A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute a brief film to the A Bit Lit YouTube channel, created by Andy Kesson and others as a forum for thoughts on literature, history and culture during lockdown. So here I am, talking about freedom and confinement, about emotional and spiritual spaces, about monasticism and... Continue Reading →
For the first English translation of his most influential work, The Description of Africa, he is John Leo. His baptismal name was Joannes Leone de Medici, although he preferred its Arabic form, Yuhannah al-Asad. His birth name was al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan. But he is best known as Leo Africanus. His date of... Continue Reading →
The spire of the church of St Lambert in Münster has three unusual adornments: cages. They were first hung on 22 January 1536 to hold the mutilated bodies of Jan Bockelson, Bernard Krechting and Bernhard Knipperdolling, surviving leaders of the Anabaptist sect which had controlled the city for sixteen months. Anabaptism had emerged in the... Continue Reading →
Silent Night is one of the best-known songs in the world. It has been translated into over 200 languages and one version alone, Bing Crosby’s 1937 recording, sold over 30 million copies. But who knows anything of its authors? The lyrics to Silent Night were written by a somewhat loose-living Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr... Continue Reading →
Few, if any, historians have been so high born as Anna Komnene, first daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I, who came into the world in the porphyry-lined room of the Palace of Boukoleon, overlooking the harbour of Constantinople and the Sea of Marmara, on December 1 1083. Alexios had seized the imperial throne from... Continue Reading →
The year before Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, another writer, Olympe de Gouges, published a comparable call for equality during the turmoil of revolutionary France. De Gouges’ Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, published in September 1791, was a direct response to the Déclaration des droits... Continue Reading →
Guys and Dolls, the musical loosely based on the Broadway stories of Damon Runyon, premiered on Broadway on November 24th 1950. It ran for 1,200 performances and has been frequently revived ever since. The film version, starring Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, appeared in 1955. Even on the page,... Continue Reading →
On November 9, 1928 Bow Street Magistrates Court was crowded. DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been successfully prosecuted for obscenity in the same courtroom 13 years earlier. Now it was the turn of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. The perceived obscenity in Hall’s book was its subject matter: it presents lesbianism – inversion... Continue Reading →
It is like a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki anime: a French WWI pilot, gliding down at twilight over enemy lines, finds himself surrounded by a flock of swifts seemingly motionless in the air. They are asleep on the wing, so close by he might reach out and touch them. The phenomenon was largely unknown... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Kiso Road – up on Ink, Sweat and Tears. It was inspired by reading William Scott Wilson's wonderful Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan.
"Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality," TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, the fruit of his own long struggle with spiritual torment. Eliot ultimately found solace in the late-medieval Christian mysticism of Julian of Norwich, but his point still stands: what reality is and how we learn to bear it has been... Continue Reading →
Nat Turner was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, on 2 October 1800. Convinced from an early age that he was a prophet, Turner taught himself to read and write. His spiritual path mirrors that of other mystics: he maintained an austere life apart from the wider community; he fasted and prayed; he sought... Continue Reading →
The British Library’s manuscript collection is built on that amassed by antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton in the early 17th century. Gifted to the nation in 1701, it was stored at Essex House on the Strand for several years before safety concerns led it to be moved somewhere “much more safe from fire” – Ashburnham House,... Continue Reading →
When I was ten or so, I discovered my older brother’s copy of the NME Encyclopaedia of Rock, published in pre-punk 1976. Partly, I suppose, because I looked up to my brother so much, I read it religiously and swallowed its opinions wholesale. It wasn’t complimentary about Hawkwind: “One critic has described a typical Hawkwind... Continue Reading →
Whenever Dominic Cummings makes the headlines, commentators reach for the same word to describe his relationship with the prime minister: he is Boris Johnson’s Svengali, they write. But who was the original Svengali? Svengali is one of those rare literary creations so seemingly archetypal his name becomes short-hand for a kind of behaviour: in this... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – Lisa in the Garden at Mendocino – in the October issue of The Lake.
There are few easier ways to enrage a medievalist than to refer to the era they study as ‘the Dark Ages’. But those who think of the medieval world – and medieval Catholicism in particular – as the antithesis of reason and progress, might be surprised to learn that the great Benedictine abbey at St... Continue Reading →
The visions began when Hildegard of Bingen was young – perhaps as young as three. But unlike many mystical religious experiences, the visions did not come in dreams or ecstatic states; ecstasy, she thought, was a defect. They came like a cloud of light inside her on which forms and shadows moved while her eyes... Continue Reading →
Ahilyabai Holkar, queen of the Malwa kingdom in north-west central India, part of the Maratha empire, died on 13 August 1795, having reigned for nearly thirty years. She came to power in 1767 after the deaths of her father in law, Malhar Rao Holkar, and her young, sickly son. (Her husband had died in battle... Continue Reading →
The small archipelago of St Kilda, fifty miles west of Harris, has long attracted romantic attention for its remoteness, with the sense of deep strangeness and difference such remoteness implies. It is the last and outmost isle, the island on the edge of the world: a place whose way of life, in the words of... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Thing With Broken People – in the September 2020 Portrait issue of Dust magazine.