Category Archives: musings

Twenty Travel Tips!

I’ve always believed that there is no point in visiting a city or island unless you’re planning on really squeezing as much into your trip as possible. This style doesn’t suit everyone, but even if you prefer to really chill out when abroad you may find that some of this advice will still apply. I’ve travelled for business and leisure, in large groups, with family or my partner and alone. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. Whether you’re taking a long weekend away or backpacking across a country, hopefully I can help you enjoy yourself as much as possible.

I’ll be prepping a lot of the following tips myself as I plan for my next adventure this April.

1) If you haven’t already, download an app that lets you call or text home for free. I use WhatsApp as hotel wifi can make Skype sluggish. Your phone company is rich enough already without charging you a small fortune for a text message.

2) Nowadays you’ll be hard pressed to find a hotel or café that doesn’t have free wifi which is brilliant. Out and about, most cities now have wifi hotspots dotted around busy districts. However, some require a mobile number for authentication. You won’t be able to get online until the company texts you a password. Since a lot of phone companies charge you to receive texts while abroad as well as send, it may well be worth picking up a cheap pay-as-you-go local simply to put into your phone. You can get online and if necessary, call local numbers for a fraction of what your provider would charge for calls abroad and extortionate data roaming. Regardless, always tell your provider that you’re travelling before you fly to avoid any surprise charges.

3) Speaking of your phone, it can be really helpful to have a few bits and pieces preloaded and ready to go upon arrival. Knowing that guidebook streetmaps can be a bit rubbish (if the book even includes the area that you’re staying in,) bring up your hotel on Googlemaps and screenshot the map so that it’s always to hand. I also always download a photo of the hotel. Walking up and down a street with no visible house numbers looking for a B&B with no sign is no fun…

I also get a route from the station to my hotel and screenshot the map and step by step directions.

At the very least, make sure you have the name of your hotel and the full address written down somewhere, preferably in your wallet. Your taxi driver may not understand your pronunciation and you don’t know how many hotels have similar names in the area. My parents still shudder about landing in Orlando late at night in ’91 with two small children. They instructed the taxi driver to the Best Western hotel only to hear “which Best Western?” Not a fun way to start the trip.

4) Even the shabbiest kiosk will demand extortionate prices for a can of soda if they’re close to a popular attraction. Far better to grab a medium sized bottle of water at a corner shop or vending machine. Choose somewhere that is filled with locals who aren’t willing to pay inflated prices for necessities. Keep the bottle after you’ve drank your water to refill throughout the day (as most sports bottles can bulk out your luggage.) The wonderful thing about warmer countries is the abundance of public water fountains. I also carry a small bottle of concentrated squash or cordial with me such as these. They are hand luggage friendly and will last an entire trip. That way if the potable water tastes a bit odd to you the squash will mask the flavour. If you really can’t stand the idea of foreign water fountains then simply stick to supermarkets and mini marts for cheap sodas and juices.

5) Speaking of ridiculous mark-ups, don’t even get me started on the €10 cling-wrapped panini with sweaty cheese, wilted lettuce and cheap ham lining those kiosk shelves.

Watch the locals and follow them when you want to snack. Look for small, independant shops a little way off of the tourist track and for a fraction of the price you can eat like a king. I have happy memories of feasting on a €1.50 fougasse from a Parisian boulangerie. I had a different filling every morning that trip, stocking up on baked treats for rest of the day and always having change from a €5 note. A deli full of local charcuterie and cheeses will provide a brilliant picnic on the cheap.

You will undoubtedly see the usual global fast food chains in major European cities but the only locals you’ll see inside tend to be young teenagers. Why travel across the world to have the same flaccid burger you can have at home? Each country tends to have a fast food far better than that. In Italy even the cheapest pizza-by-the-slice joint will beat most pizzas at home, and my favourite food in the entire world is a Greek gyros wrap that rarely costs more than €2. I would genuinely prefer to eat gyros than dine at any fancy restaurant. If that means queueing for a while behind the hordes of Greeks crowding out the souvlaki shop, so be it.

6) If and when you do choose to sit down for a more relaxed meal there are a few pitfalls to avoid that should be obvious but are often ignored.

If the restaurant has a view of a monument expect to pay through the nose for average food. Locals don’t eat here and tourists rarely bring repeat custom, so the owners can afford to charge what they like for lazy interpretations of national dishes. They don’t tend to look kindly on leisurely meals, either. Expect to be hurried so that the table can be freed up.

Ditto for if the restaurant has a large, plastic menu in English displayed prominently outside. They usually come in garish colours and have photos of the most popular dishes. These photos are from a stock catalogue and haven’t been taken anywhere near what the chef plates up. Do yourself a favour and memorise the names of a few local dishes that interest you before you travel or highlight them in the cuisine section of your guidebook. Most of the time the best dishes aren’t even offered on the tourist menus anyway. Each city or district usually has a speciality dish or two depending on the local landscape and agriculture. When I discovered how wonderful Sicilian aubergines were I insisted on eating them every day I was there.

My rule of thumb is the fewer frllow tourists you see in a busy restaurant, the better the food and service will be.

Tripadvisor is for once not reliable here, the diners most ready to be vocal about the food and experience they receive tend to be the complainers, sadly they are also the diners who have unimaginative palates and no clue about local cuisines. If you do read a really negative review of a restaurant that had really tempted you, do a few profile clicks. If they gave a generic chain or fast food restaurant a glowing review for a basic dish, you know that they are not to be believed.

Diving in at the deep end and trying something new can’t hurt. My husband and I often giggle and impersonate a group of northern english middle aged couples we encountered on our honeymoon on a Greek island. They were marvelling, very loudly and appreciatively, at their first taste of Greek food.

“Try this beef stifaaaado, Beverley! It’s just like ‘otpot but with green bits!”

“Ee, this chicken souvlaki tastes right lemony, Reg!”

I smile to think of a Greek restaurant somewhere in Sheffield earning a new set of regulars.

7) This is mainly directed at my fellow Brits. Booze is cheaper on the continent and generally (apart from real ale,) better. Enjoy a drink, but don’t be the paralytic, sunburnt cretin yelling into the night and vomiting into a bin. We seem to be the only European nation to binge drink and if you do so abroad I can promise that the locals will detest you. Stiff upper lip, chaps.

8) Build an intinerary.

Buy a comprehensive guidebook and read through it a few times. Highlight what you definitely want to see in one colour and things you might like to see if you have enough time in another. Circle these places in the city map that is usually found inside the cover. It should make it pretty easy to work out how to organise each day by clustering nearby museums and galleries to each other. Check their opening times to decide which is better to see first and which to leave for last. If any of your must-sees have a weekly extended opening or reduced price scheme you can then plan accordingly to ensure you won’t miss out.

It’s also worth tweeting or emailing ahead to see if staff can recommend which are their quietest days so you won’t spend your hard earned holiday queueing for tickets and battling the crowds.

If you like you can write an afternoon or even entire day into the schedule that’s dedicated to getting purposefully lost and idly wandering around, but you’ll be confident knowing that you won’t miss anything that you really wanted to see.

9) There are a wealth of hotel sites now but my travelling experience improved greatly once a friend told me about Booking.com.

There are all the usual features of finding hotels by area/budget/type but my favourite aspect is frequently being able to book without a deposit and paying is cash upon arrival. Nearly all hotels also have a free cancellation policy, usually merely 24 hours in advance. It makes life a lot easier if you need to change your plans.

Above all, you can find some brilliant and quirky hotels and B&Bs. In April when I go to Venice I’ll be staying on a Turkish gulet for the same price as a bed in a 15 person hostel dorm.

10) Landmarks and monuments tend to be beautifully illuminated after dark which can be a temptation for even the most amateur photographer.

Rather than risking your safety by wandering around an unfamiliar city at night wielding expensive gadgets, look for an evening walking tour.

There’s safety in numbers and your guide will know the best places to stop for photos and can advise on interesting viewpoints and angles.

Even better, google your destination for photography tours led by someone who can help you get phenomenal, professional looking shots.

11) Speaking of tours, a highlights tour that lasts an hour or two is something really worth booking for your first day away to give you a great introduction to your destination. Many don’t cost much and some are even free. You can get your bearings and note down any landmarks or restaurants that catch your eye for later. As a bonus, as well as being a font of historical and architectural knowledge, your guide will have plenty of tips about events, places to eat and where to shop.

If you’re travelling to satisfy a particular passion (Renaissance art, classical sculpture, Norman castles…) it’s always worth seeing if there is a local guide who specialises in your subject. Whilst a full day private tour can be pricey if you’re on your own or in a small group, most specialist guides will have a morning or afternoon tour on offer. Sometimes they will accompany you into a gallery or museum to help tailor your visit to your particular interests. It’s worth contacting your guide a few weeks in advance to see what styles of tour they can offer. If you’re paying that bit extra for a private tour, you deserve a bespoke experience.

If you don’t mind joining strangers on a tour there are an increasing number of quirky guides with an array of funny, weird or even scatalogically themed walks (like mine!) Even if you’re visiting a city you know well, these guides will still be able to teach you something new. Ghost walks, crime scenes, graveyard tours and more all offer a memorable experience away from the well-trodden tourist path.

12) Be kind to your feet! Ancient cobbles and stiletto shoes are not a good combination and it mystifies me every time I see a woman sacrifice comfort for fashion. Flip flops were designed for sandy beaches, not sidewalks. I once saw an American girl nearly break her ankle trying to scale the rocky acropolis of Mycenae because of her dainty but useless sandals. Come on, guys, be sensible!

There is no need to wear clunky hiking boots and unless you buy the really high end boots it’s a false economy anyway. 9 days in Rome murdered my brand new midrange walking boots! Admittedly I walk a lot when abroad but I’d hoped they’d last a fortnight at least!

Thankfully I happened upon Skechers GOwalk range with memory foam soles. I usually end a trip with aching, swollen, blistered feet. 15 days of hiking and pounding pavements in Sicily didn’t faze the Skechers trainers at all. My feet never felt tired, even after 12 hour excursions, and I didn’t even get a hint of a blister. I love them and now rely on them, if you walk a lot you NEED them.

13) Invest in a spare camera battery. Off brand ones are fine and can be found cheap on Amazon. Take one more memory card than you think you’ll need. Invest in an introduction to photography book and memorise the basics to help you get shots so pretty you’ll want to have them printed and framed. The book will teach you how to get great photos even at night and in places that ban the use of tripods.

14) Take dress codes seriously. When going to any place of worship make sure shoulders and knees are covered; if you dress like you are headed to the beach you have no reason to complain when you are turned away.

15) From day long excursions to backpacking across continents, Rome 2 Rio will tell you the quickest and/or cheapest method of transport to get you from A to B anywhere in the world and usually can link you to the relevant booking sites with a mere click.

16) Definitely make the effort to learn a few key phrases of the local language. Don’t bother taking a bulky phrasebook though. Download a translation app to your phone or tablet. Some don’t even require an Internet connection. Simply type what you want to translate (in either direction) and click. This saves any embarrassing attempts at communicating through mime…

17) Type your destination into your app store. You can find maps and guides for nearly every city. Triposo are pretty comprehensive. Several museums and attractions also have apps with preloaded highlights or suggested routes. Many have an audioguide function to save you having to rent a clunky handheld speaker.

There are some brilliant city apps now that have old photos or anecdotes connected to places of interest tagged onto a map. All you need is to turn on your location function to find a hidden gem around the corner. For instance, I recommend downloading Black Plaques if you’re coming to London.

18) Always print out booking confirmation emails or QR codes before you travel in case you can’t get wifi or your phone dies. Similarly have a print out of your boarding pass. I print out a second copy to put in my suitcase in case my wallet gets stolen.

19) Make a list of what you intend to pack. Read it twice through and I bet you could halve it. Roll clothes, don’t fold. Pack a plastic carrier bag to keep your dirty laundry separate. Decant some Febreze into a small travel bottle for emergencies, you can usually also find travel sized bottles of hand wash detergent. Spending half an hour washing some clothes in the sink before bedtime is preferable to excess luggage charges and an aching back from lugging half your wardrobe to another country. It is entirely possible to travel using a cabin sized bag only. This saves money and faffing at baggage carousels. Read this article if you don’t believe it can be done.

20) Take a small notepad and pencil to write down a few thoughts and experiences while you are away. I often jot down funny conversations I accidentally eavesdrop into or the names of people and buildings to research when I get home. Then, when you get home, write up a travel journal. You don’t have to put it online as I do, but the act of recording your adventure is a great way to beat the post-holiday slump after returning home. I keep ticket stubs and leaflets to scrapbook and print my favourite photos cheaply at the supermarket. Documenting your trip helps the memories remain vivid for longer and it’s such a pleasure reading them years later.

If you have any tried and tested tips that I’ve forgotten, please leave a comment!

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Finding a Lost King in the Reality TV and Social Media Age

Yesterday (4th Feb 2013) a team from the University of Leicester announced that a skeleton exhumed from beneath a Leicester car park was the long lost body of Richard III. It was exciting news for history nerds and archaeology enthusiasts everywhere.

I won’t go into the archaeology methods used or the history of Richard himself here, the blogosphere is already filled with excellent posts regarding both. Needless to say, the discovery caught the imagination. Some have even called it ‘the Mary Rose of our generation.’

What caught my attention was the reaction to the news from social media sites. When the Mary Rose was salvaged in 1982 the internet was in its infancy. There was no immediate global reaction poured out from countless smartphones, no websites streaming footage of press conferences in real time.

I watched the announcement yesterday in front of a 24 hour news channel, clutching my iPhone tightly and refreshing my twitter feed every ten seconds. I love big events shared with twitter. For instance, watching the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was made infinitely more entertaining when keeping one eye on the extravaganza and one eye on my laptop. All of a sudden I wasn’t just at my in-law’s house, I was at a global party attended by hundreds of my wittiest friends. Various tweets that night made me laugh until it hurt, made me incredibly proud to be British and gave a community feel to the night, despite being spent in the middle of rural Leicestershire.

Following the kind of people that I do, I knew that an event such as the Richard III announcement would make for an exciting and emotional twitter feed. I wasn’t wrong. After being dismissed a nerd all through school and my animated ramblings being tolerated by friends and family since, it was gratifying to see that my excitement was shared by so many people I’ve come to know and like. Despite my twitter friends being spread liberally across the country, we were all on the edge of a shared seat as the archaeologists and academics at the press conference took an age to get to the actual confirmation.

What interested me was that my twitter friends soon divided themselves into distinct camps.

A) Thrilled to find out that Dickie has been found at last. These tweeps were rightly impressed with the hard work that had gone into the identification and were happily predicting a tourism boom for Leicestershire and a new interest in an era unjustly ignored by many in favour of showboating Tudors or a deathly dull widowed recluse named Victoria. Could this be the discovery that finally brings the Plantagenet dynasty back into vogue? Could the news be the catalyst for a whole new group of people to take an interest in history? Tour guides and teachers fell into this category, you could almost see them rubbing their hands in glee.

B) There was a sizable contingent of tweeters who jammed on the capslock to remind the rest of us that Richard III was a homicidal, ruthless bastard. Baffled at the unbridled joy shown, they just couldn’t understand why the nation could be happy to have dug up a murderer. I’m surprised none of them suggested putting the skeleton on a posthumous show trial. My tolerance level of this was and is low. Firstly, it has never been a secret that saintly monarchs with a watertight set of morals have never captured the imagination like a good old villain or naughty boy can. No-one is fascinated by Henry VIII because he liked cuddling puppies, no-one devours books about Charles II because he routinely prayed every 30 minutes. The interest exists because of Henry’s monstrous ego and his marital soap opera and because Charles was a charismatic party animal with a mistress for each day of the year. Richard III won’t be winning any Uncle of the Year awards perhaps, and he may not have been the huggy type, but he is wonderfully interesting.  Bleating that he was a bit of a meanie is pointless.

C) “PRINCES IN THE TOWER PRINCES IN THE TOWER PRINCES IN THE TOWER”

Within seconds of the announcement the cry went up that we should test the suspected remains of the dead nephews and solve the murder mystery IMMEDIATELY. NOW. IT’S IMPERATIVE.

Calm down, love, one thing at a time. Let’s just appreciate this discovery for five minutes before we move on to the next project, shall we? It was time consuming enough to ID THESE remains, let alone start on more than one set of remains suspected of being the princes. Not to mention that at least one set of bones is contaminated.

Murder mysteries are indeed intoxicating, personally I’m not in a rush for this one to be solved. The frantic and maniacal calls for the case to be reopened reminded me of this:

D) The high and mightys. It did dampen my spirits to see so many prominent historians attempt to pour cold water on the whole discovery. On a day where archaeology and British history made headlines across the world it seemed petty and bitter to send out snarky remarks that the discovery wouldn’t really ‘change’ anything. I don’t think it is necessary for the discovery to change anything to be noteworthy. Your colleagues have had significant success in finding a frickin’ monarch and the whole world is talking about it. Say congratulations and then shut up. Group A got understandably annoyed with Group D. Group D sneered at Group A from their academic pedestals. Some interesting and usually lovely people fell into Group D, hopefully normal service will resume soon.

E) The comedians. When debate rears its ugly head, tweeters can always rely on the witty banterers to break the tension. Here are some of my favourites from people I follow or simply tweets that were so brilliant that they got retweeted for hours.

Larry the Cat (@Number10cat) “Archaeologists say they were instantly able to distinguish remains of Richard III from Clegg family owing to presence of a spine”

Elizabeth Windsor (@Queen_UK) “Just had 600 years of parking fines through for Richard III. Might see if one can persuade Chris Huhne’s wife to pay them.”

Richard III (@HMRichardIII) “I bloody told you it was me”

Gemma (‏@gemgemgembird)
“Which historical figure do we dig up next, then? I say we go to Stratford, because SOMEONE has got some explaining to do.”

Jen (@MsGibbster) “Richard III ‘fit for work’ says ATOS”

Stuart Heritage (@StuHeritage) “Next news: berserk Richard III clone breaks out of cage and eats a man off a toilet”

 

So that was in the morning.

I suspect that I was not alone in spending the afternoon in a rather exuberant mood. History was the most popular subject of the day, therefore we were popular by association. History nerds were sexy, charismatic types for the day, even if it was only in our own imaginations. The feeling was brief, because the evening brought us, the nerds, crashing back down to reality. Why? ‘Richard III: The King in the Car Park’ on Channel 4 (quickly dubbed CSI:Plantagenet by twitter wits.)

We were all hoping for the documentary to be informative, whilst also showing history lovers in a positive light. A shame then, that Channel 4 wasted this opportunity and instead relied on that other monster of the modern age; reality TV.

When producers are too lazy to conduct research or too devoid of moral fibre to actually care about their subject, they now rely on the default template for reality TV. Find the most eccentric person on screen and make them look batshit crazy, then sit back and watch the ratings rise. Shame on Channel 4 for racing through informative segments with experts to focus on Philippa Langley.

Ms Langley was responsible for gathering evidence of the location, finding the funding for a full scale archaeological dig and then actually convincing someone to conduct the entire procedure. It can’t have been easy and obviously took dedication and perseverance. To be generous she is a determined amateur who pointed actual archaeologists and scientists in the right direction. On screen however, she came off as a cringingly batty woman obsessed with a single person to the point of fixation.

Maybe Channel 4 did her a disservice, perhaps she’s lovely and a little socially awkward. Maybe Channel 4 did the nation a favour and warned us in advance not to invite her to dinner if we make her acquaintance, lest she compare the roast chicken carcass to Richard’s ribcage and run out of the dining room sobbing.

Twitter was predictably quick to condemn or defend. Philippa fans were eager to remind us that after long periods of research it is easy to form an emotional attachment with a subject. I agree, I always feel close to my research subjects, as a tour guide it is essential. Without an emotional attachment, good or bad, I can’t tell their story in an engaging way. However, I (and most historians, Philippa defenders included!) am able to step back and see personality flaws and mistakes. No historical figure is perfect, but listening to Philippa you’d have thought that old Dickie was the only person on the planet who ever truly deserved to live.

Philippa and other cantankerous members of the infamous Richard III society (not all are stubbornly hero worshipping, a few vocal and militant members have earned them a bad reputation) are too fanatical for comfort. The Society as a whole maintains that Richard III has had a raw deal in the history stakes, and he has. He’s been depicted by propagandists and later moralists as a complete git. I’m inclined to say that he WAS  a git but for pragmatic and justifiable reasons considering his rank and the era in which he lived. Philippa and fellow fans will merely stick metaphorical fingers in ears whilst loudly denying that Richard ever did anything more violent then accidentally tread on a woodlouse.

THAT is what annoys me about Philippa. Due to her crush on Richard she ignores his history itself. She tries to mould him into the angel that she wants him to be. She is bashing a square peg into a round hole with a huge mallet made of desperate obsession. Richard III is not as bad as the Tudors and their arse licking Shakespeare said he was, but he’s not a saint either. A balance must be struck, and they don’t come more imbalanced than Philippa.

So the previously ebullient nerds in the audience were deflated when this uber nerd took to our screens and let the side down by being melodramatic and fanatical.

Watching Philippa drape the (not yet identified!!!!) remains in a cheap flag under the uncomfortable eyes of actual experts, run around constantly crying, and stare at the skeleton with uncontrollable fervour was uncomfortable viewing. I honestly thought at one point that she was going to pick up the skull and hug it, running her fingers erotically around the eye sockets.

With one fell swoop history nerds ceased to be rock stars (oh how short lived that turned out to be) and reverted back to being awkward oddities that no-one wants to sit next to on the bus. Instead of strutting around, proud of our knowledge and passion, we’ll go back to hiding in our libraries and museums, safe from the laughing masses.

The actual experts on the show were talented, coherent and mercifully practical. Such a shame then, that television producers assume that they will bore or confuse us with techie speak. I could happily have listened to them talk for the entire 90 minutes instead of being subjected to the obligatory ’emotional journey’ of Philippa. How patronising that Channel 4 should put the emphasis on that instead of the incredible scientists, or indeed, Richard himself. His undeserved rep was constantly alluded to and yet nobody thought to dig a little deeper.

It will fascinate me to see how television and the internet has evolved when the next big discovery rolls along. Will science win the day or will emotions run so high they drown it out again? Time and twitter will tell.

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A True Tale of the Pornographic Pitfalls of Working In a Museum

People do funny things in museums. Whilst the majority of visitors will troop through in reverence, surgically attached to their audio guides, there are those who just love to come to museums for illicit thrills.

Why? I have no idea. Personally I find them some of the least sexy places on the planet, beaten only by football grounds and public toilets. For me, a room full of amazing artefacts, sculptures and paintings does indeed make my heart beat faster, but afterwards I’ll only be rushing to get into the history section of the nearest bookshop and not somebody’s pants. I’m not alone in this. When the unbearably attractive chef Rocco diSpirito was asked whether he’d ever had a romantic tryst in a kitchen, he was spluttering with indignation.

“I feel like that would be a desecration of the kitchen! I would never, ever think of doing that to the kitchen. There’s a sensitivity and a sensuality to cooking, but it’s not like that.”

The last thing I want to do under the watchful eyes of a greek bust or oil paintings of court beauties is to get jiggy. However for some of our visitors a little bit of heritage is all it takes to get motors running.

Perhaps it is the illicit thrill of doing something naughty in a traditionally refined space, the frisson of excitement at the thought of getting caught in flagrante delicto, or maybe the places that I’ve worked have simply been in neighbourhoods with abnormally high numbers of nymphomaniacs.

In its most innocent form, every tour guide and gallery warden has had to tear apart various lovestruck teenagers. Bless their hormonal hearts, they are usually on school excursions and are far too in love to do something as banal as learn. They are nearly always from continental Europe. Of course, they are in the throes of true love and nothing is more important than demonstrating that love to each other by clumsily slobbering over each other’s faces. We’ve all been there. However it’s not really appropriate behaviour, particularly in front of teeny visitors. It’s tempting to spray the star-crossed adolescents with cold water as you would with a misbehaving cat, but sadly I think that classes as a politically incorrect response.

Then you get the ‘regular offenders’ who verge on perverse. You’ll find them attempting to flash, or rubbing up against other terrified visitors.

And of course, let’s not forget the ‘Bucket Listers’ who have written down a long list of bizarre places to have a bonk and today is the day they tick off the Local Museum. I believe there are even smartphone apps that can provide people who suffer from a chronic lack of imagination with a pre written list. A friend was describing a such an adventure undertaken at a local castle that I have visited countless times since I could toddle. Her eyes gleamed at the memory whilst I struggled not to cry at the realisation that every time I revisit the battlements I will no doubt picture her having sex up against a flying buttress.

Where I worked at Fort Nelson there were numerous places that were perfect for a knee trembler. I know that from the accounts of WW2 personnel who enjoyed a bit of slap and tickle up against the shell stores in between ammo deliveries. Dimly lit subterranean caponiers and lighting passages seem to be a favourite spot for amorous adventurers. And if a horny visitor arrives without a partner, it seems to be common practice to simply proposition the nearest tour guide. Even the usually respectful re-enactors who descend on the fort for special events were seemingly not immune. One asked me to bend over a 32pdr smoothbore breech-loading gun in the north caponier. You can imagine my response. In case you can’t, I gave him such a indignant stare that he slinked off. I was not bout to desecrate historical artillery pieces!

The fairly private mortar batteries were also a popular spot for a bit of fortification fornication and I was once charged with going through the guest comment book with a bottle of tippex and removing all of the in depth, blow by blow accounts of successful liasons.

But the most popular place was, by far, the car park. Being a fort, the site was fairly remote, situated on top of a largely uninhabited ridge. Our car park, when I was there, was just off of the site, surrounded by a ring of conveniently situated trees and hedges that made the entire car parl completely invisible from the road. It was split up into several sections descending down the slope, marked by even more hedges. Before the new car park was constructed (after I moved away) the Fort Nelson car park was one of Portsmouth’s most notorious dogging spots. The entrance had a heavy metal gate that we, the warden guides, had to unlock every morning and lock every night. Any cars left in the carpark past closing time had to stay there until morning. We weren’t encouraged to lock the gates with cars still present, it was our duty to find the owners and remind them of the car park opening hours.

This end-of-day duty became a chore. On Thursdays I’d always find a red Peugeot in the farthest section from the road. Both occupants were married (not to each other) and couldn’t afford a hotel. They always had a meal in the cafe before heading straight back to the car. I originally wondered why these regular visitors never bothered looking around the exhibitions. The first time that it was my turn to lock up on a Thursday I found out. Cheating spouses and doggers often meant that I was late finishing my shift because I had to send perverts packing. Whilst my colleagues would often have a cigarette and l wait for the sexathons to finish, I’m afraid that I am rather impatient by nature, especially after a long day standing in drizzle. My tolerance level therefore having plummeted, I was notorious as the member of staff who would march up to the car, knock on the window and yell threats about calling the police until I’d sufficiently put them off their vinegar strokes.

Occasionally I’d spy a silver sports car and a silver van, always parked side by side. This only meant one thing –  a notorious Portsmouth porn star who specialised in filming al fresco fornication was using the car park as the latest set. One day, wrapped up in my uniform bomber jacket and beanie hat, I stomped to a little dell at the bottom of the car park. My stomach was growling and I was impatient for the roast dinner that was awaiting me at home. It took me 20 minutes to find the ‘movie set’, and when I did find them I found myself in between the ‘actors’ and the camera. I snapped. I started shouting menacingly that I was sick and tired of stumbling upon serial shaggers when all I wanted to do was lock the bloody gate and race to the bus stop before I missed the last bus. The actors, to give them credit, didn’t miss a beat. The cameraman whispered that I could lock the gate and go home. They’d get a taxi home and pick up their porn-mobiles in the morning before the school buses started to park up.

I was too nervous to search the web to see if my little interruption made the final edit, but it’s quite possible that TourGuideGirl is, indeed, and inadvertant porn star. Just don’t tell my mum!

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Saving Newhaven Fort

I was planning to write a post about Newhaven Fort sometime in the near future, but then I saw this: http://www.sussexexpress.co.uk/news/local/plans-to-lease-newhaven-fort-are-approved-1-4051772 and I had to change my plans.

I had two reasons for my delay.

When I visited Newhaven recently it was with a fellow Twitterstorian Jack Shoulder (@jackshoulder – follow him!) and my dear friend Will (@wrmspeed) for our #epicfortday. Jack writes a wonderful blog about his museum visits and posted about it by the time I’d got home, or so it seemed! You can read it here: http://jacksadventuresinmuseumland.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/epicfortday-a-day-exploring-forts/ and so it seemed rather silly to do a standard review on my own blog when I could just point people towards Jack.

I decided to approach the subject in a way I feel more comfortable with, comparing it to a fort I worked in for a couple of years and had grown to love like a family member.

A bit of back story is perhaps required.

I began working as a warden guide at Fort Nelson in Hampshire a few years before I got married and moved to Berkshire. Fort Nelson is a branch of the Royal Armouries which has a main museum in Leeds and also a section of the Tower of London. Fort Nelson is the ‘heavy artillery’ site, housing things that go ‘bang’ and are too heavy to pick up.

The fort itself is Victorian, and part of a ring of fortifications that essentially make Portsmouth a giant concentric castle.

Over the space of two years I spent 5 days a week at that Fort. It started out as a fascinating building to work in and ended up being a dear friend. Only people who live and breathe one historical site will know what I’m talking about. The building has its own quirks and tales to tell. When you spend that amount of time with a site you don’t have a choice, it starts to take a hold of you emotionally until you love it passionately.

I knew how much it had rained the previous night from the scent of the grass that covered the chalk and flint ramparts. I knew what the red bricks felt like to the touch and knew the exact location of each one that had a chip or crack. I could probably navigate the subterranean tunnels blindfolded quite happily and knew the pickaxe patterns in the chalk walls by heart. I knew which of the floorboards in the redan creaked and which of the windows had wonky latches. I spoke to the cannons on display as I wandered past them and hummed the music that played in the artillery gallery long after I got home.

I winced at vandalism as if someone had hurt me physically and I spent my tours showing the fort off like a proud mum enthuses about her beloved toddlers ballet recital.

When I went home each night I’d frequently dream about the place. Large swathes of my life were played out with the Fort as a backdrop, I’ve laughed, cried, flirted, laughed and passionately debated there.  So it’s not really a surprise that I’ve grown so attached to the place and it’s also not a surprise that I care very much about what happens to it.

When the time came for me to marry and start a new life away from the coast, plans had been approved  to add an extension to the fort. It wouldn’t the first time in its history. Buildings had been added to the parade ground for the storage of anti aircraft ammunition during the second world war. That, I can stomach, but a pointless new ‘visitor centre’ was not my cup of tea.

Originally the ticket desk was housed in a small gift shop in what used to be the coal store and the cafe was situated in one of the barrack rooms. Original architecture, no faffing needed. When plans were first shunted around to build a separate structure, I was sceptical. Especially when I had witnessed an incompetent middle manager reduce to shop to a pile of cheap nick-nacks and slashed the long suffering chef’s menu down from carveries to limp sandwiches kept in cheap plastic containers. Having lost our cafe ‘regulars’ as soon as hot meals and the fabulously popular weekend carvery was abolished, the cafe was deserted. Why on earth build a larger, new structure to accomodate 0 visitors?

The design itself was modern and intrusive, blocking the beautiful view of the rear of the fort. It is covered by grass which apparently is supposed to echo the ramparts, but it instead looks as if someone has plonked the Teletubby house by the fort accidentally. Additionally, a new gallery was to be added to better house the exhibits, the design for which resembled a giant greenhouse bolted on to what had been a perfectly good wall. Even the beautiful two storey high doors at the gate have been replaced by glass. Glass! Lord Palmerston is rolling in his grave.

Thankfully I left before I saw my beloved fort mutilated by garish modern architecture executed by money grabbing w***ers who couldn’t give a toss about the integrity of the original building. I can’t go back because even thinking about what those c***s have done to my beautiful fort makes me uncontrollably angry and tears spring forth like a burst dam. If I meet the architect in the street I will end up doing time, and I’m not exaggerating. In my mind they have raped the building and left it irreparably scarred.

I had already decided that to compare the quaint, old fashioned museum style of Newhaven Fort to the barbarity of the fashionable modern tat that had been installed at Fort Nelson, I’d have to bite the bullet and go back and witness it first hand. I dreaded it, like the family members of murder victims dread having to identify their loved ones on a mortuary table.

Sadly, the news that Newhaven Fort is to be leased out to unnamed third parties came to me before I had to make the journey.

I had been planning to praise Newhaven to the skies. The grass was well manicured, which towards the end even Fort Nelson couldn’t claim. The exhibitions, whilst decidedly low-tech, have an old fashioned charm that was endlessly endearing. At Newhaven, there is no trace of posters and information boards designed and made by a soulless contractor company with no passion for the subject. The hand-made feel of the displays at Newhaven are the result of a love affair between man and building, a dedication to preservation and the sharing of its history, lovingly crafted with affection. It’s so heart warming to wander around the exhibitions at Newhaven. No futuristic special effects wizardry, no identikit modern museum fads. The love that the designer/s had for their fort shines through in their creation until you can’t help but catch the Newhaven bug.

I am terrified that a lease would mean that in a desperate attempt to attract visitors who have become used to high tech flashing buttons and bells, Newhaven will be forced to ‘modernise.’ It will be, to quote a colleague, ‘Disney-fied.’ All of the charm will be ripped out and Newhaven will be left a soulless shell, devoid of any character. Because modern developers are terrified of character. Nothing must be unique, or special, because that would be too dangerously challenging for the public, supposedly. You see, modern developers think that you, the visitor, are stupid and easily startled. Far better to spoon feed you like an infant chimp than to let you discover a place by yourself.

I’m not exaggerating, either. My love of Fort Nelson has caused me to obsessively visit and explore other forts, and I know all too well what happens when ‘leases’ and ‘contractors’ start showing up.

Fort Wallington was torn to shreds and is now an industrial park. Drive past it and you will see one of the saddest ends to a great building imaginable. Fort Fareham is slowly rotting to pieces in the ‘care’ of another industrial estate.
This is the undignified end of a building that should have been preserved and loved. Instead it languishes like a sickly animal, already being eaten by scavengers. This is what happens when historic buildings are handed over to people who couldn’t give a toss about them. I’m sure that the council responsible for Newhaven have good intentions, but seeing what I’ve seen and knowing what I know, you can forgive me for my pessimism.

Don’t let Newhaven be sacrificed simply because it is need of TLC. Fort Brockhurst is an excellent example of a fort that is cared for by people who love it.

Newhaven doesn’t need whistles and bells and flashy lights. It just needs a bit of help from people with passion and experience. There are so many way that the 200 grand it loses annually could be made up. It’ll be interesting to watch the events that unfold for the future of Newhaven Fort, but I have a familiar sinking feeling that I’ll end up nursig a broken heart and mourning a friend.

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The Parthenon Marbles – or, Stirring the Proverbial on Twitter

Every now and again, when the planets align and the elements are in total harmony, something magical happens.

A throwaway tweet that has been thrown into the swirling maelstrom that is Twitter and forgotten by it’s author moments later gets viewed and retweeted until it is a raging titan in 140 characters. It takes on a life of its own, dragging tweeters into its cyclone and refusing to let them go for hours. It is the stuff of myth and legend.

Well, not quite, but it does sound rather deliciously dramatic.

One morning last week I wrote a quick tweet as a kneejerk reaction to a mention of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles. I can’t even remember how it came up, perhaps the radio? Or an inch of newspaper column? I didn’t think much about it, but nevertheless chucked my tiny opinion into the whirlwind of chatter that is Twitter. What I basically said was that it would be nice to see the marbles in Athens but that I was hesitant to see them sent back in case it set a precedent for a major global game of Musical Museum Exhibits. I didn’t actually say that last bit hoe I’ve written it here, hindsight does tend to make me marginally wittier. (I said marginally, trolls!)

I thought no more of it, put my iPod Touch down, and sat myself down to watch whatever MGM musical was showing on TCM.

Now I’ve had a tweet go viral (or as viral as you can get in our rather small twitterstorian community) before. A quick tweet about Ancient Greek sex positions offered by prostitutes complete with a droll hashtag saw my follower number triple in two days and was retweeted so many times I thought my iPod had broken. Sex sells, and whilst shocked (and delighted) I at least understood why it had happened. With this, I wasn’t so sure.

Within minutes I was being bombarded with tweets from a host of people. I knew that I wasn’t going to get many people sitting on the Elgin fence as indifference doesn’t tend to inspire a lot of replies, but the strength of conviction among the people who did bother to type out a reply was amazing.

I had unwittingly unleashed one of my industry’s most fervent debates upon myself.

A bit of background for those of you that don’t sit for hours contemplating the fate of a few lumps of rock:

Under the Golden Age of Pericles in Athens during the 5th Century BC, two architects named Iktinos and Kallikrates and a sculptor names Phidias were put in charge of rejuvenating the Athenian Acropolis that had been sadly razed during a Persian scuffle. Money from the Delian League, a group of Greek states allied with Athens against Persia, was siphoned off to pay for the scheme.

Soon, grandiose buildings were being constructed on the Acropolis, a grand gateway called the Propylaea and a temple called the Erechtheion which has columns shaped like beautiful women (called caryatids) as well as statues liberally sprinkled around the complex. As we all know, the shining star of the site was and is the Parthenon, a massive temple dedicated to the patron Goddess of the city, Athena.

This temple housed one of Phidias’ masterpieces (now lost) which was a massive chryselephantine statue of Athena (which means made out of ivory and gold.) The gold of her statue was fully removable and served as the Athenian Treasury.

It’s interesting to note that the scheme, much like The Eiffel Tower and London Eye, had it’s detractors as it was being built. Before these buildings become iconic there is always someone who wants to kick the architect in the shin. One Athenian grumbled that the beautification of the Acropolis was nothing less than bedecking it as if it were a brazen whore. The Parthenon, it seems, has created debate since before it’s completion.

Fastforward to a time where the Greeks aren’t on such a strong footing. Under Roman rule, Emperor Nero couldn’t resist slapping his name upon the Parthenon in massive metal letters.

1,000 years after Phidias and Greece was now officially Christian with their own orthodox church – The Parthenon. The statue of Athena having being carted off to disappear into the ether at Constantinople, the Parthenon was adapted for a bit of Jesus worshipping. Then, in 1456, it’s all change again as a minaret is plonked unceremoniously onto the temple and,et voila, we have ourselves a mosque. So already, the Parthenon has seen a lot of changes to its function and appearance. Frankly, given the pagan nature of the sculpture, it’s a miracle any of it was allowed to survive.

Not that we’re out of the woods quite yet. In 1687 the Venetians are trying to oust the Turkish from Athens. The Turks decide to hide in their gunpowder store which is situated inside the, you guessed it, Parthenon. 700+ Venetian cannonballs later and KABOOM! The magazine explodes leaving hardly any of the temple standing. (Much of what you see today has been reconstructed.) Frencesco Morosini, a Venetian General, didn’t leave Athens before trying to shove a few large choice bits of sculpture into his luggage, smashing Poseidon, Athena’s chariot and a few of the stone horses in the process.

By 1801 you could be forgiven for thinking that the Parthenon might have fared better elsewhere. The Ottomans were selling chunks of sculpture off to tourists. Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Constantinople was an antiquities fanatic and it bothered him to see the destruction of antiquities in Turkey and Greece. By the time he managed to take a tour of the Acropolis, sculptures were laying littered on the floor. Some had been ground down to dust to make cement, and quite a few pieces had mysteriously vanished. The Parthenon was no longer a beautiful wonder of architecture, she was a wreck.

Lord Elgin wasted no time in convincing the Ottoman Sultan that Elgin should cart them off to Blighty before they were lost forever. To be quite frank, had I a time machine I’d do exactly the same thing, although if we’re being pedantic I would have prevented the Christians moving in first and halted the whole sorry tale from there. Even so, once again at the time there were noisy critics who condemned Elgin as a looter.

It wasn’t easy or particularly well executed, but the fragments of sculpture that had survived being sawn off/shipwrecked had finally made it back to London. Where, on the verge of bankruptcy, Elgin sold them to the British Museum at a knock down price. It’s worth noting that Elgin hadn’t wanted to sell, he’d been planning to use the marbles to prettify his ancestral seat in Scotland. Had he not been so awful at managing his money the Parthenon marbles could be being used as a bench in a stately home’s garden right now.

Anyway, The Marbles ended up in the BM and Elgin’s name was to be permanently attached to them for ever after. Staff at the museum in the late 1800’s tried to get the marbles to gleam white by using various caustic acids and later in the pre-WWII years accusations were thrown about scrubbing the marbles with wire wool.

And so we arrive at the present day, where two sides are violently opposed as to whether the marbles should be returned to Athens or remain in London.

Throw in a tweet by someone decidedly on the fence and bitter arguments occur. Back to the tweet in question.

It was a mere thought, spoken in electronic form to no-one in particular. Within seconds, I was challenged by someone I had followed for a while but who as yet hadn’t heard of me.

I can therefore only assume that @Elginism searches for related keywords on an hourly basis to pounce on any unsuspecting tweeter who has an opinion that may slightly differ from theirs. (Don’t be fooled by the twitter handle, ‘Elginism’ doesn’t mean pro-Elgin, it’s slang for vandalism and desecration.)

I’d been following his tweets for a while as I like to keep a balanced view of things, not necessarily because I agree with what he says, and after his first volley he started following me back. To make it easier, I assume, to debate with me. Now, I like a good debate. But things soon escalated as twitter joined in en masse. I shall now paraphrase the conversation:

Me: Scared of setting a scary precedent yaddah yaddah

@Elginism: But lots of things have been returned eg Euphronios Krater, Morgantina Silver etc Each case must be judged on it’s own merits.

Elginism carries on to say that they’re not a fan of the inside-out display of the frieze in the BM.

A lady who tour guides in Rome replied to me also. @UnderstandRome countered that whilst she is a huge fan of the new Acropolis Museum, she’s seen where they’ve made a space to display the marbles and in her opinion, it’s easier to view them in the BM. (The Acropolis Museum wants to display them high up as they would have been viewed in situ. Not easy to get a good photo that way….)

In the meantime I’m replying to @Elginism that I’d worry that if one museum gave in to return demands, it’d start off a domino effect. The reply comes back that the prospect of a worldwide swapshop shouldn’t put people off doing ‘the right thing.’

So far so debated, but what IS the right thing? I have to admit to retweeting all of the replies I’m getting from both sides. I am refusing to take a side! I tweet that perhaps casts can be made as a compromise. It’s amusing to note that this was skimmed over.

After a few to and fros, @lobstersquad mentions that perhaps this shouldn’t BE a huge debate. It is only a tiny minority who actually give a flying toss about where the marbles are housed.

@Elginism isn’t letting the subject drop, my refusal to agree with them fully must be annoying them. All I’d said that was I could understand the BM’s reticence. Again, the reply comes that shouldn’t be an excuse to ‘live in the past.’

Hang on a second. Surely the idea of reuniting a couple of statues with their former building IS living in the past? Isn’t that PRECISELY what @Elginism wants? To restore how things were arranged IN THE PAST?

I counter that I consider it a mercy that Elgin got in there before more destruction was caused. One explosion shame on you, two explosions shame on me. That kind of thing. And then came the dreaded line:

“That’s not what Elgin thought at the time.” Here’s where we get on shaky ground. Trying to crowbar your belief system into the thoughts of someone long dead is, let’s face it, dodgy at best. I’m afraid I’m going to have to read correspondence or journals from Elgin before I join in on imagining what he thought about the whole thing. No matter, the discussion is carrying on without me. Seeing as I’m retweeting everything so that my followers can see the conversation, other people are joining in and going off on their own tangents whilst mentioning my handle so I can stay in the loop.

@rogueclassicist chimes in with the opinion that the marbles should not be considered as ‘belonging’ to Greece or Britain. They should belong to humanity. Therefore, keep them in the best place for society to view them.

Brilliant idea! Let’s look at some statistics. The Art Newspaper compiles an annual list of visitor figures for the 100 most visited museums of art in the world.

In 2011, the British Museum takes bronze with a staggering 5,848,534 visitors, beaten only by the Louvre and the Met. The Acropolis Museum, opened in summer 2009, limped into 38th place for the 2011 figures with a measly (by comparison) 1,244,702.

It can further be argued that the BM doesn’t charge an entrance fee like the Acropolis Museum does, and therefore is available to all. In these penny pinching times, that’s a huge consideration. When your budget is tight do you choose to pay rent or waltz around a museum?

London gets nearly twice the visitors that the whole of Greece receives annually. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Greece, I often joke that I must be a greek in a past life. But we have to admit that of the 19million odd visitors to Greece per year, most head straight for cheap 18-30 resorts for ouzo and sunbathing rather than a bit of culture. It’s something I tut about every time I’m there. Why go to Athens when you can stay in Faliraki for a quarter of the price and get hammered for a fortnight? At least with London we can genuinely say that culture is our main selling point, because the beaches are muddy river banks and we don’t serve cheap ouzo.

So by that argument, the marbles should stay here. More people are seeing them in London than they would in Greece.

@rogueclassicist then points out, quite reasonably, that until Greece can guarantee that his visit to see the marbles wouldn’t be prevented by strikes, then he won’t give his support.

As soon as I retweet it, feathers start rustling. I try asking if there are any compromises that either side would agree upon. @Elginism shows me a planned compromise that doesn’t see Athens compromising on much. Ho hum.

The touchy subject of finance is starting to rumble so loudly that I can’t ignore it.

@Elginism pointed out that The Acropolis Museum has deliberately not been state funded for this very reason. If Greece goes bankrupt, the museum will be independent. I hadn’t know that.

However, with various big name tourism companies in the UK and family run hotels and restaurants in Greece on the verge of collapse, it’s not going to be much use having an independently financed museum if nobody can get to it or have anywhere to sleep afterwards. @Eyeonwales is neatly covering my thoughts here so I can stay schtum and let them do the work for a bit.

My beloved @GeneralJules cheekily brings everyone back to my original point, precedence. He asks whether Italy have asked for all the paintings Napoleon nicked and took to France. I can see the Louvre emptying as I type. Napoleon did love a souvenir or seven.

@crazylegsno1 points out that it’s probably not a good idea to send priceless artifacts to a country on the brink of civil war.

@thefirstlexi seems to have been silently watching so far, but finally weighs in with the age old argument of the original legality of Elgin’s permission to take them in the first place. This to me admittedly sounds a bit redundant after so much time and that we should focus on other factors, but I may be in a minority. She also, quite astutely, delivers her Parthian shot. “As for strikes, it’s not like the UK has none.”

Ah yes, UK, we all remember the horrors of the London riots. Thank God the little pricks were more interested in breaking into branches of Curry’s than to head to our museums. It’s a mercy, but we can’t say it won’t happen in the future.

@HewlettElaine wondered whether part of the viewing experience is lost if you peruse the marbles in a UK gallery rather than on the Acropolis they were designed for, but again, the fact that the Acropolis Museum’s designated exhibition space for them is not ideal for easy viewing is a worry for some. Elaine is uncomfortable with the West deciding what is worth saving from the East. However, I maintain that it can’t be denied that Western archaeologists etc have more money and skills to salvage and reserve.

A few of my tweeting friends are DMing me messages of solidarity and congratulations at the magnitude of the debate I’ve caused in the background to this argument which has by now rolled on for nine hours. In that time I spent two hours in ASDA and one hour baking, and yet still different branches of debate rolled on, like branches of a tree stemming from my trunk of initial tweet. I check my tweets, at no time have I decisively stated that I am for one side and against the other. I have merely engaged both sides. The new angles from tweeters gave me much to think about, but it did sadden me at how voracious certain tweeters were. I will not agree with you if you slap me in the face with fifteen tweets telling me why I am wrong, when I haven’t actually expressed a definitive opinion.

And so we reach an impasse, for I cannot make up my mind.

My initial worry still niggles me. People have been looting for millenia. The romans did it to Greece centuries before us Brits did, and we were hardly alone in doing it in our own era of collecting anything that wasn’t, and sometimes was, nailed down. If the global museum community returned every artifact to it’s country of origin, would places like Greece and Rome have room for it all? Probably not. There would be more museums than tavernas and trattoria. The Louvre, British Museum, the Met, the Berlin Museums and countless others would be emptied overnight, as more and more governments cotton on that if they throw a big enough hissy fit, they will get their toys back.

My head loves it that I can browse the galleries of the British Museum and travel the ancient Mediterranean within the space of an afternoon. I see children who visit and start a life long love of history when they’re faced with such wonders first hand, and that can’t be a bad thing. Thanks to collections in museums around the world, children globally can come face to face with incredible ancient art.

For those souls who can’t afford to travel, they will still get the opportunity to see some of our global heritage. I live and breathe the ancient world and I am having to sacrifice a hell of a lot to be able to afford trips to see the places I read and dream about. For many, it simply isn’t an option.

My heart would like to see the Marbles where they were intended to go. I have a huge history crush on Phidias and I am completely in love with ancient Greece. But I am wary of Greece’s current state, tottering on the verge of meltdown. I’d be loathe to return artifacts to a country before it has a chance to resolve much larger issues. However, how marvellous would it be to stare at the art in the same place that Socrates and Plato did? My heart beats faster at the thought.

It will probably infuriate a few tweeters that after all that negotiation and all that debate, I steadfastly refuse to get down from my nice little fence.

I am inclined to simply say that the world is not a perfect place and that not everyone can get what they want. Some will dismiss that as wishywashy, some may accuse me of being indecisive. Some will no doubt unfollow me in a huff because I’ve refused to concede to them. I’ve never been one to define myself by campaigning for one cause above all else and it baffles me when people do.

I am a huge fan of compromise. And until both sides agree to one, I’m not siding either way. There has to be a way to satisfy both. An even compromise. As @elginsim points out, Athens has half of the marbles there already. Perhaps us having the other half is compromise enough.

In conclusion:

After a poll, it seems that twitter (or my followers at least) do firmly want to see the marbles in Athens. Let’s hope Thomas Cook doesn’t go bust.

Please add you two cents in the comments section, no doubt I’ve missed something out.

Further reading:

The kick-ass Mary Beard has written a wonderful history of the Parthenon, titled, funnily enough, The Parthenon. If you want a definitive history of the building and it’s art, this is it.

The wonderful funny and charming Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) has written a blog on his thoughts on the matter, which is frankly, better than my attempt: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/greg-jenner/elgin-marbles-should-we-return-them-to-greece_b_1396208.html

And here is the website for @Elginism which has a raft of information: http://www.elginism.com/

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Sentimentality When Peering Into The Past

I’ve recently had a heated to and fro on Twitter in regards to a throwaway tweet I’d posted near bedtime. I was watching a documentary about the Mahdia shipwreck and commented that I felt drawn to wrecks in particular as I find the archaeology of them fascinating in an almost romantic way.

Almost immediately a tweet was fired back castigating me for the use of the word ‘romantic.’ Apparently when viewing a shipwreck, I should only hear echoes of the screams of the drowning. What was the inference? Surely not that I make light of the deaths of others? As an historian, amateur or professional, 99% of the people studied are dead. If I was to burst into tears at every historical demise I’ve read about I’d have cried enough tears to raise global sea levels by at least a mile by now.

So should we, as tour guides/teachers/authors/archaeologists have to constantly and publicly mourn our subject cases, tearing at our hair in demonstrative grief, purely so that people don’t think that we are clinical and cold-hearted?

In my opinion, to be an historian of any kind involves a warm heart. If I were icy at my core I’d hardly have developed a passion for learning about the lives of others, centuries dead.

A few tweets were batted back and forth, but 140 characters aren’t really enough to defend this stance, and I didn’t manage to convince the put-out tweeter. Hence, I’m musing aloud on the internet.

I do, of course, mourn lost lives. Particularly, as in this case, of those lost in any kind of violence. I have been known to weep openly when reading books, watching documentaries, or visiting sites where blood has been shed by catastrophe or brutality. I don’t hide or deny my tears. They are what make me and keep me human whilst devouring copious amounts of information about the sufferings of others. But this mourning period passes.

When it does, the void it leaves behind is filled with learning about the lives of the deceased. Death is but a tiny chapter in the history of a person. Whilst upsetting, the manner of death can be interesting. But it is what came before that is what makes my passion for history so all-consuming.

We’ve recently marked the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. Whilst our shock at so many lives lost in a single night is sobering, it is the unique story of the lives of those aboard that is most engrossing. We have a perfect slice of society on board one ship, an era embodied in it. In the case of the Titanic, death is what grabs our immediate attention, and we cannot deny that. However, it is the details of the lives of the passengers that keeps our attention. The minutiae of daily routines, the hopes and aspirations of those embarking on life altering journeys, the similarities and the differences between their own society and ours.

To further my point, let’s look at Pompeii.

In 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. The resulting pyroclastic flow engulfed many towns around the Bay of Naples including Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Thousands of people died that day, and the towns were buried under metres of debris, preserving them in a perfect time capsule for centuries.

The manner of death in a volcanic eruption is not pretty. For some victims, inhalation of ash particles mixed with fluid inside the lungs caused them to drown in internal cement, rather than suffocate. For others swept up in a wave of searingly hot gases, brains would boil inside skulls. All of this is horrific in the extreme. But what these sites give us is a rich mine of information into Roman life.

Archaeologists have been able to determine diets by analysing meals that were carbonised in the eruption. We even have perfectly preserved loaves of bread and eggs that are nearly two millenia old. For the first time we can see roman furniture as it was arranged in the home, instead of relying on descriptions or drawings. We can marvel at what was startlingly different about roman society (hanging images of a large erect phallus in your home to ward of evil spirits) and identify with the things that are instantly recognisable to our modern eyes (a wooden rocking crib in a nursery at Herculaneum.)

I did spend a lot of my visits to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae in quiet contemplation. I did cry. When bodies were covered with ash, their flesh decomposed leaving a perfect impression of them behind in the hardened ashy rock. One archaeologist had the genius idea of filling the holes with plaster so that a cast was made. Whilst that gives us unprecedented knowledge about the clothing and physical characteristics of the Pompeiians (they were plumper than you’d imagine) it is of course sobering to see death throes frozen forever in plaster.

But I spent far more time inhaling my surroundings. After I’d dealt with the death of Pompeii, I could concentrate on the life of Pompeii. I could read the graffiti, prop up an ancient bar, recite a few lines of Aristophanes on an ancient stage. When you look past how someone died, you get to glimpse what they ate, wore, what made them laugh, how they made their wages and what their aspirations were.

From an entertainment point of view, let’s look at Titanic and Pompeii from a different perspective. James Cameron and Julian Fellowes both made lengthy dramatisations of the sinking of the Titanic. Neither spent the entire length portraying nameless people drowning, forsaking all else. Instead they devoted the majority of screen time to the conversations, habits, and customs of those aboard. When Robert Harris wrote his wonderful novel Pompeii, I don’t think he even spent a page detailing the forensic aspects of death by volcano. Instead he brought the Pompeiians back to life by focussing on their routines, culture and society. But the fact is that no-one would watch a film about an ocean liner that doesn’t sink or read a novel about a roman town where everything is peachy. Sometimes we need that dramatic event to reel us in a little.

So here’s the question. Should the manner of these deaths provoke such overwhelming feelings of horror loss prevent us from gaining invaluable knowledge and insight into the past? How long must a person have been deceased before it is acceptable to study their life? Should historians be hanging their heads in shame for gleefully delving into the lives of the dead? Should we refrain from our attempts to find, excavate and document the past in case we disturb human remains? The lines become blurred. Egyptian mummies, for instance, are always a big crowd pleaser in any museum. It’s safe to say that a minority of mummified Egyptians expired in horrendously violent circumstances. But they did still die. Maybe of a long term painful disease. And yet I doubt I would be guilt tripped by online strangers if I had commented on their remains. If a person dies violently, should we really venerate them to the cost of learning about them? What defines a person, how they live life or how they leave it?

If we’re to be crippled with sentimentality, where do we draw the line? Should residents of London simultaneously leave, creating a silent monument which nobody can visit, simply because thousands of people died there due to plague a few centuries ago? Should Parisians be paralysed with their pity of the thousands who perished in the French Revolution? Nonsense. Remembering the dead should not be forgotten but it should not be all consuming. Instead, perhaps we should focus on what the dead have given us from their lives.

So when I used the word romantic, I wasn’t belittling the deaths of those who died during the sinking of the Mahdia wreck. I was marvelling at the precious chance to learn about their lives. I was celebrating that far from being forgotten, these long dead people will be remembered for years to come. Every time someone looks at an exhibit in a museum, or reads a book, or watches a documentary, they will wonder at what made these historical people tick. Perhaps some of them didn’t have a family to mourn them two thousand years ago, but now hundreds if not thousands of people will pause if only for a little while and think of them. Through the unfortunate manner of their deaths, those sailors have achieved immortality. Even when our bodies have gone, archaeologists and historians will still care enough about us that they will want to know more about our own personal stories, and far off in the future, people will remember that we were here. I don’t know about you, but I shudder at the thought of the manner of my death being the only remarkable aspect of my time on this planet. I’d hope that some of my actions and personality traits will be worth a mention when I’m gone, otherwise my eulogy is going to be very short! To put it another way, I of course want people to grieve that I’ve gone, but I want them to be glad that I lived.

I think it’s marvellous that I can feel as if I know somebody long gone by what they’ve left behind. It’s as if, through history and archaeology, something of each of us will remain forever, just waiting to be discovered.

I find that a beautiful concept, even a little romantic.

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