Sunday, July 31, 2011

I won...

...yesterday's 'set challenge' on DEBlog (first time in many years of playing)!

I therefore take great pride in awarding myself this week's badge.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Coalbrookdale and Iron Bridge

At this spot, in 1707, Abraham Darby first swapped charcoal for coke in his blast furnace. This partly ruined structure is considered such an important technological and cultural landmark that it has been covered in its own building (the triangular outline to the right).

Ah, the blast furnace. A reliable feature of every GCSE in science. I imagine it like a blender. Into the top he threw in (or charged) his vital ingredients: coke, iron ore and limestone.

He then turned on the power - heating and agitating (thanks to water powered billows at the bottom - they were on the right in this picture),

until the iron ore lost its oxygen to the carbon in the coke, and the molten metal (which conveniently separated from the rest at the bottom) could be drained out just here.

Coke had two main advantages: it contained much less sulphur (which meant the resulting iron was purer and better quality), and there was a lot of it around which meant Abraham Derby could go in for mass production. Since iron is so incredibly useful for making reliable and uniform parts of machinery, the use of coke in the blast furnace initiated the industrial revolution.

I do like these old industrial sites with their heat-singed bricks, and mysterious pipe-work,

ancient engines,

and walls with outlines of previous buildings like scribbles on a palimpsest.

Who worked here?

Who made this pipe?

And who drew curtains over this window?

Maybe William Ball once strode here (though I doubt it). He was an iron-worker (a 'puddle-worker') and was celebrated because he weighed (what was then, but I suspect no longer) an extraordinary 40 stone (560 lbs, 254 kg), and in 1850 had to be lifted onto an unfortunate horse to lead a procession. Here is his chair (which doesn't seem that large) and picture. He is wearing coloured glasses because his eye was injured by molten metal.

They are preserved in the iron Museum (below in the distance on the right).

In subsequent years the British nation went a bit mad over iron and in the museum there were plenty of examples:

railings and chairs,

pots, trestle-legs and grates,

intricately-latticed stove covers,


and the famous ironbridge just down the road.

Cast iron is still the essential main component of the Aga and Rayburn stoves which are made on the adjacent site.

It is a pretty area - with brick built houses tumbling down the slopes

to paths

to the river Severn (essential then for the transport of the iron, ore, coke and limestone).

The industry prospered and declined, prospered again and then eventually lost out to other areas which were more centrally and favourably placed. The scientific and literary institute built by the Darby family has now become an attractive youth hostel

and the 'industry' (apart from the Aga factory) now mainly tourism.

This allows the poppies to grow

but close by the bed and breakfasts, ice-cream shops and pubs of the Ironbridge centre there are run-down garages and vacant plots. It is a typical sight in today's Britain. Tourism is a precarious activity to rely upon, and although manufacturing iron was no doubt dangerous, dirty and hard, at least it was tangible, creative and a useful source of wealth. I have long wondered how a nation like ours can survive by producing nothing but services. Perhaps we need to bring back a little of the spirit of Abraham Darby.

There is more information about the place on the Ironbridge's excellent website.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

At Iron Museum, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire - and the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Imagine a pot:

(black, round, singing when struck)
and the very idea

of making many
as reliably round as a canon shot.

Think, then, of this
coke instead of smouldered wood

an iron ore charge
and bellows powered by a wheel

and iron, pouring forth
like blood

deoxygenated, venal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 2011 Man Booker Longlist

I was out all day today (I shall write about that later), and came back tonight, looked at the news on-line, and find that I am especially delighted about the Booker longlist. Not only is Patrick McGuiness's 'The Last Hundred Days' is on there (published by my publisher, Seren) but also Jane Rogers's 'The Testament of Jessie Lamb'.

I've loved all that I've read of Jane Rogers's writing, and this one sounds particularly exciting: a world in which motherhood is fatal. Patrick McGuiness's also sounds like something I'd love to read - about the last days of Ceausescu's tyranny in Romania.

So many congratulations to you (and all the other long-listers).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Books: 'Far South' and 'The Tyranny of Choice'

Three books arrived today: The first was Far South from Serpent's Tail:

This looks like it could be an experience more than a book. It does not have an author but a 'voice', a UK representative, and a 'collective' of artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, musicians and dancers.

The premise is that when a man called Fischer vanishes from an artists' colony in Argentina, his colleagues call in a private detective called Perez. The book follows Perez's investigation - and he uncovers not just written material but short films, audio recordings and YouTube videos (to which there are links and QR codes in the book). Truly multimedia, then and such an exciting idea! It makes me want to grab my iphone and start on the book right now.

The second book is more conventional formatted but just as enticing: The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl.

This is about how choice causes anxiety. I find it paradoxically reassuring that someone should think this idea is a suitable topic for a book - I shall explain why.

A few years ago I found myself in the supermarket for the weekly 'shop'. Life was not just getting on top of me, it was stamping on my head and grinding it and the rest of me into the ground. I stood in front of the bread. I knew I had to get a loaf and put it into my shopping basket, but I just couldn't decide what to get. The longer I stood there, the more futile everything about my life, and everyone else's life, seemed to be. I have not heard of existential angst being caused by bread-buying before but, dear blog-reader, it happened to me - and I blame it all on too much choice. It has often occurred to me since that too much choice is a great waster of time, and not very good for people that always doubt they are making the right decision about anything. So to find a book about this concept of choice, and the bad psychological effect it has on people besides me, is oddly reassuring - because it means I am not alone.

The third book a guide to Rome - but I shall leave that one until later.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Salon: A Little Picaresque

I am about to embark on exploring the picaresque (strictly from my desk). A picaresque involves 'clever rogues or adventurers especially in a type of fiction' according to my on-line dictionary, and I always have the impression that some sort of journey is also implied or assumed. The Life of Pi, I understand, is about a voyage. Looking through my bookcase I see I have absent-mindedly bought two copies of this book, and have yet to read either. This will be my 'warm-up' picaresque.

After that I will return to a road I have already traveled (the Silk Road) and pick up a few rogues on that. I intend to start with 'Life Along the Silk Road' by Susan Whitfield which is a series of informative short stories about the various people that typically lived along the Silk Road from its hay-day in the 8th -10th centuries. Then I shall move on to a modern day travelogue of the same area 'Shadow of the Silk Road' by Colin Thubron. This comes with some great recommendations, and I am especially looking forward to starting this.

The end of my little picaresque will be with 'Monkey' by Wu Ch'êng-ên. This is a sixteenth century Chinese epic based on the account of the travels of a seventh century monk called Hsüang-Tsang. Like many Chinese Buddhist monks, he traveled along the Silk Road to seek out examples of the sutra in India, in order to bring them back to China for translation.

I have dipped into all these books and feel confident that I shall find at least one clever rogue in each one.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Thoughts of Oslo.

I am looking at the pictures of the explosion in Oslo; the city where the Nobel Peace Prize is celebrated. I remember Oslo as a quiet place when I was there in 2007, charming and attractive, with a little of the primness of Geneva. Even in the early evening there was little noise. People seemed to enjoy themselves with a considerate restraint. The biggest risk I could find on offer was to try a little reindeer steak for my supper.

There seemed to be just one main street going from the station to the palace on a slight hill.

Along it were restaurants and shops selling a little of everything. On the northern side of the street was the hotel with its famous balcony where the new Nobel Laureate traditionally stands to celebrate receiving the medal. To the west and south was the sea and this too seemed impossible to ruffle. By its side was the town museum devoted to world peace

and a castle that seemed closer to a mansion house than a defensive fort.

It seems incredible to me that Oslo of all places could be disturbed by a bomb, and that people should be killed and injured. In Oslo, there was none of the edginess I feel as soon as I step out of the railway station in a place like London - or any other capital city. But I suspect the old peaceful Oslo is gone now. Everything will have changed in this horrifying puff of smoke. No longer the sleepy backwater, but part of the modern hideous world, learning to live on its nerve. It is a sad day when a place like this loses its innocence.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The fight to save short stories on Radio 4

Gwyneth Williams has recently announced that the News at One on Radio 4 is to be extended at the expense of the Short Story. The full press release is here.

If you would like to protect this genre please sign this petition on the National Short Story Website.

As Sarah Dunant says: 'When it comes to fiction radio excites and exercises the imagination in a way no other medium can manage. Nowhere is that more perfectly illustrated than the short story where, within 15 short minutes, one can be transported into a different world. It is a cheap yet invaluable example of radio at its best. It feels both mad - and sad - to think that radio 4 would somehow be better without it.'

For more views and quotes see the full list of signatories here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Albert von Le Coq and the Uyghur Girl

At the moment I am reading Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan by Albert von Le Coq. In the first decade of the twentieth century he travels from Berlin to St Petersburg to Moscow, and then, by train to Omsk. From Omsk he travels by river and then cart to the Chinese border. Another mountainous journey takes him to Urumqi (where I wished to go a couple of years ago) and then down to the Tarim Basin 300 feet below sealevel and Turfan. He is an excellent story teller, describing the wild life and the people in wonderful detail. There are cockroaches the size of a man's thumb that give off a sickening smell when crushed, poisonous spiders, and the Uyghur people and their Chinese overlords. Urumqi is a cruel place. He records and photographs 'the cage'. It is a gruesome form of capital punishment. The head is placed in a wooden vice while the floor of the cage is slowly dropped. Von Le Coq is astounded that he comes across this cage in a busy street. The people pass by and continue to go about their business, including the melon seller, who sets up his stall alongside, completely disregarding his unfortunate neighbour.

After visiting the Mohammedan city of Turfan, he travels out into the desert to excavate the ruins of Khocho. Here he stays with a Uyghur family, which includes a beautiful daughter. Her photograph appears in the book. Her name is Zuwida Khan and she has returned to her father's home after the local landowner she'd married (aged 15) has treated her badly. She looks very much like the singer in this video.

Soon after von Le Coq's arrival, Zuwida Khan gives birth to a baby, and von Le Coq records the lullabies she sings, as well as the folk songs of the local Uyghur's king's women. These last he records on a phonograph, which causes so much interest that he is besieged with requests to hear them. He records than he sends his recordings 'unfortunately' to the Berlin Institute of Psychology, but says, in this account, that no one does anything with them.

Uyghur music uses an Arabic scale but has Chinese influences. In other words it is a mixture of European and East Asian stock - very much like the Uyghur people themselves who are the descendents of Indo-European Tocharians and people from Mongolia. When I was at school I remember a history teacher telling the class that the most beautiful people arise when the races mix - something that seems to be true of music too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith

After almost three weeks of near-continuous effort, I have finished this book: Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith. I took notes, I condensed those notes twice, and then I went through each chapter colouring in maps showing the various migrations of the people, and how Central Eurasia changed over the centuries. It is complicated but quite fascinating. I have learnt a lot.

The book is an achievement. It connects famous parts of Western and Chinese history and puts them in context. It does this by making Central Eurasia, an area of the world that has recently been disregarded, as its focus, and thereby giving its inhabitants, generally thought to be 'barbarians', a new appraisal. It concludes that the nomadic hordes of the Eurasian Steppes were just as civilised as everyone else. Most of what they did depended on the aspirations of their folk-lore, something known as the 'First Story'. An essential feature of this was a leader to whom a band of dedicated blood-brothers swore allegiance, sometimes unto death. This 'comitatus' of followers had to be supported by the entire population, and everyone was expected to pay homage with luxurious goods. These were the Proto-IndoEuropeans, and it seems like the majority of people living outside Africa are either their direct descendents or have ancestors who were heavily influenced by their culture.

The requirement to give tributes to the leader ensured that trade became important, and from this developed the Silk Road. This was not just a trading route, but a complicated socio-political network, involving three types of people: the nomads, a band of settled agriculturalists and the urbanites. The nomadic empires (the Scythians, the Tokharians, the Hsiung-nu, the Hun, the Türks, the Mongols, the Tartars, and the Khazars) all had this three-part structure. The nomads depended on trade, and restricting this by building a wall or closing a boundary was a declaration of war. The nations peripheral to the silk road understood this, and so when these 'barbarians' retaliated it was to be expected. The only other time the nomadic nations of Central Eurasia attacked was when a subjugated city rebelled. Then they were merciless and terrifying. One account describes how one nomadic nation used to attack on a moonless night with blackened faces and shields. In fact they were not 'barbaric' at all; they had their own culture, and were no more ferocious and warlike than any other nation. Their leaders, according to witness accounts, were just, civilised and popular.

For several centuries (from sometime in the first millennium BC with the Scythians to late in the seventeenth century AD) one nomadic nation after another reigned supreme, the pinnacle of achievement starting at the end of the eighth century when Arabs, Türks (originally from the Eastern Steppe), Tibetans and Chinese empires met in the Tarim Basin. This mixing of ideas and intellect eventually transferred to the rest of the Muslim empire in the 11th and 12th centuries via the near-East and the Mediterranean and from there into Western Europe. Ideas from the Ancient Greeks were re-examined and interpreted, and eventually caused revolutions in thought and the sciences.

Nothing lasts forever though, and eventually the Arabs retreated leaving the Central Eurasian states to be ruled independently, and people such as the Khazaks, Tartars and Mongols surged in to take their place. One of the most triumphant was Genghis Khan, who established the first world superpower in the thirteenth century. Soon after his death his empire was fragmented by his descendents and then weakened further by the advent of the Black Death - the world's first pandemic - starting around 1331. Another nation of nomads under Tamerlane took advantage of the Mongol's depleted state and, starting out from the Central Eurasian heartland, established the Moghul empire in northern India with its distinctive architecture in 1360; meanwhile in China, another branch of the Mongol empire, the Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan (Genghis's grandson), was defeated by the Ming (the ethnic Chinese).

From the 15th to the 17th centuries the Eurasian world was divided into new empires: Russia, Mongolians in the Eastern Steppe, and Manchurians (the Ch'ing who came after the Ming) in China, the Mughals in northern India, and the Persians and the Ottoman in modern-day Turkey. It was the expansion and subsequent agreement between two of these empires (the Russians and the Chinese) at the end of the 17th century that the closed the Silk Road, not, as commonly thought, the competition from the 'sea route' (as the nations of Western Europe established trade passages and depots around the world). Without trade, Central Eurasia became rapidly impoverished and technologically backward. In the twentieth century it was completely partitioned between the two great Communist powers, only some of it becoming free after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite being partly liberated, the area is still underdeveloped and poor, thanks, in part, to the scourge of Modernism (which the author discusses in thought-provoking detail). However, as a link between two of the fastest growing economies of the world (India and China) the area has a lot of potential. Maybe it is time for a new Silk Road to emerge again.

I found this exceptional book to be a hugely valuable education in many unexpected ways, and an excellent foundation for the rest of my Silk Road studies.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

My Silk Road Collection

I have added a couple more books to my Silk Road Collection.

It's taking me a long time to work through them all, but I am determined to get there in the end. I have so far read three, and am currently reading Christopher Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road, and have been doing so all week. It quite an epic work; and very impressive. It deals with the entire length of the road from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific one, from prehistoric times until today. It is fascinating seeing the world from such a different angle,and I'm learning a lot. All sorts of disconnected historical facts are falling neatly into place.