The life-shaped hole in our hearts: lockdown, solace and cultural memory

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 →

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The Quietus: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

In ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, one of the stories that make up Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s best-known work, the eponymous narrator is in a taxi when he hears a song on the radio "about how everything that dies some day comes back". (The song isn’t named, but it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City.) Popular... Continue Reading →

New Humanist: An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

Every winter, white storks – so elegant in the air, so rickety on land – make the long flight south from Europe to what we assume to be ancestral wetlands in sub-Saharan Africa. At least, that’s what most of them do. These days there’s one who disdains the long-haul option, preferring to hop across from... Continue Reading →

The end of a European union

A decades-long union of European countries is supported by the respective national elites; but its destruction comes through the ruthless exploitation of popular nationalism by an autocratic leader. Does that sound familiar? It is, of course, the Kalmar Union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which saw the three kingdoms being governed under a single monarch... Continue Reading →

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: the film Churchill tried to kill

It’s 10 September 1942. The German army is at Stalingrad. Bomber Command is sending 479 planes to bomb Düsseldorf. And Winston Churchill is writing to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information, about a British film already in production. “[P]ropose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further,” he... Continue Reading →

Literary Review: Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor

At their peak, early in the 19th century, there were some 262,427 of them across Britain’s naval and merchant fleets. People called them Jacks, but they are nameless mostly. Or nameless to history. Even on surviving musters, their identities can be hidden behind pseudonyms. Some of these – George Million or Jacob Blackbeard, say –... Continue Reading →

The pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod

On 6 May 1939 the pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod was elected to the Disney chair of archaeology at Cambridge. She was the first woman to be a professor at either Oxford or Cambridge; women were still not admitted to full degrees at the university – despite having been educated there since 1869. Her election brought... Continue Reading →

How two monks – one Byzantine, one Libyan – remade the English church

Five of the first six archbishops of Canterbury to be consecrated were not native to this country. None came from as far afield as the seventh: Theodore, born in 602, was a Greek-speaking monk from Tarsus – the modern Turkish city of Gözlü Kule – in what was then a Byzantine province. Educated in Antioch... Continue Reading →

The Quietus: A New Day Yesterday by Mike Barnes

It’s early 1974, British band Henry Cow is in the studio recording its second album, Unrest. One track features a 40-foot tape loop. Another is based on the Fibonacci sequence, a structural device borrowed from Karlheinz Stockhausen. The track is in 55/8 time. Henry Cow’s ethos is based on creating music it isn’t yet competent... Continue Reading →

FT: Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

On Guy Fawkes’ Night in 1709, Henry Sacheverell, an Anglican minister, preached an incediary sermon in St Paul’s against religious non-conformity in the church. It was widely interpreted as a coded attack on the then Whig government, not least by the government itself, which attempted to have Sacheverell tried for sedition. Whatever his other talents,... Continue Reading →

Living through lockdown: Julian of Norwich, TS Eliot and the life-shaped hole in our hearts

For those who don't feel inclined to watch the film I made for A Bit Lit on life during lockdown, here's a rough transcript. My name is Mathew Lyons, and I am a freelance writer and historian. In practice, that means I am lucky enough to mostly work from home. Sometimes I work on the... Continue Reading →

The Author: Book Parts, edited by Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth

In 1723 the London bookseller Thomas Graves published a 12-page pamphlet entitled The First of April. Written in praise of the author of a recent poem named Ridotto, or Downfal of Masquerades, it comprises a title page, a six-page dedicatory epistle, and The First of April itself, a three-page poem. There is an an attractive... Continue Reading →

Literary Review: Sailing School by Margaret E Schotte

On Christmas Eve, 1789, HMS Guardian found itself in the shadow of two great icebergs some 1,300 miles south-east of the Cape of Good Hope. The ship’s captain, 29-year-old Edward Riou, ordered a double watch be kept, but, engulfed in fog and with darkness falling, the Guardian struck one all the same. The collision tore... Continue Reading →

History Today: The Matter of Song in Early Modern England by Katherine R Larson

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to hear legendary English folk singer Shirley Collins perform. One of the songs she sang was ‘Awake, Awake’, written by Thomas Deloney in 1580 but seemingly forgotten until Ralph Vaughan Williams heard it sung by an elderly Herefordshire woman in July 1909. Long dead on the... Continue Reading →

History Today: Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist by Elizabeth Goldring

It is July 1571, and Elizabeth I is sitting for a portrait in “the open ally of a goodly garden”, almost certainly at Hampton Court. The portrait is “in little” – what we would now call a watercolour miniature, although the latter term didn’t enter the English language until Sir Philip Sidney introduced it from... Continue Reading →

Renaissance Studies: Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword & Ego by Matthew Woodcock

If, as every self-help book will tell you, persistence really were the key to success, Thomas Churchyard would surely have been the most successful writer of the sixteenth century. Reader, he was not – but it was not for want of trying. One measure of Churchyard’s distant familiarity with fame is that Matthew Woodcock’s Thomas... Continue Reading →

BBC History: Henry Fitzroy – the forgotten Tudor prince

Henry Fitzroy was born in the summer of 1519 – almost certainly in June – at the small Augustinian Priory of St Laurence at Blackmore in Essex. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, herself not yet 20, who came from minor Shropshire gentry. Elizabeth had entered service as one of Catherine of Aragon’s maids of honour... Continue Reading →

History Today: Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott

Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in... Continue Reading →

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