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.
In Augsburg’s Staatsgalerie Altdeutsche Meister there is a three-paneled painting illustrating the life of St Paul, painted by local artist Hans Holbein the Elder in 1504. Commissioned for the city’s Dominican convent of St Katherine, it includes, in its left panel, a self-portrait of the artist with his two sons, Hans and Ambrosius – nicknamed,... Continue Reading →
With support for the EU significantly higher among those with a university education, it’s interesting to recall that well into the 20th century graduates could vote twice in UK general elections: once in their local constituencies and again through their universities, which at one point held fourteen seats between them. The idea that universities should... Continue Reading →
On the night of September 25 1828, a small group of armed men approached the presidential palace in Bogotá. Inside, Simón Bolívar lay in bed asleep beside his mistress, Manuela Sáenz. Bolívar – known as El Liberator – had led large parts of South America to freedom from imperial Spain, but his increasingly autocratic, anti-republican... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Oyster, Love – in the summer issue of Dawn Treader magazine. You can read it online here.
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →