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 →
“There is nothing that doth more advance and sour a man’s misery”, the eulogist said at the funeral of Sir Marmaduke Rawdon in April 1646, “than this one thought and apprehension: that he was once happy.” Before the outbreak of the English civil war, Rawdon had been a highly successful merchant in London; his unofficial... Continue Reading →
It should have been a triumph. The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on 29 May 1913 brought together the then up-and-coming composer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe company and its star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who would choreograph the piece. Even the venue, the luxurious Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, was new. There... Continue Reading →
I have a new poem up on Green Ink Poetry this morning. It’s called The Password and it’s part of a collection on the theme of whispers.
I have a new poem, signs & wonders, up on Black Nore Review this morning.
John Masefield was in his last year as Poet Laureate when I was born in 1966. I remember copying out his poem ‘Cargoes’ in primary school – "Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir . . ." – and wondering what all these strange, beautiful-sounding words meant as I laboured over my ascenders and descenders. That... Continue Reading →
The Columbian Exchange is a much discussed phenomenon, but it can have had few more surprising consequences than the near total destruction of European wine production in the 19th century. The cause was phylloxera, a microscopic yellow aphid native to the eastern coast of the United States, that feeds exclusively on the roots of grapevines.... Continue Reading →
I have a review of David George Haskell's Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction in the summer issue of New Humanist.
Pop music doesn’t go in much for redemption as a rule, but Bunyan’s life is – characteristically – resolutely atypical. She seems like Hermione, Leontes’ wife in The Winters’ Tale, turned to stone for twenty years and then returned, movingly, to life. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re familiar with the outlines... Continue Reading →
As the nine-year-old Edward VI rode through London on the way to his coronation in Westminster Abbey in February 1547, he paused for a while to watch a man perform on a tightrope strung from the steeple of St Paul’s. He might have been advised to study the man who rode ahead of him too.... Continue Reading →
I'm delighted to have recorded another episode for Suzannah Lipscomb's brilliant podcast, Not Just the Tudors, this time on Sir Walter Ralegh and the tragic fantasy of El Dorado. It's available to listen to here. My previous episode, in which we discussed the Dissolution of the Monasteries, is available to listen to here. Not Just... Continue Reading →
At 10am on 7 October 1794 a 39-year-old physician named James Parkinson presented himself in Whitehall for interrogation by William Pitt and the Privy Council. They were investigating what became known as the Popgun Plot, an alleged attempt to assassinate George III. Parkinson, a member of the radical London Corresponding Society, knew some of those... Continue Reading →
On 4 August 1540, Thomas Epsam, a former monk of the Benedictine Abbey at Westminster, was brought from Newgate and made to stand before the justices. He had been a prisoner for three years, but still “he wold not aske the kynges pardon nor be sworne to be true to him”, the chronicler Edward Hall... Continue Reading →
Evliya Çelebi was born in Istanbul on 25 March 1611. He is best known in the Anglophone world through the translations of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in the 19th century and, more recently, Robert Dankoff. His ten-volume Seyahatname is perhaps the longest piece of travel writing in world literature; Dankoff says the first time he read... Continue Reading →
Sometime around 1340 Ludolph of Sudheim, a German priest travelling around the Holy Land, encountered two elderly men, one from Burgundy, the other from Toulouse, in the mountains by the Dead Sea. They told him they were Knights Templar, taken prisoner by the Mamluks after the fall of Acre in May 1291 – the last,... Continue Reading →
In the last days of 1835 the explorer Robert Schomburgk stood on the shores of Lake Amucu in western central Guiana. In April, the surrounding savannah would be inundated by the rising tides of two nearby river systems creating the illusion of a great body of water; but now, in December, the waters were low.... Continue Reading →
In late medieval Ireland, they had customary words of abuse for one another. Englishobbe. Irishdogg. So deep was the antipathy that one parliament was forced to legislate against such language, on pain of a year in prison and an unspecified fine. But this wasn’t the indigenous Irish and their Anglo-Norman colonisers abusing one another. It... Continue Reading →
Late-medieval Florence was riven by factional disputes based on support for or opposition to papal power. Dante Alighieri, for a brief time one of the city’s six governing officials, was part of the latter party. But after Charles of Valois entered the city in November 1301, Dante’s allies were overthrown; and on 27 January 1301,... Continue Reading →
When change came, it was swift. Until the turn of the 1570s, Edmund Howes writes in his continuation of John Stow’s Annales, “the auncient English fight of sword and buckler was onely had in use”. Bucklers – small shields – were to be bought in any haberdasher. But “shortly after… began long rapiers, and he... Continue Reading →
“Marley was dead: to begin with.” It’s as good a first line for a ghost story as you could imagine. But where did A Christmas Carol begin for its author, Charles Dickens? The answer seems to be the second report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published at the end of February 1843. On 6 March,... Continue Reading →
It was Anne Greene’s great good fortune that, after she had been hanged in the castle yard at Oxford, her body was given to the university’s physicians for dissection. In the summer of 1650, Anne, aged 22, had been seduced by Geoffrey Read, the teenage grandson of her employer Sir Thomas Read at the manor... Continue Reading →