Category Archives: Britain

Psycho-Geographies

Inspired by this post by an old secondary school friend (which is co-incidentally sort of about Mills) – I have been thinking a little bit about conceptions of space and how it influences us.

The author of the piece comments in the footnotes that (as a consequence of growing up in Cornwall) “for a long time [I] believed that everywhere could be divided into: Cornwall, Up-Country, North, Scotland. I think Wales somehow came under Cornwall, or perhaps Elsewhere. Anyway, it resulted in a belief that Newcastle and Birmingham were right next to each other, as indeed were Dorset and London, and that everywhere in Scotland was between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The realisation that this was not the case has resulted in an enduring fascination with pyschogeography and perceptions of place, and occasionally, some very dubious travelling decisions.”

Having also grown-up for the most part in Cornwall and, although I had previously given little thought to it being a shared conception, I also grew up with a slightly vague sense of place which consisted of: Cornwall; up-country (everything between Plymouth and London, and Wales); London; The North (everything from London to Glasgow except Edinburgh but probably including most of Ireland); and Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow & everything north of Glasgow). I also sort of absent-mindedly believe there is nothing to the west of Cornwall but The Sea (anything but the Atlantic ceases to feel like ‘real sea’) and that going east covers the entire rest of the world.
I have always considered that my sense of geography is simply very poor through lack of knowledge – I would struggle to locate most European cities on a map, am similarly bad at naming any of the old Soviet bloc countries and get considerably worse the further outside the realms of the Roman Empire you ask me to go; indeed my geography of Cornwall itself is somewhat hazy and is based entirely on up, down, and over from my home village (plus anything north of about St. Austell was suspiciously close to up-country). However, seeing a strikingly similar sense of place articulated by someone with a similar (and yet notably different) background has drawn me back to half-formed ideas in my thesis.

As part of of my research I read Katherine Clarke’s “Between Geography and History” and began to think about how time and place are entwined and separated in our writing and in that of the ancient Greeks, at the time I wanted to analyse approaches to ancient writing about Britain without really going into its meaning for more recent historiography but..

  1. How is the concept of place, when it is subjective, centred on one’s own location and judges other places based on their proximity and relevance to that location, echoed in the process of writing local history?  The local historical text is able to outline the development of the place as situated within the flow of people, knowledge and goods to and from it as well as literally describing events from that place’s point of view (in some senses this has more in common with historical writing that privileges individual actors than say process-driven historiography like Marxist writing – how does this affect how we view it?).  Although Cornish writers are often painfully aware of the peripheral status of Cornwall in relation to the political hub of London (or Rome) they are able to re-centralise it within the narrative and are often keen to do so. The idea of this historical imagination ‘mapping’ onto/paralleling the geographies constructed by Cornish peoples suggests a psychological connection as well as the overt political one though perhaps that should be considered a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario.
  2. How does this fit into the process of geographical writing and especially travelogues… Most travel narratives (and antiquarian texts especially) that I have read featuring Cornwall describe both the physical features and the historical points of interest (to be fair that was of course why I was reading them) and come from either an outsider on a journey or as a guide for tourists to the county – presumably this is because one does not describe the countryside you see everyday to someone else who sees it everyday – but I have not compared whether the spatial journeys to-and-from have an impact on the way the historical component comes across

Food for thought at any rate..

Some Bibliography on Roman Britain & Time-Travel

Mostly for my own reference (apologies for the mixed referencing styles):

Primary Sources

  1. E. Nesbit (1906) The Story of the Amulet
  2. S. Cooper (1977) The Silver on the Tree
  3. G. Clews (xxxx) Jessica Jones and the Gates of Penseron
  4. J. Jarman (2001) The Time-Travelling Cat and the Roman Eagle London: Andersen Press [Also online resource: Julia Jarman ‘The Time-Travelling Cat and the Roman Eagle’ 17 March 2009 http://www.juliajarman.com/books/booksinbetweens/143-ttcromaneagle.html ]
  5. Haynes, Toby, dir. 2010a. ‘The Pandorica Opens’ [New] Doctor Who 5:12 (212a) UK: BBC One [First broadcast BBC One: 19 June 2010]
  6. Weiland, Paul, dir. 1999. Blackadder: Back and Forth UK: New Millennium Experience Company, Sky, Tiger Aspect Productions [33 mins.]

On Time-Travel

On Classics in fiction & British life

  • Haverfield, Francis. 1912. [2nd ed.] The Romanization of Roman Britain Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Hingley, Richard. 2008.The Recovery of Roman Britain 1586-1906: A Colony So Fertile Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • P. Ayres (1997) Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England Cambridge University Press: Cambridge/New York
  • V. Hoselitz (2007)Imagining Roman Britain: Victorian Responses to a Roman Past Royal Historical Press/Boydell Press: Woodbridge
  • S. Stroh (2009) “The long shadow of Tacitus: Classical and modern colonial discourses in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Scottish Highlands,” in Transcultural English Studies: Theories, Fictions, Realities, F. Schulze–Engler & S. Helff. Rodopi: Amsterdam/Atlanta pp. 339-354.
  • Goodman, Penelope. 2010. ‘Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman’ Weavings and Unpickings:  http://weavingsandunpickings.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/doctor-who-and-the-plastic-plastic-roman/ 
  • Hobden, Fiona. 2009. ‘History meets fiction in Doctor Who, “The fires of Pompeii”: A BBC reception of ancient Rome on screen and online’Greece and Rome (Second Series) 56.2: 147-163 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0017383509990015
  • Joshel, Sandra et al. 2001 Imperial projections: ancient Rome in modern popular culture Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  • S. Piggot (1989) Ancient Britons and the antiquarian imagination: ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency Thames and Hudson: London 
  • S. Smiles (1994) The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination Yale University Press: New Haven CT/London
  • K. Trumpener (1997) Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ

On the individual books/authors

  • Bar-Yosef, Eitan. 2003. ‘E. Nesbit and the Fantasy of Reverse Colonialization: How Many Miles to Modern Babylon?’ English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 46.1: 5-28
  • Butler, Charles. 2006. Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press and Children’s Literature Association
  • Drout Michael D. C. 1997. ‘Reading the Signs of the Light: Anglo Saxonism, Education and Obedience in Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising’ The Lion and the Unicorn 21.2: 230-25
  • Rahn, Suzanne. 1985. ‘News from E. Nesbit: The Story of the Amulet and the Socialist Utopia’ English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 124-144
  • Rheimer, Mavis. 2006.  ‘The beginning of the End: Writing Empire in E. Nesbit’s Psammead Books’ In E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: A Children’s Classic at 100. Ed. Raymond E. Jones. Lanham, MD, Toronto, and Oxford: Children’s Literature Association and Scarecrow Press, Inc pp. 39-62
  • Smith, Michelle. 2009. ‘E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation and Gender’ English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 52.3: 298-311
  • Carroll, Jane S. 2011 Landscape in Children’s Literature New York, NY/Abingdon: Routledge
  • C. Butler & H. O’Donovan (2012) Reading History in Children’s Books Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke
  • V. Krips (2002) The Presence of the Past: Memory, Heritage, and Childhood in Postwar Britain Taylor and Francis e-publishing

Early Career Seminar

ECS Hosted by the ICS and this week featuring me:

History, Identity and Independence: Children’s Time-travel to Roman Britain

British writing has often pondered the question of which areas of history have had the most impact on modern national identity and over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries a dialogue about the influences of the Romans and the Celts developed which then spilled over into modern fiction. By looking at some examples of the way that “natives” and Romans are compared and contrasted in children’s literature this paper hopes to open up ideas about the way that specific qualities and ideals are both associated with specific peoples and are also brought together as exemplars for the modern Briton. I am particularly interested in how authors negotiate and marry the issues of “conquest vs. independence” with a desire to inherit both the Roman influenced intellectual developments of democracy and philosophy and the ideals of creativity and pastoral innocence allegedly embodied in the Celts. By looking at examples that focus on modern children travelling through time this paper aims to investigate how authors have called their reader’s attention to similarities and differences between ancient and contemporary societies and the way that the cultures are evoked within the novels. In this way I hope to demonstrate that Roman Britain was not only a key part of our conception of the major parts of British history but also a useful tool for discussing ideas about Empire and ‘multi-culturalism’.

SFF 4(?)

Aaaargh sorry for the exceptionally long delay.

Still on Day 2 but post lunch
Session 13: Divine Updates – Myths of the Classical World in Popular Literature.
This panel was all by academics from the University of Zurich, I’m not sure I quite caught a unifying theme to the papers but each of them offered me a whole load of food for thought.

The first was by Meret Fehlmann on the re-imagining of classical myth (and religion) in the novels of Robert Graves and Elizabeth Hand.
I haven’t read anything by Hand and I haven’t read the novels by Graves that Fehlmann discussed (though perhaps unsurprisingly I have read his Greek Myths & I, Claudius) but I am quite conscious of the fact that his interpretation of pre-historic Goddess worship has been influential so I was interested to see how she traced his ideas and reactions to them. Fehlmann demonstrated 2 points: firstly how Graves developed his ideas about the cult of the mother Goddess from his version of the Golden Fleece into his book 7 Days in New Crete to suggest a kind of utopian re-balancing of society and secondly how Hand re-wrote those ideas about the cult and ultimately rejected their usefulness.
Graves’ ideas about both the importance of women in cultic scenarios and the notion of the necessity of destruction in society have their basis in a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropological enquiries, including those of Jane Ellen Harrison. The ideas are played out across swathes of pagan and feminist literature but were fairly quickly rejected by scholars and then ultimately by those groups too. It is interesting to see the literary positions that demonstrate the trends but unsatisfying to consider how much more there could be done on tracing lines of influence… My brain was so buzzing with the possibility of showing how JEH influenced 70’s lesbian pagan feminism I was quite distracted.

Next up.. a Paper on the Watchmen graphic novel/comic from Scott Brand

This paper served as a gazetteer of almost every classical allusion the speaker could find. Naturally there was an interesting discussion on the impact of using Juvenal (quis custodiet..) as the central theme of the novel (albeit mediated through American politics) and some focus on the Promethean elements of the characters. However, to my taste the paper as a whole was a little light on analysis (although it is only fair to note that this was not his normal research topic) but instead offered up some interesting possibilities for further analysis as well as illustrating how classical material can serve as ornamental short-hand and foreshadowing. I would particularly like to see someone with greater skill than I pick apart the interplay between the Greek, Roman and Egyptian identities and images of the character of Ozymandias.

The 3rd paper of the panel entitled “Where’s the glory in repeating what others have done? Mediating the Ancient and the Modern in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series” was from Petra Schrackmann.

This rather fascinating paper took great care to show how the novels actively re-write ancient mythology in order to make it more relevant to modern children. Schrackmann especially argued that by juxtaposing the modern and the mythological Riordan was able to critique both and that he used the books to create a modern mythos that especially highlights issues with the education system as well as providing a pathway to the growth of personal identity. It is clear that the series shares some of its central themes with many other books for its target age-range, specifically the notion of the power of knowledge and learning to negotiate independence through issues of agency but the speaker nicely highlighted why the often fatalistic Greek myths could still be used fruitfully.

This paper was followed rather well thematically by the final paper of the panel by Aleta-Amiree Von Holzen on Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles. I have to confess that not only have I not read these ‘middle grade’ stories, I hadn’t even heard of them before the paper. Nonetheless the speaker competently outlined the key plot points before explaining some of the ways that the author took some of the same basic premises of the Percy Jackson series but created a different feeling in order to offer thoughts on the nature and purpose of power. The paper suggested that Ursu’s modernising of the myths sometimes inserts a slightly comic tone into the stories but the disregard of humanity shown by the Gods has a lot in common with the  ancient tragedies. Von Holzen also drew out the importance of the Promethean myth to the Chronicles’ consideration of free-will and the role of the Gods in a modern world – a classical connection that (as well as being discussed indirectly in a later paper) surely ought to be brought out more in modern writing.

In summary, despite (or perhaps because of) the fairly diverse directions of these modern mythological re-tellings/re-purposing it was clear that writers have been very conscious of the difficulties of using such a different cultural medium as ancient myth in their own work but also that they can use that to their advantage.

Right, better stop there before this gets any longer.
Monday morning next (Nick Lowe’s plenary will I think act a as kind of conclusion to the whole conference)

The Phoenicians and Me

I am currently re-writing part of my thesis – specifically I am trying to tease out some examples of Cornish historians who write about Phoenicians and justify their work with classical texts and trying to make some observations on trends and possible reasons for them.

It wasn’t a big part of my thesis per se since what I wanted to focus on was the role of the more traditional Greek and Roman classical civilisations on historiography. Nonetheless not only is it impossible to talk about the ancient Cornish tin trade without talking about the Phoenician myth but it turns out that one of the key uses for classical texts in building the historiography of Cornwall is “proving” that the Phoenicians came to Cornwall.
The Classical reception scholar in me is fascinated by the way that not only do the ancient works form the basis and framework for historical research but also how quickly they become cheap acontextual citations to make a point and how important the phraseology of a translation can turn out to be for the non-specialist. But…
…that is what part of the thesis was about not what the article is supposed to say.

I want to point out that there are patterns for discussing the topic and that they show us some of the key concerns of the historians involved.
Specifically, the writers always use Strabo’s description of the Cassiterides and the Phoenicians at 3.5.11 (but never mention 3.2.9 or any of his writing about Britain) and usually conflate this account with Diodorus on Belerion (5.22.1-2) . The writers also seem to regularly get entangled in issues surrounding the possible dating for the trade and exact locations for parts of the route. Even more importantly it is clear that the Phoenicians form a kind of shorthand for understanding the development of Cornish civilisation and technology.

The Cornish writers attribute improvements in the process of mining, the design of hill-forts and parts of the language to the interactions between the Cornish and the Phoenicians. This allows the writers to suggest that certain important  parts of Cornish culture had developed well before the Roman invasion and therefore that these Celts were somehow different to Caesar’s savage Britons. Like a number of historical writers of the period the writers tend to focus on the cultural legacy passed from the classical peoples to the natives rather than the existence or role of artefacts (rather handily when they are somewhat absent as in this case). In the texts that I have looked at there are some wild conjectures about the activities of the Phoenicians in Cornwall as well as more measured hypotheses but almost all of them are keen to describe the interactions as positive for the Cornish. I believe that in this way they  took their own ideas about the important parts of Cornish history and framed them into a local mythos.

Now I just need to find a way to argue that as a convincing conclusion before the end of the month.
(more SFF soon. honest.)

AnthroJournal – Romanization

ANTHROJOURNAL.

I enjoyed reading this analysis of the variety of types of Roman imperial structure that affected non-central regions and changed their lifestyles. It is a clear introduction to some of the main processes of “Romanisation” even if it perhaps left the idea of the complexity of interactions and variety of responses in different regions for later exploration.

As a non-archaeologist I am particularly fascinated by the intersection of the material evidence and our literary perceptions and as a non-pure historian I like to look at why ‘facts’ can be misleading.
Having been working on popular concepts of Roman Britain, the debate surrounding the meaning of Romanisation and the reciprocity of impact is one that has a great deal of relevance to fictional presentations of people’s experience of conquest. In fact I think that literature and TV have been encouraging their audiences to look at the relationship between centre and periphery and individual experiences of cultural change for a long time and began to suggest that there was a great deal of potential for interplay a long time ago.
In particular I have noticed that a key source of tension in historical novels of Roman Britain is the level to which Roman customs could/should be adopted by locals and what benefits of economic/legal ties with the centre bring. Writers have clearly picked up on a tricky question for historians and archaeologists and in doing so they suggest ways to approach the effects of Romanisation on communities…

Pompeii, Herculaneum & Reading Latin Poetry

A Review

I read a lot of reviews before I took this Mrs up to London to see the British Museum exhibition; most of the reviews were by classicists and most said “I enjoyed it, but..”.I went to both Pompeii and Herculaneum during a gloriously influential (and emotional) period of my life and during a slightly different “regime” of conservation (Gods help me – I’m talking about 20 years ago) and I went back to the Naples museum about 5 years ago.  I knew what I expected from the exhibition…

I want to tell you I was wrong, that the other reviewers were wrong – but I can’t.
I grant you there were pieces exhibited that I hadn’t seen and I thought that the mix of related items from different places beside each other had some merits. The Wife was delighted just to see the variety of objects, to get up close enough to investigate the details and intricacies and to capture a feel for the time and place but I found it frustrating.
I was expecting it to be crowded and had anticipated the difficulty getting to the cabinets [a common problem in the Reading Room exhibitions – and distinctly easier this time when we weren’t trying to get a wheelchair around (annoyingly few exhibitions address that PoV)] – I had even allowed extra time to compensate for this.
What I found most jarring was the “tone” of the presentation of the objects – it seemed that the curators hadn’t quite decided whether to offer them as familiar or alien. The slight squeamishness about sex and death was out of place and despite frequent references to them I didn’t really get a sense of the wider family network or indeed of the town as whole. I wasn’t sure how much we were supposed to be trying to glimpse “daily life” vs contemplating our own fragile mortality and the possibility of everything to become an artefact through circumstance. If we were looking at living there should have been a little more focus on activity and diversity and if we were acknowledging our own morbid curiosity in the mundane perhaps a little more opportunity for intepretation would have been helpful.
If I am honest and ruthless with myself I suspect that my feelings about the exhibition stem from over-thinking and being too bookish in my personal tastes. The exhibition as a whole was also guilty of my personal pet hate- a failure to suggest places to go and look for more information or alternative viewpoints. Its not uncommon in museums especially when they are short of space but as an academic I find it infuriating. I want references and arguments as well as a sense that I need to do some of the interpreting for myself. I often think its the kind of value-added extra that catalogues and hand-held guides should be offering. I want to be challenged by a display, to see things in a new light and that is hard to achieve. Its especially tricky when its related to my ‘specialist’ subject and the curators have so many expectations to meet.

However, before I start sounding too negative I want to encourage you to go..
The concept of a exhibition dedicated to the domestic space was always worthwhile and (although almost cliché in terms of fashionable academia) in dire need of applying to objects not already sorted into that category by a provincial label – for example, exhibitions about Roman Britain often have more of a daily-life feel but galleries often focus on ‘big’ works of art.  The sense of how items could be placed next to each other and ‘read’ together was also an interesting concept but perhaps impossible to do without a full household space to use (although imagined how crowded that would feel and how dark!). Pompeii & Herculaneum really do offer a unique chance to see a pair of communities at a particular time – a chance to see objects and situations normally erased and that chance shouldn’t be missed.
Furthermore the light and attention lavished on the objects remind you that there aren’t many times you will get to see anything like this so clearly and so close to home. Special exhibitions at the BM aren’t cheap (but they aren’t ridiculous) and travelling to and around London isn’t cheap but it is cheaper than a holiday to Italy.
Go.. it is beautiful and its disturbing. Its fascinating and infuriating. Go and make your own mind up.
[Other Reviews Here, here, here, here and here]

After the hour and some wandering around we went to a special event linked to the exhibition (one of many) – in this case a lecture on the benefits of reading poetry in its original Latin.  A bit of a cheeky refresher for me and a new look at half-familiar poetry for the mrs. Its difficult for me to judge how good it was as a public lecture for the same reason its hard as a semi-pro to examine the overall impact of the exhibition that is because this was material I covered at GCSE/A-level it was familiar and unexciting on a personal level. I also always cringe inwardly at every blunt attempt to “prove” the worth of classics- like somehow the fact that we are debating it betrays our insecurity and uncertainty about the role we play and gets in the way of showing our worth (which is a whole other post) But. I can say that I liked the roundtable multi-speaker format and it was smoothly done. Furthermore, I thought the ideas that were the underlying point of the lecture – that the language of the poetry helps us see the inherent beauty of the piece, raises deeper linguistic and cultural questions and that it reminds about the differences between our readings and earlier ones (and indeed talks to us about the process of translation- an idea less considered in the lecture) -were important and worth making. Engaging with Latin can be hard to do but it is worthwhile and it is interesting! From that point of view the lecture was worthwhile and productive – I think I can convince the wife to learn a bit more latin and re-learn my rather rusty skills at the same time.

All round Good Day then.