Category Archives: History in Culture

Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Dante’s vision of the universe prefigured 20th Century ideas

Reality turns out not to be what it seems. I have a feeling that there was never a time when people who thought about it actually believed that the Earth was flat. But we have certainly believed lots of things that are equally untrue since we evolved brains that had the capability to ponder these matters. Continue reading

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He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

In Victorian Britain married women were firmly under the control of men.  They were obliged to be obedient to their husbands and could not own property independent of him.  Okay it sounds great in theory, but how did it actually work? Continue reading

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The Lure of Sussex by R.Thurston Hopkins

lure of sussex

Thurston Hopkins became famous in the forties and fifties as a photographer on the Picture Post. But I can confirm that before this in 1928 he was the author of a small guide book to Sussex. It has to be said that he was better at taking pictures than writing.

But he is good if slightly irritating company in this book describing his travels around Sussex. The nineteen twenties were the only time a book like this could have been written. The car and the railways enabled him to get to most of the county easily enough but they weren’t yet advanced enough for Sussex to become London’s backyard. Sussex would soon become first an extension of Bloomsbury and then a dormitory which it is still today. But it was still a largely rural environment at the time this book was written. Continue reading

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The Passion by Streetwise Opera and the Sixteen

The Passion Streetwise Opera The Sixteen

There isn’t much really good evidence that Jesus actually existed. In fact, it is pretty much dependent on the account in the Bible. Without that, he really doesn’t count as an historical figure. But I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The main reason for this is that the Bible story of his execution rings true to me. The incidental details just seem to be how things really happen rather than how someone making a story up would describe them. Continue reading

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Oozymandias by Percy Shelley

Ozymandias by Percy Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Oozymandias is Percy Shelley’s most famous poem and one of the most popular in the English language. It is a very simple account of being told about a ruin in the desert in Egypt. It is interesting that this one from all his output should prove to be so enduring because on the face of it, it is quite a light bit of work. The narrator is in an antique land, or in other words one that compared to early nineteenth century England is undeveloped. He is guided to a fallen statue which has seen better days. That the boastful message on the pedestal is at odds with how time has treated it is described but not commented upon.

When I read, and indeed learned by heart, this poem as a boy I had no idea that it was describing a real monument. I had assumed that Ozymandias was a name made up for the poem. But it turns out that it is in fact a common name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramasesses II. His statue was obtained by the British Museum at around the time the poem was written, though the poem was written before it actually arrived. Even so, it seems likely that the news that it was on its way was what inspired Shelley to write.

Although it does have a simple rhyming structure, I don’t think the rhyme is particularly prominent. You can read it without noticing them. It’s very conversational. You could imagine someone in a pub just saying it and not realising that it is poetry. As such I think it is an early example of literary writing becoming less formal.

I’d be really interested in what you think of it.

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It’s Easter, er Saturday

Easter Saturday

In the late Roman Empire most people were poor.  The state was in the hands of a hugely wealthy elite who called all the shots.  The logic for a religion was inevitable.  The only source of converts was to appeal to people in poverty.  The only source of cash was the government.  The winning formula turned out to be highly centralised Christianity.  This combined stuff that would appeal to the broke who stood to inherit the Earth if sufficiently meek while guaranteeing that that which was due to Caesar would actually be rendered unto Caesar.  Anything that convenient had to be true.  It was also worth wiping out any competition.  So we ended up with Christian monoculture. Continue reading

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Making Colour – National Gallery London

history of pigments

I was glad I made the time last summer to visit the National Gallery’s exhibition of the pigments artists have used over the years.  It was a fascinating business, and it is a bit sobering to remember just how much work the great masters of painting had to do before they even got to the stage of getting to the actual painting.   It was also interesting to note that changes in the availability of raw materials and the technology for processing them have had a big influence on what could be done and therefore what was done. Continue reading

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The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences is one of those pieces of writing whose title really sums up the whole thing – basically it does what it says on the tin.  It started life as a lecture and was subsequently published in the mathematical literature in 1960.  It is about something that a lot of people have noticed.  It is really quite surprising how often a mathematical idea developed for a particular purpose, or for no other purpose than simple pleasure in the exercise of the mind, turns out to be a useful tool later for something completely different. Continue reading

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Reefer Madness – Hawkwind and One Direction

I am shocked that anyone should find a story about pop stars using drugs shocking.  It turns out that the handsome and wholesome One Direction have been caught on film smoking marijuana.  Compared to the behaviour of rock stars in the seventies only smoking marijuana would probably have been enough to count as wholesome, or even as conservative.  If a story had got out that Hawkwind for example had been caught knocking back vitamin tablets and eating a salad that would have been more newsworthy. Continue reading

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What I Learnt in Oxford on May Day

Tower of Magdalen College May Day

Tower of Magdalen College May Day

May day has always seemed to me to be a day in the calendar that cries out to be celebrated.  It is about this time of year that the evenings become light for long enough to enjoy.  If we are lucky we can pack away our winter coats and jumpers for the year.  A bank holiday moved around from year to year to suit commercial requirements has never really seemed adequate to it. Even the bank holiday seems to have been conceded rather grudgingly.  I am old enough to remember the first one.  I seem to remember a conservative politician suggesting dropping it in favour of a day to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar. Continue reading

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