Sword and sandal

Here is another archeological investigation. This time we are in Germany, year 9, and the romans have marched over the Rhine to kick the asses of the german tribes. Three entire legions, and then some troups, under the leadership of Publius Quinctilius Varus, walk straight into a trap set by german warlord Arminius (or Hermann, according to some later german national historians) and this roman war machine consisting of 18.000 men is smashed to pieces in just an hour. It´s called the battle of the Teutoburg Forrest, but it was more of a massacre, according to the archeologists, who found the actual site quite recently.

Peter S Wells, in his book "The battle that stopped Rome", tells the story of Rome, the emperor Augustus (Octavianus) and his adversary Arminius. He devotes a whole chapter to the everyday life of the romans soldiers, and that was perhaps the most interesting read. I never would have guessed, for example, that the expected life spann of a roman soldier extended that of a normal roman citizen, because the army doctors made sure that the food was nutritious, the water was clean, and everyone had to keep a high standard of hygien. I remember reading elsewhere that they knew very well how to disinfect wounds using alcohol. And we think modern science discovered everything...

The tale of the battle itself is chilling. In the first hour, 5.000 soldiers were killed, Varus and his officers committed suicide by throwing themselves at their swords, 10.000 soldiers were mortally wounded and the rest were captured. 500 or so of the captives were sacrificed to the german deities during the following days. A "lucky" few survived to become slaves. In comparison, only 500 of the approximately 18.000 german warriors were slain. So much blood soaked the ground that it fertilized it and changed the flora in this area!

It is also interesting to see how well prepared the germans were. They had dug ramparts along the road and a side road had been completely dug off and conceled by a "fake" lake, to make sure the romans would have nowhere to go.

It is mind-blowing and a read just as exciting as any novel I can think of. Highly recommended!

Archeological investigation

Archeology can be really exciting. Being an archologist seems to be, at the best of times, like being a sleuth of history. Like Sherlock himself they seem to be able to draw the most stunning conclusions from the smallest clues. I´m a bit envious, but honestly, I wouldn´t like to spend days on end in a muddy trench, finding next to nothing. Sweden is hardly "Time Team"-territory, after all. Not a lot of roman coins turning up in the gardens of everyone and his neighbour!

For swedish readers who think this sounds like good reading, I recommend Mats G Larsson. This book is called "Sveahövdingens budskap" or "The message of the swedish king". Larsson is on the hunt for a king from the 11the Century, Emund, the father of the viking Ingvar, who died somewhere around Kiev. He uses what little historical sources there are, and hunts for old rune stones, mostly destroyed and used for church buildings, castles and the like. And of course, he manages to reconstruct a rather convincing story, while educating the reader about the history of archeology, introducing you to a lot of excentric academics from the 16th Century onwards.

This is educational and fun, and for me, that always works.


New York, New York

I am actually reading a book about the battle in the Teutoburg Forrest, but I often feel the need to rest from books, for different reasons, and read something completely different. Like these little books by Helene Hanff. I just finished "Letter from New York" which is a selection of the short, monthly talks she gave on BBC from 1978 to 1984.

This book is not nearly as good as "84 Charing Cross Road". It lacks that tension and drama that her relationship with Frank Doel had. Or at least it does to begin with. I imagine this also reflects her writing process, getting used to the medium, the audience, and her subject, which is her life in New York. As the reader gets to know all her friends, two-legged and four-legged, the texts turn more into stories and there are less straight-forward descriptions of her life. And that is a definite improvement. When the book ended I was sorry. It could have gone on a bit longer, I think.

Hanff writes entertainingly about a life where not a lot happens. She writes at home all day, she watches her neighbours´dogs play, she goes to concerts, walks in Central Park, hosts dinner parties for all her friends in her studio apartment (fancy word for tiny bedsit) and that´s pretty much it. But she loves it. And reading her makes at least this reader think that if I could write like that about my life it would sound just as interesting and fun. Which it is. Most people´s lives are small and ordinary. Nothing wrong with that. That´s how it should be, as far as I´m concerned. And it´s not boring either, told right, to the right listener.

I find that I enjoy Helene Hanff a lot. Judging from the swedish translations only, I suspect she is not one of the great writers, but I like her as a person. She does not write fiction, she writes about her own life. It´s like spending time with a good friend. I have put all her other works on my wish list at amazon, perhaps I will give myself a few Hanffs for a Christmas present this year!

Other than that, I´m freezing. It was 7 degrees one morning last week and it´s 11 now. These temperatures feel like summer heat around the beginning of May, after a long, dark and hard winter. But in August? I bet all the university´s first year students coming up this week are shocked. And going to H&M begging for wool.


Travelling to England with Helene Hanff

On the 27th of June this year, we were travelling by coach from Heathrow to Milton Keynes, when I was suddenly startled by something on a distant field. It was a great big warehouse building, I seem to remember it as bright, light blue, and on its side were written, in whopping big letters: amazon.co.uk. My memory might decieve me, my camera was too far down in my backpack to get a picture and I was extremely excited. In our home, a despatch message from amazon is cause for celebration and a thimble of the best scotch.

I imagine Helene Hanff felt something like it when finally she entered the rooms of what had been Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road. (I show you the back of the book, with the photo of the shop.) Have you seen the film? With mega-wonderful Anne Bancroft? Anthony Hopkins on one of his really good days? I cannot remember the first time I saw it, but I was totally charmed by this tale of the introverted, temperamental, bohemian but elegant New York writer and her correspondence with the London bookshop. I believe I have the film on an old VHS cassette somewhere, at least I hope I do, because now I want to see it again, tonight!

I was reminded of this book - I meant to read it years ago but never got to it - by some blog or other I read the other day, and I picked it up from the library yesterday. The volume not only contained "84, Charing Cross Road" but also "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street", the book in which she tells the story of the visit she finally made to London, 22 years after her dealings with the bookshop had started.

It´s easy to fall in love with Helene Hanff. She is the archetypal booklover and very funny, and I was particularly chuffed that she visited some of the same places that we visited this summer, and I can compare my own notes to hers. It´s a bit like finding a friend who really, really understands. No wonder this book is so loved. And, it´s a fast read. But it´s one you will want come back to. At least I do. An absolute favourite. And I think I must explore other books by her. Soon.


Walking with Mary Russell

Thanks to our speedy local librarians I have now finished the first book in Laurie R King´s Mary Russell-series, "The Beekeeper´s Apprentice". I shall not spoil the pleasure for anyone by telling you anything about the plot, but I will say that Mary Russell is the perfect heroine for a bespectacled bookworm. I like her a lot now, I would have loved her if I had read about her when I was seventeen.

The first paragraph is just adorable: "I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book... ".

Mary Russell gets older by four years during the story, but her habit of reading while she walks she keeps until the last pages: "... [I] became even more absentminded until one day as I had my Greek Testament in front of my nose, I walked into a lightpost on the High Street. I found myself sitting stupefied on the ground while people exclaimed over the blood on my face and a young woman held ut my shattered spectacles. I came home from the surgery with a large plaster on my forehead..."

It actually never occured to me that I could read walking... Just as well, probably.

I also loved that she walks on some of the same streets that we walked this summer: "I worked on, and in the afternoon I went out to take coffee in the covered market before an afternoon lecture,..."

Then "... I left the market stalls and walked up Turl Street for the afternoon lecture, only to find my steps slowing as I approached the Broad. ..." and she went "... up Broad Street and past the Sheldonian, ... ".

This would have been her path, Broad Street, in the direction of the Sheldonian:

I have made a note in my calendar, first week of December, to get the next two books about Mary Russell. It would be too easy to become absorbed in them now. I have other things to read, after all!


Spooky place

A couple of years ago we went for a short fall holiday to Berlin. We arrived late afternoon and took an evening stroll, to taste the atmosphere of the place. Only a few minutes up Unter den Linden we came upon this sign, and it made me shudder a bit.

Bebelplatz was the place where the famous book burning took place in 1933. Imagine that. It´s not that I´m overly sensitive about books being destroyed, the world is full of them and we can´t keep them all. But burning books as a demonstration, banning certain kinds of books, certain kinds of art, certain kinds of living, certain kinds of people. That is hard to take in. I rarely feel "ghosts" but this time, I did.


And now, something completely different

Christmas Day 2008. The frost was sculptural, the landscape magical in a C S Lewis/Narnia-kind-of-way.

On an old poster advertising a summer party, someone has written the swedish word for melancholy, VEMOD. I love that. It´s so poetic.


Come again

Birmingham may have been a bit hard to get the hang of, but it´s really a very nice city with lots to see, and this is when and why I will return there. I think it might be a sight to see!


Library of no return

This is an interior of the absolute least inspiring library I have ever visited: Birmingham Central Library. It was dark, worn down, with cheap-office-type interior design (I suppose someone once thought it was "modern"), and I didn´t stay long. Most of the books seemed to be floppy paperback copies. And the outside wasn´t much more cheerful.

Actually, the first day, upon arriving to Birmingham, I got the idea to walk to my hotel, which was at a comfortable walking distance from the city centre. However, I couldn´t get out! After walking in circles for about an hour I gave up and took a taxi. The next day I attacked from the other direction, and it turned out one had to pass through that shopping center you can see on the picture, to the left of the library (the building with all the windows). I certainly could find no other way. It just wasn´t what I expected. And the map didn´t help me either.

It took some time to get acquainted with Birmingham.


The Faun

No wonder England has produced such authors as C S Lewis ("The Narnia Chronicles"), J R R Tolkien ("Lord of the Rings"), J K Rowling ("Harry Potter"), and Terry Pratchett ("Discworld", "Good Omens").

This picture was taken in York, which is like a fairground for the historically inclined visitor. Most of the centre of town is still surrounded by the old city wall, in a basement there are remnants of old Yorvik, the "viking city", on display, there is Barley Hall, a restored medieval building,there is a castle and the Minster, of course, and plenty of other sites to see. I was on my own and managed to get around most of it in a day.

Can´t remember where I ate. I probably forgot...


Cool and handsome

I wanted to post this picture. I have a weakness for statues of prominent people, especially if the look cool and heroic. This cool and heroic-looking, and decidedly handsome bloke is Emperor Constantine. I have been trying to find a literary connection to justify this post, and here it is: In the year 325, after having been proclaimed Emperor not many feet away from where this monument stands, he summoned the Council of Nicea. This is where, according to Dan Brown (in "The Da Vinci Code") the Biblical canon was established. However, I´m pleased to say, this is probably not true. (See, I mentioned two books in one sentence!)

The statue of Constantine also has a cool location, just at the entrance of the Minster of York, probably the most impressive place of worship I have ever seen, next to the Cathedral of Coventry (and they don´t really compete in the same league, Coventry being totally modern).


Brideshead Revisited

This is impressive Castle Howard, also in Yorkshire. I´ve been meaning to see the tv-series "Brideshead Revisited" (after the novel by Evelyn Waugh) again, in it´s entirety, and read the book, but "stuff" (like other books and tv-programs...) keeps getting in the way.

When I got home, I was happy to see an episode of "Time Team", my favourite arkeology programme, where they were digging (in just three days!) to try and find the old village that was simply moved by the earl of Carlisle, who built it in the early 18th Century. As I recall, they didn´t find much...


Anne Brontë´s grave

Beautiful Scarborough, on the Yorkshire coast, is a hugely varied and interesting town, that has far too much to offer for a single day. My travel companions are returned there as I am writing this, and I am not just a little envious!

Our first stop was, of course, the grave of Anne Brontë, the single reason for our visit here (but not the reason for returning). You can see we are not the only pilgrims, the grass on either side of the gravestone is has been worn off by all the fans posing next to it!


An assortment of flavours

The landscape of Yorkshire is the landscape of such creations as "Emmerdale Farm" (I don´t follow it now, but everybody watched it in the 70´s on swedish television), "Dalziel & Pascoe" sleuth novels by Reginald Hill, "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë, Bram Stoker´s "Dracula", James Herriot´s "All Creatures Great And Small", and more.


Some places just makes you want to linger all day, soaking up the atmosphere. I am toying with the idea of returning to Haworth, staying with sweet Mr Hutchinson at the coolest B&B ever, Ye Sleeping House, taking long walks (the "real" Wuthering Heights is not far away) and generally drink lots of real ale, read, sit and just soak it up. For you: the Brontë Parsonage.

Branwell´s pub

Visiting a place like Haworth, with three famous authors having grown up there, and lived there most of their lives, it´s bound to be packed with memorabilia and significant places.

First thing we did when we got there? Had a pint, of course!

The pub is just next door to the church, and we arrived on a rather wet evening in April, which kind of lets you feel the mood of the Brontë´s novels.

It was the perfect prelude to our excursions in Haworth the next day!

Sylvia Plath´s grave

I should be blogging about this year´s journey to England, shouldn´t I? Well, I still haven´t digested all my impressions and the pile of pictures is just to high to tackle at the moment. Instead, my thoughts turn to last year´s journey and how one´s interest can lead to unexpected experiences. I was travelling from Manchester to Haworth, and pure luck in the form of a Guardian article made me aware that Sylvia Plath´s grave was on my way. So, I decided to stop and search for it. It made me discover one of the most charming towns in Yorkshire, Hebden Bridge.

And it gave me a good hike as well!

Another blog worth checking out

Robby Virus has started blogging the canon again after a regrettable hiatus. I am impressed with his ambitions! It´ll be fun to see what he makes of my favourite, Jane Austen.