Newstead Abbey & Gardens

A few weekends back I had the chance to visit Newstead Abbey. Or, rather, I should say I happened upon that place by chance on the way somewhere else. The Abbey and the Gardens around it looked so wonderful though, that I took the time to look around and discover that new terrain. Apparently, I learned later, it is a relatively well known place in England, and there definitely were many visitors when I was there. I suppose that its central location between Nottingham and Mansfield would guarantee that it is relatively close to a few population centres…


Anyways, the more important bit than the Abbey itself was the Abbey Gardens. These were a truly magnificent site, and I would very much enjoy a return visit. What was maybe most interesting about that was how it had been organised — the entire site operated based on a plan, and the sections were all styled differently. The gardens were also appropriately named; thus there existed a Japense Garden, an American Garden, a French Garden, a Spanish Garden, and so forth. One of my favourites, most assuredly, was the Japanese Garden — it did make me think of a more typical Japanese garden, and it was very well styled.


The lake that made up half of the property border was also most considerable. I can imagine many Lords, still while the entire House and Garden were in process of construction, walking by it and trying to visualise the result that was so clear in their minds. There are a few more pictures, I would add, some of which show the House (Abbey, as it stands now) and others the gardens behind it, designed quite separate from the rest of the domain.


Also, it is worth mentioning that this house has its position in the literary history of Britain, for it was the ancestral home of the poet to become Lord Byron. The place never looked as good when he was there, from what I was made to believe, but soon afterwards (early 19th century) it was restored and built back on a far grander scale. The place also seems to have been open to public from an early day (mid-19th century) when people could enter and take a look around for a small sum.


I am looking forward to when I can visit the place again.


‘Anne Boleyn’, H. Brenton

I had the great pleasure of going to theatre yesterday — the play I saw in the Maddermarket Theatre was ‘Anne Boleyn’, written by Howard Brenton. This was the first time I went to this theatre, but quite definitely it shall not be the last. I enjoyed the play very much indeed, quite possibly the main reason for this being the wonderful character of Anne herself. She was brilliant, there is no other way to describe it.

Of the surprises that the play cast towards me, a definite one was bringing James I into the action. Thinking about it slightly more made the overall setting fit though. It was an interesting way of looking back at the tumultuous period of Henry VIII, and, from my perspective, definitely an unique one.

What enthralled me most was the way in which Anne was characterised; she was a Queen in name and deed, and as Cromwell’s character muttered later, he had had enough with politicking women. Anne definitely had her ideas and did her best to carry them through, and I think that was for the best, if not for the best for her. Missing a head can generally be considered a problem…

However, with the vision that the play suggests, would Anne truly have minded the loss of her own head for the progress that England achieved in the direction she hoped it would?

The play is probably rightly called slightly too ‘kind’ in Anne’s direction and with her character (I dug up a review to see what others think), but it is incredibly difficult for any of us now to divine the motives of people from centuries ago. There is nothing to say that Mr Brenton’s approach is not the more correct one from the generally demonstrated ‘woman on the prey’.

As a piece of alternative thinking, therefore, if in nothing else, this play is worth the time. And if the character of Anne you see is as envigorating and strong as she may have been in real life, as was the case yesterday, that much better indeed!

Seating Arrangements on Trieres

I read an interesting article earlier today (found here) on how our probable conclusions for triremes have been wrong. I found the article firstly very enlightening and secondly very interesting as well: there’s the question of what a triere actually looked like, but this coexists with our wish to impose our own thoughts on the ancient concept.

So, the suggestion goes: men were three abreast in total, outside rows rowing either side and the centre row rowing both sides. It is an interesting idea, and sounds like a reasonable compromise between available manpower and the strength of a single ship (although how can we guess what Athenians thought reasonable?).

Now, one has to note that the idea of the oars all being on one level (or, sometimes on two) with men in three rows is one of relative simplicity, especially when considering the alternatives that are considered in the same topic (three separate levels of oars). What follows from simplicity is that it would also have been the easiest way to train the men to be in rhythm, and without rowing in rhythm much of the energy would have been wasted. Simplicity really has to be the key for things to succeed in building a fine ship.

And that is one of the reasons for which I quite like this new theory.

‘Cloud Road’, J. Harrison

This book started out very slow — my thoughts on its quality ranging from one extreme to the other. After all, how can we describe the wonders of the Andes in mere words? Especially with the skill the author was displaying to begin with. But, and this is the crucial issue, the author’s style changed half-way through the book and that was definitely for the better.

First, I’ll add that Mr Harrison included a very helpful number of comments on the areas he passed through, musing over their history and politics when he could. In a way, therefore, this book acted both as a history of the Tahuantinsuyu as well as the people there — something far different from the single-minded travel writing I had expected. And that was a very good change for not only did I learn plenty of the history of the places, I would now know to look at these places were I to go to Peru. In a way, therefore, it was not so much as a travel book than a guide, and that side of the book really does need to be praised.

The style of the author was excellent in the last three sections of the book. I do not know what changed, but the tone became more resigned and therefore more powerful. If an author is unwilling to write of how things are, then the words feel forced and the story suffers. But, as soon as Mr Harrison got past the first obstacles of that kind, his prose took on an eloquent form, intermixed with humour and tangents on geography/history/politics.

That is one of my main reasons for liking this work as much as I do. Especially since based on the beginning of the book I was doubting whether there would be value in reading it to the end, but I am very happy I did so.

The one other aspect that the author describes which is not usually seen in travelogues are the emotions that he goes through. I believe that this is part of what makes the book feel more real. These emotions also guarantee that there are more stories than the one of the walk down the Inca’s Royal Road, and I found it interesting to try to figure out what would happen. Therefore, I have to say that in many ways there was only one way this book could have ended.

Opinion: On the Prevalence of Nelson

Nelson. He always comes up as the first name, and I don’t think he should. Now, let me say that I am a great admirer of Nelson for the victories he won and for the mindset he carried on (of decisive close combat). ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates’ is a definitive example of a brilliant mind that adapted to situations in a quick and comprehensive manner. Victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar are similarly choreographed — any naval lord would have been happy to win them. But it was not anyone who did — it was Horatio Nelson.

And yet that should not blind us to the fact that there were tens of men of similar capacity and capability in the Royal Navy. To name a few Edward Hawke, Richard Howe, John Jervis, George Rodney, James Saurmarez, and Edward Pellew deserve to be ranked in the highest echelons of the serving officers in the late 18th century (and early 19th). If two names were to be picked from the above, then Nelson should be placed in context alongside Richard Howe and John Jervis. Theirs were, after all, the previous victories for Great Britain. Nelson’s victories may have been ‘greater’, but it should also be kept in mind that the Glorious First of June was the greatest victory in nearly a century. Cape St Vincent outdid that in a matter of years. The Nile followed after, and Trafalgar only after that. It was a succession of victories.

It is indeed the type of men that Horatio Nelson served with that allowed his personality to grow into the fighter he became. Thereby, the laurels he won also reflect on the men he served with, and that — if nothing else — is the reason why we should keep those names in mind.

The other angle that the subject is worth looking at is knowing general history. It might be argued that it is best if we know some basics and that Nelson is part of these basics. Though in theory it would be worth agreeing with such an argument, I could also liken it to saying that it is enough to know the Sun exists alongside the Earth. A comparison too extreme? Perhaps. My point is that all knowledge is worthwhile, and to pretend in our daily discourse (which does ever so often touch upon the history of Britain where two names crop up — Nelson and Wellington: and I disagree with both, but the story of Wellington I shall leave for a different time) that they were there alone, giants of men, commanders of legions, is wrong.

Nelson and his achievements are a follow-on to the morale of the sailors from the increased rations & salaries agreed to by Lord Howe, and the victories won in the beginning of the war. Every step builds upon the previous, and we should strain ourselves to realise that it was only a man who died in 1805. He was an admiral and, indeed, a very fine admiral, but his work was carried on as successfully by his colleagues who continued to sail the oceans.

The next time one thinks of Nelson, let that thought be supported by the campaigns and blockades of France enforced by John Jervis, or the Indian Ocean campaigns won by Edward Pellew, or something else entirely. Let us think in systems, for our histories are the product of systems. Nelson is a thought, a single solitary thought. The Royal Navy fighting for twenty years against the French and Spanish is a system. Nelson is a branch in that system, one of many branches. The laurels might well rest on some of the other ones every now and then, for the other heads also deserve them.

Royal Navy: Steam, Steel & Dreadnoughts

There are many comments I could make about this series, but I think the major point that I will make is that it is average all round. Average, or even below that. Now, I am generally well versed in the 18th and 19th century naval histories, and that led me to think that this program could provide for a general overview of the entire history of the Royal Navy. I was mistaken.

Why was I mistaken would be the question to answer, but I’ll first describe what the series was made up of. The episodes concentrated on the history on a periodical basis. The first episode started by looking at the period from 1500 to 1599, the following ones continued by looking at 1600 to 1805, 1806 to 1918, and lastly 1919 to the ‘Present Day’. So, there exists a continuity in time that tries to demonstrate how and why changes took place in the Royal Navy. But, the way in which this happens is very haphazard.

The Anglo-Dutch wars are covered in good detail as is Trafalgar and Jutland. Sir Francis Drake’s adventures including Gravelines are also quite well documented. But what is entirely missing is the notion that anyone else could have been the source of the triumphs of Nelson, and this is the case generally throughout all the episodes. Neither is his victory in Copenhagen mentioned. Thankfully, Jellicoe’s actions in Jutland are supported by the narration although that wording is still weak. In many ways this series could instead be called “Nelson’s Navy”.

And that is where my misgivings start. Nelson was one of the finer admirals of the Royal Navy, but the show completely ignored that Nelson would possibly not have been in the position he was in had he not served under John Jervis in his earlier days. Nor do they mention the great and innovative victories by the same sir John. Lord Howe is completely ignored though he was the first of the admirals in the Revolutionary War to bring home a resounding victory. Likewise, his negotiations with the sailors were very important. A further event which I felt should have been mentioned was the trial of Admiral Byng. In many ways, that trial had to distinctly alter how officers felt about their duty.

And if I now take into account these inaccuracies (or, rather, omissions) in the period with which I am most familiar, the question becomes naturally what has happened to the periods that I am not as familiar with. The authors could have omitted similarly important or tradition-building events, and I would not have a clue. Which is, in the end, the main reason for me being disappointed by this series.

‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’, S.M. Wilson

Sean Michael Wilson is a person I have already commented on twice recently, in the posts on The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure. ‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’ is the third book on Japanese martial philosophy that Mr Wilson has transcribed as a graphic novel. The major difference in reading this one and the others was that it was my first introduction to Issai Chozanshi’s major work, unlike the other two which I had previously read in long form.

To begin with, I’ll say that I have now listed the full book form of this as one of the next things to read. That is indicative of how much I enjoyed this piece. But, I suppose, the enterprising reader might wonder why this is so…

I think the main reason comes from the form that the stories take. The demon’s discuss martial arts with each other and their discussions are later exemplified in parables where animals lecture each other. The most skilled in the martial arts is an old cat that we only hear about, but his apprentice is another cat. The parable of the cats is probably the one I appreciated most, partly since cats make for a very good story (as Haruki Murakami has also brought out) but in other ways there is a very good lesson in that story — but I’ll leave it up to the reader to look the story up.

In that and many other ways, I think the idea of having Minamoto Yoshitsune learn all of his secrets and skill from the demons in the forests is a very prescient one. It is a form which made me listen more as I looked at the samurai leaning against trees so that he could better overhear the demons. I wanted to hear the words I saw written, as I saw the young Yoshitsune listen…

And that I think is the greatest strength of something like a graphic novel. The philosophic tradition comes through well and it is in many ways more inspiring than the words on their own. The images add life and sense to the words, and even though Issai Chozanshi’s main treatise is no doubt as compelling even if slightly more difficult to comprehend, I think this was a very good introduction!

‘Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai’, S.M. Wilson

In addition to the ‘The Book of Five Rings’ I described yesterday, Sean Michael Wilson has applied the same treatment to two other philosophical Japanese treatises. One of them, ‘Hagakure’, is the one that I shall comment on today. ‘Hagakure’ (by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) is very much a different book to the one Miyamoto Musashi wrote, but I think the graphic novel/manga approach works here as well.

The story is covered in a way which works very well — the teacher, Tsunemoto-dono, describes events that others have passed on to him as well as ones that he has seen in his own long life. The person listening these stories is a young aspiring samurai. In the course of these stories, the two pass through the relevant bits of a nobleman’s education in how people should behave in everyday lives.

Tsunemoto is an interesting person since many things that he says or reflects upon are somewhat contrary to what people thought at the time (insofar as I understand). To bring one example, his thoughts on the 47 ronin story : the ronin did wrong by waiting a few years since the target of their vengeance could have escaped the vengeance by natural death, or something else could have happened. The ronin should have drawn their swords and charged the house of the enemy without regard to anything else.

In many ways, I think the drawings make the words of the old master live with a new vigour. It is a great pity that not all of the stories from the book are made into graphic stories, but I suppose that it is difficult to think of good ways to turn short thoughtful samurai parables into anything different.

I also appreciated the afterword by the translator, William Scott Wilson. The other version of ‘Hagakure’ I have does not include that or anything alike, so it was a surprise for me to read the alternative meaning of the well-known and quote phrase, ‘The Way of the Samurai lies in death.’

Most of all, I think that Mr Wilson has emphasised the interesting parts of the treatise in the best possible way in this graphic novel — their memorability is far better than before. The phrase that has stayed with me is:

It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance!

‘The Book of Five Rings’, S.M. Wilson

‘The Book of Five Rings’ is a well-known work by the Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Sean Michael Wilson took this work of art and transformed it into a graphic novel, adapting the teachings of Miyamoto to a very different form of art than the original.

I have to say first and foremost that I thought the idea compelling, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. My wish is that it could have included more of the original writings, but I may simply be mistaken in the extent in which they have been adapted. Insofar as there is talk of the drawings complementing the story, this book is a gem.

One of the finest moments, I think, is close to the end of the book, just before the Book of Emptiness, where the last few drawings suggest eventualities but no clear results. However, from what the person in the book — the storyteller, Miyamoto Musashi himself — from what this character has told us, the suggestion is not a very difficult one.

In many ways I think it very difficult to describe a graphic novel, especially one based on a philosophical treatise, in sentences contrary to emotions and thoughts. For the pictures are meant to evoke thoughts and images in the mind, and I think that in this they work better than the classic translation by Thomas Cleary (whose translations are also the basis for this work) since the drawings emphasise the words — the suggestions on how to bear oneself become reality in the provided drawings.

And I think that clarity might be the finest bit of this work. The book is definitely worth a try, even though the approach might seem unconventional to begin with.

‘Bismarck: A Life’, J. Steinberg

I started this biography of Bismarck a very long time ago. I finished it today. It has probably taken me a year and a half to finish it, but that is only because I mainly read it when I had nothing else going on book-wise. Admittedly, the style of the book is rather heavy but in many ways I think that is the way Bismarck needs to be described. It would be difficult to carry the serious aspect of the man who governed so much for so long in lighter tones.

Mr Steinberg brings to life this man who served three Emperors of Germany, created the Empire, and who was still willing to dispose of it just to retain power for a longer period of time. In his mind, in the mind of the Prince Bismarck, power was everything and disobedience was not allowed. He was the state, and the state was him. Only… it was not. The state was the Emperor.

Wilhelm I and his relationship with the Minister-President and Chancellor is touched upon in considerable length in this work, and I have to say I am surprised by the amount of manipulation that went on. Alongside that, one has to keep in mind that the Queen/Empress Augusta had her wishes and plans, and the Crown Prince and Princess their own as well. The court of the Hohenzollern was an interesting place, but the presence of Bismarck made it very different to what it would have been otherwise.

The author, in a number of different places, remarks upon the extraordinary good luck of Bismarck to have served Wilhelm, and for Wilhelm to have lived to such an old age. The hint is very clear — Wilhelm was the King/Emperor that Bismarck could serve, for his moods and wishes would not work as well against either Friedrich III or Wilhelm II.

Now comes the time in which I have to lament that the book takes the general English approach and uses William instead of Wilhelm and Frederick instead of Friedrich. Yet, other German names are retained in their original forms. This can lead to some confusion, and I would generally prefer the original to be kept throughout. Or it might be that I am confused now…

Back to the book : Following Bismarck’s life from the early days, a very different aristocrat to what I originally thought he was revealed himself. The photo we generally see and picture of the man is one of military bearing and dignity. I was surprised to learn how manufactured that image was, and how Bismarck avoided military service. I am appalled at how Bismarck treated his friends and allies. But, I still think I understand him. He had one wish, and that wish was power.

This book brings out what a man’s wish for power can mean. The extents to which the Prince would descend or ascend only to maintain his own hold on power are staggering. And, yet, it is a story of others alongside the Iron Chancellor — others such as the notable Liberals Ludwig Windthorst and Eduard Lasker. Indeed, I think that the story that bears telling alongside that of Bismarck is that of Windthorst who managed to outmaneuver the cunning Chancellor on a number of occasions.

And, yet, this book did not set out to describe the others. It set out to tell us a story of a man who ruled, and to tell this story without unnecessary embellishments. I believe it is the truth as close to it as we can so long afterwards when we read the words on this Prince of Germany, who wished himself to be simply known as

‘A faithful German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I’

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