History is the story of real people’s lives and I am now old enough for the early part of my life to count as history – and that sometimes gives current news stories a poignant context. In the late eighties I was working in a medium sized engineering company which used a lot of steel. One of my workmates was then in his sixties and was an absolutely incorrigible old Tory while also being an absolute font of knowledge about engineering. He was also tremendously interested in metallurgy and was very interested indeed in the British steel industry. As such he was very keen indeed in one of the Thatcher government’s more minor projects, the sale of the nationalised British Steel.
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.
I have had a lot of success with a free web based app called The Most Dangerous Writing App. It is pretty good for the price, and in fact does the job it sets out to do pretty well. It is taking a little while to get used to it, but I am finding that it is both increasing the amount of writing I am getting done and the quality. Writing against the clock isn’t ideal for every writing task of course, and it is totally bloody useless for editing. But for getting a quick draft out it is superb. And to my surprise it is also forcing me to use shorter and easier to read sentences. And it is even improving my typing speed.
One of the problems of reading history is that we get a very distorted view of it. We are looking at the past down the wrong end of a telescope. A good example is the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. This seems like a very ephemeral kind of thing from our point of view. In fact the Vandal Kingdom lasted for over 50 years and it must have seemed pretty well established to people living in it. It was possible to have been born in it and to have lived to a pretty mature age without knowing any different.
If you are a regular follower you’ll know that most of my output is an extended review in great detail of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This episode fits in with that review but I have stepped out of the frame of the book briefly. I have reached the reign of Justinian, and I want to go into a bit more detail about the changes in the military set up in the Empire at around this time. Gibbon covers it well enough and his account is okay, but I think it is important enough to warrant going into a bit more depth. So I have dug into Gibbons source, the historian and soldier Procopius, and also into Edward Luttwak’s book on Byzantine strategy which I have reviewed previously. Edward Luttwak is a Romanian born strategic thinker and consultant to the American defence department. I am not sure how he got his Anglo Saxon forename, but I do know he has been into the sources of information about what made the Byzantine Empire tick in a lot of detail.
With these three guides I hope we can have an illuminating journey.
So why do I say the Byzantines had a military revolution, and what prompted it?
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.
How do we explain the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn? Or to be precise how do we explain that everyone in the media is talking about Jeremy Corbyn? He is supposed to be leading the race for leadership of the Labour Party. That is the consensus amongst the pundits, and the story is running and running.
The source of the notion that Corbyn is now poised to win the top job in the Labour Party is based on two fairly dubious pieces of data. First is a leak of an alleged private poll. This is claimed to show Corbyn ahead but there are no other details. The other is a Yougov poll which the pollsters themselves issued with a strong caveat that it was no more than a ‘grainy snapshot’.
Hello I’m Colin Sanders and this is the History Books Review where I read history books and tell you what I think of them, and maybe pick a few interesting points out to give you a taste. This time I’m covering a new book called The Ministry of Spin by Richard Milton, an author whose work I haven’t really come across before.
We all have odd memories that stick in our minds from a young age. I have one from some time in the early seventies. It was an advert on the television advising of the wisdom of making sure you know what is behind you when driving. It was a cartoon that showed a man driving a car that gradually panned out to show that he was being followed by a turban wearing man on an elephant. You should use your mirror frequently. Good advice! I hope you take note. It was credited to the Central Office of Information.
The extraordinary flowering of thought in Athens in the fifth century before Christ has demanded an explanation but has defied submitting to one. People have suggested all sorts of reasons from the development of the Greek economy to the availability of exceptionally nutritious shellfish.
The largest man-made enclosed space in the world is the Pentagon. The United States is a big country, with a big opinion of itself and which asserts that it has an important mission. Their defence headquarters is not just somewhere to keep their photocopy paper. It is a building that is meant to impress.