Category Archives: book reviews

My review of “Delphi” by Dr Michael Scott

Next month I am going to Athens for a week. All by myself. I’ll be blogging the trip later (getting back into the blogging habit will be easier with so much to write about!) but for now I’m up to my eyes in Trip Prep.

Trip Prep is almost as good as actually travelling for me. By the time I get to each city or site I like to be able to draw maps from memory, quote books and speeches and recognise the key aspects of each ruin on first sight. This frenzied research period coupled with my gruelling itineraries and general balls-to-the-wall tourism approach is why my family generally tolerate rather than enjoy my company when abroad. Mercifully for my long-suffering loved ones I am leaving them firmly in Blighty for this particular trip, more about that in a later post perhaps. (My clients will tell you I am far more relaxed when giving tours!)

Despite my odyssey (Alexsey?) being a solo adventure my nearest and dearest haven’t quite managed to escape Trip Prep. Trip Prep involves me spending dozens of hours with my nose in various books, frantically scribbling down notes, filling in my Lonely Planet and Rough Guides with about a pint of highlighter ink whilst excitedly shrieking when everyone else is trying to watch Game of Thrones. Trip Prep also involves an inevitable influx of new books to my already groaning shelves.10259373_10152084663036700_1237920625_n

 

The latest additions include “Delphi: A History of the Centre of the World” by Dr Michael Scott. I thought I’d do a little review as unlike most of the other recent purchases this is a new release.

Having booked the Athens trip a mere 6 weeks in advance on a whim I’d quickly decided that whilst I have the rare freedom to indulge my nerdish tendencies unaccompanied I should take the opportunity to visit Delphi. I looked into excursions offered by travel agents etc and decided (unlike other places I’ll be visiting from Athens) that I’m better off getting public transport to Delphi and guiding myself around. For this I knew I wanted to buy a really comprehensive book about the site that I could immerse myself in.

Admittedly I found this book by chance. Earlier I’d watched recent the BBC documentaries “Who Were the Greeks?” and “Ancient Greece The Greatest Show on Earth”  by Dr Scott and I’d mercifully kept them on my TiVo. The day after booking my flights I had a day off from work and rewatched every episode, hyping myself up for trekking up the Acropolis and putting on a one-woman show of Lysistrata in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I follow Dr Scott on Twitter and he’d been kind enough to answer a few questions during his live tweeting of the programmes. I remembered a documentary of his that was specifically about Delphi so I did a quick search to see if some kind soul had put it on YouTube ( and thankfully they have...) I idly wondered if there had been a companion book released as sometimes happens with the BBC. A quick Google later and I discovered that Dr Scott had literally launched his book about Delphi a few days before I came up with the idea of running away to Greece for a week. It was so obviously fate that I immediately put my Amazon order in.

I already own one of Michael Scott’s books (the excellent “From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great“) and I’ve been happily rereading it as part of Trip Prep so I had high hopes for “Delphi.” Firstly, the book is gorgeous. It is thick and heavy and has pages that you just know will smell divine after they’ve aged a bit. Book porn aside, I was happy to see that it’s a sizeable volume. It’s so gorgeous I even stopped lamenting that the paperback edition isn’t out yet which I would have been able to take with me without EasyJet forcing me to take out a bank loan.

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I’m doing this whole trip on a tight budget (I’m definitely a tour guide for the love and not the money) so I could only really afford one book on Delphi for Trip Prep. I’m also seeing Corinth, Mycenae, Epidavros, Nemea, Rhamnous, Marathon and Cape Sounion on the trip and I need books for at least some of those sites also (not forgetting Athens herself,) so I wanted a single comprehensive book for Delphi. I don’t think there can be much about Delphi’s history that Dr Scott has missed out on in this book. I needn’t have worried that only one book on the subject wouldn’t be enough to give me enough information for my visit. I wanted the definitive book and as far as I’m concerned I picked the right one.

As Scott says in the introduction to his Delphi documentary, by the mid C4thBC Delphi had “the wealth of the Swiss banks, the religious power of the Vatican, the advertising potential of the World Cup and the historical importance of all the world’s museums combined.” On the other hand, it started off as a tiny town perched halfway up a mountain. So how did Delphi become the centre of the ancient world? And what happened to this pagan sacred spot when Christianity took over Europe?

The book is divided into thirds. In his introduction Scott explains that the history of Delphi can be divided into three phases. Each section of the book covers a phase and as a rather charming touch Scott quotes Shakespeare with their subtitles: “Some Are Born Great”, “Some Achieve Greatness” and “Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them.” In this way Scott manages to cover the entire history of Delphi from its beginnings in the late eighth century BC to the present day. The inclusion of the late 19th century excavations of the site and its rebirth as a tourist magnet was a pleasant surprise. I particularly liked the description of what was happening at Delphi during the World Wars and the Greek civil war of 1952. I had not even considered what modern war would mean to the archaeologists trying to work there and the steps they would be forced to take to protect their precious finds. It turns out to be a fascinating period in the history of the sanctuary that includes a bloody battle right in the heart of the site between Nazi troops and Greek partisans. I haven’t been as grateful for such a comprehensive site history since Mary Beard wrote her history of the Parthenon. What happens to ancient sites once they’ve fallen into decline is so often missed out of popular histories. It’s lamentable but hopefully Beard and Scott will set a new fashion.

That said, naturally the majority of the book quite rightly  focuses on what was happening at Delphi during her heyday. Scott packs the anecdotes in tightly with countless stories of famous characters from ancient history and their consultations with the ambiguous oracle. As a classics nerd I’d always known that Delphi was an incredibly important place but wouldn’t really have been able to explain how or why. Scott does a great job of explaining how Delphi was instrumental in shaping the ancient world as well as how it was inevitably changed as well by everyone who became involved with it. What a lot of people fail to realise is that Delphi was but one of dozens of religious sanctuaries in the ancient world and even the fact that it offered consultations with an oracle isn’t unique. Those other oracles have fallen into obscurity with the passing of centuries whilst Delphi still grabs the imagination of millions of people in the 21st century. How Delphi managed to rise above the competition and reign supreme is a fantastic story that Scott tells engagingly.

I’m always a little worried that books of this kind will be a quagmire of academic jargon and the assumption that every reader is an Oxbridge post grad. Whilst the book does cover several incredibly complex centuries of history Scott mercifully manages to make this fairly easy to read for the common or garden classics nerd. It does require you to pay attention. It will help any reader to know their Alcmaeonids from their Amphictyonies in advance but Scott usually manages to make his point without patronising the casual reader or (I imagine) alienating his academic peers. Just as I would not have wanted a book too clever for its own good, had this been a book that be idly digested with no effort I wouldn’t have bought it. You can’t rest on your laurels reading “Delphi” but if you stay on your toes it is so rewarding. Moreover I found the points and arguments presented to be balanced and backed up by a hell of a lot of knowledge. This guy knows Delphi like the back of his hand and it’s so delightfully clear that he loves the place dearly.

Next month I sadly won’t have Michael Scott as my personal tour guide for the day. By reading the book before I go I have the next best thing. He has even been thoughtful enough to include a chapter at the back full of tips for anyone visiting the site and museum. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient Greece. The fact that the book is a marathon rather than a sprint is only in its favour. Dr Scott is fast becoming one of those academics who is intent on sharing his knowledge and passion with as wide an audience as possible. So far he’s doing a grand job and is to be commended for it. “Delphi” is comprehensive and satisfying. I’m now even more impatient to actually finally get there to see it for myself and learn even more about this incredible place! Mission accomplished, Dr Scott!

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April 15, 2014 · 5:59 pm

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

Recently I’ve been delving into the history of London as I develop some London walks. I soon realised that there are certain areas of my knowledge that are, ashamedly, a little patchy. Roman London? Tick. Long 18th? Fine. Blitz? Slam dunk. Norman invasion and subsequent effect on London? Errr… Whilst I thought I could easily explain the significance of Norman rule, I found that I was vague at best. Even though I’d made the pilgrimage to the Hastings battlefields and spent hundreds of hours walking around the evocative ruins of Norman keeps across the country, I was a bit useless at explaining the ramifications of the 1066 invasion without rambling aimlessly or drawing complete blanks.

The problem is that while every British school child is taught the date 1066, the Normans are only really taught in primary and junior school. As a small child I did genuinely soak up information about the anatomy of a motte and bailey castle and was thrilled when my Dad took me to the Rufus Stone as a child. But all too soon I moved on to senior school where the World Wars dominated our history classes for the next five years. Even in college my A level was pure World War II. Subsequently I dropped the subject at AS level stage having overdosed on 20th century politics. Combine that with a passion for the ancient world sparked off by a beloved childhood books of Greek myths and a family trip to Greece when I was still a kid, I have spent most of my time sadly neglecting the Anglo Saxons and Normans. I regret it, as I’m realising now what a wealth of fascinating history they provided us with. But how do you launch into research having not really studied William the Conqueror since you were 8 years old?

Thank Heaven, then, for Marc Morris. I’ve been a Morris fan for a long while now. I’ve spent many an hour watching Castle (more than once I’ve spent entire Sundays wrapped in a duvet watching the entire series repeated back to back on a history channel as it rains outside,) and the accompanying book (recently reissued) has taken pride of place on my shelves for years, eagerly thumbed through each time I’m planning my next castle visit.

As a tour guide I’m a big fan of Morris and his style of presentation. He’s infectiously enthusiastic without ever being obnoxious (I could name a few TV historians who could do with following his example!) He’s also perfected the balance of being informative without ever feeling the need to over simplify his subject and patronise his audience, or indeed deliberately flaunting his academic credentials by bombarding his viewers and readers with so much technical terminology and in depth analysis that his baffled audience write him off as a pretentious dick (again, two crimes committed by so many authors and presenters writing for a wide audience.)

I was therefore rather excited when this popped through my letterbox this month:

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I had, as yet, not managed to find a decent account of the Norman invasion that was both well written and informative. Morris has done an excellent job of both counts. The wonderful thing about this book is that there is a narrative thread, a real sense of an unfolding story. And having not really considered the politics of the period since I was a child, Morris managed to explain everything at a sensible pace without ever making me feel out of my depth in such unfamiliar territory. And the conquest IS unfamiliar territory, because nearly all of what I thought I knew is wrong. One by one Morris takes each lazily accepted ‘fact’ and dissects it down to bare bone before fleshing it back out into something that makes far more sense and more readily understandable. It’s commendable that Morris deliberately set out to write a book for a general readership rather than medievalists with a clutch of doctorates. He explains his reasoning rather marvellously here

It was such a pleasure reading this book. There was a lightbulb moment on practically every page. I had assumed that the Normans were violent bullies crushing an unsophisticated bunch of weedy Anglo-saxons to a bloody pulp, hanging around like a bad smell and treating the conquered like slaves. However, I was wrong. Reading the book, this sprang to mind more than once:

Here is Morris explaining what he means:

There are so many points in the book like this that my whole understanding has been changed. At one point I believe I may have actually slapped my forehead whilst exclaiming “of course!”

If there was only one book explaining the significance of the ‘greatest event in English history,’ I’d be recommending this one with passionate ardour. I may even become a born again medievalist! I’ll certainly be ignoring my ancient myths and 17th century whores for a while. A trip to Hastings and various other locations mentioned by Morris are already being planned and I’ll be taking my well thumbed copy along.

Treat yourself with a copy of The Norman Conquest, and treat others too. It really is fab and a complete eye opener. Also, do follow Morris on Twitter as he is wonderfully amusing. When you’ve read it, let me know because I’m dying to discuss it with someone! I’ll be here, waiting for you, daydreaming about Morris guiding me around castles and battlefields.

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