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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, May 17, 2021



Just Finished Reading: The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson (FP: 2014) [251pp]

This was, as you might expect, an impulse buy. Although I know of (as does just about everyone in the West) the existence of the Illiad and the Odyssey I’ve never read either (although I have of late been dipping into an old – 1950 – translation of the Illiad) and the closest I’ve come to them so far is a few modern interpretations and the epic movie Troy which I honestly enjoyed a great deal. I’d heard that Homer might not be an actual person who wrote these iconic tales of western cannon but that he was, possibly, either a composite of several writers, a generic term for those who told the tales (prior to them finally being written down) or even the name of the first person to translate them from the spoken word to the written text. The author goes over each of these theories and shows on multiple occasions and in multiple ways just how far back in time – literally to the days before History – the tales go, teasing out individual word use, descriptions of weapons and armour and so on to show that the tale existed LONG before the age that finally immortalised it. But that was just the beginning.

I won’t even try to precis this book but will, instead, look at some of the themes the author covered. Naturally both tales are central to the books overall narrative but many questions need to be asked (apart from where they came from and did the Trojan War actually happen for real). When the Illiad is considered the first question that needs to be raised is ‘Which Illiad?’ Not only have there been, over the centuries since it was first written down, many, many translations of varying quality but there are multiple versions of the original text dating back far into antiquity. The Librarian’s at Alexandria tried to produce an ‘authorised’ version but were not wholly successful. Then there’s the question of just how it was possible to remember and ‘sing’ such a long and complex narrative – which naturally leads on to the many quirks and repartitions in the text that allow such a prodigious feat of memory to be achieved.

The thing that jumped out at me most however was not really about the text but about the war itself. Troy was a comparatively minor city – rich as it was – on the edge of an Asian empire. The Greeks, in contrast, were a rabble of squabbling tribes barely out of the Stone Age. Rather than the heroes of the piece, despite thousands of years of propaganda to back their case, they were in fact the bad guys – most literally the barbarians at the gate. That, of course, flips the whole narrative on its head. I wonder if there are books out there telling the siege of Troy as a tragedy from the Trojan point of view?

Coincidentally I have just finished a relatively recent updated narrative about the Trojan War told from the point of view of Patroclus, lover and friend of Achilles. As stated previously I dipped into the 1950 Penguin translation of the Illiad that I’ve had for years/decades and it looks very readable (and is, therefore, probably a rather ‘free’ translation!) so there’s more Homeric texts to come. It almost feels like Fate…. But if you’re a fan of two of the truly great classics of western literature this is definitely the book for you. Starting from an admittedly low base I definitely learnt a lot about the background to the stories and their ongoing importance in the western cannon. Most definitely more to come. Highly recommended.


Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014

Thursday, May 13, 2021


Just Finished Reading: Paris Reborn – Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland (FP: 2013) [292pp]

If there is one thing that History teaches – apart from the fact that we humans do not learn from History – is that things are invariably contingent. There is no Fate, no Destiny and no Plan. Bullets miss their intended target, winds change direction at just the wrong time (or just the right one), and messages are delayed, lost, misread or ignored in the heat of battle. Such things are woven into the fabric of human history and are one of the things that make predicting things such a headache. Looking back, and having a grasp of the minutiae of unfolding events, we can see that things often viewed in hindsight as inevitable are anything but – things could always have been different. This applies to individual lives, countries, battles and cities.

Paris, now rightly regarded as a world city, a city of light and one of the urban wonders of the world, was anything but in the early 19th century. Growing organically without much in the way of planning or foresight it was starting to fall victim to its own success. Small changes had been made over time to alleviate problems here and there and opportunities to upgrade or demolish buildings had been taken in the event of fires or other disasters but it was time for something more radical. But first a vision was required and someone powerful enough to drive that vision forward. Step forward the unlikely possessor of that vision - Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous Napoléon Bonaparte we all learnt about in history class. Vision he had, but power and influence he most certainly lacked. Luckily for him (and arguably the world) he was about to be ‘used’ by a political fixer by being installed as President of France in 1848 and, after his short and undistinguished term in office, then being replaced by said ‘fixer’. Unfortunately Charles Louis had other ideas and executed a palace coup becoming Napoleon III – Emperor of the French – in 1852. Power, influence were now his along with the vision of creating a city fit for an Empire. Appointing Georges-Eugène Haussmann (later Baron Haussmann) as Prefect of the Seine to co-ordinate the project the wholesale overhaul of the city could begin.

This excellent book – a MUST read for anyone interested in either urban development or simply Paris herself – tells of the building of elegant boulevards, opera houses, government buildings, parks and gardens which transformed a mixed modernising and still medieval city into the edifice we see today. The very distinctive, iconic, architecture we see today is the product (unfortunately uncompleted) of the vision and drive of these two men along with some of the greatest urban designers and architects of the age. Paris would have looked a LOT different today without them. Many European cities had the (rather questionable) ‘advantage’ of recovering from bomb damage after WW2 which allowed them to redesign themselves into the modern age. Paris chose a different route in the mid to late 19th century – a truly massive (and hugely expensive) programme of destruction and reconstruction on a scale that amazed and shocked many residents and visitors and, not incidentally, created many enemies for both the Emperor and his frontman Haussmann. Unfortunately for posterity the project died along with Napoleon III’s hopes in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war which he handled so badly. But much had already been achieved and much remains for us to admire and wonder about. This is a delightful exploration of the rebuilding of an imperial capital which became the envy of Europe by the end of the 19th century. Definitely recommended for all ‘urbanophiles’ and for anyone who ever wondered why Paris looks the way it does.