It was my pleasure to be able to cross the 180° W to 180° E line last year (more or less this day), crossing the Pacific Ocean. The feeling of separation, of being thousands of miles from the closest bit of land, was spectacular on its own.
I am not entirely certain what more I can say. For me, this memory is so real I don’t need to use any more words. For anyone reading, these words are mere lines on a screen.
Thinking about it, I can describe a few more things.
One of these would be the sunshine Central Pacific experienced. I never thought it would be like that. I never thought it could be so warm, so calm, so tranquil. But, possibly the name of the ocean is not that wrong even though it can experience horrendous storms. Fernão de Magalhães may have been wrong in the entirety when he named the ocean, but he definitely grasped the occasion of the quiet sea.
The other thing to describe would be the sensation by which the aloneness feels. Sure, I wasn’t actually alone. There were probably about ten to fifteen other people on the vessel I was travelling, but, in general and in the modern world, that is secluded. The closest islands of Alaska and Hawaii were both more than two thousand kilometres away and even so, uninhabited. The closest inhabited place may have been a small town in Alaska.
Added to this distance across the globe I would add the distance above and below. The space above us is forever unlimited, and the space below is normally of no concern to us. Central Pacific in where we were was probably between three and four kilometres deep, and its inhabitants we can only imagine — the last frontier open to us on this globe is the depth of the oceans.
Only water, boundless water, in every direction. What an experience.
One of the strengths of Mr Gibbon (Chapter 45) is his propensity to draw up images from the very moment the original events happened. The abdication of Justin II is exactly one such event.
What makes it so wonderful for me to hear the lamentation of the abdicating monarch is his realisation of all he could have done better in his responsibilities for the people. Hence, the speech with which he greets his successor, Tiberius, is colourful in both wisdom and elegance.
This, I feel, is one of the moments where one realises how fully absolute power corrupts. Justin failed to avoid it and he fell into darkness. He, however, also realised the full extent of the troubles with the people swinging behind a new person, and he managed to extricate himself from that situation. For all that he has experienced, he does not wish Tiberius to go down the same route…
“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honour them, and from them you will derive honour. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, [and he pointed to his ministers,] who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendour of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”
There’s no upside to screwing with things you can’t explain.
That’s very much the takeaway from the ‘Castle’ episode ‘Wrapped Up in Death’. A very good and meaningful phrase uttered by the Captain Roy Montgomery after relating a story from his early detective years, it’s hard to argue with.
Things you can explain with, go ahead. Things you can’t, be aware…
The Antonine Wall is a cousin of the more familiar Vallum Aelium, or Hadrian’s Wall. Was it a sign of imperial hubris by a man who wanted to leave his mark on the world, or an example of unintentional overextension? What did it represent to the hundreds and thousands of men who had seen the previous wall being built to the south? What did it represent to the thousands sent to serve at the very edge of their civilisation, in common contact with people who did not acknowledge the southern customs?
To Victory, the VI cohort of Nervii, under the acting command of Flavius Betto, Centurion of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled its vow.
This vow was to march north and build a new wall where they thought they could draw the limit of civilisation. They were right, for a time — and are we all not right for only a certain time? It is amazing for me to think that such an inscription has preserved through nineteen centuries to come to us. We, the loyal soldiers of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “we gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled” our vow. Many others have done far worse.
Overall, it is a miracle to consider what we do and do not know. We know the names of some of the people who served here. We do not know the names of the forts (excepting one for this wall, but this point is also more generally true in Roman Britain). But, I guess, the people matter more than the places in any case?
When I visited this fort, what I thought about was how a person born in what is modern Glasgow — or near there — shared an identity, a Roman identity, with millions of people from modern Syria to Greece to what is now Morocco. These people had the theoretical rights and opportunities to make themselves into anything they wanted. I am sure in practice this was not as easy, but the simple consideration that for millions of people over thousands of square kilometres, the only language they knew was their very own Latin and the only government they had any reason to think about was their Imperial government. What a thought!
Admittedly, the occupation of the frontier that far north did not last for long. The reasons for this are of more academic interest than relevant for present considerations. Hadrian’s Wall has a similar impact to a visitor: at least if that visitor is me. But what matters more is that this monument to power has come down through time from the latter part of the second century. What have its ramparts seen? What secrets have they heard? Were people regretful to demolish it or to use its resources to build their homes?
What would a Strathclyde farmer in the 8th century have thought of this structure? Did it carry connotations of power, of strength, of survival? Or was it a monument to occupation and a despised foreign government? Again, as with so many of these mysteries that have survived ages, we can never know. All we can do is think, and to place ourselves in the shoes of the people who came before us.
As with so many of these places, I would say that if you can, go and visit it. See what emotions it brings about, and what thoughts awaken in you. I have shown you mine.
For a closing thought:
I like knowing, but in cases where I cannot know, I am happy to speculate. And in cases like this, there is so much we need to speculate about. Further, the speculation leads me to regard in surprise and admiration the entrepreneurial sense of these ancient people. And, what I always wish is that more people would recognise the beauty of the mysteries ancient sites like this present all around the world. Visit them and give them a new life.
Ireland has grown on me since 2015. Every time I go there, I discover something new and something beautiful. The last time this discovery was Newgrange, or more accurately, the Bend of the Boyne — Brú na Bóinne — which stands for a larger area than Newgrange alone (including approximately 40 passage tombs).
What is Newgrange? Who built it? What do we know about it?
The short answer is that we know nothing definitively, and have a lot of guesses. We know it’s old — older indeed than most man-made structures in the world. We know that the present layout for both Newgrange and Knowth (a second major structure in the same area) is a reconstruction based on the best guesses of the archaeologists who uncovered these places in the ’60s.
The what can also be answered by the generic term “passage tomb”, built by the “passage tomb builders”. How innovative. In reality, this reflects what we don’t know. We cannot possibly imagine after fifty-two (!!!) centuries have passed (and at least thirty-three of those without essentially any written legacy!) that we can know or understand the mind of those neolithic architects. What motivated the people to come together to construct such magnificent buildings…
What we do know is that they line up with astral events: Knowth with the spring and autumn equinoxes; Dowth (the third, smallest, and least well preserved of the major passage tombs) with the setting winter solstice sun; and Newgrange with the rising winter solstice sun. What an amazing experience it could have been, in a world without technology, in a world where even the furthest explorers and traders had perhaps not seen the waters beyond the Celtic Sea, to stand on the right day and see the life-giving sun warm the carefully placed central stones in the middle of the life’s work of their preceding generations.
Who were their gods? Who were their lords? Who were they? What were their names?
We shall never know, lest ‘The Light of Other Days’ comes true (and with a minor sadness I see I have not reviewed this book), but what we can know is our feelings after the remoteness of five millennia. What we can imagine is what we would be like if we were there and then. And what we can have a guess at is how alike those people are to us. But we shall never know.
What do they want to express? Who do they want to be? What is it worth writing about publicly?
I’ve had the wish to continue writing actively for a long time — ever since I stopped in 2014 (Goodreads’ reviews don’t count), but I never found the time as it’s so easy to make excuses. And, I think in the time I could have been writing, I was reading. So, perhaps I’ll write better now? Who knows…
But, earlier on this year someone (no disclosure, you know who you are) said that they enjoyed reading what I wrote and asked me whether I was still going at it. The answer, to be accurate, would have been a “no”, but I phrased it as a “maybe” — and it definitely kicked me into motion faster than otherwise. Still, it has taken me two months and 19 days to get this far, but I am here. Which is a start.
What has changed? My (probably) favourite answer to this comes from the film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ where Salah ad-Din so graciously says “Nothing. Everything” to a different question.
The one thing I have enjoyed writing about in all the time I haven’t made actual blog posts has been books, and my reviews for things on Goodreads have at least kept that alive. I also think it’s quite interesting to see how various people review books, but that’s a topic for another time. I feel that what is worth writing about is the cultures we experience and what the thoughts they bring up in us are. Hence it might entirely be I’ll take a step back over the last three years and look back at some places which come up again and again in my mind.
But, to end where I began, I will answer the question I began this by: I write for myself, but there’s more of a reason to “write out loud” when someone else is also interested in those selfsame thoughts. At least that is how I feel right now. Times change. And yet, the more they change the more they stay the same.
Today has been a brilliant day, the sky clear and resplendent; these brilliant days often make me wonder. Firstly, the question to wonder about is what else can be seen under this sky? The answer to this is — literally anything. Similarly, who else could be looking at the sky at the same time?, who else might be wondering the same things?, asking these same questions? Again, it could be anyone. It could also be no one.
Slightly aimless? Perhaps…
But now, what if we try to think of places which have never seen a clear sky? How many of those can there be? If Jupiter’s gaseous clouds hide sentience, what is their concept of a clear sky? What of the people on Titan, or the inhabitants of Venus? Is a clear sky on Mercury the one which burns under the gaze of Sol, or the one which faces the vast emptiness of space?
When we start considering these issues, we are truly lost. Lost since the answers are impossible to comprehend since they are so far out of our normal range of experiences. I wish they weren’t though… That would be the greatest experiment of pathos, the way to awaken tender emotions, that a man can undertake — finding an instance of normality (the reality we know) in the most foreign of environments.
Unfortunately, this is something very difficult to actually practice. It would be good fun though.
Norfolk is really a wonderous place — although it comes to mind that perhaps everywhere is when you spend time there. The beauty of Norfolk that I am talking about today can be ascribed mainly to nature, and the possibility of spending time in nature. Walking is the preferred way for me to do this, but there are obviously many others. But, just to give an idea of the different walks that can be taken here, consider this :
Marriott’s Way, Wherryman’s Way, Weavers’ Way, Peddars Way, Boudicca Way, Angles Way are just few of the intra-county long walks. These connect Norwich, Thetford, Great Yarmouth and many other smaller cities to each other, the sea, and Suffolk. I have thus far walked a small distance on the Marriott’s Way as well as on the Weavers’ Way (from Aylsham to North Walsham. So, I have made contact with two and got many to investigate still.
What might be my point here is that I am trying to visit these trails and do that more often now it is slightly summery. And when I do, I shall try to phrase my thoughts on those trails as well!
Note that I am sure that other counties have similar opportunities, but I simply don’t know about those. Can’t do anything about that really — there is always so much to see when one does get out and looks about!
Note furthermore that there are few really good places to get information on their exact routes. However, the Norfolk County website is a good place to start from for anyone interested.
It will give you, my reader, an indication of my trust and faith in the WordPress engine that until a few days ago I did not believe that justifying text was possible here. That mistake has been resolved.
That is a suitable lead-in to the topic of typesetting — it is something most people spend very little time on, but after my dissertation and other university works definitely one of the more notable issues in my mind. Presentation, in the end, is everything. Especially when we talk of written pages where no conversation can add to what the reader sees. A question arises: If the written work has no form, no beauty, what value could its content have?
An example of great importance is the use of non-breaking spaces and dashes. It adds so much if one knows that the writer of the piece aimed for that superb elegance of correction in how lines start and in what pairs of words (or numbers) appear together.
Dashes are another thing — which one to use (how many people even know of the different ones and their proper application?) and how to create it. I only lately discovered a way in MS Office to create an em-dash. But these differences are the key.
Mostly because of those differences, I have had it in mind to re-process some of my university works to eradicate such errors for future purpose. It would be of very little benefit to anyone, but just maybe worth it in case someone wanted to read anything. I don’t know if they will or if they even should, but at least that would be being prepared.
In the end, what we write in this day and age is so much of a reflection of who we are that the small differences are what will matter and keep on mattering. For that reason if for nothing else (I personally find typesetting a very interesting topic in itself), it is worth knowing the correct way of doing things. And it is worth using that knowledge.
Also: How is it that ski commentators always seem slightly insane?
It is an odd coincidence that lately I have been able to remember my dreams far more than I used to. Coincidence I say because it would also seem that my dreams have become more interesting than in the past. Obviously though, this could only be a reflection of the fact that I remember, by which I also appropriate more importance to these dreams.
When I think of the dreams I have had lately, I have to say that mostly when I wake up I am confused as to whether what happened in the dream might have happened instead on the day before. Since the events I see fall in line with the things I am concentrating on in ‘real’ life, the similarities only confuse me more.
It might be difficult to describe it any better terms unless this feeling has been experienced in person. But, think of this: Of the things I can remember, the most memorable was something that either happened on Friday or in the dream on that day. I haven’t been able to determine which it was up to this point, and I will probably remain unable to do so. Maybe this inability to categorize it as either is the main reason for which I appreciate it that much — the uncertainty I face is fun.
There have been a number of other events as well, but I will not lay them out here. It was more that I wished to describe the general sensation. In a way, it has made me think I live in a dreamworld. Once I lost the capability to define whether a dream had been a dream, the only way to continue on was to say that anything seen in a dream might have happened in ‘reality’ as well. So, if something went wrong or contrary to plans, it would make more sense to avoid it even if it seems as if the original was part of a dream. It pays to be cautious.
In a way, would a dream not be the subconscious’ way of warning us from things we should not do? And all the more so if it does it in a way where the warnings resonate greatly with daily life and results that I would not see come true.
There is also the small possibility that if my dreams feel real, my reality might have become a dream… How would one go about resolving this particular conundrum?
So, as inconclusive as this post has been, I have said what I meant to say. Life feels more like a dream since my dreams have continued on from the experiences of the day, with this sense of similarity acting as an anchor on life itself. I am still here, and so is the day in which I live. The dreams come at night, but the next morning it might feel as if I have just woken from a long yesterday. And I think I am better off for it.
‘From dream to dream we dream, and today we dream anew.’