The Hunt Begins

So a day late again, as life intervened, but here it is:

First, this week’s blog is another tale of the Twitter Machine and the joyous cascades of strangeness that happen sometimes. It happened like this: Can*Con co-chair Marie Bilodeau told the world about a curious dream she had about a hastily-organized version of the con, in which one of the features was an absent Brandon Crilly, Han Solo to my Chewbacca in Programming skulduggery.

So obviously I promised to hunt him down.

There was also something in there about me singing, which I feel like the world should know is a bad idea. At this point I noticed that I was like ten followers short of 1,000, and declared that if I got to 1,000, I would produce a poem (perhaps suitable for singing) about the hunt for Brandon Crilly.

1,000 followers was duly reached.

I started work. I have always been fascinated by Early English* poetry, not out of any real academic interest, but just … thinking it’s cool. So (because why take the easy way out and make a haiku) I decided this was a ripe opportunity to explore the form.

With even a modest amount of research, it turns out to have been complicated, or at least, there are stringent rules which (like most rules pertaining to writing) you can only break if you’re doing so deliberately. This should be no surprise – there’s no reason why artistic forms of the past should be any less sophisticated than modern ones – but did result in me immediately having to throw out the first chunk of work I had done and start over.

Somewhere, the shades of bards and skalds chuckled, shook their fists at me, or perhaps both.

Honestly I enjoy trying to teach myself something that is a very ancient form of not just writing but – despite my intense discomfort with the idea – of performance. Because the main point of an Early English poem would be that it was recited out loud to an audience. Very many of them were probably never written down at all, but memorized, taught, and enjoyed entirely orally.

A lot of the rules are clearly tied to that, producing something that will not only sound effective when read out loud, but following a predictable enough format that an audience can follow it in a less-that-acoustically-perfect mead hall or whatever. But it’s still tricky stuff.

It also tickles my fancy that we (and by ‘we’, I mean other people whose work I am benefiting from) have had to reverse engineer these rules from the surviving poetry, because of course there is no ‘Eardwulf’s Poetic Primer’ or similar volume. The craft would have been taught orally also. So historians have done their best, although there’s bickering about some of it.

We do our best. I think a lot about the change from primarily oral culture to primarily written culture, in part because that’s a change that plays out through the medieval period and so I had to grapple with it during my own studies. I think it’s also just fascinating to think about how fundamentally assumptions about how information was preserved and transmitted changed, and how much of a struggle that has been.

Cleverer people than me are probably thinking about what the next one of these will be. I can’t help but think of all the stuff poured out on the Twitter Machine, the very direct impact it has on aspects of society and politics, and how it may be as ephemeral as the instructions Early English bards gave to each other, to later generations.

A sticky puzzle for future scholars, I doubt not.

At any rate, as a gesture of good faith, here is the first stanza of The Hunting of the Crilly.

Can*Con commences // but with Crucial lack

We have not a Crilly // he Wriggled loose like an eel

High in their hall // Hearken the Co-chairs

“Seek swiftly this Crilly // with Speed bring him to heel”

As I said, it’s hard work this, but I hope it will be worth it in the end.

Thanks for reading.

*-n.b. that I am following the lead of an increasing number of scholars by deliberately avoiding the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which is both anachronistic and has inextricable links to a loathsome white supremacist agenda besides.

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Small Characters, Big Characters

Ok, so forewarning: This is going to be a ‘white dude writes about representation’ post, which I know is not high on a lot of people’s wish lists, but here we are needing a blog entry again this week and, well, I did have an interesting conversation this week that did crystallize something I had genuinely not thought about before.

So there I was on the Twitter machine, discussing English classes from years gone by with my Excessively Young Friend, and (for reasons we need not relate), the Dragonlance novels came up, and favourite characters therein. When I was in high school, back in the misty depths of time, most people’s favourite character was Raistlin, which should not be any surprise because if you were setting out to design a character specifically to appeal to teenagers, you could do a lot worse than Raistlin.

However, he was not my favourite character.

It pains me a bit to admit this, but it was Tasselhoff. (I say it pains me because of all the quite legitimate points that have been made about how the Kender are the rather strange result of religious writers to have a ‘thief’ character who isn’t morally problematic, and are – at least as written up in later Dragonlance RPG products, absolutely intolerable) It’s a curious choice in some ways because I am not, as my Excessively Young Friend describes Tas, and agent of absolute chaos.

But the appeal was much more simple than that: Tasselhoff is small, and I was the short, spindly kid, and when you look at Evan’s favourite characters from days of yore, when there was a character available whose defining traits included ‘small’, that was my guy. Heck, my favourite Transformer (yes, yes) was Bumblebee.

Again, there’s no good reason for a kid to pick Bumblebee (well, he’s my favourite colour, I guess), ranked at ‘1’ for Strength on the statistical readout thinger and who doesn’t even come with a cool looking gun. But, despite all these things, and being ‘the little one’ among the Autobots, he is still on the team and gets to have cool adventures.

Perhaps not that hard to understand why a little thin kid who was also no athlete might latch on, once I thought about it. Basically, I liked the characters who were like me, and got to do cool things, because that feels good in various ways.

Now, as a straight white cis dude, I had and have so many characters that are ‘like me’ in various ways that growing up, I got to pick between them and go with the one that was the most like me. But, it obviously meant something significant to me.

How much more so for kids from minority communities and vulnerable communities, who don’t open books or turn on their TVs and find a sea of characters that are like them. How much must those few that they do find mean, to them. I know I don’t get it, not really, and I can’t fully ever get it.

But, I think understanding why Young Evan latched on to all those small characters is a salient reminder for me of why representation is so important. It matters, it matters, it matters, and even if someone like me understands imperfectly, we know that it does.

The clear moral of this story is always to talk about Dragonlance on the Twitter machine.

Thanks for reading.

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Story of a Prayer

So I had a birthday recently, and I usually post something on my social media about the fact that I’m getting older, not because I’m worried about it, but because I want to acknowledge that it is happening. Life goes on, and changes happen. I am determined not to be one of those people stridently denying that they will ever grow old. Of course I will. It’s what happens. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just life, playing itself out.

Anyway often I have used a song by B.B. King or Junior Kimbrough, but I wanted to do something different this year and (loving the Middle Ages as I do) I went out looking for a medieval person’s thoughts on getting older. I did not find that, but I came up with something else that I thought ticked the box I was after.

I found an article in the Journal of Gerontology and Geriatrics that cited a prayer, attributed to a 17th century abbess, that had some clever turns of phrase and a kind of self-deprecating humour that I liked, and so I quoted it myself. I also looked up their citation, which led to a website that seems to be a stranded Geocities page (good lord above!) which also provides no source for the prayer aside from the assertion that it was written in the 17th century.

Now, my academic spidey-senses were tingling at this point and if I had been engaged in anything serious I would either have had to investigate much further or regretfully abandon the prayer as a source, but I was just messing around on the internet so I didn’t worry too much about it. I posted it up, people liked it, and I enjoyed my birthday. However, a couple of people also asked for more information about the prayer and the person who wrote it, and so I did a little bit of digging.

I found a few writers pointing out that the language in the prayer doesn’t seem very 17th century, but at this stage I wasn’t too concerned because if it had been translated into English from another language, very often the translators will modernize the phrasing and vocabulary, especially if they’re not doing it for academic purposes. So, I, er, noted the cautionary note and went on.

I also found that this prayer is exceedingly widespread, showing up not only all over the internet, but also being quoted in places like the Philippines Senate (in 1987) and as part of the ‘Hearings before the Committee on Banking and Currency’ in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971. So it’s far from obscure, and (somewhat to my chagrin) appears to be a common touchstone when someone wants something clever to say about the subject of growing older, and has been for longer than I’ve been alive.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything about its origins.

At this point, though, I found a website attributing the prayer to a nun (rather than specifically an abbess), and declaring that it was ‘found in an English church’. Now my spidey-senses were really tingling, because first of all, if it was an English writer, then the translation excuse for the modern language doesn’t work (or at least not so well), but even worse: after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in England in 1536, there were none again until 1791. So something is definitely up with at least part of the story of our ‘17th century’ prayer, and it seems unlikely that the story of its origins hold much water, if it holds any at all.*

At this point I was relieved to discover that several journalists had done investigations much like the once I was engaged in, and happily vultured off their results. One attributed the prayer to a woman in 1950s America, and another pushed it back as far as an appearance in Reader’s Digest in 1922. There things seem to run into the sand, and (to be frank) I ran out of time to spend chasing down this particular rabbit hole.

So where are we? We can of course still imagine nearly any history we want for this prayer on aging and could insist that it really is the work of some anonymous 17th century nun or abbess. However, on the balance of probability it seems to be much more recent than that, probably a 20th century creation, but no less intriguing for that, although in different ways.

You would have to evaluate this thing as a successful piece of writing; it features in church decorations around the world as well as being plastered all over the internet, hanging on the wall in people’s houses, and being a part of government discussions. And yet, the author’s name has disappeared.

Was that a deliberate choice, on their part? Did they think their creation would get a better reception coming from a nun from a past century? Or was that a choice the audience made, misattributing the work as often seems to happen with quotations to who ‘should have said it’ or who it ‘sounds like’ rather than the actual speaker? At this point we are unlikely to know, or at least finding out would be a reasonably involved piece of research into what is no more than a curiosity, but I do find things like this interesting.

I usually talk to my history students about the fact that we make up things about the past all the time, or tell stories about the past that are not true, and we think some about the reasons why we might do this. We often cling to those objectively false narratives with great determination, usually because we want the message in them, what they communicate about where we came from or what kind of people we are or were, to be true.

I suppose in a way the ‘Nun’s Prayer’ is much the same kind of thing: it is a pretty cleverly written meditation on the aging process, and it seems like the sort of thing some wise old woman should have said or written. And so, at some point (it seems), someone decided that was what happened, and so it has gone on ever since. Because it makes the right kind of story.

We are great storytellers, we really are. We tell stories about ourselves constantly, some that are true and some that are not, but (as I try to tell my students) even the ones that aren’t true have truth in them, because they communicate something about what we want to believe in, and how we want things to be. And on this micro scale, I guess we want there to be a dryly humourous nun who can give us advice, across the centuries, about how to age with grace.

Thanks for reading.

* – I suppose it’s just about possible to argue that the prayer was written much earlier than the 17th century and kept in an English church until its discovery, but it is usually described as a ‘17th century prayer’, so that seems to be a fairly rickety argument about what is already the pretty rickety narrative surrounding this prayer.

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Judgement of History

Late again this week due to illness (not that illness though, never fear) and fair warning – this is going to be a strange one.

I was interested this week to see some new work around Richard III and the ‘Princes in the Tower’ mystery that sort of nudges the likely blame back in Richard’s direction. You can read about it here if you like. I’m not current enough with the historiography to know how significant this is, but I would be very surprised if it ends the debate.

(Sometimes people ask what I think re: who the culprit was in the deaths of young Edward V and his brother Richard, and though I haven’t made a special study of it, since I did a comprehensive field in late medieval England I can’t really duck it. For what it’s worth, I have never seen any reason not to conclude that Richard III, who benefited most directly and most obviously, ordered the killings. There are lots of other theories out there, but they fail the plausibility test for me.)

The debate is what’s more interesting to me right now anyway. Although of course Richard was never really tried for the murders, in a lot of ways he has been on trial ever since, for what is now nearly 550 years. It’s still important to people (on both sides of the issue) that they prove it, or resolve it, one way or another.

Sometimes people talk about the judgement of history, or promise that history is going to judge a person or a certain action. Very often the reply is something along the lines of ‘yes but who cares’, because whatever historians and lovers of history eventually decide, it neither helps nor hurts people in the past, it repairs no damage and relieves no harm. ‘The judgement of history’ can be pretty cold comfort.

However, I have also seen the argument (if that’s what you want to call it) made that a person lives as long as there’s anyone left who remembers them. And if you think of it that way, and if a person is remembered, but as a murderer, or a fascist, then what have they become? From at least one way of thinking about it, you are what people remember you as.

Look, I’m not really suggesting that the dead care one way or another what we think of them, and this is teetering on the verge of getting deep into the weeds of what we’re actually doing when we ‘do history’, but: I’m sure if you had told Richard III that (arguably) the main thing that he’s associated with is still his probable role in child murder, he wouldn’t be very happy about it. (Of course, he also wouldn’t have to fret about it for long, either)

Maybe the judgement of history is a heavier hand than we sometimes think.

There, I said it was strange.

Thanks for reading.

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Writing, and Writing

I have a couple things I want to touch on this week, which is a switch from those weeks when I was struggling to come up with a good topic at all. Blog topics come not single spies, but in battalions.

However that may be, here we go.

First, I wanted to note and mourn the passing of Michael Clanchy, surely one of the most influential of medieval historians. When he passed away a few days ago the internet was filled with tributes from scholars who said that his work had changed their way of thinking, and I include myself in that number. His foundational book, From Memory to Written Record, remains one of the most remarkable books that I have ever read, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have thought about a lot of things differently ever since.

From Memory to Written Record is about the change from memorial culture (remembering things, essentially) to writing them down, in European society. Clanchy’s work is essential for understanding why medieval people kept the records that they did and why they kept them the way that they did, and in illuminating a great deal about the way medieval people thought in general. So, as a student of history who spent a great deal of time working on Things in Archives, Clanchy was foundational and I could not have done my work without it.

Even more than that, From Memory to Written Record challenged me to think differently about technology and its effects on society overall, through its discussion of a pre-literate society, and then the semi-literate one that followed it. We live in such a tremendously literate world now, where the ability to read and write is one of the skills that society assumes we have and demands of us, that it’s often very difficult to imagine a society where that not only isn’t the case, but where the difference was not seen as a deficiency.

Put another way, from our hyper-literate perspective, we often find it very difficult to imagine a society where most of the population could not read as anything other than dysfunctional, and that it must have been filled with people feeling terribly deprived. However, neither of these things was true, the status of reading and writing as a very specialist skill that you only learned for particular purposes was absolutely normal.

It’s that challenge to accept a different ‘normal’ than the one that we are used to, and to think about things from that perspective rather than our own, that is one of the most essential tasks of the historian, and Michael Clanchy had a huge part in allowing me to do so. I am therefore both tremendously grateful for his work, and saddened to hear of his passing.

—–

From one kind of writing to another. I have been watching the new season of The Expanse over the past weeks, and first of all there are probably some spoilers ahead so if you’re not caught up on The Expanse perhaps abort mission here for now.

You should get caught up though, because the new season has been quite good and very entertaining, even for someone like me for whom its ‘hard SF’ credentials are not a real selling point. I have also, though, been interested in some of the conversations I have seen around its writing, and my own experience with it.

The show’s writers have proudly stated that their show does not “do a lot of handholding” and indeed they routinely ask and expect the audience to make deductions and inferences about what is shown on the screen to understand elements of plot and character, without being told. I feel like sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the episode before this most recent one, without getting too deep into the weeds on plot recap, Naomi was stranded aboard a mostly derelict ship that was also a trap for her friends. We saw extended scenes of her trying to perform … various technical tasks, obviously undergoing considerable physical and mental stress in order to do so, but none of what she was trying to do was explained. (It’s certainly possible that if you had a stronger technical background than I do, that it might have been possible to figure a lot of it out.)

I regret to report that I had no idea what was happening, and what was clearly meant to be a series of moving and harrowing scenes very quickly became boring. The eventual revelation of what Naomi had been working on was neat, but the reveal was also not enough to make me feel much better about those long, (to me) impenetrable scenes.

So in that case, I needed just a little more handholding.

On the other hand, I’ve seen various people complain about the depiction of Earth after having been struck by giant asteroids and that we haven’t seen enough to have a sense of how bad things are. Again, the showrunners have said they have no interest in what they call ‘disaster porn’ and don’t want to depict huge piles of dead bodies in rubble or what have you.

What they did give us was a scene where Amos and Clarissa come upon an abandoned retirement/nursing home, outside of which are a small number of bodies loosely wrapped in tarps. Amos and Clarissa conclude that these are the resident who were unable to be evacuated, who were euthanised by the staff before they left.

Now, to me, if we’re in a state of affairs where no help has come to somewhere like a care facility, and the people there were faced with an absolutely brutal choice like that, I don’t need any further indicators that the situation on Earth is Extremely Bad indeed. So here, I was not in need of further handholding.

I don’t know if what made the difference for me was the difference between a technical scene and one that wasn’t, or what other reason there may have been – maybe it was the tiny bit of dialogue between Amos and Clarissa? The effect of that difference, though, is that one scene worked and was satisfying (if disturbing) and the others did not.

It’s an interesting challenge for writers, because there’s no question that as a reader (or watcher) it feels very satisfying when you put together the pieces and figure something out without being told directly. We do like to solve a puzzle. However, when we’re unable to put those pieces together, it can be deeply frustrating. Unsolvable puzzles are infuriating.

I don’t have ‘the answer’ for this balancing act. It’s something to think about when we’re creating stories, though, and another reason to be grateful for the people who take our stories for a test drive.

That’s what I have for you this week.

Thank you for reading.

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Canon

Trying very hard to at least get one of these out every week, even though obviously the schedule has gone to hell. Not because I think it does anything, in particular, but because I don’t want to entirely lose the habit. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me. Anyway. Here’s what we’ve got.

The other day on Twitter a baseball writer I enjoy was giving someone the gears for declaring that a young relative of his not knowing who David Bowie was represented an enormous failure of some kind. Culture moves on, the baseball writer argued, and expecting Kids Today to be into David Bowie is like our parents expecting us to be into musicians from the 1950s or something. Or in my case, The Beatles, who I have never had more than an ‘eh’ reaction to, which my uncle never really got past.

I distinctly remember thinking it was strange and vaguely annoying when people would try to get me to watch ‘old movies’ – why, when there were awesome new movies? Movies which I still enjoy to this day! Movies which are now 25, 30, 35 years old. Wait a minute…

Beyond the existential blow of (once again) recognizing that I am officially Quite Old, it does also make me think of a particularly annoying kind of behaviour that shows up from time to time in SFF (and I suspect other fandoms). The idea that you can’t be a real fan unless you’ve read ‘the canon’ – usually writers from a long time ago. Or that you can’t be a writer unless you’ve first read Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, etc.

I have always thought this is rubbish and does nothing other than alienate people. Yes, there are a great many writers of the past who wrote amazing stuff. Then again, about eleventy amazing things have been published this year that you could also read, and it doesn’t make any difference if you like one rather than the other. Given the (gradually) increasing diversity among both artists and characters, it’s not at all hard to understand why lots of people are always going to prefer the new over the old. And, if we’re very honest, the craft has moved on and developed a good deal, and in a lot of cases, the new stuff is just better. Must read the canon? Absolute rot.

But then, I caught myself doing very nearly the same thing recently. After a Batman-related discussion with a couple of Exceedingly Young friends of mine, I suggested (I forget exactly why) that they should read the Batman R.I.P. arc, which they did and I think liked. But then for some reason I got to thinking that I should suggest something else, and suggested Kingdom Come.

Kingdom Come is a story that I enjoyed very much, have gone back to many times, and (to the extent of my knowledge about the comics industry) I believe it was reasonably influential. It was also published in 1996. It’s a good story, but there have also been a heck of a lot of good comics published since, and no particular reason to go quite that far into the past without some specific aim in mind. Somewhat in my defense, I did not say ‘You must!’, or even ‘You should!’, but … man, that impulse is there, isn’t it?

I suspect a lot of it is fairly innocuous. We liked a thing, so we want someone else to enjoy it also. We want the stories and artists who were important to us to continue to be important to other people. The trouble comes when we – consciously or unconsciously – (try to) make it an imperative.

I do think it’s important for older people to recognize that culture moves on without us, and that there’s really no good reason for The Youths to be into the same things we were, no matter how good we thought those things were/are.

At least as important, too, is not trying to gatekeep entry into the fields we’re interested in behind ‘you’re not a real fan until’. There’s lots of great SFF out there, it basically doesn’t matter what you read. There’s all kinds of music out there, none of it compulsory. And there’s really no good reason at all why either of my friends should actually read Kingdom Come.

Thanks for reading.

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Limits

Hey so you may have noticed the lack of an entry for last week, which was (this time) not caused by laziness or lack of inspiration. Rather, I had a bit of a medical incident that, while really quite minor, still ended up with me being taken to hospital. (With, indeed, all the special extra worry sauce that comes with that, these days) Again, there’s no reason to suspect that it reflected anything serious, but the doctor was clear that it was caused by stress.

So.

I have spent the past week taking it as easy as I possibly can, allowing for the fact that a new semester is just getting underway and there are certain things that just Will Not Wait. A friend remarked that I should see this as a warning shot across the bow, and behave accordingly, and so I am attempting to do. I am going to have to throttle back on the amount of stuff I’m trying to give mental energy to, at least for a while.

Obviously there are negotiables and non-negotiables, and sometimes the negotiables are the kind of fun things, but such is life. Part of staying relatively non-stressed is also making sure that I have some meaningful downtime, so it is all about finding the right balance, for the next while.

None of this should have come as a great surprise to me. Again this week, there was a mental health professional on the news reminding us that right now, under these circumstances, no-one is ‘okay’, and it’s just a question of exactly how well we’re able to cope. I guess last week, I hit a patch where I didn’t cope so well.

I don’t think any of this necessarily contradicts any of the things I have said in earlier entries about how the year ahead can be a good one and that Things can Be Achieved. I earnestly believe both those things can be true, but probably only if we also remember to respect that we have limits. In fact, keeping that in mind is probably how we achieve the Things, in the end.

This the balance that I’m going to try to achieve.

Thanks for reading.

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2020

I have been (perhaps obviously, given no entry last week) been putting off doing this one because, if I’m going to write about 2020, there seems no way to not write about the pandemic, and I have been generally avoiding the pandemic as a topic here because it is already so pervasive in our worlds right now and it would be very easy for this to become a Pandemic Blog, which we do not need another one of. Moreover, I am not an epidemiologist or virologist or similar person who might have actual insights upon said pandemic beyond: euuuuuuch.

Intentions aside, I think it will forever be impossible to talk about 2020 without COVID-19 being at least part, and probably a major part, of the discussion, no matter the intended topic. For most of us, it became the overriding concern sometime in March and has stayed that way more or less ever since. Every other activity has, perforce, been at least somewhat refracted through that prism.

Again, I don’t feel like I’m the right person to write about all the various ways that has played out, and we may not entirely understand it yet anyway. I expect future historians to be busy indeed evaluating the way these past twelve (and continuing) months have affected us.

Of course as a current historian, people expect me to know things about the past, but as I am not a specialist in medical history or the history of epidemic diseases, I can really only add another log to the pile of people observing that when societies experience a pandemic, they come out different on the other side. There’s a lot of variance as to ‘different how’.

According to some classicists, the civilization of the ancient Romans never really recovered from the Antonine Plague that started in 165 CE (probably smallpox), although the seeds of decline it planted took a while to grow. It may have accelerated the Christianization of the Roman world. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius encouraged immigration to help repopulate areas ravaged by the disease, and reputedly died with orders to see that the poor (most affected by the pandemic) were looked after on his lips.

In another example, many medievalists also argue that the Black Death led to the end of serfdom in Western Europe and tipped the balance of wealth in favour of workers and merchants. According to some interpretations, it created the conditions for the Protestant Reformation to succeed. Conversely, the agricultural productivity, and therefore prosperity, and therefore influence, of Egypt may have been permanently damaged.

So, different differences, and many that would have been unimaginable to the people living through it, with connections that aren’t necessarily obvious. ‘Buckle up’ might be the advice to take from all this, for the years ahead.

What sort of change will result from the COVID pandemic? Certainly in North America (and Europe) it has highlighted some of the divisions that already existed in our society; whether we choose to do anything about them or not is a part of the story that we’ve yet to write. I’m no good at predictions, so I can’t say what changes are likely. I do think that changes are likely.

So, 2020 was the year of the pandemic, inescapably. 2021 and onward is the ‘after COVID’ time that we don’t understand yet, possibly in as profound a way as the ‘before/after the Plague’ division medieval historians make of their (our?) chosen period.

I honestly cannot say what I expect the consequences to be, but I would very much like to think it is an opportunity we can seize to address the shortcomings and inequities and failures in our societies that have the disease has given clarity to. Perhaps I’ll fall back on two figures from history I’ve mentioned in the blog before.

After the first day of the Battle of Shiloh (which did not go well for the Union), General William Sherman said to his friend and commander, Ulysses Grant: ‘Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’

‘Yes,’ Grant replied. ‘Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.’

We’ve had the devil’s own year.

Lick ‘em in 2021.

Thanks for reading.

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The Hippocras

Alright this is gonna be another odd one, I warn you in advance. I’ve been doing rather a lot of grading.

Despite that, last week I got one of my strange ‘cook foods of the past’ bees in my bonnet and made some lamb stew, following a medieval recipe. I made a curious gingered bread (most emphatically not gingerbread). And I made some hippocras.

Hippocras is usually made with wine, sweetened a bit, and then heated up, with spices (and perhaps fruit) added – cinnamon, ginger, and cloves all seems to have been common, with anise and rosemary showing up among others. You let it slowly warm and the flavours infuse through before you drink it.

(I made a non-alcoholic version)

It’s a very old beverage (apparently enjoyed by the ancient Romans) and obviously the antecedent of some things we drink today, perhaps including sangria, which obviously is not served warm any longer but is still dangerous to the unwary. The somewhat odd name comes from the step of straining it through cloth to remove the bits of spice (and perhaps fruit), the perfect device for which was reputedly invented by Hippocrates (yes, that Hippocrates) or he may have simply used his (reputedly) expansive sleeves.

Anyway, what you end up with is a rather tasty, sweet and warming beverage that, in well-to-do households, would have been served at the end of many meals. It was thought to aid in digestion (and who knows, it may well do) but was also probably just quite a nice way to wind down an evening.

But in more modest households, hippocras would have been a special treat. Wine was more expensive than ale, whatever was used to sweeten it would have been an expense, and the spices, even more so. So hippocras would have been an indulgence for special points in the year (like the one we are now approaching, as I am writing this).

I thought about that, as I was doing my cooking: having the hippocras warm by the fire through the day, to be shared with visitors at a special time of year. It’s an idea that appealed a lot, perhaps especially since we can’t do such things this year, or at least not literally. But what a lovely way of building and maintaining connections – and that we can still do.

So, in the days and weeks and months ahead, I hope we shall all find suitable means of emulating the hippocras for ourselves, however that ends up happening, in the hope and trust that in a year’s time, we shall be able to genuinely visit one another’s hearths again.

There, I said it was going to be a weird one.

Thank you for reading.

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John Le Carré

So as you may have noticed, I’m late with this again, because both Tuesday and Wednesday were days when Life Intervened and I did not want to rush through this week’s entry. That’s because the only thing that makes sense for me to write about this week is the passing of John Le Carré, and I would like to do the best job of it that I can.

If you read the blog much, you will know that Le Carré has been one of my favourite writers, both as a creator of stories that I enjoy and as an artist whose craft I admire. Admittedly I came to read and like his work relatively recently, and that may be just as well because I’m not certain Younger Me would have appreciated it.

Le Carré, of course, is best known for his spy stories, but they are quite far from the spy stories of Bond or Jason Bourne, full of judo fights, gun battles, and volcano bases. Le Carré’s stories are generally sparse on what is usually classified as action, and thick with mood, character, and brain work. I suspect his is a more accurate picture of the real ‘wilderness of mirrors’ of espionage; you’ve done at least something right if some of the terminology you invented for your fiction gets picked up by those who are really in the trade, as Le Carré’s did.

But Le Carré’s characters do tend to be nearly the polar opposite of a James Bond; his most prominent creation, George Smiley, is short and fat, certainly no match for a team of assassins, but someone who understands detail, people and their motivations, and knows how to manipulate all these things to his advantage. He is also, at least on some level, a basically kind soul. As others have pointed out, in what is now his final appearance, Smiley (finally tracked down reading quietly in a library) apologizes for putting his friend to any trouble, invites him to dinner, and offers to walk him to his train.

There’s brain work for the reader, too, which is one of the reasons I admire his craft; there is a great deal that is suggested and there for you you to figure out without being explicitly told, so that I find his stuff demands a reasonable level of attention, but then also deeply rewards a careful read. I tremendously admire his ability to convey character and atmosphere despite saying very little at all.

And they are just very good stories, too. Obviously it helps if you have a least some interest in espionage, but what Le Carré is really good at is conveying people (or at least, a certain kind of people) and what they’re like, the flawed choices they make and the reasons they make them. I admire that as well.

You could say the tone of a lot of his work is bleak: victories tend to come at a cost, people turn out to not be who you thought they were, and sometimes situations have no good solution. Smiley’s greatest victory is finally accomplished in a way that obviously leaves him quite dismayed about how he had to do it. However, if Le Carré is bleak about the world he once inhabited, and about the results of the work of politicians and spies, he is often fairly optimistic about people and their nature.

One of the last things Smiley says: ‘We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably, it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then.’ We did our best, basically. We tried to do something good. I increasingly believe that is all we can expect of ourselves, and each other – try to do something good, the best way we can. It won’t always work out, but it’s still important, and worthy, that we try.

Anyway, without lapsing further into philosophical ramblings, I hope it’s evident that John Le Carré was a writer who made you think, both while you were reading and after, and who made you care about his characters and believe them as people. I love reading them, I admire the craftsmanship in them very much, and I am deeply sad that we shall have no more from him.

Thanks for reading.

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