Friday 30th May 2013
This was a busy day, starting at 10 AM and taking in six events before the end of the day. First we saw David Crystal who was talking about English spelling and the book he wrote about it. This is such a contentious area that it generates a good deal of hot air. Having been interviewed on a popular lunchtime radio show his book went ballistic up the charts and overtook ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ for a while! (but not Gordon Ramsay). It seems that in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), all spelling was phonetic, but the Normans changed some to the French equivalent (hence Qwen to Queen). With the invention of printing the first typesetters were Flemish speakers who introduced their own interpolations, especially the ‘h’ after the ‘g’, as in Ghost. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary includes his own prejudices, such as no words ending in ‘C’ and his invention of the spelling ‘Musick’. The only successful attempt at standardised spelling being by Noah Webster. Since then, we have adopted various other words, and first anglicising them, such as ‘Noodle’ for ‘Nüdel’, but later used the words directly, as in ‘Strüdel’ but not ‘Stroodle’. He is a very entertaining speaker and the book sounds pretty interesting too.
At half eleven we saw Tom Holland talking about the perceived decline and fall of the Roman Empire. He was pretty good. This was the London Library sponsored lecture. Our notion that the Barbarian hoards raised Rome to the ground is false. In many ways the Barbarians tried to maintain the Eternal City, if only for the glamour of association. The Eastern Empire was still going strong and various outposts tried to maintain the rule of Roman Law. Included in these was Brittania, later reduced to Wales. A late governor of Brittania, Magnus Maximus, took the legions with him in an attempt to wrest power in the Western Empire, and left the native commanders in charge telling them to rule in the Roman way. These commanders became the British royalty. When the Welsh were defeated by Edward I they asked him for a native born prince. Edward II had been born in Wales and was the first Prince of Wales. So perhaps Prince Charles is heir to the Roman Empire!
After a break for lunch we saw Derek Nieman talk about his book concerning a group of British POWs who took up or continued ornithological studies while in captivity. Hence the book title, ‘Birds in a Cage’. Several of these men went on to become leading naturalists and running the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Oddly enough, no German POWs seem to have done anything similar. It had me wondering about British eccentricity.
Simon Garfield talked about his book, ‘On the Map: Why the World looks the way it does’. This was fascination for revealing the politics and self interest that lay behind the various representations of the globe on flat paper. The different projections reveal a good deal of the intent of the map maker and the society in which they were engaged. Why does the top of the map face North? The Mappa Mundi faces East. Antarctica is rarely seen on globes because that is where the makes name goes.
We had another short break for refuelling before the evening. Having seen Tom Holland’s lecture earlier we saw him as an interviewer for Mary Beard who was plugging her book, ‘Confronting the Classics’. She is a strong proponent for the teaching of the classics and finds relevance in many modern parts of life. If you think that European education before the twentieth century was largely concerned with teaching the classics, this makes sense. All jumped up warlords have tried to become the new Roman Emperors since Charlemagne, I go back to the glamour of association. I asked about the relationship between the classics and the Age of Reason, especially in the titles Classical (music [musick?]) and neo-classical (architecture) Despite having an idealised, romantic version of the Romans there seems genuine admiration for them and a desire to ape their supposed culture. Much of what we think of as Greek culture has passed to us through a Roman filter. For example the histories of Alexander the Great were written when Rome controlled Greece.
We finished the evening with Tony Hawks talking about making the film of ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’. This was sponsored by the local Newsagents! Anyhow, the story goes that after making the journey and writing the book, which turned out to be successful, Hollywood took an option on the book and an outline script was prepared. Tony then had to listen to a producer pitching the story to him, which was very different to what happened. The plan went into cold storage and Tony repaid the advance. Then some British film-makers tried to get the project going but were unable to finance the movie. Tony then decided to do it himself, and asked some rich friends to put up the cash, which they duly did. The film actually earned a little money and Tony decided to film the next book ‘Playing the Moldovans at Tennis’. This he financed himself and the profits are going to a children’s charity in Moldova. Hawks is a very personable fellow, and droll with the proper comic timing. He started with a comment that he gets a lot of email from young skateboarders who think he is Tony Hawk. These messages he call ‘skate mail’. After initially ignoring them he now replies to. I.e. : Q: Do you prefer the long or short board? A: If you are cutting a long loaf I recommend a long board, otherwise the sort board is fine.
This has got so long that I will continue Saturday’s events on a new entry.