Category Archives: History

There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)

Text and Repetition

Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)
Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)

Today’s post follows on in a loose manner from last week’s, but is also inspired by thinking about film versions of books. The connection is once again the complex of tales to do with Arthur and his companions – the so-called Matter of Britain. As mentioned last time, these stories – even the oldest variants of them that we know – are in constant tension and conflict with each other. There is no single authoritative original version, and different tellers of these tales have focused on divergent features. Did Arthur die on the battlefield? Was he taken away mortally wounded to die elsewhere and be laid to rest? Did he go elsewhere to be healed, and return one day? What did happen between Lancelot and Guinevere? Was the Grail a peripheral distraction, or the vital centre of the whole company? And so many other questions, all unanswerable… or rather with so many possible answers.

Now, the group of authors we call the Inklings relished this endless magical well of possibility, and drew from it in many different ways according to their preferences and personalities. But, as the book I have been reading comments, “To some readers, the idea of endless revision may imply infidelity to a source text. Compare this to the experience of many logocentric moviegoers, who experience sharp disappointment or anger when the film adaptation of a beloved book appears to them to be a travesty of the author’s work.

Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)
Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)

Now, one feature of the Arthurian tales is that they have metamorphosed into several different media – prose, for sure, but also poetry, music, film, art, sculpture, cartoons and animation. And, allowing for the availability of these technologies, this multi-media presentation has been part of the tradition from as far back as we can trace it. Did our twelfth century ancestors argue whether the French prose Vulgate cycle was better or worse than Lazamon Brut’s massive poetic treatment? Or did they, in fact, relish and appreciate the diversity of approach?

Of course we don’t know if such a debate happened, but this whole study has made me reevaluate my own reaction to film versions of books. Like lots of us, I have in the past had the kind of “disappointment or anger” mentioned above, but am revising my views. To be sure, any book or film (or comic, or play, or musical, or opera, or whatever) might be uncompelling simply as a piece of artistry, but that is a separate matter. Just to tell the tale in a different way is not, I think, such a problem. Quite apart from the varying strengths and weaknesses of each of those media, each story-teller will choose to focus on different facets of the tale as suits their purpose and interest. And that, I think, is not a bad thing. Of which more next week…

Text and intertext

I have just started reading a non-fiction book entitled The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain. It’s not a catchy title, but so far I am hugely enjoying the content. As you might expect, it’s academic in tone, consisting of a series of essays by different people all around how the various members of “The Inklings” approached and reworked Arthurian material. And inevitably it has provoked my own thinking in various ways.

The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)
The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)

The four men mentioned in the book title had very different views on life, religion and indeed most matters, but they were united on a few quite specific areas. One was that modern life as they witnessed it emerging was poor as regards its mythological underpinnings. Another was that the Arthurian legends – the Matter of Britain – were worth keeping alive, and retelling in ways relevant to their society.

Now, one of the fascinating things about Arthurian tales is that they are in constant conflict with one another. There is no original text, no authoritative canon of tales against which some particular version can be compared. Each subsequent reteller selects the pieces they want and rejects other pieces. They put the same characters into new settings, or mix up participants in a venture. The collection of stories is hugely diverse and contradictory. What’s more, as you push back in time to look for some point of origin, the picture becomes more confusing, not less. Some of the early traditions come from England, but others from Wales, France, and Scotland, and in many cases the direction of derivation can no longer be decide with confidence.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)

Authors drawing on the Arthurian tradition over the years since then have carried this habit on. Arthur and his knights have been cast into all kinds of different settings – futuristic, fantastic, or resolutely historical. Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings did the same – they borrowed bits and pieces as they saw fit, renamed individuals and recombined them in different settings, and energised the ongoing collection of tales with their own contributions.

Now this recombination of elements of older pieces of writing into newer ones is often called intertextuality. Usually it is a conscious choice on the part of an author, but sometimes it is unconscious, and simply reflects deep familiarity with the sources. That’s from the author’s perspective. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, it means that associations and emotions triggered by the older works are drawn forward into the newer ones.

Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)
Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)

A similar process happens in film. If you have seen an actor play in a particularly striking role in one film, it is all but impossible not to see that previous character in the new one. Film-makers are, of course, well aware of this, and it often drives casting decisions. So when Christopher Lee appears as Saruman in the film version of Lord of the Rings, his previous roles in horror films constantly cast shadows around him.

Back with books and the Arthurian tradition, it has been argued that this ability to be reshaped into so many different forms is exactly what has kept it alive for so long, and through so many social changes. A fixed story that allows only one telling will wither and die, as the circumstances that gave birth to it fade into the past. By analogy with biology, successful stories are those which can adapt to new environments and new pressures.

Cover - DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)
Cover – DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)

All of which makes the quest for a historical Arthur, however interesting from a historian’s viewpoint, a rather pointless exercise from the literary one. Of course there are fascinating stories of Arthur and his companions to be told from a historical perspective – say a fifth or sixth century military leader after the Romans have left and before the Saxons consume the land. I have read some of those stories, and enjoyed them. But there are other stories of Arthur which are rooted in fantasy and magic, or where the quest for the Grail takes the questers out of our ordinary world. And stories where the company is located in another place and time. Or science fiction versions where the physical connection with England is at best tenuous. And the magic of intertextuality means that none of these are more or less proper than a conventional historical fiction version.

Thoughts along the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon
Ivinghoe Beacon

A few days ago I was walking in the Chiltern hills, at the north east end of The Ridgeway. This is often billed as Britain’s oldest road, and is known to have had some 5000 years of traffic going to and fro. I suspect that in fact usage goes back a lot further. Today’s Ridgeway (which is one of our National Trails) goes from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury (or the other way), and it is the central part of a really long route which at one time went from The Wash diagonally down to the English Channel. It is possible still to do that, by diligently joining together lots of separate paths – for example The Peddars Way gets you through large parts of East Anglia – but The Ridgeway is the section which is most generously provided with maps and signposts.

Walking on these ancient trackways always gives me a keen sense of those myriads of individuals who have walked that way before. It also invariably gives me a desire to write a story which somehow incorporates the network of paths, their very many fascinating way-stations, and the travellers themselves. But so far I have only a desire, not a plot or anything else substantial.

Part of the Avebury stone circle complex
Part of the Avebury stone circle complex

The Ridgeway is 87 miles long – in practice a little further as you have to come away from the track to find lodgings for the night, and then make your way back in the morning. It’s easy walking, and easy to finish in about a week, or else in a series of weekends with train journeys to and fro. And one of the great things about walking it is that you are covering the ground at the same rate as your remote ancestors. You’re seeing broadly the same terrain as they did (barring houses and a definite lack of trees), watching distant rises and dips in the ground approach at the same slow speed as they did, and experiencing the sun wheeling overhead from east to west in the same way.

Now, our ancestors had different motives for walking these paths than we do. We walk for recreation and inspiration, while for them, motives of trade, diplomacy, marriage, or religious festivity would be at the core. There are all kinds of monuments spread out along the paths. We understand the purpose of some of them, but others have become obscure. We wonder at the prodigious effort involved, but cannot any more grasp the function.

Wayland's Smithy, The Ridgeway
Wayland’s Smithy, The Ridgeway

It’s also worth remembering that the various sites and signs of occupancy spread out along the 90-odd miles of The Ridgeway, let alone the much longer distance of the whole route, are themselves spread out over time. It’s easy to forget this, and imagine that a Neolithic, or a Bronze Age traveller, would be seeing the same things as you are. But the reality is quite different. There are Neolithic sites like Wayland’s Smithy, dating from about 5-6000 years ago. There are Bronze Age sites like Avebury or the Uffington WHite Horse. To the people who built these – which are themselves separated by a great gulf of time – Wayland’s Smithy was already unthinkably old. Then there are Iron Age forts, ditches, and banks – and the builders of these would have lost all sense of the earlier constructions as living sites. They would simply have been relics from the past, part of the context of the new homes and sacred sites.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

It was this sense of a multi-layered land which was part of the inspiration for Half Sick of Shadows. This did not take place along The Ridgeway, but in a winding river valley. A chalk scarp overlooked the river, and the various human homes nearby, but there are many parts of southern England where that could happen. So that story is not tied to The Ridgeway – but the idea of the land changing slowly, witnessing the rapid passage of generations, was absolutely there. And in that story, there is someone for whom the changes in the land itself seem quick.

One day, perhaps, I’ll write those other stories of the ancient world and its journeys. Meanwhile I shall continue to walk parts of the old paths, and gather ideas for the tales as I do so.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Half Sick of Shadows and IndieBrag

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…

So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.

Specially, I read this:

We have completed the review process for your book “Half Sick of Shadows” and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work.
In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.

Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!

The last person to leave Doggerland

A few days ago on The Review Facebook page (look back to December 1st) the question was posed – what person in history would you like to see written about? Naturally enough, most replies focused on historical individuals who had lived interesting lives but had never really had the attention in fact or fiction that the various contributors felt was appropriate.

Now, I kept quiet in this discussion, because my mind had immediately run away down an entirely different avenue, and it didn’t seem the right place to ramble on about that. But here in the blog is a different matter!

Woolly Mammoth skull retrieved from the sea near Holland in 1999-2000, dating from well before the period I have in mind (Wikipedia)
Woolly Mammoth skull retrieved from the sea near Holland in 1999-2000, dating from well before the period I have in mind (Wikipedia)

Doggerland is the name we give to the stretch of land which once joined the eastern counties of England to parts of Europe. Nowadays the North Sea covers that whole span, but every so often ancient relics are retrieved, mostly by accident in fishing nets (the first such being a barbed antler tool back in 1931). The name Doggerland comes from the Dogger Bank, which is a large region of sandbanks and shoals in the North Sea, in places no more than 50′ deep.

So nowadays the sea divides Norfolk and the Netherlands, Lincolnshire and Denmark. And with climate change and slowly rising sea levels, this is unlikely to change. But let’s roll back some ten thousand years, and see the changing picture.

Doggerland from space (The Telegraph newspaper, 01 Sep 2015)
Doggerland from space (The Telegraph newspaper, 01 Sep 2015)

When the land warmed after the last ice age, Britain and Europe were united by a broad low-lying tract of land (this was c. 11000BC). This land was never rugged or mountainous – imagine something like present day East Anglia, Holland, or Denmark, and you have the picture. Two arms of seawater divided this from Scandinavia to the north-east, and Scotland and Northumberland to the north-west. Several rivers – including the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine – flowed into this broad plain, and thence into the Atlantic via what was to become the English Channel.

The land was good for hunting and trapping animals, the margins had fish and shellfish, and when early farmers arrived they found the soil to be fertile. It was, I suspect, a pleasant and welcoming place to be, with a climate becoming gradually milder as, decade by decade, the Ice Age retreated. The sea level rose as the ice melted. In some places, the land sank down as the sheer weight of the glaciers further north was released – this is still happening in the Scilly Isles which, very very slowly, are being submerged. Both factors spelled the end for Doggerland.

Doggerland c. 10000BC (Wikipedia)
Doggerland c. 10000BC (Wikipedia)

By now this huge expanse of territory has completely disappeared. This did not happen overnight – best estimates are that it was all gone a little before 6000BC, so it took around five thousand years to dwindle. The occupants, whether living a hunter-gatherer or settled lifestyle, had many generations to adjust to the change. I suppose they had oral traditions which spoke of how this island used to be attached to the land, or that forest used to extend several days’ journey further north. But within that long span of steady reduction, most likely there were also sudden calamities. A storm surge one winter might have taken away miles of coastline. An autumn flood might have demolished a natural barrier to the water, exposing the lower fields beyond. A series of unusually high tides might turn fresh water meadows to salt marsh. A landslide in Norway, resulting in a tsunami, probably did much to finish the process. All of these things have been seen in the low-lying lands which still border the North Sea.

Extensive study has revealed a lot about this drowned land – see this BBC article for a summary of investigations by several Scottish universities. Or this article in the Telegraph newspaper for an account of work to map the surface features which still remain.

So the story I want to tell, one day, is the story of the last person to leave Doggerland. Or, more widely, the last community to abandon its shrinking and increasingly boggy surface. What was it like to leave the places, practical and sacred, which their people had moved through for so long? How were they received by those groups already living in the regions around? Did they look back with relief or regret?

Perhaps one day, when I want to switch back from science fiction to ancient history, it’s a story that I will tell.

Can handwriting survive?

I’ve been thinking for a little while now about reading and writing, and decided to convert those thoughts into a blog post. I used to reckon that reading and writing were two sides of the same coin. We teach them at broadly the same time, and it seems natural with a child to talk through the physical process of making a letter shape at the same time as learning to recognise it on a page.

Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor
Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor

But lately, I’ve been reconsidering this. My thinking actually goes back several years to when I was studying ancient Egyptian. It is generally understood that alongside the scribes of Egypt – who had a good command of hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, plus Akkadian cuneiform and a few other written scripts and a whole lot of technical knowledge besides – there was a much ĺarger group of people who could read reasonably well, but not write with fluency or competence. A few particularly common signs, like the cartouche of the current pharaoh, or the major deity names, would be very widely recognised even by people who were generally illiterate. You see this same process happening with tourists today, who start to spot common groups of Egyptian signs long before they could dream of constructing a sentence.

Hieratic Scribal Exercise
Hieratic Scribal Exercise

The ability to write is far more than just knowing letter shapes. You need a wide enough vocabulary to select the right word among several choices, to know how to change each word with past or future tense, or number of people, or gender. You need background knowledge of the subject. You need to understand the conventions of the intended audience so as to convey the right meaning. In short, learning to write is more demanding than learning to read (and I’m talking about the production of writing here, not the quality of the finished product).

Roll forward to the modern day, and we are facing a slightly different kind of question. The ability to read is essential to get and thrive in most jobs. Or to access information, buy various goods, or just navigate from place to place. I’m sure it is possible to live in today’s England without being able to read, but it will be difficult, and all sorts of avenues are closed to that person.

But the ability to write – by which I mean to make handwriting – is, I think, much more in doubt. Right now I’m constructing this blog post in my lunch hour on a mobile phone, tapping little illuminated areas of the screen to generate the letters. In a little while I’ll go back to my desk, and enter characters by pressing down little bits of plastic on a keyboard. Chances are I’ll be writing some computer code (in the C# or NodeJS computer languages, if you’re curious) but if I have to send a message to a colleague I’ll use the same mechanical process.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then again, some of my friends use dictation software to “write” emails and letters, and then do a small amount of corrective work at the end. They tell me that dictation technology has advanced to the stage where only minor fix-ups are needed. And, as most blog readers will know, I’m enthusiastic about Alexa for controlling functionality by voice. Although writing text of any great length is not yet feasible on that platform, my guess is that it won’t be long until this becomes real.

All of this means that while the act of reading will most likely remain crucial for a long time to come, maybe this won’t be true of writing in the conventional sense. Speaking personally, hand-writing is already something I do only for hastily scribbled notes or postcards to older relatives. Or occasionally to sign something. The readability of my hand-writing is substantially lower than it used to be, purely because I don’t exercise it much (and by pure chance I heard several of my work colleagues saying the same thing today). Do I need hand-writing in modern life? Not really, not for anything crucial.

Some devices
Some devices

I don’t think it’s just me. On my commuting journeys I see people reading all kinds of things – newspapers, books, magazines, Kindles, phones, tablets and so on. I really cannot remember the last time I saw somebody reading a piece of hand-written material on the tube.

Now, to set against that, I have friends and relatives for whom the act of writing is still important. They would say that the nature of the writing surface and the writing implement – pencil, biro, fountain pen – are important ingredients, and that bodily engagement with the process conveys something extra than simply the production of letters. Emphasis and emotion are easier to impart – they say – when you are personally fashioning the outcome. To me, this seems simply a temporary problem of the tools we are using, but we shall see.

Looking ahead, I cannot imagine a time when reading skills won’t be necessary – there are far too many situations where you have to pore over things in detail, review what was written a few chapters back, compare one thing against another, or just enjoy the artistry with which the text had been put together. Just to recognise which letter to tap or click requires that I be able to read. But hand-writing? I’m not at all sure this will survive much longer.

Perhaps a time will come when teaching institutions will not consider it worth while investing long periods of time in getting children’s hand-writing to an acceptable standard – after all, pieces of quality writing can be generated by several other means.

Quill pen device for tablet
Quill pen device for tablet

A bit of history

I have been in Cumbria the last few days – England’s Lake District – and have been surrounded by history. Of course there are the hills, first established up to about 500 million years ago and steadily being reshaped by nature’s forces since then. Then there are the various lakes and tarns, mostly the result of glaciation on a timescale of about 11,000 to 100,000 years ago. And of course the various signs of humanity’s use of the landscape, going back a few thousand years.

Commanding Officer's house, Ambleside Roman fort
Commanding Officer’s house, Ambleside Roman fort

But also there are specific signs of human activity, and I have been happily looking at some of these. Just outside Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, are some rather well displayed remnants of a Roman fort. It’s name is not known with certainty, but the most likely claim is Galava, identified in later Roman records in this vicinity. The earliest fort held a unit of about 200 soldiers, and was upgraded over time to have about 500. As well as barracks and all the usual paraphernalia of a Roman fort, it also boasted a jetty onto the lakeside at which, one presumes, cargo and passengers arrived and departed. From here, roads led off west towards the splendid fort in the Hardknott Pass (which I haven’t yet visited) and also up the eastern side of Ullswater towards Penrith, Carlisle, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The Langdale Pikes from a distance
The Langdale Pikes from a distance

But as well as that there are considerably older signs of human habitation, and I have to admit that these excite me rather more than the Roman ones. Back in Neolithic times, there was a stone axe “factory” up amongst the Langdale Pikes. These tower impressively over the Langdale Valley, and are easily identified from many miles away as you approach. If you come as tourist, your first view of them might well be from Windermere railway station, but actually they can be spotted from a few places rather further afield. Axes from Langdale have been found all across Britain and beyond, and were clearly highly prized items in their day.

Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders
Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders

And as you approach the pikes along the Langdale Valley, on the valley floor just outside a village called Chapel Stile, there is a collection of boulders which are adorned with Neolithic rock art. Like virtually all of such art in Britain, it seems abstract to us, and does not admit of any easy interpretation. It is impossible – when you are there – to think that the people who cut the marks on those rocks were not making a connection with the stone axe site, but the nature of the connection is now unknown. Perhaps they were directions, or messages of welcome, or warnings of how to treat the local deities – but we just don’t know.

It’s an enigma, and a pleasant one to contemplate as you make your own way along the valley… and one day I hope to spin all this lot into a story…

The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders
The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders

Withdrawal and the sacred: the tides of life

Northumberland flower
Northumberland flower

I have just come back from a short time away in and around Lindisfarne, in the north-east of England not far from the Scottish border. Its other name is Holy Island, reflecting the fact that for a great many years – from its foundation as a monastery around 634 to the 16th century – it was best known as a centre for prayer, worship, and learning.

The Pilgrim's Route across the sands
The Pilgrim’s Route across the sands

Lindisfarne is one of those places which is an island at high tide, and connected to the rest of Northumberland by vast mud flats at low tide. Twice a day the sea comes in and gathers the island into itself, and twice a day the sea withdraws again and allows traffic to pass freely. It’s a most magnificent symbol of the way the human psyche engages with and separates from the world. We have times of busyness, and times of withdrawal. Even if it’s only in sleep, all of us have this tidal cycle running deep in us, and it goes far beyond rest and recuperation.

Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats
Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats

This part of Northumberland also has a huge variety of wildlife – flowers, birds, and insects are everywhere. The birds are at their most striking during the spring and autumn migrations, but there are plenty around in the summer as well. And the Lindisfarne seals sing! Perhaps seals in other places do this too, but I have never heard them. But on a rising tide, as the mudbanks where they are hauled out in their hundreds gradually shrink, you can often hear their song, somewhere between a wolf pack howling and the wind sighing, and not quite like either. There’s plenty of wind on the island as well, but when you hear that song, you have no doubt you are listening to something that a living creature has produced.

No wonder that the founding monks of the Lindisfarne community – Aidan, Cuthbert and all – chose this place to build something which joins both this world and the other. We know comparatively little about occupation of the site before their time, but I’d be confident that it was recognised as a liminal place long before the arrival of Christianity here.

Augustine of Hippo, speaking out of his own religious heritage, wrote that “our souls are restless, until they find their rest in Thee“, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to find both restlessness and rest than here.

High tide again
High tide again

Times have changed a little – the monasteries have been disbanded, the habitual practice of Christianity has changed in many ways, and the island is now connected to the mainland in more sophisticated ways than a footpath. But when you’re on the island, the feeling of being away from the mainland presses closely around you. Spirituality remains a major influence on the life of the island, and people still visit for the purpose of feeding their souls. And the cycle of tides still separates this little place from the mainland twice a day.