Knights Templar

Today is exactly 710 years since the arrest of the Knights Templar throughout the kingdom of France, and the beginning of the trial process which led to their demise. All the more precise because 13 October 1310 was also a Friday. It's nice to be able to quote myself from my 1986 book on the Order.

The arrest of the Templars throughout the Kingdom of France on 13 October 1307 is often presented as a surprise which no one in Christendom could possibly have foreseen, whereas in fact multiple signs pointed towards such an inevitable resolution at a single stroke of many of the problems of the French king. Philip had already brought the Holy Roman Church under his control, and could now aim at destroying one of its richest orders to relieve a severe shortage of cash. In the light of his attacks and confiscations against the Church, the Jews and the Lombards it is difficult to accept that this violent attempt at quick suppression was a surprise to any wise observer. ‘All the world knew’, writes Jean Favier. Except, evidently, Jacques de Molay.

'Hard languages' without travel

Travel and direct experience seems not to have been essential for linguists in the 19th century, as I’ve been reminded by reading Edward Thomas’ Literary Pilgrim (1917) today.


Here is George Borrow, in Norfolk: 

At Norwich in 1819, in Tuck’s Court, St. Giles’s, he was articled clerk to Messrs. Simpson and Rackham, solicitors, living with Simpson in the Upper Close. His desk now, perhaps, for the first time served the purpose of a young man who was learning Welsh, Danish, Hebrew, Arabic, Gaelic, and Armenian.

And here in Suffolk the wonderful Edward Fitzgerald, translating the Persian of Omar Khayyam in the depths of the countryside without the slightest desire to go further than Cambridge and London, and once as far as Bath to see his sister.



Ledda and Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence made an observation in Sea and Sardinia which chimes perfectly with Ledda's words when he noted the ‘peculiar ancient loneliness of the Sardinian hills’ and a ‘gap of solitude’ surrounding and isolating three men who entered an inn where he was staying in Nuoro - even though they were in fact together.


Padre padrone

I've just finished the autobiographical novel written towards the end of the traditional pastoral way of life in the 1970s, Padre padrone by Gavino Ledda. Heart-rending descriptions of the hardships of life as an illiterate five-year-old shepherd (who only learned to read in his twenties) with a ferocious father (the padrone of the title) are suddenly punctuated by recovery from an episode of double pneumonia. 

        Gavino considered himself lucky, since many boys did not survive the first year in the hills. He had passed the test. Moreover, whereas a year before he had to be coerced to live and work on the tanca by paternal beatings, now he couldn’t wait to get back after a month of sickness in the family home. He reflects that ‘the solitude of the forest and the deep silence of the environs, interrupted only by wind, thunder or distant storms in the winter, orchestrated by the singing of birds and nature basking in the spring, was no longer silence for me. By listening to it I had learned to understand it, and it had become a secret language by which everything seemed to me animated, speaking and in movement… It was as if I knew all the dialects of nature, and spoke them well enough to set up with nature the only conversations that were possibile for me.’

Sea, mountains, wind, rain, and every tree, plant and creature were sentient in the young shepherd’s mind. So much so that he thereafter avoided human contact as superfluous.

‘La solitudine del bosco e il silenzio profondo dell’ambiente, interrotto solo del vento, dai tuoni o dallo scoppio del temporale in lontananza d’inverno, orchestrato dal canto degli uccelli e dal crogiolarsi della natura in primavera, ora per me non era più silenzio. A furia di ascoltarlo avevo imparato a capirlo e mi era divenuto un linguaggio segreto per cui tutto mi sembrava animato, parlante e in movimento. E almeno al livello affettivo della mia fantasia potevo comprenderlo e parlaci. Quasi conoscessi tutti i dialetti della natura e li parlassi correttamente al punto di impostare con essa, nel mio silenzio raccolto, le uniche conversazioni che mi erano possibili.’

Geach and Anscombe

I just came across this photograph of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe, and was reminded of a tutorial many years ago (see comment in my Bio section). It was already intimidating to read and discuss an essay with the ferociously logical and critical Geach, so to find her sitting beside him was terrifying.

She was wearing a black trouser-suit and smoking a huge Cuban cigar. Here was his wife, Professor Elizabeth Anscombe of Cambridge University, who he had met in Wittgenstein's research class and who he always referred to in speech as "Miss" Anscombe. Fortunately she just asked me one question.

A and G.jpg

The Beauty of Latin

An argument with a friend about the beauty of Latin sent me to Horace.

My initiation into Latin was as a choirboy. Later, my music teacher Denis Fielder took me into the Cambridge Philharmonic Choir, which he then conducted. We sang Bach Passions and Cantatas, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and much else, and I also sang Thomas Tallis and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (“il principe della musica”, as his statue in the town of his birth near Rome has it) with the Combined Cambridge Choirs under David Willcocks in King’s College Chapel. 

I’ve always loved the sound of Latin. As well as still enjoying many of the Palestrina masses (and those of Tomás Luis de Victoria), I like to read Catullus, Horace, Martial, Ovid in the original but with a good crib when necessary - in the case of Horace, to take the only English example (most of my texts are Italian editions), that of James Michie’s translation of the Odes. I’m sure my schoolmasters would disapprove of my Italian accent when reading Latin, but what can beat the concentrated beauty of a line like “O matre pulchra filia pulchrior” (Horace, Odes, Book I, XVI; “O lovely mother’s yet more lovely daughter…” in Michie’s words) or the painful concision of:

               Odi et amo, quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

               Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Catullus LXXXV, rendered by Pound as “I hate and love. Why? You may ask but/It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache”?

Michie and Pound are good, but the music has disappeared: the astonishing "sentio et excrucior".


Reading an interesting book called Chopsticks: a Cultural and Culinary History, By Q. Edward Wang (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He looks at their history from neolithic bone chopsticks found in Jiangsu to the widespread use in oriental restaurants in the west today. Indeed he writes of chopsticks cultural sphere which includes Japan Korea and Vietnam. The first documented evidence is that of King Zhou of the Shang dynasty who used ivory chopsticks around 1,000 years before Christ. Instructions on how to use them may be found in several ancient Chinese classics.

When eating with [others] from the same dish of the fan, one should not have to wash his hands.
— Classic of Rites

It's odd that such a book has never been written since nearly two billion people use them to eat everyday, and several hundred million more every now and again. Indeed some historians have divided the world into there three groups of finger-feeders, fork-feeders and chopstick feeders. Chopsticks may in fact be seen as a superior means of eating finger-style, as artificial fingers.

Wang provides detailed analysis of the evolution of chopsticks, and the current distinction between materials used to make them wood in Japan, metal in Korea and porcelain in China.  Some believe the use of chopsticks has unexpected benefits are:

Eating with chopsticks slows people down and therefore they eat less…
— Kimiko Barber, The Chopsticks Diet, 2009.

Perhaps the most original chapter is on chopsticks as gift, metaphor and symbol, for example in wedding ceremonies in China or on special occasions at the New Year when the Japanese must use new chopsticks, which are often of the double-ended kind so that a person may eat with one end and share food with others with the other end.

It had never occurred to me in reading my favourite Chinese poet, Li Bai, that in ‘Hard is the Journey’ the phrase “I lay my chopsticks down” is used to accentuate his sorrow at leaving his friends, that chopsticks were such a powerful social symbol.

          Gold vessels of fine wines,

             thousands a gallon,

          Jade dishes of rare meats.

             costing more thousands.


          I lay down my chopsticks down,

             no more can one banquet,

          And draw my sword and stare

              wildly about me


          Ice bars my way to cross

             the Yellow River, 

          Snows from dark skies to climb

             the T'ai-hang Mountains!


[translation by Arthur Cooper, in Li Po and Tu Fu, Penguin, 1973]

Paris in Balzac and Zola

Once, in Paris,  I had the idea of writing a book on the impact of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s ‘Plan of Paris’ on the literary world, which would have be done by means of detailed comparisons between the novels of Balzac and Zola. 

For the characters in Balzac’s novels inhabit grimy, twisting alleys and work in streets which had gone by Zola’s time, when elegant boulevards had appeared (Balzac died in 1850; Haussmann was Prefect of the Seine from 1853-1870, during which time he transformed the city; Zola’s first novel appeared in 1867. The best short account of Haussmann’ work I know is that in Giedion’s book Space, Time and Architecture (1963). At that time, apart from Giedion, I must have read and possessed a dozen volumes of La Comedie Humaine and half of the twenty novels of the Les Rougon-Macquart sequence. I still treasure Cousine Bette (1846) and the more powerful Thérèse Raquin (1867, not in the Rougon-Macquart), more than the others, poor but attractive women who are in some ways Parisian Little Dorrits. But above all my favourite Balzac is Les Illusions Perdues (1837), with its sad but realistic portrait of the young provincial writer, Lucien, seeking to make his name in the Parisian literary world. Other pertinent portraits of Paris pre-Haussmann, with vivid descriptive passages, are Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Eugene Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842).

Zola's is a new world. He was always very precise in his use of Parisian streets. L’ Œuvre, for example, opens with the artist Claude Lantier walking past the Hôtel de Ville in the first sentence, and mentions three street names on the first page; on one page of the third chapter, there appear the names of two squares and six streets in the Latin Quarter in three of which are located hotels where I often used to stay (in Rue Jacob, Rue Bonaparte and Rue des Beaux-Arts). Reading his novels in situ was a much more powerful experience than those of other French authors - with the exception of Balzac. For while there are no boulevards in Balzac, in a novel like Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877) the following make an appearance: Boulevard de la Chapelle, Boulevard Rochechouart, Boulevard Magenta, Boulevard des Invalides and Boulevard Montmartre, and in chapter 13 Zola writes that “… les boulevards avaient pris leur paix du matin; les rentiers du voisinage se promenaient au soleil” (Ch.13), echoing the aspiration of Haussmann to create light after the dark alleys of Balzac. 

Later in the novel, Lorilleux suggests “quelque chose de bien simple, une promenade sur les boulevards extèrieurs jusqu’au Père-Lachaise” (Ch.72), something that was impossible just a few years earlier - for the idea of “promenade” is one of something pleasant, relaxing and safe. In fact, one of the objectives of Haussmann’s Plan was to improve the health of Paris by demolishing the many “infected alleyways and centers of epidemics” and create large boulevards to facilitate the circulation of air and light - but also of troops. His success is apparent if we compare that pleasant stroll in the sun with this scene from Cousine Bette: “Les ténèbres, le silence, l'air glacial, la profondeur caverneuse du sol concourent à faire de ces maisons des espèces de cryptes , des tombeaux vivants. Lorsqu’on passe en cabriolet le long de ce demi-quartier mort, et que le regard s'engage dans la ruelle du Doyenné, l'âme a froid, l'on se demande qui peut demeurer là, ce qui doit s’y passer le soir, à l'heure où cette ruelle se change en coupe-gorge, et oia les vices de Paris, enveloppés du manteau de la nuit, se donnent pleine carrière. Ce problème, effrayant par lui-même, devient horrible quand on voit que ces prétendues maisons ont pour ceinture un marais du côté de la rue de Richelieu, un océan de pavés moutonnants du côté des Tuileries, de petits jardins, des baraques sinistres du côté des galeries, et des steppes de pierres de taille et de démolitions du côté du vieux Louvre.” The atmosphere is lugubrious at best. The four-hundred feet wide Avenue de l’Impératrice (now known as Avenue Foch), for which areas like this were demolished, led up to the new pleasure gardens of the Bois de Boulogne which belonged to another world.

What do we need to survive in another country?

Winston Churchill wrote with astonishing detail about his experiences in the Sudan. I’ve just been reading his book The River War (2 vols., 1899).  He describes the daily scene in a vast empty desert - “surpassing desolation”, in his words - at Dakhesh, then known to British forces as Railhead:

        Churchill as a lieutenant in Sudan

        Churchill as a lieutenant in Sudan

“Every morning in the remote nothingness there appeared a black speck growing larger and clearer, until with a whistle and a welcome clatter, amid the aching silence of ages, the 'material' train arrived, carrying its own water and 2,500 yards of rails, sleepers, and accessories. At noon came another speck, developing in a similar manner into a supply train, also carrying its own water, food and water for the half-battalion of the escort and the 2,000 artificers and platelayers, and the letters, newspapers, sausages, jam, whisky, soda-water, and cigarettes which enable the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort.”

Cigarettes are now largely a no-no, but most of the others are still staples of life abroad and assist in the avoidance of discomfort.

Elsewhere in the book he provides a vivid example of the logistics involved (long before software and air freight simplified matters):

"… the reader may gain some idea of their magnitude [ie. logistics problems] by following the progress of a box of biscuits from Cairo to Berber in the month of December 1897. The route was as follows: From Cairo to Nagh Hamadi (340 miles) by rail; from Nagh Hamadi to Assuan (205 miles) by boat; from Assuan to Shellal (6 miles) by rail; from Shellal to Halfa (226 miles) by boat; from Halfa to Dakhesh (Railhead) - 248 miles - by military railway; from Dakhesh to Shereik (45 miles) by boat; from Shereik by camel (13 miles) round a cataract to Bashtinab; from Bashtinab by boat (25 miles) to Omsheyo; from Omsheyo round another impracticable reach (11 miles) by camel to Geneinetti, and thence (22 miles) to Berber by boat. The road taken by this box of biscuits was followed by every ton of supplies required by 10,000 men in the field."

Boxes of English biscuits and now even Marmite are available online in China with Taobao, including next-day delivery.

Culture and Food

Culture is born of the exchange of ideas. The greatest cities of the past were those which acted as meeting places for diverse cultures and allowed them to flourish: in the days of predominantly overland travel that meant cities such as Rome, Constantinople and Xi’an. To take a simple example, great food is never invented in isolation. As the historians of Italian food Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari have observed, identity derives from difference in the sense of relations with others. Thus in food terms “local” identity comes from the meeting of cultures and products being exchanged. An exclusive local product has no geographical identity since it derives from de-localisation; to use their example, the "mortadella di Bologna" is thus defined only when it is is sold beyond the area in which it is produced. 

The gastronomy of each of those cities bears traces of that of the other three, in terms of raw product, spices and condiments, and preparation methods.

Ma così sí dimentica che l’identità si definisce anche (o forse soprattutto) come differenza, cioè in rapporto agli altri. Nel caso specifico della gastronomia ciò appare con chiarezza: l’identità «locale» nasce in funzione dello scambio, nel momento in cui (e nella misura in cui) un prodotto o una ricetta si confrontano con culture e regimi diversi. … Il prodotto esclusivamente «locale» è privo di una identità geografica in quanto essa nasce dalla sua «delocalizzazione».
— Capatti & Montanari, La cucina italiana: Storia di una cultura, Roma: Laterza, 1999

The Northern Tea Road

A camel train in Mongolia, from Roy Chapman Andrews' book  Across Mongolian Plains , New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1921

A camel train in Mongolia, from Roy Chapman Andrews' book Across Mongolian Plains, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1921

After two days of fierce winds, the road across the plains beneath my home were astonishingly clear. It reminded me yet again of the northern tea route, which is often forgotten. For in Qing times mule-trains carried tea across the plain towards Mongolia. Packed into bricks which were also used as currency, it had travelled by sea from Fujian and Central China to Tianjin, then onwards to Beijing – where a Russian merchant quarter stood on the land which today houses the Russian embassy. From northern Beijing it was carried by mule to the gate through the Great Wall at Kalgan, now the grim steel-making city of Zhangjiakou - which literally means “the Zhang family pass”, presumably from a family which once controlled it. As late as 1918, the american zoologist and collector Roy Chapman Andrews refers to lines of ‘lines of laden camels plodding silently along the paved road beside the train’ which took him from Beijing to Kalgan, and hundreds arriving in nose to tail lines in Kalgan from Mongolia. From there, it was ‘straight out into Mongolia’. There it was transferred to vast camel trains which took the tea northwards through Mongolia to Kiakhta on the Mongol-Russia frontier and on to St Petersburg and Europe. It was known as the Siberian Route or the Tea Road.

By then it was an old route, for the Jesuit linguist Jean-François Gerbillon set off from Kalgan to negotiate the first ever Chinese trade treaty with Russia in 1689, after which the exchange of tea for furs and other items developed to such an extent that tea accounted for 20 per cent of Russian customs duties before the route became obsolete with the Suez Canal. 

Surprisingly, in 1908, according to the Statesman’s Year Book for that year, tea was still China’s second largest export after silk (“raw and material”), around £4.4 million against £11 million. Despite claims for southern tea routes, from Yunnan southwards for example, of a total export volume of 210,151,406 pounds in weight in the same year, 128 million pounds went to Russia.

Claude Roy

In the summer of 1974 I was staying with some friends in Lausanne, high above the lake in the east of the town on Avenue de l’Esplanade. One day I walked out to the village of Pully, where by chance there was an exhibition on the surrealist poet Paul Éluard - about whom I knew nothing - in a barn-shaped room/building in the centre of the village, as far as I remember. I went in, was enthralled by the beauty and passion of his voice reading poems over the loudspeakers, especially his deeply emotional renditions of ‘Courage’ and ‘Liberté’, and was also fascinated by the books, manuscripts and letters by him and his friends on display. His friends included Picasso, André Breton and Louis Aragon; his great love Gala later became the wife of Max Ernst, and then of Salvador Dali.

Being Switzerland, the exhibition closed for lunch at 12.00pm while I was still looking around (the only “customer”) and a very kind oldish man obviously happy to see someone enjoying it all apologised for the closing and invited me to join him and the staff for lunch in a restaurant nearby. He turned out to have been a personal friend of Éluard, who he had met during the Resistance. He had helped to organise the exhibition, drank a lot of red wine during lunch, and told me stories about their times together. 

His name was Claude Roy, and during lunch, which went on until 2pm, he generated in me an enthusiasm for Éluard which I still possess. From that day, when I bought several books and records, only one survives in rather frail condition, fortunately the best, Au Rendez-vouz Allemand (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1945, with the bonus of a pen-and-ink portrait of Éluard by Picasso). More recently, I discovered that Claude Roy had been - like many French communists of the time - on a trip to China in the early Fifties and had written a book about it, Clefs pour la Chine (Gallimard, 1953). I wish I'd been interested in China then, so that I could have asked some questions!

There is a deeper understanding of Chinese people and culture - not to mention sheer good sense and empathy - in these 400 pages written during and after a journey of a few weeks than I have seen in many books by sinologists and "experts" who have spent much longer there. Not only did he meet Zhou Enlai, but he dined with the singer Mei Langfang - who I discover was also a well-known calligrapher.

This morning in Beijing I found and immediately bought a lovely copy of the English translation, the first edition hardback complete with the colourful original dust jacket, Into China (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1955). Battered but beautiful; clean and perfect between the covers.

       The copy of Éluard's poetry I bought in Pully

       The copy of Éluard's poetry I bought in Pully

                   The Picasso frontispiece

                   The Picasso frontispiece

             My "new" copy of Claude Roy's book

             My "new" copy of Claude Roy's book

Pliny on sports audiences

Thinking of recent football riots in France, these words written 2,000 years ago in Rome by Pliny the Elder are prescient:

It amazes me that thousands and thousands of grown men should be like children, wanting to look over and over again at horses running and men standing on chariots. If it were the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers that attracted them, there would be some sense in it—but in fact it is simply the colour. That is what they support and what fascinates them. Suppose half way through the race the drivers were to change their colours, then the supporters’ backing would change too and in a second they would abandon the drivers and horses whose names they shout as they recognize them from afar. Such is the power of a single worthless shirt.

The strange death of Sir Eric Teichman (1884-1944)

Spy, explorer, diplomat, Sir Eric Teichman travelled widely in central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, across the Tarim Basin and over both the Pamir Mountains and the Karakorum Mountains on two journeys across China to India. He left detailed notes on routes and places in Gansu and Xinjiang while following the the Silk Road. His two books, Travels of a Consular Officer in North West China (1921) and Travels of a Consular Officer in Eastern Tibet (1922), are still well worth reading

Then, aged 60, he retired to his large country home, Honington Hall, in the tranquil border area of Norfolk and Suffolk (the house was demolished in 1966, but his grave may still be seen in St Andrew's Church in the village). He must have anticipated a peaceful retirement.

Ironically, after so many dangers and difficulties faced on his travels, Sir Eric died from a bullet to the head fired by an American soldier from a nearby US Airforce base, who was caught poaching with a fellow soldier on his estate (the murderer was later executed).


An unusual view of T.S. Eliot

In 1932 a cousin of Eliot's named Dick recalled the relationship between the poet and his mother as follows, on the occasion of his return to Harvard to give a lecture after 18 years in England:

…a terrible bluestocking. I remember her all right. She was forty-four when he was born. Not many people know it, but he really left this country to get away from her. He loved her, I guess. He always wrote her and used to send her all his books. But he never really felt safe unless he had the Atlantic between them.
— from Horizon, Autumn 1965, Vol. VII, No.4.