Monday, 21 May 2012

The Netherlands

I've just returned from a weekend in the Netherlands.  Every time I visit that fortunate country, I'm struck afresh by what a nice place it is.
The first time I visited was in March 1984.  I had two very small children in tow, one in a pushchair and one in a babysling.  I was amazed and delighted by the Dutch response: they liked small children.  In restaurants, instead of frowning or saying 'we don't admit children', they would ask 'May we give the little boy an ice cream?' (yes!)  I did a lot of travelling on trams and buses, and not once did I carry the pushchair onto the bus: if there was no one else waiting beside me to pick it up and carry it carefully aboard, a passenger would leap off the tram to do the office, grinning at the suspicious toddler and trying to talk to him.  It was no wonder, I thought, that the Dutch grow up so sensible and well-adjusted.
I've been back several times since.  I've even read up quite a lot of the history for the stalled next book. (Now I know where they get it from: they were founded by a guy who was in favour of religious toleration despite living in the 17th C., and they had the most developed social care in the world, with a comprehensive system of welfare back in 1650--which, pace the right wing, was a Golden Age economically as well as culturally.) Every time I go I'm struck by:
1) bicycles! They seem to outnumber cars ten to one.  All the civic amenities that other countries build only for cars the Dutch build for cycles as well: parking at station and in city centres, tracks and roads, etc.
2) public transport.  Trains and buses are frequent, cheap, and reliable.

3) cleanliness.  The air and water are so unpolluted that during the last visit--to South Holland--I saw in the city centres, breeding wildfowl that included crested and little grebes, white storks, herons, tufted ducks, coots, moorhens, barnacle and greylag and Canada geese, as well as a couple of exotics and ubiquitous mallard.
4) the way everybody speaks perfect English. It's uncanny. I don't speak perfect Dutch.  I speak some French, a bit of German and modern Greek--but nothing of it as well as everybody spoke English.
5) how livable it all seems.  In fact, the question I'm always left with after I return from the Netherlands is why other countries aren't more like them.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Conventions that suspend reality: 1 Injury and illness

There are some conventions in popular fiction that are so well-established that we don't even notice how much they defy real-life experience unless we sit down and think about it.
My favourite is the knock on the head.  There are any number of books, films and television programs where the hero is knocked on the head, and, after a spell of unconsciousness, climbs to his feet, defeats the bad guy, and gets the girl--or, alternatively,  where he knocks a couple of bad guys on the head, who get up a bit later, rub their skulls, and set off in hot pursuit.  Nobody blinks at this--despite the fact that in real life we regard being knocked unconscious as a very serious matter, one that requires a trip to hospital and an X-ray and bed-rest.  We know very well that head injuries are dangerous, but we do not apply that knowledge to the world of fiction.
Of course popular fiction has a strange attitude to illness and injury in general. Try to imagine James Bond catching a cold!  Infected cuts, conjunctivitis, piles, diarrhea and the other ills that flesh is heir to are, I am sure, found far more frequently in real life than in fiction. Even more interesting is the way characters are unimpeded by injuries which I, for one, would find disabling.  I have to take the evening off if I have a tooth out, but some heroes can scale a cliff after being shot through the shoulder--and, of course, operatic sopranos and tenors can sing gloriously while suffocating to death or dying of tuberculosis.
There are, of course plenty of books that deal honestly with injury and illness and make every effort to get medical details right.  What is strange is that the books which don't get away with it so easily.  The world of these books is, after all, ostensibly our own--but we don't apply our own rules to it, and usually don't even notice that omission.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Vindolanda tablets

Now that Mary Beard's 'Meet the Romans' series has, alas, ended, I've been reflecting on her achievement in making epigraphy--one of the driest disciplines--not merely exciting but televisual.  It is unusual, and she and the BBC both deserve credit for it.

It is not ever thus.  A couple of years ago 'Time Team' held an audience vote to decide the most important find from Roman Britain.  I don't remember all the items, and, indeed, so un-memorable was the winner that it's already disappeared from the first four or five pages of Google.  There was the bas-relief from the Antonine Wall, I remember, the one that proudly proclaimed the (short-lived) Roman expansion into Scotland, which is now in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  I think the Medusa head from Bath was on the list as well, and the beautiful Ribchester cavalry helmet, and the sculptures from the Temple of Mithras in London--all beautiful objects, and if you're not familiar with them, google them and have a look.  What struck me at the time, though, was that the most important Roman find wasn't even on the list.

I can see why 'Time Team' didn't like them.  I have to admit that they don't look like much.  You can't even read them in their natural blackened state: the texts only emerged when they were photographed using every available trick of light and filtering; when they did emerge, their cursive scrawl was so hard to read that at first some people doubted whether they were even in Latin.  Nonetheless, few historians would deny their enormous significance.

To begin with, until they were found it was thought that--as their discoverer, Robin Birley put it-- 'the prospect of ink writing from the Roman period being found in Britain was. . .impossible.'  There were inscriptions, some graffiti, a handful of references in Roman texts, but actual Roman documents?  They would surely have rotted away in the damp climate!  It's counter-intuitive that waterlogged soil, sealed from the air, can actually preserve wood and leather.

Next, there's the form of the tablets: thin sheets of wood, scored down the center and folded.  There had been a couple of obscures references in Roman texts, but not enough to shake the view that Romans generally wrote on papyrus or not wax tablets.  The Vindolanda finds were the first indication that in northerly climes the Romans normally wrote on wood.  More and more tablets have turned up in other sites, now that archaeologists know what to look for--though none as well-preserved or as rich as the finds from Vindolanda.

The main thing that makes the Vindolanda tablets so important, though, is what is written on them: a  glimpse into Roman life on a border fort that we simply couldn't have obtained any other way than time travel.  Letters of recommendation; letters of complaint; lists of supplies, with prices.  There's an 'intelligence' report about the local British warriors, dismissing them contemptuously as ill-equipped 'Brittunculi'--a sneering diminutive.  There is a letter to an ordinary soldier from his family, saying that they've sent him socks, two pairs of sandals, and two sets of underpants--'subligariorum duo'.  Underpants!   Now we know what all those stern centurions wore beneath their tunics! This is the only Latin reference to them!

The letter I love most, and perhaps the most famous of them all, is an invitation to a birthday party.  As Birley points out, it would be remarkable anywhere it was found, because it contains the earliest writing known to have been penned by a Roman woman: while the main text has been penned smoothly by a scribe, Claudia Severa has added a note in the corner in her own spiky handwriting: 'Sperabo te, soror.  Vale, soror, anima mea, ita valeam, karissima et (h)ave.'--'I will expect you, sister, Farewell, sister, my soul, as I hope to prosper, dearest, and greetings'.

You still get plenty of textbooks telling you that Roman girls didn't go to school and that few of them outside the most aristocratic circles would have been able to read : here we have a woman on the far fringe of the Roman Empire,  the wife of the prefect of a mere auxiliary cohort--a man who was himself probably the first in his family to obtain the citizenship--sending gushing personal notes to her friend.  Its mere existence puts that notion of female illiteracy in doubt.  Beat that, you marble statue-hunters!