fair enough. But taking one further step back, who’s idea was it to separate egg whites and egg yolks in the first place?  Once again it is a less than obvious notion, and I have no answer yet.  Does anyone know how this came about?