Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

People queuing for the cinema.

In 1973, Georges Perec wrote, ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front page splash, the banner headlines…The daily papers talk of everything except the daily …We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep.’  Joe Moran’s book Queueing for Beginners, which I’ve just read, aims to wake us from that sleep, to gaze awhile at (again, in Perec’s words) ‘the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual’.

Joe Moran is Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University who researches and writes extensively on the mundane aspects of daily life, especially British everyday life from the mid-twentieth century until the present day.  I discovered Joe’s writing when I stumbled upon his excellent blog, aptly described by his colleague Professor Roger Webster as ‘entertaining, erudite, whimsical, and encyclopaedic’, dazzling in its breadth of subject matter and the range of media he draws upon.  He’s published several books and also writes columns for the New Statesman, Guardian and Financial Times.

Queueing cover

Queuing for Beginners – subtitled ‘The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime’ – follows the daily routine of an ordinary British day, bringing into focus the humdrum and the overlooked: the patterns of daily routine where change happens, but with imperceptible slowness, so that we hardly notice the small changes that can end up transforming our lives.  We rarely give much thought to activities like working at office desks, sitting in meeting rooms, eating ready meals, flipping through the TV channels with the remote control.  These things are all part of what the German critic Siegfried Kracauer (quoted here by Moran) calls ‘a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.

The silence of daily life can be deafening, writes Moran. The very nature of habits and routines, activities repeated again and again, makes it hard to think of them in historical terms. Daily life seems to be the way things have always been, and always will be. By excavating the meaning and origins of daily behaviours, Moran is following in the tradition of Mass-Observation, the project begun in 1937 when Tom Harrisson (anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (poet and Daily Mirror journalist) invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an ‘anthropology at home’. They were keen to develop what they called ‘a science of ourselves’.  Joe Moran has said of Mass-Observation that:

They hoped that their investigators would develop some new insights into subjects such as: ‘[The] behaviour of people at war memorials … Shouts and gestures of motorists … Anthropology of football pools … Beards, armpits, eyebrows … Female taboos about eating’.

Thanks to Mass-Observation, he writes, we have some idea of what it was like to smoke a cigarette or drink beer in a pub in the 193os and 1940s. But, he continues, we don’t know much about how those habits changed from the 1950s to the present; his aim in this book is to try to unravel ‘a sort of alternative history of post-war Britain – one that does for habits and routines what other historians have done for more momentous political, social or lifestyle changes’.

The way that Moran has chosen to organise his findings is to focus on the pattern of the banal during the course of the day – the daily grind, or what Parisians call ‘metro, boulot, dodo’ (commuting, working, sleeping). He notes that writers have for a long time used the structure of the day to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of society and look again at neglected areas of everyday life: from Charles Dickens, with his chronological accounts of a morning and night of London street life in Sketches by Boz, to  20th century milestones like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, novelists have use the structure of a single day ‘to juxtapose the profound and the banal, the weightiest matters of life and death with the most trivial quotidian detail’.  In the structure of a single day, everything receives roughly the same amount of attention – however dull or boring it might at first seem. Moran’s book similarly uses the pattern of a single day to explore the history of everyday life:

Some of these routines would be immediately familiar to anyone alive at the end of the Second World War: having breakfast (although they would be horrified by our propensity to skip it or skimp on it), commuting (although they didn’t call it that) and queuing (although it took up much more of their time, and the queuing barriers and recorded voices announcing ‘cashier number one, please’ would have seemed like sci-fi inventions). Other habits – checking emails, watching telly, eating ready meals – would be almost entirely new and strange to them, but they might detect some residue of older social habits even in these activities.

In Queueing for Beginners, Moran investigates the uninteresting events that unfolded yesterday and the days before that across Britain:

Millions of people woke up and had instant coffee and a cereal bar for breakfast. They all rushed for the train and stood pressed up against each other in a crowded carriage. They all arrived at the office, went to their desks and spent the morning there, occasionally getting up to go to the photocopier or the staff kitchen for a gossip. At lunchtime, they all stood in the queue at the bank, then they all bought a sandwich and came back to eat it at their desks. They all checked their emails, and then nipped outside for a smoke. They all had to attend a boring staff meeting. At half past five, they all walked out of the office, weaving in between the rush~hour traffic. They all had a quick, after-work drink with each other, then they all went home and stuck a ready meal in the microwave. They all ate it on the sofa while zapping through the television channels. After they had all watched the late-night weather forecast, they all went upstairs, tucked themselves up in bed and drifted off to sleep. Nothing out of the ordinary happened…

Britain by Mass Observation published 1938
Britain by Mass Observation published 1938

Moran’s interest in the unobserved and banal was piqued whilst studying for a DPhil at Sussex University, where he stumbled across the Mass-Observation Archive.  On a more mundae level, Moran has credited his interest in taking note of what normally goes unnoticed to the I-Spy booklets he consumed as a young boy. Quoting the geographer Doreen Massey, Moran says that despite every generation’s emphasis on change, much of life for many people ‘still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’. He describes himself as ‘trying to find a critical language to talk about these empty, purposeless moments of daily life, filled with activities such as commuting and office routines, that we generally take for granted but that take up so much of our lives’. Ultimately, his focus on the banal suggests a serious idea: that ‘anything might be interesting if we look carefully at it’.  There are parallels here with the recent interest in the similarly unnoticed edgelands, described by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book as a ‘zone of inattention’ and a ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ which is both interesting and strangely beautiful.

George Perec

The spirit that pervades Queueing for Beginners is that of Mass-Observation – and of Georges Perec who in 1973, five years before the appearance of his defining novel Life: a User’s Manual and nine years before his death, wrote an essay called ‘Approaches to What?’, in which he remonstrated against the neglect of life’s ordinary things:

What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into trees. [ …]

The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask. What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Queueing for Beginners is endlessly fascinating and, for those who have trudged through the days of more than a few decades, will reawaken many lost memories of the trivia that has filled the days: free gifts in cereal packets, Vesta curries, green-man, panda and pelican crossings, fax machines, three-piece suites, prawn cocktail sandwiches, Watney’s Red Barrel, theme pubs, teletext and TV remotes, and meetings structured around Powerpoint bullet points (in the index, under ‘meetings’, the first sub-entry is ‘bullshit’).

Somewhere along the way, Moran quotes Siegfried Kracauer as declaring:

We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up.

See also

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

As far as exhibitions go, sometimes small can be beautiful.  Last week at the British Museum to see the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I happened to wander into a side room where an exhibition consisting of just three objects was on display. Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan is a concise, yet revelatory display of three ‘flame’ and ‘water’ pots from ancient Japan.

The Museum owns one Jōmon pot (above) which was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. That pot is accompanied by two pots on loan from Nagaoka City in the Niigata prefecture in Japan.  In themselves, these objects are fascinating to look at, but the wider story they tell is one that is both interesting and significant.

The earliest pots found in Japan date from around 16,500 years ago. Pottery was not invented in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later.  The Jōmon people lived in the period between  12,500-1000 BC on the Japanese archipelago.  The term Jōmon means ‘cord-marked’ in Japanese, and is derived from the decorative markings on the pottery. The pots themselves were made for a number of reasons and are both functional and aesthetically beautiful, and open a window to mysterious culture from the distant past.

Jomon pots are the oldest pots in the world. For the first time, pots allowed people to boil foods such as nuts and shellfish to make them edible. As Neil MacGregor put it in A History of the World in 100 Objects:

It was in Japan that the world’s first pottery was born – and with it, possibly the world’s first stew. […]  The world’s pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: ‘Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure’.

The oldest Jomon pot (top) is pretty underwhelming to look at. It’s a cooking pot made about 7000 years ago –  2000 years earlier than the flame and crown pots displayed alongside it. The rim is decorated with marks incised with a stick or finger nail and the cord-markings are clearly visible. It was probably uncovered by a farmer in the 19th century and spotted by a tea master who thought it would make a fine water vessel (mizusashi) for a tea gathering. Gold leaf and lacquer was applied to the interior of the prehistoric vessel and a wooden lid was constructed with a snail decoration, alluding to the pot’s unearthing from the soil.

It’s made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about six inches high, six inches across at the top, with straight sides and a flat base, and it was made in Japan.  It was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres were pressed, so that it looks and feels like a basket made of clay.

The protrusions on the the rim of the Jomon crown pot (above) may have been inspired by the architecture of Jomon houses. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot displayed alongside. These contrasting styles seem to have been important in Jomon culture and figured also in the arrangement of buildings and burials.

This flame pot is around 5000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. It takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pottery vessels held special importance for the Jomon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth.

Jomon pots were used as cooking vessels, often sunk into the hearth to aid heat convection. Cooking was an important activity for the Jomon people and they constructed elaborate fireplaces. The hearth gave warmth and light as well as providing a social focus for the family unit. Analysis of the carbonised remains found in many of these vessels show that the pots were used to make soups and Jomon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat. Apart from cooking, Jomon ceramics were also used for pouring, serving, storage, and sometimes for burials and other rituals.

Each family group made its own ceramics. It is thought from academic studies that they were constructed by women,  though the museum’s interpretation suggests there is no concrete evidence for this yet. Jomon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the sides. Various types of cord were made from twisted plant fibres and they were used to impress different patterns on the vessel’s surface. The pots would then have been fired in wood-fed firing pits.

Jomon pottery is unique, not just because it is the oldest yet discovered, but also because they were made in a hunter-gatherer culture.  Pots are usually created by cultures only after they have made the transition from hunter-gathering
to farming, as it is very difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jomon were unique because although they foraged, hunted and fished throughout the year unusually they lived in semi-settled villages. They were able to do this because they lived in a particularly food-rich environment, as explained in this panel.

Pots enabled the Jomon to take advantage of these resources, as many of their key foodstuffs, such as acorns, were toxic unless cooked. Pots were also used to boil shellfish, forcing the shells to open and allowing access to the meat inside.

Finally, the exhibition tells how the rediscovery of the Jomon culture since the 19th century has played an important role in the evolving idea of what constitutes Japan’s cultural heritage.  Prior to the Second World War, the Jomon people were mostly viewed as a primitive aboriginal culture that was completely superseded by the arrival of rice-farming
Yayoi people from the Asian continent in around 300 BC .  This view changed significantly from the late 1940s onwards. Now many see Jomon material culture as a sophisticated artistic tradition in its own right and see  evidence for interaction between the Jomon and Yayoi populations.  More and more is being discovered about Jōmon origins and culture, and  the exhibition examines the imagery and symbolism on the pots, as well as showing how Jōmon pots have been an inspiration to modern Japanese culture – with references in music, manga, modern art.

As an example of this, music inspired by Jomon culture was played by Yamagami Susumu, who performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument).

See also

Vikings on the Wirral

Vikings on the Wirral

Recently I went along to an exhibition at the Liverpool Nordic Centre of paintings by three local artists, exhibiting together as part of the Independent Biennial under the title Sea Scapes – Land Shapes.  What drew me particularly was that one of the artists whose work was on display was a former work colleague, local writer and poet Sylvia Hikins. Recently her paintings have been inspired by the wild and mountainous landscapes of Norway and Iceland.

Sylvia became fascinated by culture and terrain of these Nordic lands after learning about their connections with the Wirral peninsula through the Viking settlement of the peninsula in the 10th century. She has travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Iceland, including a flight over the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, resulting in film, photographs and paintings that capture the harshness and beauty of those lands. In 2011, she mounted a solo exhibition in Reykjavik.

Part of her fascination is the tangible link with once Viking Wirral where Old Norse was once spoken: the same language spoken today in Iceland. Her paintings capture the cold, empty landscape which she describes this as ‘huge, wild expanses of ice and fire, mountain and sea’. In oil on canvas, the paintings which include ‘Gathering Storm’ (below) depict, in shades of blue, grey and white, an unforgiving landscape.

It was the first time I had set foot in the Nordic Centre, formerly known as the Swedish Seamen’s Church or Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka (named after a 17th century King of Sweden) – though I had long admired the elegant and energetic red brick building from outside.  It’s a beautiful, light infused building with a high vaulted ceiling and blue painted pews, dominated by the octagonal tower with its pyramidal roof. It is one of only four octagonal church buildings in the UK,  and one of about 30 in Sweden. It was the first Swedish church built overseas, built to meet the pastoral needs of Scandinavian seamen and the growing number of emigrants on their way to North America. It was erected in 1883, at at ime when the number of transient Scandinavian people in the Liverpool area was growing.  By the early 1880s, the annual number of Scandinavian emigrants passing through Liverpool had reached 50,000.

The commission to design and build the church was given to a young architect, William Douglas Caroe, who went on to be a major representative of the closing phase of the Gothic revival in Britain.  He created a unique building, which contains many Scandinavian features, including stepped gables and a concave sided lead covered spire over the entrance.

Today there are still regular acts of worship at the Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka, but the building is now owned and managed by the Liverpool International Nordic Community, and, apart from religious services, provides community events and language courses for citizens and descendants of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and their fellow Nordic nations, Finland and Iceland – reflecting the continuing presence of a strong Nordic community in Liverpool.  The story of the fight to save the building is told in this Seven Streets blog post.

While I admired the church interior and studied the paintings, activities were going on all around me – a language class (I know people who have learned Norwegian here), a music group setting up, and refreshments being served.  But my eye was caught by a small library of books on Nordic topics, including a couple devoted to Merseyside’s Viking connections.  I was aware that there was a connection – in place names, for instance, and as the likely location of the battle of Brunanburh  in 937, when Saxon forces of Wessex and Mercia united to defeat combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland.  But flicking through these books, I realised there was a lot more to learn, and so I ordered the books from my local library.

It’s a fascinating story, different in many ways from the pattern of Scandinavian settlement in eastern and north-eastern England, areas that were pretty much exclusively settled by Danish Vikings. I should say, by the way, that another reason for my interest in the Vikings had been as a result of watching Neil Oliver’s recent BBC TV series Vikings, in which (unless I wasn’t paying attention) he didn’t properly explain why these people from different parts of Scandinavia were all called Vikings.

A lengthy discussion of the etymology of the term at Wikipedia makes clear that it does not refer to any particular people or culture, but instead indicates an activity and those who participated in it – the explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates from different parts of Scandinavia who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.  The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase ‘to go viking’ implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas.  In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 9th century and is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian.

One of the highlights of Neil Oliver’s series was his visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo to see the truly beautiful Oseberg ship (above) discovered in a large burial mound from 834 AD.  Elegant this ship might have been, but it was frail and designed only for coastal journeys, not the great ocean-going voyages that the Vikings embarked upon, voyages that took them to the Shetlands, and down the western sea ways to the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

The Vikings who landed on the Wirral actually came from Ireland.  The first to come were Norsemen driven out of Ireland, later joined by fellow Scandinavians from the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scotland and the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In 902 AD a group of Vikings expelled by the Irish from their settlement of Dublin, pleaded with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercian English (and daughter of Alfred the Great), for permission to land and settle peacefully in the peninsula.  Granted rights, the settlers established themselves throughout the peninsula.

Some historians have drawn evidence of this settlement from Irish annals and Welsh texts that speak of a Viking named Ingimind leading a party of Norsemen, first to Anglesey, and then, being driven from that place, to the Wirral.  Though these stories are heavily embroidered, the broad outline of the narrative is confirmed by the Norse place names found especially in the northern half of the Wirral – and, most convincingly, by recent DNA evidence.

Though the first Viking settlers on the Wirral came from Ireland, they were part of the great exodus of people out of Norway that seems to have followed the unification of Norway from 880 AD by Harald Harfagre: families forced to leave because they were opponents of Harfagre, or because land became scarce as Harfagre settled his own supporters in the narrow coastal strip.  These were the people who headed westwards, settling in the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland.From there, some headed further west to Greenland and North America, while others headed south to the islands and lands bordering the Irish Sea.

The Mersey Vikings were not only raiders and traders, but also farmers, fishermen, and moneyers with their own representative assembly place or thing. Not all were pagans: though there is some evidence of pagan burial mounds, they were also Christians who built churches.  In the  14th-Century some were still naming their children the traditional Viking way, with name suffixes such as  –doghter ‘daughter of’ and  –sson ‘son of’, as in Iceland today.

It’s the Scandinavian origins of so many Wirral placenames which reveals the extent of Viking settlement along the peninsula, but especially in the northern half.  There is Birkenhead – from birki-hofud, meaning ‘headland growing with birches’; Frankby – from Frankisbyr or Frakki’s village; Irby – from Ira-byr, meaning sttlement of the Irish; Ness and Neston from nes, meaning promintary; Storeton – from Stor-tun, the great farmstead, the same element found in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, ‘the Great Assembly’; Thurstaston – from Thorsteinns-tun, meaning ‘Thorstein’s farmstead’; Tranmere – from Trani-meir, meaning ‘crane’s sandbank’.  West Kirby derives from Old Norse Vestri-Kirkjubyr, meaning ‘the village west of the church’.  Kirkby, on the other side of the Mersey, has the same derivation.

Viking placenames on the Wirral

Two place names are the most evocative: Meols and Thingwall.  Meols (from meir, ‘sandbank’), was the Viking seaport and shares its name with a place name of identical origin in Iceland (Melar).  Judith Jesch, writing in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, say:

Finds of coins and metalwork from Meols dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries show regular trading contacts with the rest of England, the Irish Sea and beyond.  While Chester was an official port and mint for the (English) kingdom of Mercia, Meols seems to have operated as a trading centre for the politically separate Norse enclave on the peninsula, serving its own local Anglo-Scandinavian community. It has even been suggested a that a mint, producing ‘Viking-style’ imitations of official English coins, operated there in the 1010s and early 1020’s.

The Viking settlement was most probably on the sandbank that gave it its name: a promontory that later disappeared under the waves as the coastline altered.  But in the 19th century, a succession of low tides exposed the remains of the settlement as well as a an ancient forest.  It was then that the major finds of coins and metalwork to which Jesch refers were found by local people searching the beach.  Many of these artefacts can now be seen in Liverpool’s World Museum – such as the axehead, shield boss and bent spear head below.

Thingwall was the site of the Viking assembly field or thing, the centre of Viking administration and decision-making.  Thingwall is a place name that can be found throughout the former Viking areas of the British Isles, as well as in Scandinavia (such as Iceland’s Thingwall, below).

On the other side of the Mersey there’s a Liverpool suburb named Thingwall, and there are additional sites at Whitby, on Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Man (where the local assembly still bears the name Tynwald).  Things were usually situated in safe and secure locations: Wirral’s Thingwall (celebrated below by proud locals) was situated right at the centre of the network of Viking villages on the Wirral.

But it wasn’t just the Wirral that the Viking settlers occupied.  Soon large numbers of Scandinavian settlers arrived across the Mersey, establishing themselves in villages and farmsteads throughout present-day Merseyside and then along the coastal plain up to the Ribble estuary.  There is a significant 1945 essay by Frederick Wainwright, The Scandinavians in West Lancashire, (reproduced in one of the books I’ve been reading, Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding) which suggests that the Norsemen settled mainly on the low-lying, marshy coastlands which the native English eschewed in favour of higher ground.  ‘The distribution of place names’, Wainwright writes, ‘therefore suggests that the Norse settlement was characterized not by dispossession but by a willingness to accept the less attractive districts which had been neglected by the English’.

Merseyside and West Lancashire place names with definite Scandinavian origins

In 2004, an enthusiast with a metal detector discovered a hoard of Viking treasure that had been buried around 905 AD at Huxley, just outside Chester. The hoard (below) is a collection of 22 silver objects, consisting of one small cast ingot and 21 bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably for ease of burial. Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work.

In 2002 a survey was launched looking for evidence for Norse descendants in Wirral and West Lancashire, since the place name and other evidence suggested this area was once populated by Scandinavian settlers. The team sampled the DNA of male volunteers from old families in Wirral and West Lancashire who trace their male line back before 1700.  In this way the researchers could bypass the large population influx since Medieval times.  30% of the men surveyed in West Lancashire and 50% of the men surveyed in Wirral had their top DNA match in Scandinavia.

Tony Tottey from Moreton Wirral had top DNA matches with men in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and, interestingly, is the nephew of the late Gordon Tottey of West Kirkby featured in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in 1971, The last of the Wirral Vikings.  You can read more about the survey on the University of Nottingham’s project website.

In his short series, Neil Oliver didn’t touch on the Viking settlement on Merseyside.  But there was one story that he told that was a revelation to me: the one about King Cnut attempting to turn back the waves.

Cnut succeeded as king of Denmark in 1015, after just over a century of Viking settlement on Merseyside and in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. A year later his forces invaded England; a passage from Emma’s Encomium quoted on Wikipedia, provides a picture of Cnut’s fleet:

[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

By October 1016 Cnut was firmly in control of England and was to rule England for almost twenty years. The protection he lent against Viking raiders – with many of them under his command – restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. The resources he commanded in England helped him to establish control of the majority of Scandinavia too.negotiated settlement made peace, dividing the kingdom between them.

I recall being taught at primary school the story of how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes as one that demonstrated overweening pride.  But, as Neil Oliver pointed out in a portrait of a wise ruler who had tremendous influence and authority across Europe, the story has an opposite meaning.  Failing to halt the waves, he king said: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.  The story reveals Cnut’s kingship skills: a demonstration of his piety and allegiance to the Christian church and a rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.

Oliver presented Cnut as  an early adopter of European monetary standardisation, minting coins that were accepted right across Europe, fuelling trade and prosperity. Oliver argued that Cnut was drawn to England in the first place because, for several hundred years since Offa’s reform of the coinage, there had been a well-organized monetary system in England, unlike in Scandinavia.

Silver penny of Cnut, minted in Bath

Cnut took over the Anglo-Saxon system of coinage, minting coins like the one above which shows him wearing a typical helmet of the type worn by Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the eleventh century. Contrary to the popular myth about Viking helmets, they had no horns.

Returning to the Wirral: for several years stories have circulated about the discovery of a Viking longship under a car park at Meols.  It’s a story that is rejected by Liverpool Museum here, but in 2013, the largest ever reconstruction of a Viking longship will sail across the North Sea to the Wirral.  Work to construct the 114 foot boat has been under way in Haugesund, Norway for the last 18 months.  The vessel is due to be launched in June and will embark on its maiden voyage in summer 2013.  The project – coordinated by Wirral’s Viking expert, Stephen Harding – aims to consolidate the growing links between Wirral and Scandinavia.

Books

The books I read before writing this post were:

  • Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding
  • Wirral and its Viking Heritage by Judith Jesch
  • Viking DNA by Stephen Harding, Mark Jobling and Turi King

See also

These books are made for walking: step one

These books are made for walking: step one

Paths have always fascinated me. Sometimes their imprint of human purpose on the landscape can be a mystery: why does this path exist? Who made it, and when?  Often paths lift the spirit with their sense of wilfulness – tracks left by those determined to make their way according to no rules.  I’ve walked for years now in our local park – the twice-daily dog walk – always entertained by how, in a landscape where planners have mapped out in tarmac or gravel where people should walk, foot-worn paths still weave anarchically but determinedly across the meadows and through the glades.  They are the tracks of kids on their way to school, routes to work, trails left by dog walkers like me seeking variations on a theme: short cuts, a path under the trees, a better view.  Paths like these emerge all over the place – across vacant land in urban areas, in suburbia, or across fields and moors.

Unofficial path in Sefton Park

Recently I’ve been reading several books that explore this fascination with paths and walking, and in the process I discovered that Robert Macfarlane has also shared this fascination with paths and trails of all kinds.  In his recent book The Old Ways, he writes:

Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over.  The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.  The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.  As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation…

These books represent just a fraction of those that have added to the already voluminous literature of walking in recent years. Pathways is a historical guide to the origins of the paths that we follow through the land; Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, is an erudite cultural history of walking; The Green Road Into The Trees by Hugh Thomson is a narrative account of his journey along the Icknield Way – a route followed, too, by Robert Macfarlane in his new book The Old Ways which I’ve read alongside his earlier The Wild Places.  Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice is another proposition entirely: as you’d expect from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo it is as far from Macfarlane as you’re likely to get: an often bizarre stream of consciousness account of a pilgrimage he made in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend, that the sheer effort of the walk would bring her back to health.

Alongside these books, I’ve also been dipping into The Walker’s Literary Companion edited by Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson and Anne Wallace, which gathers together examples of fiction, essays and poetry on the experience and meaning of walking.  It’s a great compendium: rather than being arranged chronologically, the extracts are allowed to strike echoes off each other – Frank O’Hara nudging James Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost strides alongside Wendell Berry and Walt Whitman; and Charles Dickens, John Clare and Matsuo Basho stroll along together.

What the latter book brings home is the degree to which the act of walking has inspired poetry.  Among contemporary poets, the work of Thomas A Clark is almost entirely concerned with, and inspired by, the thoughts and sensations arising from a walker’s encounter with the natural world.  His prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, published in a little volume entitled Distance and Proximity begins with this walking manifesto:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.


That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.


Walking is the human way of getting about.


Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

Clark’s poem is cited by Robert Macfarlane in the opening paragraph of The Old Ways:

Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.

‘Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes or round mountains, to church or chapel, river or sea. …

Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart (Guardian Books) is a book that provides answers to those questions about the origins of the pathways that weave their way across Britain’s landscape. It explores and documents twenty different kinds of route trodden by man or horse which now form the footpaths and trails followed for leisure.  Rudd-Jones and Stewart explain the histories of routes used for the transport of goods (ridgeways, packhorse trails, drovers’ roads, miners’ tracks and smugglers’ trails), pathways created to facilitate the exercise of power or define boundaries (Roman roads, dykes and Monks’ trods), and paths with a distinct spiritual dimension (processional ways and pilgrimage routes). They trace the course of  corpse roads, canal towpaths, seaside promenades, long distance footpaths and leisure trails, urban pedestrian ways, and municipal parks.

Each chapter provides a historical account of the origins and use of a particular kind of pathway, followed by the description of an example and an account of a walk along it undertaken by one of the authors.  Maps of these walks are included, but the size and weight of the book mean that it could not be carried on a walk.  However, the book has been published in collaboration with the walking world website, where maps of all the walks featured in the book, plus a huge range of other walks,  are free to download once you join by paying an annual subscription, currently £18. (There is a similar site – walkingbritain.co.uk – that is free, though the maps of the walks are useless).

Pathways is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs, each chapter providing a succinct but informative history of one kind of trail that has left an imprint on the landscape.  The book leaves you more knowledgeable and with a deeper understanding of how these tracks across the terrain were created.  If you want to know more, each chapter has a useful guide to further reading.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking  is by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit and environmental activist who is the  author of books about art, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, memory and getting lost.  She is a cultural commentator and historian who respects no boundaries in the sources upon which she draws, meandering through disciplines as if the act of writing were an assertion of the right to roam.  She acknowledges her eclecticism at the outset of the journey:

This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.

Solnit begins with a chapter on ‘The Mind at Three Miles an Hour’ in which she explores the connection between walking and thinking, beginning with the Athenian philosophers — although no one really knows whether they walked to think — and moves on through Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Wordsworth, who collectively promulgated the romantic idea of solitary rambling as a contemplative exercise.

There follows a diversion to ponder the significance of the Rubicon crossed by evolving hominids when they stood upright and began walking. Although human beings are usually viewed as unique in terms of consciousness, Solnit points out that it’s our bipedalism that makes us stand out:

the human body is …unlike anything else on earth and in some ways has shaped that consciousness.  The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud and unsteady tower. … Even standing still is a feat of balance, as anyone who watched or been a drunk knows.

If walking came from evolution and necessity, Solnit says, it then went everywhere, usually looking for something.  With this observation she sets out on a quest to understand pilgrimage – one of the basic modes of walking ‘in search of something intangible’.  She follows a pilgrim route in New Mexico, musing as she goes on the essence of pilgrimage: the idea that there is a geography of spiritual power, that the search for spirituality can be pursued in the most material terms, through arduous physical exertion, toiling along a road towards some distant salvation. Pilgrimages allow people to bodily enter a story (most obviously as in the stations of the cross).  A path, Solnit suggests, is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a pilgrimage is to accept an interpretation, to reiterate something deep, and think the same thoughts.

The activist in Solnit leads her to explore the idea that in the last 50 years or so pilgrimages have evolved into secular assertions of political and economic values.  She cites many modern variants that reflect a shift from appealing for divine intervention to demanding political change, such as the annual peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test site.

But Solnit pushes the analogy further, noting how, in actions like the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the collective walk unites the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the trade union march, appealing to the public rather than spiritual powers.  She traces the line of descent, from Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches.  ‘Inspired walking’, she calls it, epitomised for her in Matt Heron’s photo of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march (below):

He must have lain low to take it, for it raises its subjects up high against a pale, clouded sky.  They seem to know they are walking towards transformation and into history, and their wide steps, upraised hands, the confidence of their posture, express the will with which they go to meet it.

Solnit also one of the strangest of secular pilgrimages – that of the film director Werner Herzog who at the end of November 1975, hearing that his friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill and close to death, set off to walk several hundred miles from Munich to her hospital in Paris.  By enduring the pains and hardship of terrible winter weather he thought would avert her death:

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.

[Diverting from the main track for a moment: I recently acquired as a very welcome birthday gift a copy of Herzog’s rare and difficult to obtain book.  First editions in English are priceless – this was a Canadian limited edition reprint of 2009. It’s a shorter read than Herzog’s walk – no more than 60 pages, almost the entire text of entries made in a notebook as he walked.  It’s quintessential Herzog – a stream of consciousness account of the hardships of the walk (those new boots – blisters, aching swollen legs, cold, and constant soakings due to inadequate clothing), the terrain, the people he encounters along the way, and the thoughts running through his mind. You can almost hear that inimitable Bavarian-accented English as you read.

There are constant flashes of Herzog the German romantic. On his second morning on the road he writes:

What a sunrise behind me.  The clouds had split open a crack; yes, a sun like that rises bloodied on the day of Battle.  Meagre, leafless poplars, a raven flying through missing a quarter of his wing, which means rain. … The village is dead silent, telling of deeds done from which it refuses to wake.

The Herzog who, when twelve and told to sing in front of his class at school, adamantly refused and was almost expelled for it, the Herzog who stole a film camera in order to make his first feature and later said ‘I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity’ – that Herzog is present in these pages.  He shows no compunction about breaking into barns or empty holiday homes for the night:

Beyond Volertsheim spent the night in a barn; all around there was nothing else.  What a night.  The storm raged so that the whole shake, which was solidly built, began to shake. Rain and snow came sprinkling in from the rooftop and I buried myself in the straw.  Once I awoke with an animal sleeping on my legs.

This is not an heroic account of a trek (in the manner, say, of a Macfarlane).  Along with his physical discomforts, Herzog’s words evoke the psychological disturbances and the intense loneliness that he experiences:

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. … I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. … The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void.  Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into un-stars.  Utter blissfulness is spreading and out of blissfulness now springs the Absurdity.  This is the situation.  A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless.  How can I go shopping?  They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head.  A flash of lightning bolts across the orange-black sky far below me, striking Francis the Miller, of all people, dead. … Is the Loneliness good?  Yes, it is.  There are only dramatic vistas ahead.  The festering Rankness, meanwhile, gathers once again at the sea.

Some three weeks after setting off, Herzog arrives in Paris.  In her hospital bed, he finds Lotte Eisner alive, though tired and marked by her illness (she lived for another nine years).  She smiles, and Herzog says, ‘Open the window.  From these last days onward I can fly’]

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust:  she continues with an exploration of the idea of life as a journey – ‘a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history’ – delves into the meaning of labyrinths, and considers the place of promenades and the aristocratic garden walk.  She follows the trail of walking in literature in the footsteps of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and evaluates the literature of the long-distance walk (citing, amongst others, one of my own favourites: Alan Booth’s account of walking the length of Japan in the mid-1970s in Roads to Sata: A Two Thousand Mile Walk Through Japan.

There are chapters on mountaineering, walking clubs like the Sierra Club, an public access to the land through the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (an excellent account). Then Solnit turns her attention to urban walking, illustrated by ambles through London (in the company of De Quincey, Dickens and Virginia Woolf), New York (with Whitman, Ginsberg and O’Hara) and Paris. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, she ‘ran away to Paris’ in the 1970s when the city was still a ‘walker’s paradise’.  She inhabited the city like Arendt, ‘ strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets’.  She returned recently to find Paris ruinously changed by cars.

As well as the writers, Solnit also casts her eye over the artists who have walked and incorporated the experience into their art.  In particular, she considers the work of Richard Long, the contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an artistic medium.  She traces the way his work – from Line Made By Walking in 1967 –  aims to capture the way a walk can inspire and live on in the imagination: in Long’s own words, ‘a walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too’.  Attesting to his significance, another ‘walked’ work  by Richard Long adorns the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

Richard Long: Line Made by Walking, 1967

In ‘Walking after Midnight’, Solnit explores the history of women walking the streets.  She notes that men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women:  ‘women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’. Solnit charts the threat of violence and harassment often faced by women exercising their right to walk in public spaces, and attitudes to prostitution – the oldest form of street walking.

Freedom to walk is, however, not much use without somewhere to go: with this statement of the obvious Solnit introduces a fascinating chapter on the ‘suburbanization’ of the American psyche, the way in which modern American suburbs have been built exclusively for the car, without sidewalks and in every respect hostile to the person intent on getting around on foot.  Bizarrely, she notes that as Americans – and residents of the developed world generally – have abandoned walking, so they have become addicted to the treadmill in the gym. On the treadmill a key element of walking, space – in the form of landscape, spectacle, terrain, experience – has vanished.

In The Green Road Into The Trees, Hugh Thomson describes walking the Icknield Way, probably the oldest pathway in Britain, from the Dorset coast to the Wash.  It’s a route also followed by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways and both were inspired in part by Edward Thomas’s account of walking the Way, Thomas figuring in both accounts. But though their paths and interests overlap, the sensibilities of these writers are attuned to different wavelengths. There isn’t, for example, an index entry for ‘pies’ in Macfarlane’s book: there are six in Thomson’s, and he doesn’t shirk the fact that his walk is an expedition from one great meat pie to the next.

Thomson is a travel writer, film-maker and inveterate wanderer: at the start of the book, he’s just returned from Peru. It is the rather weird strangeness of some sort of celebration in his local town that persuades him to set about exploring his own ‘complicated and intriguing’ country.

Needing a strong coffee and with no food in the house, I cycled to the local market town. The sound of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being pumped out by a brass band could be heard for some way before I arrived. A celebration was in full swing. Red and white bunting hung from the church, matched by the small flags the children were waving and by the icing on the teacakes sold in the market place; near by was a puppet stall where Punch was setting about Judy with ferocity. The children watching had their faces painted to look like lions or tigers.

Tattoos snaked out of the busts and jeans of the farmers’ wives queuing at the ice-cream van, which had been painted in neon orange with a ‘chill-out’ logo, and was dispensing Skyrockets, Mr Magics, Daddy Cools and Blackcurrant Peep-Ups. A quiff-haired teenager ostentatiously did a wheelie right across the Market Square on his bicycle pimped up with double shocks and chunky chrome spokes. Oblivious to the fairground stalls and the noise, an elegantly overdressed older lady with sunglasses, light wool coat and malacca cane was stooping against the spring breeze, leaning into it.

The band had finished ‘Dancing Queen’ and were now playing a more stately jig. I noticed not so much the music as their hats: a pink stetson playing the guitar, a bowler manning the cello, a Pete Doherty-style pork-pie perched on the lead guitarist and there, on the drummers head, an unmistakable panama, just as I had seen and bought at a small market on the Ecuadorian coast only weeks before.

England has become a complicated and intriguing country. In truth it’s always been one, but perhaps I’m just noticing it more now. The familiar is looks very strange. … I am seized with a sudden desire to explore England.

Thomson is very good at bringing to life, light-heartedly and with good humour, the characters he meets along the way.  Take this encounter, for example:

In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.

I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.

But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit:  once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.

I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.

‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’

Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval  falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.

I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’.  I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones.  He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.

I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.

‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’

It was unanswerable.

But it would be wrong to characterize this as simply a light-hearted read.  Thomson sees the England of the rural south through which he travels (so different to the England with which I am familiar) through eyes that are a bit rock and roll, a tad hippie radical. Indeed, if you read this book, please do not overlook the hilarious appendix, in which the Random House editor lists at length the various individuals and categories of people whom , he alleges, Thomson manages to insult (I don’t know whether this is genuine or not, but it’s a hoot).

More than this, though: Thomson brings erudition to his account.  Travelling along the Icknield Way, Thomson passes the great prehistoric monuments of Maiden Castle, Stonehenge and Avebury, before ending at the Wash near Seahenge. Thomson knows his history, is familiar with the latest archaeological evidence and the most recent scholarly conclusions.  He succeeds in digesting the scholarly sources to provide an informative and entertaining  guide to the context and origin of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon (and more recent) structures along the route.

Recently I listened to the edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Druids, in which, as usual, a group of top-rank academics discussed their area of expertise. After the programme, I went back to the book to check how Thomson’s account of the Druids and Stonehenge stacked up.  It is on the nose:

They have already started to arrive for the solstice, although there  are still some days before it is due.  Among  them  are  the Druids who lead the solstice celebrations. While New Age travellers fondly like to imagine that they are re-enacting Druid ceremonies at a Druid site, this is historically incorrect. The stones were erected many thousands of years before the Celtic prophet-priests became active around 500 BC. While perfectly possible that the Druids may have been drawn to the stones, they would have done so much in the same way as today’s New Age travellers – as pilgrims hoping to tap into the spiritual energy of their forebears.

I see the travellers’ vans lurking in lay-bys and along some of the sandy tracks that lead off the busy roads besieging Stonehenge in a pincer of tarmac: the A3o3 and A344 thunder by unbelievably close, the latter almost clipping one of the outer megaliths, the thirty-five-ton ‘Heelstone’. An unattractive wire fence separates the stones from the cars that stream past.

For Stonehenge represents all that is best and worst about England.  There is the sheer imaginative leap of the decision, whether taken in a day or over several generations, to turn a ring of wooden posts into a circle of gigantic sarsen stones with – the literally crowning glory – stone lintels notched and raised onto them: a triumph of spirituality, of engineering, of ingenuity and of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has distinguished much later English history.

This passage epitomises Thomson’s approach: accurate history, folded lightly into a sometimes humourous account of middle England now, spiced with political savvy and a sprinkling of righteous indignation over things being done to the countryside and aspects of the way we live now.

Next: Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and The Old Ways

See also

On Offa’s Dyke: ‘the landscape flowed away, back to its source’

On Offa’s Dyke: ‘the landscape flowed away, back to its source’
Offa’s Dyke path: looking west to the coast

The weather map in the morning paper said it all: one oval isobar, a lazy ridge of high pressure lapping at the shores of the British Isles. Nothing like it for the whole of this damp, drab summer. Early on, with the dog in the park, there had been frost, now the sky was an expanse of blue, transmitting from beyond the city, as Robert Macfarlane put it in The Wild Places, ‘a longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac’.

In my mind I saw an upland ridge, expansive views across peaceful vales to mountains and the sea: and so we headed out of Liverpool, thirty miles to the Clwydian hills, and one and a half millenia back in time to Offa’s Dyke.

We followed fast roads down through the Wirral, across the ruthlessly canalised river Dee at Queensferry, via Mold through the villages that hug the northern flank of the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding National Beauty.  In Afon-wen we followed the single track lane that leads up to the Moel y Parc TV, radio and mobile phone transmitter.  Leaving the car, we climbed to the section of Offa’s Dyke path that, for 20 miles or so here, follows the ridge of the Clwydian hills south from Prestatyn to Llangollen.

Offa’s Dyke path: looking south to Snowdonia

From the ridge the views extend, uninterrupted, in all directions.  Southwest, across the Vale of Clwyd rose the peaks of the Snowdonian range; in the other direction we could see the whole reach of the Mersey estuary, stretching from the wind turbine array offshore from Crosby to the Runcorn bridge.  The Anglican cathedral shouldered its way above the Liverpool skyline. To the east stretched the hazy blue line of Pennine outriders.  To the west lay the coast, from Rhyl to the Great Orme at Llandudno.

One day past the autumn equinox, the fawns and browns of late summer were scattered with the  pink of heather and rose bay willowherb, brilliant red splashes of rowan berries, and delicate blue drifts of harebells.  Above us a buzzard hovered, and ravens tumbled and dived, their guttural croaking echoing around the hills. Down in the valley we heard the call of a curlew and the cough of a pheasant.  Small flocks of finches swirled above bright yellow gorse.

Once you’re up on the Clwydian hills, the walking is easy along the gently undulating ridge of grass, heather, bilberry and bracken, and the views take your breath away. Six Iron Age hill forts are strung out along the highest points of the ridge, dating from about 800 BC to 43 AD. They vary in size, from the massive Penycloddiau (which we traversed on the first stage of this walk ) to the more compact Moel Arthur, the next peak along the ridge. They dominate the landscape now as they must have done in the past, though very little is known about these sites and their relationship to each other.  They probably served several functions – as military fortifications and villages, summer grazing land, meeting places and sites of ritual, and symbols of status.

Penycloddiau: Bronze age burial chamber at the summit

Penycloddiau was built around 2,500 years ago – the largest hillfort on the Clwydian Range, and one of the largest in Wales.  There is a pond in the centre of the hillfort which may have provided water for the people living inside. Archaeological work has uncovered evidence of clusters of wooden roundhouses within the shelter of the banks and some around the pond. Farmers and craftspeople, skilled at weaving and metal working, would have lived in them.

Penycloddiau has wide sweeping views up to the coast, so is likely to have attracted traders. There may have been regular markets where people came to buy and sell their wares: wool, hides, meat, elaborately decorated jewelry, weapons and tools.

And there is evidence that there was a human presence here long before the Iron Age. At the northern end of the hill there is a Bronze Age burial mound which dates back at least 4000 years – almost two millenia before the hillfort.  A plaque on the side of the mound records that the grassy mound was reconstructed in 2010 to  protect the site of a Bronze Age burial chamber, built around 4000 years ago. The site would then have been a place of prayer and ritual where the cremated remains of important figures in the community were laid  to rest in special pottery beakers.  Like their descendants in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age people were farmers and the pond near the summit would have been highly valued and considered sacred. People gave offerings of livestock and  goods to the water gods to ask for protection and a good harvest.

Penycloddiau: the reconstructed Bronze age burial mound

The excavation at Penycloddiau in 2010 that revealed the Bronze Age burial was carried out by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.  The mound had been heavily eroded by the Offa’s Dyke trail, which runs across the top of it and through the centre of the hillfort. Although no dating evidence was found, archaeologists could distinguish the mound as being Bronze Age.  One of the most obvious discoveries was a ‘robbers’ trench’ – a large hole where the burial should have been – including a rectangular shape cut into the bedrock directly underneath the trench.  Unfortunately for the archaeologists, the robbers were good and took everything, not just treasure.

It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of Penycloddiau: it covers 64 acres of fairly level grassland along the ridgetop.  Ambling slowly, drinking in the astonishing views, it can take half an hour to walk from the northern portal to its southern wall.  This aerial photo gives some sense of the extent of Penycloddiau.

Penycloddiau Hillfort: aerial view

Leaving the southern ramparts of Penycloddiau, we followed Offa’s Dyke path towards the next peak, Moel Arthur. Offa’s Dyke is a massive linear earthwork that stretches 182 miles from Prestatyn to Chepstow in the south, roughly followed by parts of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet high. Its construction was ordered by Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796, one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon times, though his reign is often overlooked due to a limitation in source material.

Offa’s Dyke path: looking south towards Moel Arthur

We continued on the Offa’s Dyke path as it descended steadily from Penycloddiau before passing through a stand of conifers to a valley where there is a parking place on a lane that leads back to Nannerch on the A541.  From here, the path makes a steep ascent to the summit of Moel Arthur.  We decided to leave that for another day.

We retraced our steps, climbing back up to Penycloddiau.  As I walked, treading ground harbouring the remains of human settlement over at least 4 millenia – the Bronze Age burial chamber, the Iron Age fort, the old Roman road that also crosses the ridge, and Saxon Offa’s Dyke – the distant views were of 21st century intrusions into the landscape: the wind turbine arrays off the Welsh coast and in the Mersey estuary, the TV and mobile phone transmitter mast on the ridge, and, on the Cheshire plain, Jodrell Bank radio telescope, searching the universe for evidence of the beginning of time.

In Geoffrey Hill’s poem Mercian Hymns – in which history and memory are mixed, episodes from the life of Offa blended with memories of Hill’s own childhood, his experience of the Second World War and contemporary images from the time of writing in the late 1960s – there is a line which captures this sensation of time flowing through the landscape:

the landscape flowed away, back to its source

Mercian Hymns is a sequence of thirty prose-poems inspired by the remnants of Offa’s Mercia in the landscape. In Old English Mercia meant ‘boundary folk’, and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders.  The main purposes of Offa’s Dyke seem to have been to define the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, and to control trade by limiting movement across the border to defined routes through the earthwork. It may have had an additional defensive purpose, but historians think that would probably have been incidental. Only unchallengeable power could have allowed such a great undertaking, and only in a climate of relative peace between Wales and Mercia could a work of such a scale be achieved. This has suggested to historians that it must have been an agreed frontier.

In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns sequence of prose-poem hymns, the first hymn is a panegyric – ‘The Naming of Offa’ – and echoes the accolades that begin such poems in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.  Offa is similarly introduced with accolades: ‘King’, ‘overlord’, ‘architect’, ‘money-changer’.  Offa was a ‘money-changer’ in the sense that he introduced a new type of coin which became the standard for all subsequent coinage in the Old English period, and even after it.

Offa’s coins demonstrate that he was a contemporary of the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne and sought to stand up to him as an equal. The portrait on a typical coin shows Offa in the style of a Roman emperor with an imperial diadem in his hair.

Offa reformed the Mercian coinage in the 760s to bring it into line with the new-style Carolingian penny. The broader, thinner silver coin became the standard denomination for some six hundred years. From now on all coins would carry the name of the ruler.  These coins weighed the same as Charlemagne’s and could have traded internationally at the same value.

But even more significant is a unique gold coin minted by Offa, now in the British Museum.  It is one of the most remarkable English coins of the Middle Ages because it imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty. It has been suggested that the coin was designed for use in trade. Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.

Standing on Penycloddiau it seems extraordinary that beneath our feet are the remains of a kingdom that, nearly two millenia ago, linked traders who passed along and through the Dyke here with the rest of Europe, the Middle East and beyond.  And yet, as Geoffrey Hill observes at the conclusion of Mercian Hymns, Offa himself vanished from history, leaving behind coins … ‘and traces of red mud’.

Gold imitation dinar of Offa

From Mercian Hymns:

I

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’

[…]

VI

The princes of Mercia were badger and raven. Thrall to their freedom, I dug and hoarded. Orchards fruited above clefts. I drank from honeycombs of chill sandstone.

‘A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers.’ But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness; gave myself to unattainable toys.

Candles of gnarled resin, apple-branches, the tacky mistletoe. ‘Look’ they said and again ‘look.’ But I ran slowly; the landscape flowed away, back to its source.

In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and knees garnished with impetigo.

[…]

XI

Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.

Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.

Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.

Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.

[…]

XXX

And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us      he vanished

he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.

See also

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story
Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo
Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

The siege of Sarejevo began on 5 April 1992 and lasted for nearly four years, until 29 February 1996.  In that time nearly 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing in the city, including over 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children.  The siege, by Bosnian Serb forces of the Republika Srpska, whose President was Radovan Karadžić, constituted a crime against humanity as the the International Criminal Tribunal determined:

The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.

As people died, buildings burned and the city was reduced to rubble, a parallel atrocity took place: the total destruction of the irreplaceable National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the central repository of Bosnian written culture. Among the losses were 700 manuscripts, and a unique collection of Bosnian publications, some from the middle of the 19th century Bosnian cultural revival.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, broadcast on BBC 2 earlier this week, is an outstanding documentary film that, using interviews, original footage and dramatized scenes, tells the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo.

Gazi Husrev Beg, the provincial governor of Ottoman Bosnia in the first half of the 16th century, was the greatest benefactor of Sarajevo. He funded the building of the mosque that bears his name, a madressa and many other buildings. A generous endowment was given to found the library that bears his name. Over time it grew to house thousands of manuscripts and old books.

In this powerful and moving film, directed by Sam Hobkinson, we meet several individuals who worked for the Library during the siege –  including the director, an academic who was translating key texts from Turkish, the Congolese night watchman, and the cleaner.  They tell the story of how they saved the Library’s entire collection from destruction in recent interviews that are intercut with dramatisations of the events they describe, performed by actors.

Dr Mustafa Jahic was Director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library, happy to have been appointed to be in charge of a priceless collection of 10,000 hand-written books and Islamic illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old. He and his co-workers risked death many times over to protect the books.

When the siege of Sarajevo began, the city came under bombardment from shells, and its citizens risked being shot by snipers when they went out into the streets to seek food and water.  Jahic feared for the safety of the library and decided to move its contents to a safer place.  The books were packed into banana boxes and carried box by box through the streets of the city by Jahic and his colleagues. Breaking cover to cross a street, death from a sniper’s bullet could have come at any moment.

The helpers including the library’s cleaner and the night watchman who had come to Sarajevo from the Congo: he could have chosen to flee but his devotion to the library was such that he stayed. The books were moved not once but twice: the second time into the basement of the fire station. But, as the siege dragged on, Dr Jahic still feared for their safety, and so microfilm equipment was smuggled into the besieged city, and the arduous work of copying the manuscripts began.  Often film was destroyed during power failures, and the job had to be done all over again.

The most remarkable part of the story concerns one particular manuscript, A History of Bosnia, hand written in Turkish in the 19th century by Sallih Muvekkit. Shortly before the siege began, Dr. Lamija Hadžiosmanović had borrowed the four volumes and taken them home to begin translating them. In the spring of 1992, warned by her Serbian neighbour in the middle of the night that she was on a death list,  she fled her home, taking with her only a few personal belongings. The manuscript was left in her flat and Grbavica, the part of town where she lived, soon fell to the Serb nationalist army.

A page from the manuscript of A History of Bosnia

When the war ended,  Jahic had succeeded in bringing the whole collection safely through the war – except for the History of Bosnia.  With the siege over, Dr. Hadžiosmanović returned to her home to find it had been wrecked by Serbian soldiers. Her favourite dress was riddled with bullet holes. Almost nothing remained intact. And yet, in a heap of books, she found the manuscript. The very next day she returned it to the library. When the Director saw it he cried.

A manuscript from the Gazi Husrav Beg collection

Here I will note some of the events which have taken place in the city of Sarajevo. For as they say, what has been written endures and what has been remembered fades.

Those are the opening words of Sarajevo Diary (1746) by Mustafa Baseskija, one of the irreplaceable books saved by the library workers during the siege.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.  I recommend it highly.

But – not far from the now-restored Gazi Husrev Beg library, stands a building that tells another, sadder story.  On the night of 24 August 1992,during shelling by the besieging forces from the hills surrounding Sarajevo,  Bosnia’s National Library – a repository of 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts, the country’s national archives, copies of all newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia, and the collections of the University of Sarajevo – was set ablaze.

Low water pressure made extinguishing the flames impossible, but braving a hail of sniper fire, librarians and citizen volunteers formed a human chain to pass books out of the burning building.  Though they carried some 100,000 books from the burning building, almost 2 million publications – 90% of the library’s archives – were lost, including more than 150,000 manuscripts and rare books.

Bombarded with incendiary grenades from Serbian nationalist positions across the river, the library burned for three days.  It was reduced to ashes, along with of its contents.

Among the books rescued from the Museum was one of Bosnia’s greatest cultural treasures, the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah. The work of Jewish calligraphers and illuminators in Islamic Spain, the manuscript was brought to Sarajevo 500 years ago by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. It had been concealed from the Nazis by a courageous museum curator during World War II.

Vedran Smajlović playing in the ruins of the National Library in 1992

The destruction of the National Library was not an isolated casualty of war. All over Bosnia, books became the target of nationalist armies. In Sarajevo, 15,000 manuscripts from the Oriental Institute were destroyed, along with 50,000 books in the Franciscan Theological Seminary Library. In each case, the library alone was targeted; adjacent buildings stand intact to this day. Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadic denied his forces were responsible for the attacks, claiming the National Library had been set ablaze by the Muslims themselves, ‘because they didn’t like its architecture’.

A student in the reading room at the Gazi Husrav Beg Library

Here is an irony: Gazi Husrev-Beg, who built the mosque which houses the library bearing his name that is featured in the film, also built the Hüsreviye Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, between 1531 and 1534.  I wonder what state that building is in at the moment?

Another irony: some of the money which financed the restoration of the Gazi Husrev-Beg library came from Syria.

In his last will and testament, Gazi Husrev-Beg said:

Good deeds drive away evil, and one of the most worthy of good deeds is the act of charity, and the most worthy act of charity is one which lasts forever. Of all charitable deeds, the most beautiful is one that continually renews itself.

The restored Gazi Husrav Beg mosque

See also

For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

‘You can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties, that you cannot say about any other group or minority.’Those were the words of Mehdi Hasan, writing a final comment piece for The Guardian on Tuesday.  They came to mind as I stood before the remarkable portrait of an 18th century West African Muslim that is on display for a limited period at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

William Hoare’s 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the earliest British oil painting of a freed slave – and the first portrait to honour an African subject and Muslim as an individual and equal.  The Museum has given this one-picture exhibition the title, Faith, Slavery and Identity, noting that ‘Djallo had a lasting impact on our understanding of West Afrjcan culture, Black identity and the Islamic faith, but his life raises some uncomfortable questions’.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born into a family of Muslim imams in West Africa in 1701. In 1731, while on a trading mission to the River Gambia to sell two black slaves to the English ship Arabella, Diallo was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported to Maryland where he was made to work on a tobacco plantation. Diallo (known also as Job ben Solomon) escaped, was caught and imprisoned but permitted to write a letter to his father that came to the attention of James Oglethorpe, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe was so moved by the letter that he arranged for Diallo’s purchase and passage to England.

Diallo arrived in London in 1733. Recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, Diallo mixed with high and intellectual society and was bought out of slavery by public subscription.  His portrait was painted that same year by William Hoare, an accomplished artist, who painted many members of Georgian high society. Diallo was himself a high-status, educated and wealthy individual from a family of Muslim clerics. He was born in Bundu (now on the Senegal-Mali border) in West Africa, and as well as his native language, was fluent in Arabic and later learned English while enslaved.  Hoare’s painting depicts Diallo as a man of intelligence, character and compassion and was made at the time when there was a new interest in Islamic culture and faith in Britain, a reflection, perhaps, of  more tolerant values during the Enlightenment.

Through the publication by Thomas Bluett of his Memoirs in 1734, Diallo had an important and lasting impact on an understanding of West African culture, black identity and the Islamic faith. Bluett was on the same ship that brought Diallo to England, and in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, concluded that Diallo was ‘no common Slave’.

Freed from slavery with money raised by public subscription, arrangements were made for Diallo’s return to Africa – a rarity for victims of slavery. Returning to his home town,  Diallo learned that during his absence his father had died, the country had been ravaged by war and his wife had remarried.

Despite his own life having been blighted by slavery, Diallo resumed his own slave trading activities.  An interpretation plaque at the Slavery Museum comments:

Slaves were an accepted part of most African Islamic societies. Many were prisoners of war, although exceptions could occasionally be made if prisoners converted to Islam. The Koran proclaimed that to free a slave was a most praiseworthy act, but although Islam arguably promoted the more benign treatment of slaves (women were generally not separated from their children, and masters did not have the power of life and death), human rights of Muslims and non-Muslims were sometimes still abused.

Three years ago, the National Portrait Gallery raised £100,000 from private donors and won support from Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund to acquire William Hoare’s portrait of Diallo but were beaten at auction by the Qatar Museum Authority.  A temporary export bar prevented the portrait being whisked abroad and now a 5 year cooperative agreement has been reached to lend the painting to the NPG. The Qatar Museum Authority are supporting a programme of conservation and research on the work in London, and the painting will tour the UK before being exhibited in Doha in 2013.

Nearby, the Museum currently has on display this painting by William Windus, entitled Black Boy (c 1844), from the Walker Art Gallery collection. A Museum caption notes:

It could be read as an example of how European artists sometimes treated black people as picturesque subject matter. However, it can also, perhaps more convincingly, be seen as a straightforward realistic portrait.  Windus was born in Liverpool and trained at the Liverpool Academy Schools. This poor boy dressed in rags is traditionally associated with a touching story with a suitably happy ending. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway and been found by Windus on the steps of the Monument Hotel in Liverpool. Windus is then supposed to have employed him as an errand boy. This painting was put in the window of a frame-maker’s shop.  A sailor relative of the boy saw it, found the boy and took him back to his parents. It is unknown whether this story is true or not.

Windus’ image of picturesque poverty would have had a strong appeal in Victorian England. It is also, however, a strikingly direct picture of a boy, shown in a matter-of-fact pose. It does not have any ‘humorous’ props or symbolic details that often accompanied images of black people from the time suggesting lowly status or social inferiority. It is simply an image of a poor boy, similar in style to many other images of the ‘lower classes’ produced at this time.

The Museum adds these notes about Liverpool’s early Black presence:

There have been people of African descent in Liverpool since at least the 1700s.  Some Africans were sold in the town in the 1760s and 1770s but very few enslaved Africans were brought to Liverpool directly from Africa. A number of merchants brought slaves from the West Indies to work as servants in their homes.  Some African chiefs also sent their sons to be educated here and in the 1790s over 50 were at school in Liverpool.  With the development of the palm oil trade after 1807, African seafarers were increasingly employed to crew the ships. Many of them settled on the outskirts of the town, in the area we know as Liverpool 8.

See also