Night at the Museum

Many of London’s museums and galleries stay open late into the evening once a week. You might think day or night makes no difference…

But it’s nice to break the daily routine once in a while. Instead of going home after work, I head for Bloomsbury.

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The British Museum after six pm is a different place

The lights are dimmed. The crowds are gone; it’s quiet. I relax in the members’ room with my book and a glass of wine before going for a wander.

I can get up close to the most popular exhibits without an elbow fight. I can contemplate. I can read the labels in peace.

I can take pictures.

Till next Friday.

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is not, as some American readers might imagine, the title of an apocalyptic post in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States… In fact, it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with America or politics: it’s merely the title of an English work of art.

A rather striking work of art:

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Tower Poppies

Continue reading “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”

A History of The Great Sea

In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?

Continue reading “A History of The Great Sea”

The Gruesome News from Famagusta

The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.

The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.

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Francis Drake and the North-West Passage

Franklin’s Lost Expedition

A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.

On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.

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The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain

For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.

Continue reading “The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain”

A Digression On Pepys (Throwback Thursday)

About a year ago I started to write a post comparing two books that I had happened to be reading simultaneously, one of which was boring me to tears. I was not going to waste my breath on it too much – I was going to point out how good the other book was in comparison. As luck would have it, both were on the subject of history, so I started the post with an introductory paragraph about having read some good history books in my time… Unfortunately, the introductory paragraph ended up running to several paragraphs, neatly hijacking the entire post. The chief hijacker was Pepys – whom I found myself quite unable to dismiss in one summary sentence.

I feel Pepys deserves a post to himself, so here I proudly present you with:

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On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

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The Battle of Salamis: Poetry & All

Previous: The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

I defy you to write about the battle of Salamis without quoting Byron. (Or Aeschylus, for that matter, who’ll have his turn in due course!) Because in six short lines Byron captured the essence of the story from Herodotus to perfection.

A king sate on the the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis:
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; – all were his!
He counted them at break of day –
And when the sun set where were they?
             (Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece)

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The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

This post has been updated. Go to: Salamis (According to Herodotus)

I don’t know about you but when it comes to famous naval battles, with me it goes: Trafalgar, Salamis, Lepanto… That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of other naval battles that are of interest but – perhaps because the outcomes of these three defined history for centuries to come – they are always the first that come to my mind. Certainly, in the second Greek-Persian war Salamis was the turning point, the decisive moment. And Herodotus pays the battle its due, gives it the full treatment: lots of details to get lost in.

So Part I of the Battle of Salamis.

Continue reading “The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight”

The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.

So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?  

Continue reading “The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)”

Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great

What kind of a book would a chain-smoking former Special Operations Executive officer write? A man who at 18 had thought he had nothing better to do but to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople with a volume of English verse and Horace’s Odes in his pocket? A man who felt equally at home in shepherds’ huts and in aristocratic palaces?…What kind of book?!

And English readers, who know exactly whom I’m talking about, here answer in unison: a travel book, of course.

A travel book, yes. Er… sort of.

Continue reading “Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great”

The Destruction of Athens (Best Stories of Herodotus)

It appears that I went like a month without blogging about Herodotus. I don’t know what I’m coming to. All this reading of 20th century literature! It’s time I got my act together, so here we go:

The last episode of the Greek-Persian Wars à la Waterblogged saw the Persians chased away from Delphi by no less personage than the handsome Apollo himself. (No, I don’t mean the one in Battlestar Galactica. I mean the god of the silver bow.)

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33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

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Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford

Recently I wrote about how a young Royal Navy sailor in 1941 sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out with his head full of the Odyssey. Well, those of you who haven’t read that piece, go and read it now, but I’m willing to remind the rest who have merely forgotten who this sailor was: Ernle Bradford.

Continue reading “Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford”

The Arms of Apollo (Best Stories of Herodotus)

The Delphic Oracle had foretold the death of a Spartan king and advised the Athenians “to flee to the ends of the earth” but believed Apollo would take care of Delphi. And now, with a Persian army intent on loot having reached the temple of Athena and the locals having all run away, nothing short of divine intervention could save the Oracle and the treasures of Delphi. But would Apollo save his most famous temple or let it be looted and burned?

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When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific

Just before noon on 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered his men to halt, then went forward alone, to complete the last stretch of the journey to the summit of the mountain they were climbing. Soon he stood, alone with his god, his ambitions and his sins on this peak rising out of the jungle in Darién; the first European to set eyes on a new ocean. A new ocean which he named Mar del Sur (South Sea) because he reached it by travelling southwards. The ocean that Magellan seven years later was to rename Pacific – coming as he was round the Horn via the straits named after him, well Magellan might have thought the Pacific peaceful.

Núñez de Balboa was no hero, no geographer, no selfless servant of his king. He marched across the Isthmus of Panama in a desperate bid to be first to reach the unknown ocean only because he knew that no less feat could save him from the scaffold. Continue reading “When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific”

Mediterranean Miscellany

I love the Mediterranean. Why is anybody’s guess, although sun, sea and history have all got to do with it. And languages.

And so here I’m introducing a short & lightweight Sunday feature that mostly will have very little to do with books: a collection of odds and ends, a miscellany of the Mediterranean. From travel photos to anecdotes to recipes  – I’ll be sharing anything and everything that evokes the Mediterranean landscape, people and their history. In no more than 300 words (a welcome relief to everyone).

So here's to those unforgettable sunny days in the Med.
So here’s to those unforgettable sunny days in the Med.