Beyond Carl’s ken …

The front page of the weekend Financial Times features this:

Screenshot 2022-11-26 at 10.16.07

Two instant reactions:

  1. Why is the Pink’un stooping to such trivia?
  2. Hello! I’ve been here before…

… because I recognise Toni Holt Kramar as a doppelgänger:

Kiki Pew decided to join the POTUS Pussies, a group of Palm Beach women who proclaimed brassy loyalty to the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief. For media purposes they had to tone down their name or risk being snubbed by the island’s PG-rated social sheet, so in public they referred to themselves as the Potussies. Often they were invited to dine at Casa Bellicosa, the Winter White House, while the President was in residence. He always made a point of waving from the buffet line or pastry table. During the pandemic lockdown, he even Zoom-bombed the women during one of their cocktail-hour teleconferences.

Kiki doesn’t end well: this is Carl Hiaasen, the novel’s title is Squeeze Me, and the antagonist is played by another Floridan in-comer, soon equally-defunct:

The Burmese python is one of the world’s largest constrictors, reaching documented lengths of more than twenty feet. Popular among amateur collectors, the snakes were imported to the United States legally from Southeast Asia for decades. But because a hungry baby python can grow into an eight-foot eating machine within a year, owners often found themselves having second thoughts. Consequently, scores of the pet snakes were set free.

Only in southern Florida did the species take hold, the hot climate and abundance of prey being ideal for python reproduction. A relatively isolated population exploded to a full-blown invasion during the early 1990s, after Hurricane Andrew destroyed a reptile breeding facility on the edge of the Everglades. The storm liberated fresh, fertile multitudes, and today the Burmese is one of the state’s most prolific and disruptive invasive species. An adult female can lay as many as ninety eggs, which she will encircle and guard from predators.

Like all constrictors, pythons encoil their prey, squeezing the breath out of it. By disengaging their jaws, the snakes are able to swallow animals of much larger girth, which are typically consumed head-first. In this way the furtive intruders have decimated native Everglades wildlife, including marsh rabbits, raccoons, otters, opossums, and full-grown deer. Adult Burmese pythons will even drown and devour alligators. To the chagrin of suburban Floridians, pythons will leave the wetlands to travel long distances. Frequently they are discovered prowling residential neighborhoods, the signal clue being a sharp dip in the cat population.

Third shelf down, left-hand side, half-a-dozen early Hiaasens in pocketable paperback — my commuting days on the pre-electrified GOBLIN line. Fourth shelf down, I’m retired and I’ve upgraded to hardbacks and ‘trade’ paperbacks (missing: Squeeze Me, because the Lady in My Life has adopted it for a bedside book).

Hiaasen, in both his journalism for the Miami Herald and his fiction, exploited the more manic aspects of Floridan life (and, often, death). When life imitates art to the extent of Toni Holt Kramar, any satirist must be driven to despair.


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Sponsian? Who he?

Today’s shlock-horror is the discovery of an unknown Roman emperor.


A single coin, all the sites are saying, ‘prove’ the existence of ‘Sponsian the First’ as a local ruler of what was then Dacia, became Transylvania of legend and myth, and is now central Romania. All this around AD260.

Had those same sites dug further, they would have found Ian Campbell looking at the same evidence and coming to similar conclusions back in 1997. Except Campbell was a numismatist, with expert knowledge of coins, and knew of five such coinages:

Screenshot 2022-11-24 at 10.23.22.jpg

Joseph Hilarius von Eckhel was an Austrian Jesuit, Maria Theresa’s professor of antiquities and numismatics at the University of Vienna. Between 1792 and 1798 he compiled an eight-volume catalogue, to which von Eckhel’s successor added a ninth volume  in 1826.

Nobody should be greatly surprised by Sponsian’s erasure from and re-emergence into history. The third century Roman Empire was highly unstable. After the murder of Alexander Severus in AD235, things fell apart, the centre could not hold. The usurper was C. Julius Maximinus, ‘the Thracian’, who tried with some success to hold the forts on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, only for the Roman Senate to make a break for power. Maximinus marched out of Pannonia (which, remember, is where we ought to find Sponsian) on Rome. Rome rallied to the Senate; Maximinus made a hames of besieging Aquileia (think the arm-pit of the Adriatic, just west of Trieste); his supply lines were interdicted; and his army solved the supply problem by compounding with their opponents and murdering Maximinus.

That set the pattern for the next few years. While the camp emperors were being serially done down by their own troops, Goths were piling into the Balkans, the Franks (who seem to have coalesced out of various Germanic groups) swaggered across the lower Rhine, King Shapur of Iran invaded Syria and took Antioch. Shapur was on the point of occupying all of Asia Minor when the Palmyrans emerged from his flank.

Anyone needing a guided tour of the ‘third century crisis’ needs a better mentor than I. Suffice it to say, the existence of a local worthy, Sponsian, briefly promoting himself as Imperator should surprise nobody.

The moral of this immoral tale is Herod’s advice to I, Claudius:

Trust nobody, my little marmoset.


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Hanging a hat on a fœtid mud-bank

Sixth-formers at the High School were required to write a weekly essay for the Head Master, then Dr Ralph Reynolds. We were encouraged to use his proposed theme as a peg on which to hang our late-adolescence hats. Perthaps some of that persists in these posts.

51XH7d4HFLL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_Yesterday book section of  The Times Saturday Review kicked off with ‘Book of the week’. James Marriott was reviewing Jonathan Keates’ La Serenissima, The Story of Venice.

As a travel writer Keates is wholly reliable, and once chaired the ‘Venice in Peril Fund’. He has previous on Venice:

Marriott starts with a nod:

In the sonorous Victorian opening chord of a sentence that begins John Ruskin’s masterpiece Stones of Venice, the great critic observes that “since the first dominion of men was asserted over the oceans, three thrones of mark beyond all others have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England”. Of these great maritime empires, Ruskin writes, Tyre is little more than a memory and Venice a ruin. Only England stands. She must heed the warning of the past or find herself condemned to a “less pitied destruction” than even her fallen predecessors. In that marvellously premature prophecy of imperial decline — written nearly 30 years before Victoria was crowned Empress of India in 1877 — Ruskin anticipated what Venice would come to mean to future generations of Englishmen.

md31044400379The Stones of Venice was one of the first second-hand books I remember buying. Or rather just the first two (of three) volumes, in the Everyman edition. Yep: still got them (and, I admit, still largely unread: hence the surviving dust-cover). I had them off the stalls outside Greene’s in Clare Street (1843-2007) — now a pot-plantery — so probably an exorbitant 3d apiece.

This is what Ruskin gets around to declaiming, after an extended introduction:

Since the first dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.

Hmmm: cannot miss the hand that hovered over Kipling’s shoulder: all that’s missing is dominion over palm and pine.

Leaping over The exaltation, the sin, and the punishment of Tyre and the bleaching of the rocks between the sunshine and the sea, Ruskin delivers us to Venice:

Her successor, like her in perfection of beauty, though less in endurance of dominion, is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak — so quiet, — so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.

Marriott, to my mind, fails to give Venice and Keates due justice. He gives little credit to the quarter-millenium when Venice dominated the eastern Mediterranean, was the terminus for the Silk Road from the further East, was the nemesis of Byzantium. Insteads we are given a pale substitute, the Shadow, not the City:

Venice, at its 14th-century apogee, was an entirely different kind of polity to medieval England. Venice’s story was not a parochial north European dark ages of murdered kings, soggy peasants, feudalism, crop-rotation and gale-blasted castle ramparts, but a cosmopolitan, international, republican and altogether more sun-kissed experience. Until the construction of the railway bridge in the 19th century — which anguished Ruskin — Venice was not even connected to Europe. Its face was turned to the East and to the seas.

Was 14th-century England, the Black Death apart, quite that dire? It was the period that left us the planned streets of Wells and Chester, the Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick, many fine parochial churches, and hastened the end of feudalism with the rise of waged labour.

Meanwhile the railway into Venice’s Santa Lucia station was the work of the Austrians in 1860: its present appearance is by Mazzoni in 1936-1943 (so Mussolini fascism), topped off with 1950s reconstruction, Stepping out of Santa Lucia onto the Grand canal is still gob-smacking.



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Hanging on the telephone …

I’m addicted to political trivia, the details of how the great and the good still wipe their own backsides, and — in this case — how that æthereal chimera, the British Constitution works in practice.

May I urge all of a similar bent to go to Sebastian Payne writing the Financial Times ‘Weekend Essay’. It’s behind the main site pay-wall, but seems to be accessible here:

or, failing that, here:

9781035016556.jpgPayne is publishing an account of The Fall of Boris Johnson next week. I assume this FT piece is effectively a summary/extract. It runs from the moment Michael Gove faced up to Johnson, to Johnson admitting his game was up.

Those who followed the events will not be greatly surprised: any number of other journalists related what they saw and heard of the actualite:

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us.

Well, as Payne and others make clear, treason was the Johnsonian accusation against Gove.

The really significant part of Payne’s account is the bit about relations with the Palace.

Johnson was widely believed to have, and to be prepared to use an ultimate weapon — calling a General Election. There was a precedent:

However, one of the written bits of the unwritten British Constitution are the ‘Lascelles Principles’ (they appeared, pseudonymously, in The Times letters column (2 May 1950), cobbled up to give George VI Windsor ways to deny a tactical election called by the waning Labour Government:

  • The existing parliament was still vital, viable and capable of doing its job.
  • A general election would be detrimental to the national economy.
  • He [the King] could rely on finding another prime minister who could carry on his government, for a reasonable period, with a working majority in the House of Commons.

Clearly, says Payne, all three conditions would be met. However, it is mooted that ailing Elizabeth II Windsor might not be as resilient, as upright as her father. Furthermore, says Peter Hennessy (the Economist, 24 December 1994), Lascelles has gone AWOL from the Cabinet Office rule-book. Here’s Payne:

For the Queen to reject an election request outright would have prompted a full-blown constitutional crisis and put the monarch in the most perilous position of her reign. One senior Whitehall figure said: “It was a question that couldn’t be put to the Queen because the Queen would have to say ‘yes’. The PM cannot ask the question to which she ought to say ‘no’ by the convention.”

Hence the Debbie Harry ploy:

I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall
If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall
I know he’s there, but I just had to call
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone…

Or, in Payne’s narration of a truly-remarkably ‘British’ moment:

… one senior Whitehall insider said of the moment: “If there was an effort to call an election, Tory MPs would have expected Brady to communicate to the palace that we would be holding a vote of confidence in the very near future and that it might make sense for Her Majesty to be unavailable for a day.”

Another senior official confirmed it would be politely communicated to Downing Street that Her Majesty “couldn’t come to the phone” had Johnson requested a call with the intention of dissolving parliament.

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A media star is born

Once in a while …

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Except, as we all know, it wasn’t stout Hernando Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro who looked out on the vast Pacific. It was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, or — more likely — one of his party.
The peak was along the Chucunaque, a tributary of the Tuira River. On 25 September 1513, after days hacking through tropical jungle and savaging a few natives on the way, Balboa could catch a distant view of Mar del Sur,  the South Sea.
A moment of revelation …
Today we might see something akin. London prints feature a Press Association image .

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in need of a photo-opportunity, went to annoy the staff and pupils of St Jude’s Church of England primary school.


Ignore the maniacal minister. Book that kid.


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The young Willie Nelson (yes, there once was such a person) hit it big in October 1961 when Patsy Cline released Crazy:

Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so lonely
I’m crazy, crazy for feeling so blue
I knew, you’d love me as long as you wanted —
And then someday, you’d leave me for somebody new…

We wait to see if the Midterms involve mass defections from Blue to Red. Opinion supplied from the Noo Joisey branch of the family suggests inflation will be the Democrat’s bitter pill: The Guardian would agree:

In a cost of living crisis, it may not be surprising that 92% of Republicans see the economy as very important, with predictable issues of crime and immigration following behind.

But among Democrats, only 65% see the economy as very important – while 80% cite the future of democracy, 79% cite healthcare and 75% abortion.

We can be assured that’s not the end of the matter.

According to there are already 170 law-suits in 35 States over these elections — and most are still active. Both sides are litigating. As the BBC item says:

According to those who have filed them, some lawsuits are driven by a desire to defend access to polls, while others are over concern for fraud.

The US Constitution does not provide for a central election monitoring body and each state has different elections laws.

So, if you are watching for closely fought races, brace for a long night – or maybe even days or weeks for a final count.

Altogether, a marker of just how much Trump has poisoned the system.

I was on the point of spluttering about the need for a consistent electoral law. Then I realised the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has deliberately sheered away from such a consummation. Off hand, I’m not sure just how many variants exist in these domains: first-past-the-post for Westminster, various varieties of qualified proportional representation, the alternative vote, different ages of electoral maturity … One bod in his (or her) doings may experience two or more of those.

Yet, on the whole across the UK we accept the referee’s decision. OK, let’s factor out the bloody-mindedness of the DUP.  But not so in the land of the Freebie and the home of the Bravos.


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More from the whore-house

Despite ‘support’ from Downing Street (and we all remember how friable such a pie-crust promise can be), I’m assuming we can see gabby Gavin heading into that Bourne from which no Williamson returns (© JB Morton as ‘Beachcomber‘).

My previous post derived from ConHome’s editor being distinctly salty about Williamson. That was signed by Paul Goodman, whose contacts and fingers-on-the-pulse are excellent. In itself, that means ‘watch this space’.

Now we have the political gossip-columnist of The Spectator being similarly inclined, and pointing to The Times:

… this morning’s Times claims that Williamson separately made a ‘tacit threat’ to an MP who is now a minister over her ‘private life’ while a second MP has given CCHQ evidence of Williamson’s conduct towards her. Former party chair Jake Berry has issued a statement saying he told Rishi Sunak of the complaint before they entered No. 10. Sunak for his part has done an interview with the Sun saying that the texts ‘were not acceptable or right’ claiming he was aware of a ‘disagreement’ but not the details of the exchange. Sunak also refused to back Williamson to keep his job, saying that ‘there’s a process happening, it’s right to let that conclude. It’s not acceptable.’ With statements like that, it doesn’t look too good for the former fireplace salesman.

I hadn’t seen The Times piece, and had to look it up.

Screenshot 2022-11-07 at 14.16.55

Some matters to ponder:

  • the by-line credits Steven Swinford, The Times politcal editor, and Gabriel Pogrund, similarly at the Sunday Times. This is heavyweight stuff.
  • this ‘new’ accusation against Williamson dates back to 2016, when Williamson was Chief Whip:

The Tory MP, who told the Conservative Party at the weekend that she was willing to discuss the matter, said that Williamson had called her into his office when he was chief whip in 2016.

At the time she was campaigning on an issue that was causing the government difficulty. During the meeting Williamson is said to have raised a sensitive issue about her private life, which she interpreted as a tacit threat.

At one level, that’s little more than an overdue sight of the ‘Black Arts’ in political whipping. At another, it’s refried beans.

Either way, when Rishi Sunak re-appointed Williamson, he hadn’t heard the warnings (which strains credulity, and goes against other accounts) or the new Whips (which comes down to Simon Hart, drafted as Chief Whip without previous experience in the Whips’ office) didn’t make it clear just how toxic was Williamson. Or, as a third option, Williamson has kompramat to oblige Sunak to ignore any warnings.

  • The feminine pronouns in this story, particularly alongside the vitriol aimed at Wendy Morton, suggest Williamson has a problem with women. Or, that the sisterhood have combined to come for him. Either way, not good.

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Media whores, and rumours of wars

In these degenerate and godless days, when future blog-artists no longer sit as choirboys in the chantry pews, it’s probably worth recalling the origin of the expression:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

St Matthew there [24.6-8] doing a fine job of reportage, and prognostication.

For reasons beyond me, we are again locked in a significant political spat. Anyone thinking the crisis-management of the Johnson and Truss shambolics would be a thing of the past is being painfully disabused.

Another aspect that escapes me is why the Opposition (both between the Parties and within the Tories) has not stuck to one target at a time.

I would have thought the position of Suella [rectē: Sue Ellen — she was named for Sue Ellen Ewing of the Dallas soap] Braverman was the more relevant, more vulnerable and most targettable.

Men of Kent and Kentish Men

The saga of refugees and others washing up on the coast of Kent is so tortuous and painful, were it not thousands of personal tragedies, it is almost le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. In the last week we have had a running saga of whether lobbing improvised Molotov cocktails at officialdom is, or is not, terrorism — we finally seem to have reached an informed conclusion that, err …, it probably is. The old Manston airfield was the site of a processing business: it was never meant to hold prisoners. It became a concentration camp: fifteen hundred inmates became four thousand, a few hours became days. The site was effectively spreading nasty diseases and complaints. Then the removals from Manston were being dumping in central London — precisely what the detention centres were supposed to prevent. Then the deportation facility near Heathrow disintegrated into riots because the power supply failed. What next?

An upwardly-mobile puff-ball

Meanwhile, thanks to informed — not to say directed — leaks, had the Sunday Times was asking very real questions of how the ex-fireplace salesman (and generally proven incompetent) Gavin Williamson gets away with it all.

The essence of that story:

Williamson, the Cabinet Office minister, lashed out at Wendy Morton, the Conservative Party’s first female chief whip, last month amid unfounded claims she excluded him from attending the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.

In a WhatsApp message, he told her “There is a price for everything”, before saying her conduct was “absolutely disgusting” and that she had chosen to “f*** us all over”. When challenged, he retorted that it “looks s***” and that “perception becomes reality”

For what? To sit in the Abbey for a couple of hours? To be distantly in the presence of royalty? To be, however briefly, one of the great-and-the-good? Because of overweening arrogance, an over-inflated self-importance?

Or as Isaac Watts, three centuries ago, hymned for little ones:

Whatever brawls disturb the street,
There should be peace at home;
Where sisters dwell and brothers meet,
Quarrels should never come.

Birds in their little nests agree;
And ’tis a shameful sight,
When children of one family
Fall out, and chide, and fight.

A Goodman isn’t hard to find

This morning Paul Goodman, sharp but partisan, adds fuel to the flames:

On the one hand, the menacing parts of Williamson’s texts are unacceptable, to use the vogue word of our times.  On the other, it would be dispiriting to see MPs forced to communicate in woke language that might be used in an American law firm.

Williamson’s judges should be the Prime Minister, who brought him back to the Cabinet table, the Chief Whip, who must judge whether those elected as Conservative MPs retain the whip and, above all, his constituents.  What should now be done with him – especially since further claims are surfacing.

Don’t bother to follow the hot-link. It’s to the Telegraph, and says Sunak was warned before appointing Williamson to his non-job. The most relevant detail is even the Torygraph is in the hue-and-cry. Goodman’s own kicker:

You will have your view.  It’s unlikely to be a favourable one: Williamson was bottom of our recent Cabinet League Table and in negative ratings.

Ask Party members what they think of him and the view of those who aren’t ultra-loyalists may well be that he was a bad Education Secretary and is an inveterate intriguer.

We can put Goodman down as ‘not impressed’. He then generalises:

If you stand back from Williamson for a moment and consider the landscape more widely, you will soon see that the Johnson and Truss governments weren’t simply brought down by rebels and journalists.

Both played their part, but the former was pranged by Covid parties (and not governing in a purposeful way) and the latter by her mini-budget (and the market turmoil that it triggered).

Sunak will need to offer fewer hostages to fortune if the Conservatives are to recover.  The signs are hopeful but the odds against a fifth Tory term are long.  The Party is bruised by the reputational damage that took it to a record poll low of 14 per cent on October 20.  Politicos poll of polls shows the Tories adrift of Labour by 26 points.

All of which is manna-from-heaven where I sit politically. Goodman sums up:

As for Williamson, he is drinking in the last chance saloon, or ought to be.  Though Sunak seems to be riding out the Braverman controversy, and may ride this one out too.

Not a good moment to be up the Gulf of Suez, without a paddle, Rishi. While Top Cat is away, the rodents play. But underlines my thought that the Opposition (internal and external) are missing a trick by not homing in on just one Sunak appointment. A punch-line, embacing two Bill Shagspur plays (spot ’em!):

A last thought plucks at my elbow – namely, that someone, somewhere, must love Gavin Williamson, however unlikely that may seem to you.  He is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means.  If you prick him, does he not bleed?

A picture is worth a thousand words

If all that was too verbose, try Ben Jennings in today’s Guardian:3012.jpg


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Three prompts brought me to this point:


One can wander profitably through the exhibition itself within an hour: this tome is heavier, and demands much longer.


  • Lyons attempts two different approaches in the same piece:
    • reprising the well-known background of Tutankhamun;
    • differencing Tyldesley’s interpretation from what has gone before:

Tutankhamun: Pharaoh. Icon. Enigma echoes that sense of fragmentation and divergent opinion in its structure. It is divided into two sections: the first is an exploration of Tutankhamun’s life and times; the second considers the growth of Egyptology, the discovery of the tomb and its aftermath. Each chapter is presented from a different perspective: Tutankhamun himself, his undertakers, tomb robbers, archaeologists, and so on. The chapter on Ankhesenpaaten is a particularly valuable corrective to pharaoh-centrism. But the approach does have drawbacks, sometimes working to diffuse evidence rather than consolidate it. A chapter from a contemporary Egyptian perspective would also have been welcome.

By the nature of the thread hovers on the edge of post-colonist propaganda. That is a route I am prepared to pursue.

I’d already come across an essential truth in Regulski’s Introduction. Until the Rosetta Stone became the translation key, all ‘European’ understanding of Egyptology (and it was essentially ‘European’ and it was certainly pretty primitive) derived from Biblical and Classical scholarship. So, in both origins, rooted in Western and ‘imperialist’ traditions.

Enter Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young, one a remarkable linguist, the other a polymath.

Regulski continues:

Egyptologists continue to shape our dialogue with the past, embracing a broader approach to Egyptian heritage, including its entanglement with Western imperialism. The decipherment of hieroglyphs is also a story of antiquities collection in the age of Empire and the cultural competition between two colonial powers, Britain and France. After the British victory over Napoleon’s forces in Egypt in 1801, the antiquities transferred from French ownership helped transform the British Museum into a genuinely public institution, renowned for its collections. The Rosetta Stone’s fascination comes not from its visual form or even its content, but from what it represents. More than any other Egyptian artefact, it changed our understanding of the ancient world.

Howard Carter honourably lost (i.e. resigned under pressure) his post in the Egyptian Antiquities Service because of the Saqqara Affair — a punch-up between French tourists and Egyptian site curators. We can easily work out which party in the squabble was after plunder; and Carter paid the price for backing the Egyptians.

That left Carter, a bit later, dependent on the patronage of George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.

Almost contemporary with the discoveries from Tutankhamun’s tomb, Ludwig Borchardt was pulling the fastest one ever to pillage the head of Nefertiti. That remains in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin. The treasures looted by Heinrich Schliemann don’t (though my visit to the Museum had them represented by a terse card pointing to why). When the Red Army took over Berlin, they abstracted them, and delivered them to Moscow — along with much else.

One way or another, post-colonial thefts need considerable attention. Howard Carter was not the worst art-thief of the twentieth century.

A fellow moderator on (we are the intelligent contributors, y’ know) encapsulated the discussion as:

So what is the point here? One, is that knowledge is a common human heritage, with no one entitled to claim a primacy or “*-centricity”. China, which always called itself The MIddle Kingdom, probably invented “centricity”.

Secondly, we can be local in our pride and attentiveness to the heritage and artefacts around us. Near where I live, there is Newgrange, Tara, the massive medieval Trim Castle, Bective Abbey and a few others. I assure you they do not float feely with no connection to me, no more than a modern day Texan might feel disconnected from the Alamo.

The story of Egyptology is a wonderful story, but is also a story of one people trying to colonise another’s history. Howard Carter taking artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun is just symbolic of the sense of entitlement felt by him and his fellow archaeologists. Not all of them, obviously, because some were shocked and disgusted by his behaviour.

Three essential bullet-points there.

The first, on culture and its propagation, is a good one. Except there does seem to be a growing awareness that the Axelrod model may not work as neatly as its originator suggested. I was taught (i.e. we were indoctrinated) that agriculture originated in fertile Mesopotamia. That produces a neat developmental line; but it doesn’t explain how other cultures, far from the Tigris and Euphrates, fed themselves successfully and developed. What the Mesopotamians did was cultivate barley and wheat (which remain staples for the Western world); but those are not the limits of food-crops. The most obvious example would be rice-cultivation originating in the Yangtze basin, and that might go back to the eighth millennium BC. So: did Mesopotamians and/or prehistoric Chinese learn one from the other? Or was agriculture multi-centric in origins?

Discuss. Do not write on more than one side of the paper.

Second point: ‘received’ culture. I’m far from convinced all Texans agree on the Alamo. My lurking suspicion is Anglo-Texans see that incident very differently to Latino-Texans. What got over-written there means history becomes the property of the conquerors.

More specifically, my first experience of Newgrange was wading through wet grassland along a muddy path, when ‘Brian’ O’Kelly was starting work there. What we now have at Newgrange is a tourist attraction, squeaky clean and re-invented, complete with ‘interpretation centre’ (err … whose ‘interpretation?) and souvenir shop. In doing so, we have imposed bourgeois, even capitalist concepts on a survival from a very different era: it makes money. Cultural appropriation or what?

Which applies equally to the presentation of Egyptian and Classical monuments. Does it greatly matter where the marbles, which Lord Elgin rescued from the Parthenon, are held in store? We can reproduce them perfectly in facsimile. We could even hoist the replicas back in situ, as we did with Abu Simbel. And as already happened to the Quadriga of San Marco in Venice: if you want to view the originals inside and  ‘preserved from pollution’, it costs an entry fee. Moreover, if the BM is going to ‘return’ the Elgin Marbles, why not send the Quadriga back to the Hippodrome of Constantinople? Or did they get to the Eastern Empire, only because they were exported from Rome?





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A cat of any colour

Allow me to start with Geoff Chaucer and his Pardoner’s Tale:

And eek ther was a polcat in his hawe,
That, as he seyde, his capouns hadde yslawe,
And fayn he wolde wreke hym, if he myghte,
On vermyn that destroyed hym by nyghte.

hawe‘, by the way, would update better as ‘yard’ than ‘house’.

So, by 1390 or thereabouts, polecats were merely vermyn. If we can trust the OED, ‘polecat’ gets cited a bit earlier than ‘ferret’. The distinction is that the ferret has been just-slightly domesticated.

My long-distant Norfolk boyhood inroduced me to the ungentle art of rabbiting: that would have been pre-myxomatosis — so before 1954-5. That date changed the diet of working-class folk instantly. Don’t believe that somehow the disease spread naturally after its deliberate introduction by Professor Paul-Félix Armand-Delille, to control rabbits on his estate at Château Maillebois. And a very attractive property it is, at that:



It was well-known that game-keepers and farmers, across East Anglia, were acquiring infected rabbits, and turning them loose. Anyone who has seen a myxy rabbit, bleeding eyes and all, would never again have one for dinner.

Before that, snares and ferrets had been the way to a cheap and nutritious mid-week meal. The local iron-monger would sell wire-snares (and lethal catapults) quite happily. The skilled use of the catapult, loaded with suitable ball-bearings from the scrap-yard, was the usual means of poaching game-birds. Swift, silent, and deadly. 

I’ve assumed that ferreting has a long history among the menials of the land. Indeed, there’s a 1429 law of Henry VI Plantagenet against:

Unlaweful hunters of Forestes, Parkes or Warennes, or any other opyn Mysdoers.

As far as I can see, there were distinctions of ‘warrenage’ (which involved paying a feudal due, but ensured sole possession) and ‘free warrenage’ (come and get it!). Inevitably, with enclosures, the former came to dispossess the latter. At which point, anyone caught with a pocket-full of snares or unexplained possession of ferrets might have a quick trip before the magistrates. The Game Act of 1831 is still in force, and still being prosecuted.

PolecatA by-product of ‘warrenage’ was the persecution, and near-extermination of polecats across Britain. They had been reduced to small sanctuaries in the wilder parts of Wales and Highland Scotland; but in recent years have made a remarkable come-back (see map, right). So much so that wild-life studies gave up on tracing the expansion around 2014-15.

I find it interesting that one of the aims of that study was 

to gather up-to-date information on the distribution of polecats and polecat-ferrets

That presupposes there are some identifiable characteristics to distinguish the wild from the semi-wild variety.

  • This post celebrates great-great-great-great-great Uncle Vincent (I think I calculcated the ‘greats’ correctly) who had a passage booked to Botany Bay, on the basis of his second conviction for poaching.

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