Interview: Homage to Paco de Lucia by Daniel Martinez (Online)

“After our extremely successful online charity concert on the 25th of April (we raised over £2,000 for the NHS Heroes and Volunteers) we decided to put on another concert, this time via YouTube.”

WHO: Daniel Martinez, Flamenco Guitarist & Composer

WHAT: “As part of Daniel Martinez Flamenco Company´s series of Traditional Flamenco Guitar concerts, we present you with a heartfelt tribute to Maestro Paco de Lucia.

Synonymous with flamenco and one of the most celebrated flamenco guitarists; Paco de Lucia is known to many as one of the greatest flamenco guitarists in history.

His astounding technique, pristine playing and revolutionary compositions and creativity are just a few of the many traits Paco de Lucia possessed. In February 2014 the world lost an incredible man and artist but his legacy lives on through his music.

Join us for our humble homage to the Maestro of Maestros and enjoy an hour of beautiful pieces interpreted with heart and soul by Daniel Martinez, Inma Montero, Danielo Olivera and Gabriela Pouso.”

WHERE TO GO? Here!


Why ‘Homage to Paco de Lucia’?

Culture and the arts are taking a huge hit at the moment, as are the people who love nothing more than going out for dinner, drinks and to catch some live music. Therefore, after our extremely successful online charity concert on the 25th of April (we raised over £2,000 for the NHS Heroes and Volunteers) we decided to put on another concert, this time via YouTube.

Flamenco – whether you’re an avid fan or have never heard of it before – is a thing of great beauty.
During our upcoming concert on the 25th of July, we will be paying tribute to great Maestro Paco de Lucia, so expect intricate and stunning guitar playing complemented by beautiful singing and dancing.

It’s a great excuse to prepare some tapas, crack open a bottle of Rioja and take a trip to Spain from the comfort of your own living room!

What’s the one thing about this show that everyone should know BEFORE they take their seats?

Flamenco is really intense and emotional, be prepared to really feel something and be truly moved, even if you don’t understand Spanish- you don’t need to in order to appreciate this music and art form.

What makes this production unique?

Although our company, Daniel Martinez Flamenco, has its own music, compositions and productions, I felt I wanted to pay tribute to an artist that has massively influenced and shaped me as a musician. I grew up listening to Paco de Lucia and throughout my 14 years of study at the Royal Conservatoire of Music in Cordoba, Spain, I was lucky enough to study many of his works. Therefore, although this concert doesn’t involve our own unique music this time around, we are really looking forward to performing these pieces and hopefully even getting the chance to introduce this legendary flamenco guitarist to those of you that are new to flamenco.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

Paco de Lucia was an evil genius and this is way too difficult – abort mission now!!!


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“There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything.” – Author Paul Cartledge discusses Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

“Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.”

WHAT: “In 480 B.C., the mighty Persian king Xerxes led a massive force to the narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae, anticipating no significant resistance in his bid to conquer Greece. But the Greeks, led by Leonidas and a small army of Spartan warriors, took the battle to the Persians and nearly halted their advance.

Paul Cartledge’s riveting, authoritative account of King Leonidas and the legendary 300 illuminates this valiant endeavour that changed the way future generations would think about combat, courage, and death.”

WHO: Professor Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge & Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture

MORE? Here!


Why Thermopylae?

I hate the word, usually, but it conveys the point I wish to make: ‘Thermopylae’ – just that one name – is one of the ‘iconic’ battles in world history: i.e., if you consult one of those ‘Greatest World Battles’ compilations, it invariably is featured. This is partly because it really was in its own immediate circumstances – August 480 BCE, a narrow pass in north-central Greece, at the start of a potentially world-shattering amphibious invasion of mainland Greece by the forces of the mighty Persian Empire under Great King/Emperor Xerxes – an important (but far from decisive) military confrontation), but *mainly* because of what has been made of the battle/made out of the battle subsequently – at first by the Spartans (then leading the rather shaky and feeble Greek Resistance to Persia) and then by any number of historians and/or moralists preoccupied with ‘last stand’ heroics or nostalgia therefor, and, more recently, by filmmakers (“The Three Hundred Spartans” (1962); “300”, (2006).

Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.

Was there any way in which the forces led by King Leonidas might have won (militarily speaking) the battle?

Absolutely no way whatsoever. The points of sending *any* sort of Resistance force to Greece south of the kingdom of Macedonia (already a vassal province of Persia) and the region of Thessaly (where the four main cities had ‘medized’, i.e., decided they’d be better off submitting to Persia than resisting) were i. to delay the Persian advance on its main immediate target (the city of Athens) ii. to liaise with the Greek Resistance fleet based at the northern tip of the island of Euboea and iii. ‘show the flag’, i.e. demonstrate to both allies in the Resistance and to those Greeks who were wavering over whether to resist or not that it was both possible and worthwhile to resist.

The Resistance intially sent a force north of Thermopylae as far as the vale of Tempe but quickly discovered that that line of defence could easily be turned, hence the decision to focus on the Thermopylae pass (c. 1 km W-E, already fortified for earlier, local reasons). It was unfortunate for the Resistance that Thermopylae coincided with major Greek religious festivals – one of them all-Greek (the Olympics), the others local – since that reduced the numbers of available troops; although not even a 10-fold increase (from the actual 6-7,000 troops under Leonidas) would have enabled the Resistance to resist successfully! Xerxes had anything from 80-200,000 land troops (a motley crew admittedly – Herodotus our main source includes a sort of Catalogue of Xerxes’ muti-ethnic forces; we can’t be certain of ANY numbers for Persian forces on land or sea) at his disposal, so it was only a matter of time before he forced his way through. It took him 3 days.

King Xerxes I of Persia notoriously misunderstood the Spartans grooming ritual – not understanding that the warriors combed their long hair out before the battle as their way of preparing to fight to the death. What was the biggest misconception about the Persians held by the Greeks?

See above on uncertainty over the numbers on Xerxes’ side. Greeks were generally not good on big numbers at the best of times – they used the same word for ‘10,000’ to mean ‘millions’ or ‘countless’! – but Herodotus will not have been alone in thinking Xerxes had over 5 million (sic) men under him on land – so many that they drank whole rivers dry etc. They were of course therefore pretty worried about facing his troops in open pitched battle, though the victory of the Athenians (and Plataeans) at Marathon ten years earlier (490) will have been a considerable encouragement. Historians today reduce Herodotus’s figure even as low as 80,000 (George Cawkwell) but most of us would say 100,000 plus.

You shut your eyes and you picture the face of Leonidas. What springs to mind, the statue unearthed in 1926 on the Spartan Acropolis, pictured above, or the face of Gerard Butler?

Good question! For me, the former every time, but then I’m a historian and archaeologist who’s lived in (modern) Sparta for over a year and spent many many hours in the Sparta Museum, where ‘Leonidas’ normally resides!
Actually, ‘Leonidas’ (unearthed at the foot of the Acropolis, amid theatre debris, though originally he’d been on what passes for an acropolis in Sparta) cannot be an image of the real king Leonidas (reigned c. 490-480), for several reasons: i. on style he belongs in the 480s, before the battle, and Spartans didn’t then commission ‘portrait’ statues of living kings ii. he wasn’t originally a free-standing, isolated sculpture but part of a sculptural group affixed probably to the pediment of some sort of religious structure, probably a temple, and he probably represented some sort of (mythical) figure or ‘hero’.

The nicest story I know of Butler’s Leonidas comes after a recent final of the NY tennis Open won by Novak Djokavic, a friend of GB, when GB joined him in a unison cry (from the movie) of ‘This is Sparta’. Sadly, it’s on
youtube:

You illustrate how the Spartan form of education influenced the British public school from Thomas Arnold to Kurt Hahn. Is there another aspect of Spartan civilization you’d like to see given a dust off and resurrected into modern civic life?

There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything. I suppose one possible but by no means novel lesson would be the value, the overriding value in the time of COVID-19, of community. The Spartans, of course, took to an extreme the general ancient Greek notion that the community was far more important than any individual member (they didn’t even have a word for ‘individual’), so that they even treated individuals as dispensable in a way that we today find morally indefensible. But it’s hard to believe that without the Spartans’ taking the lead there would have been much of a defence put up against the Persians in 480, and especially not at Thermopylae. And it took a special sort of communitarian courage to take the lead in the way the Spartans did.

The modern city of Sparta has been described as the most conservative city in Greece. It’s never had a left-wing mayor and it was one of the few cities that voted in 1974 to retain the monarchy. Laconia was the region with the highest proportion of “yes” votes in the 2015 bailout referendum. Is that a coincidence?

Yes, when I was first working in Sparta in 1970, which wasn’t all that long after the end of the Civil War (1946-9) in which most – but not all (see American archaeologist-historian Kevin Andrews’s brilliant memoir, ‘The Flight of Ikaros’) – Spartans and Laconians had fought on the royalist side, my much more liberal Greek friends referred to Lakonia (the region) as ‘Vlachonia’ meaning something like ‘stupid Lakonia’ (the Vlach- bit refers to the Vlachs, or Wallachians, a non-Greekspeaking transhumant pastoralist people from NW Greece – see JK Campbell Honour Family and Patronage on the related Sarakatsani people, 1964). But there were also Spartan anti-Nazis (a friend of mine’s brother was killed resisting their occupation), and there were Spartan/Laconian Communist partisans 1946-9. And in the 2000s at last Sparta had its first woman bank manager (I think partly German-educated. The ancient Spartans were paradoxically rather more liberated on the ‘woman question’.) The current and recently elected Mayor of Sparta, Petros Doukas, is not especially rightwing but most Spartans and Laconians probably are, and sadly that includes members of the Extreme Far Right ‘Golden Dawn’ party, now thankfully in eclipse.

Why are Laconians so prone to be rightwing? Until the recent transformation of communications (when I first went 50 years ago, it took 6 hours to reach Sparta by road from Athens – now it’s 2 hours) Sparta was very cut off from ‘metropolitan’ Greece. And within Laconia itself there were some sharp divisions – e.g. the Taygetos and Parnon mountain areas vs the plains, and the whole Mani district, the central-southern prong of the Peloponnese with its separate identity and history and self-identification – none of which tended in a liberal direction. ‘King’ Constantine self-exiled and then after the overthrow of the Colonels (1967-74) was refused re-entry to Greece, which only increased the monarchist-royalist fervour of the ‘Restore Constantine and the monarchy’ lobby that had its base in … Laconia (at Gytheion in the Mani).

What’s the one thing that we don’t know about the battle that you wish we did?

Why the Phocian detachment which Leonidas had purposely placed in the Anopaea flanking back pass failed to realise they were being bypassed by a crack force of elite Persian ‘Immortals’, and so failed to alert Leonidas that he was about to be pincered? And/or why Leonidas posted this clearly incompetent detachment of locals and did not put a Spartan in command of them?

If you could possess one object associated with your narrative what would it be?

A shield – either of a Spartan or of a Perioecus. Other items of offensive or defensive equipment were worn for individual reasons, but the shield (hoplon) – as an apophthegm (witty saying) preserved by Plutarch tells us – was worn for the line as whole.

Does the battle of Thermopylae still matter?

It couldn’t matter more. Not, obviously, because it was a defeat but i. because of the sort of (heroic) defeat it was and could later be made out to be for propaganda purposes and ii. because of the context – in the Graeco-Persian Wars, which was a battle of civilisations as well as a geopolitical conflict. What if … the Persians had won either the Battle of Salamis (480) or Plataea (479)??

What are you currently working on?

Having just finished the last-minute corrections to my forthcoming (May 28) ‘Thebes’ book, I am putting the final touches to a book I am co-editing with a former PhD student, Dr Carol Atack: it is the first, ‘Antiquity’ (c.1000 BCE to 550 CE), volume in a 6-volume Cultural History of Democracy (part of a Bloomsbury series). My main (pre)occupation, as it has been since the end of 2014, is co-directing and co-editing with Prof Paul Christesen (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA) ‘The Oxford History of the Archaic Greek World’. ‘Oxford’ = O.U.P. (New York), ‘Archaic = c. 800 BCE-c.500/450 BCE. ‘Greek’ = Hellas, the Greek world of the Med and Black Seas. ‘History’ = archaeo-history, i.e. the c. 35 ‘essays’ are mainly written by archaeologists, using mainly archaeological data. Submission date, for the in toto c. 1.25 million words, is the end of 2020, publication 2021/2, at first in hard copy (6 volumes?), then online.

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Interview: seeds (postponed for the duration)

“…brace yourself, you’re in for an emotive and important ride!”

WHO: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, actor

WHAT: “On Michael Thomas’ birthday, his cake sits in his mother’s living room, its candles burning undisturbed. Jackie wants to clear her conscience, whilst Evelyn’s got a big speech to deliver on the 15th anniversary of Michael’s fatal stabbing. Are some things better left unsaid?

Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, seeds tells the story of two mothers united in sorrow, sharing the hardship of protecting their sons.”

WHERE: Traverse 2

DATES: Postponed for the duration

TIMES: 20:00

MORE: Click Here! (Including information about possible disruptions to the tour)


Why ‘seeds’?

When I first read the play, the writing hooked me: the measured way Mel writes means you’re constantly trying to work out what is and will happen. It’s a real thriller. I feel that it’s unique in its representation of two middle-aged women, two mothers fighting for their sons in a world where the rise in knife crime means that too many families are dealing with the aftermath of these tragedies.

What’s the one thing about this show that everyone should know BEFORE they take their seats?

This play presents two characters often underrepresented on stage and deals with subjects that feel so urgent. It might feel tense, uncomfortable at times and triggering because of the subject matter it explores but these ideas need to be explored in order to create change. So brace yourself, you’re in for an emotive and important ride!

What makes this production unique?

The fact that it looks at those left behind after a tragic incident, years after it happened, which is something that the media doesn’t often do. I feel that, as a society, we need to support those who are still dealing with the pain of loss years later and be aware of the effects it has on families and loved ones. ‘seeds’ explores real-world, important issues, it feels like something that can touch people and be a catalyst for change.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

That this production was going to work out as well as it has. At the start of working on any project, you hope and pray that you can create something of quality that resonates with people. I knew that the material was strong, so I wanted to do it justice. The feedback from audiences has been very positive so far so I really thank God for what we as a team have achieved.


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“I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible.” – Author Irving Finkel discusses The Ark Before Noah

“I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…”

WHAT: “In ‘The Ark Before Noah‘, British Museum expert Dr Irving Finkel reveals how decoding the symbols on a 4,000-year-old piece of clay enable a radical new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark myth. A world authority on the period, Dr Finkel’s enthralling real-life detective story began with a most remarkable event at the British Museum – the arrival one day in 2008 of a single, modest-sized Babylonian cuneiform tablet – the palm-sized clay rectangles on which our ancestors created the first documents. It had been brought in by a member of the public and this particular tablet proved to be of quite extraordinary importance. Not only does it date from about 1850 BC, but it is a copy of the Babylonian Story of the Flood, a myth from ancient Mesopotamia revealing among other things, instructions for building a large boat to survive a flood. But Dr Finkel’s pioneering work didn’t stop there. Through another series of enthralling discoveries he has been able to decode the story of the Flood in ways which offer unanticipated revelations to readers of ‘The Ark Before Noah‘.”

WHO: Irving Finkel is a British philologist and Assyriologist. He is currently the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum, where he specialises in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia.

MORE? Here!


Why Noah?

Well, in this case there was no possible alternative because the subject matter of this book concerns the literary narrative which existed and must have existed prior to the biblical narrative that everybody knows by heart and everybody takes for granted with Noah in the lead role.

But also if you want to give a lecture or write a book or command attention, it is always beneficial to start from a point that people know about. So, if we’d called it ‘The Ark of Utnapushtim’, no-one would have had any idea who that was and sales might have been even more modest than they are at the moment. So it wasn’t a commercial reason but simply a logical reason whereas I was taught many centuries ago that the sensible approach is to take one point and make it three times in different ways and hope that somewhere it will sink into people’s minds, so anybody who saw the cover was urged or prompted to pick it up, would know that it was something to do with Noah which isn’t a bad start.

There is a description of your illustrious Victorian predecessor at the British Museum, George Smith, discovering the first Ark tablet and going momentarily mad with excitement, stripping off his clothes and charging around the room. What would make you pull a George Smith? What discovery could you imagine would have you leaping around in your underpants?

Well I’ve made a few discoveries since I got here but this tablet with its specific – Ark Before Noah tablet – with its contents was after Smith’s accomplishment, in some ways a close second because you had the situation everybody knows, the biblical story, and there have been all sorts of theories about every single aspect of the bible and lots of discussions about what the Ark was like, whether it was like it was described in the Hebrew text, whether it was this, whether it was that but nobody to my knowledge has ever articulated the possibility that it was a circular craft like a coracle. So that was a pretty sort of head-smacking staggering discovery, it really shocked me and agitated me to the point that I loosened my tie and I rather think I might have taken my jacket off, I left it at that, you know you don’t want to excite too much attention among the younger women in the department, I always try to behave in a gentlemanly fashion.

One of the interesting comparative points about shall we say the number one big discovery George Smith, and number two, much less significant but in the same bag following 100 and so years later by me, is that when Smith discovered the flood tablet everybody knew their bible inside out, especially the beginning chapters but I mean everybody read the bible, it underpinned literature, political reference, it was just on everybody’s lips all the novels in the world refer to the bible. That was a scenario in which the discovery was of volcanic significance and when Smith made the discovery he was encouraged, or whatever, to make a public statement in front of a whole committee of worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury who are not generally renowned for their interests in Assyriology, I think the Prime Minister was also there which is even less than easy to parallel from modern times but the fact is, it made a fantastic impact on the world.

It made a fantastic impact on Smith, who I think had an epileptic fit because the description that he jumped out, dropped the tablet on the table and held his hands and made funny noises and in fact started to disrobe himself, these separate features of behaviour are extremes of epileptic reaction, not necessarily all in a bunch, but I have a feeling that when he actually sat there reading this clay tablet, discovering what was practically speaking holy writ, appear on the surface of a piece of Weetabix, it set off in his bosom and uncontrollable explosion. So the thing is, to answer your question specifically, I thought finding this round thing was a pretty amazing discovery and went about saying you’ll never guess what I found out, but the milieu in which I operate the algae-ridden swimming pool in which one attempts to do breaststroke, is a whole different situation because familiarity with the Bible is minimal to the point that people under a certain age, I would randomly say 30, have a deep-seated and eradicable confusion between things which are in the Bible and things which come from Hollywood, they simply don’t know the difference and lots of people are not sure whether the Noah story isn’t the creation of Walt Disney and so forth and so forth.

So I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…” And then they would wake up and say “Oh yes, that sounds quite interesting”. So that is a major, major contrast and it underpins all Assyriology because you could find an inscription with a completely new tablet, a new king, a new this, a new date, a new word for chariot pommel or something but it doesn’t shake the world and there are relatively few things that you can find within the Assyriological world which should command a wider response but the one with this had to be coaxed and publicised and lots of interviews and lots of newspaper things and eventually people say, “Oh how marvellous, how interesting, how wonderful…” and some of them bought the book but it didn’t have a matching effect reverberating throughout the world except this modest paperback available from all good book stores is actually being translated into other languages including French and American and Russian and Polish and Japanese and Armenian and Chinese is nearly done. So the anti-gospel according to me is being disseminated on a wider scale than it might otherwise have been entirely in the English version.

Is that how you see it, the ‘anti-gospel’?

Not at all, it’s a kind of joke. I mean I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible and this kind of nonsense but my argument is that it’s nothing to do with that whatsoever because the flood story clearly originated in Mesopotamia because of the landscape, the geology the geography, the history, the riverine nature of their landscape. There is no question that it comes out of that part of the world. There’s no question that the literary structure, the literary creation went from the Babylonian forerunner into the biblical narrative in the Book of Genesis. There seems to be no doubt about it, but it’s not pinching words from God or undercutting the clergy, the simple response to people who in fact have threatened me with tar and feathers and what have you is this, have you ever tried to write a detective story? Have you ever tried to write a piece of fiction? Have you ever tried to invent a plot that no-one has invented before? It is practically speaking impossible and all literature is derivative in some measure or other and the question is whether it’s derivative in the modern world, whether it’s derivative surreptitiously, accidentally or unwittingly but it’s true, you cannot create from nothing a whole new thing and the same applies to the narratives in the bible, they were borrowed from here and there and the crucial point, intellectually and from a religious point of view is that they were used to tell different messages.

So, if you hear a really good story about a chap who has a week to save the world and the clock’s going tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, this is a deep-seated irresistible format which Hollywood has embraced like with its teeth and ever since and the Babylonian story that one bloke wakes up one morning with the responsibility for the world, what the hell are they going to do to save all the world, is a brilliant story because everybody thinks, Thank God it wasn’t me. This is it and then the philosophical writers who produce the text of Genesis took the bones of the narrative and used it for a totally different theological philosophical principle. So that obviates the charge of me underpinning the bible, it’s just a recycling of literary ideas which of course there is a finite number.

You talk in the book about how the day to day work of an Assyriologist is the mundane existence of life and getting along in the world. You’re probably the nearest thing to somebody who has actually walked the streets of ancient Babylon and encountered the people. Were they like us? Did they think like us? Could we relate to them, could they relate to us? Do we share something universal or are they – without having green heads with things sticking out of them – alien to us?

Well, this is a really deep and significant question. In fact, I’ve come to conclude at my stage of stuff, without sounding pompous, this is really one of the most important questions and it’s my conviction that the human race has never altered from the time when it really emerged and classifiable as homo sapiens that the components are there and that in the whole history of the evolution of our society, the changes, which are wrought, are so-called civilising if you like, but they are cosmetic and the entity which is the human being is unchanged. So, to be specific, the writing looks like from another planet and so when you first encounter this stuff you reinforce the idea that these people are remote from us in every single possible way, they are so far back you can’t even see them with a telescope and they are therefore behind us in evolution.

Now, the danger of this argument is the built-in conception that there is improvement as part of evolution which governs the convictions for the people who think they lead the world, that we are at the apogee of the human race, that we are more intelligent, more educated, more practical, more wise than anybody who came before. In fact, all the evidence that I can see would suggest just the opposite, that that is by no means the truth and the people in Babylonia in the second millennium were, in my estimation, the sort of thing is, a Babylonian comes in the room now wearing Babylonian clothes and probably smelling of what they had for breakfast and I don’t know what, sits down in the chair and you think – God, what zoo did this person comes from. Or maybe it was a sophisticated merchant expensive clothes and a hooker under his belt and what have you, you think, Oh how am I going to talk to this person?

A what under their belt?

A hooker, you know a sort of…

…Shisha pipe.

Yes, not a young woman. So the thing is, the person inside…

Did they have hookers?

Well actually they didn’t, it’s a good point, it’s an acronisym but for poetic purposes. They could have had hookers. But the point is if you read their literature and you read their letters and you read their so-called real documents, you find that the person, the individuals who write these tablets are familiar to us because they tell the truth and they lie and they wheedle and they’re hypocritical and they’re convinced and they’re faithful and they’re adulterers and they’re fearful and they’re brave and they’re, I don’t know, they drink, they don’t drink, they have all the contrasts which make up the complexity of a normal human being in their lies, so they are frightened of disease, they’re frightened of sterility, they’re frightened of dying, they worry about the Gods like hell when they’re ill, when they’re dying but otherwise they don’t think about them more than is absolutely necessary, they do offerings in the cult.

You know, sometimes people have a deeply religious experience, some people think this is a waste of time but I’ve got to do it. Some people do it because their fathers did it. It’s all the same in my opinion. And if you can zoom in into their houses, these things would be all the same and we can see them showing off, we can see them being clever. There are two things that make me feel this most particularly. One is sarcasm in letters, “Am I your brother or am I not your brother?” Another are all these kind of Italianate gangster sayings in letters, “I sent the material already where’s the gold, where’s the gold?” Or “Dear so and so, bless your footprints and your grandmother’s footprints too. Funny that you should have written because it was only yesterday that the messenger went off with your bag of gold so you should get it.” So, in other words, the cheque-in-the-post phenomenon that underpins industry and business in this world is not a novel thing either.

And there are many, many, many subtle points which on their own if you take one, a person might say, “yeah well you never know, it’s an accident text, you never know what they’re really thinking, you never know what they’re really thinking but when you have them all together mixed up in your mind, you kind of do know what they’re really thinking.”

I think what combats this understanding, or at least my understanding, in this direction is a conviction that we are the apogee and then before us were the Victorians who primarily thought about sexual intercourse, and then before the Victorians were the Romans who primarily thought about underfloor heating and toilets, and before them are gorillas. But you know the Victorians were like us in every way, they were stilted about this and this and this but you know in a household how they were, and it doesn’t change because there is no moment when all of a sudden all people evolve, they don’t. Now I think from a political point of view you could argue that we’re going backwards.

How are the studies of cuneiform and the ancient literature of the region being shaped in the post-Saddam era?

Well, the post-Saddam era is something whose full nature it won’t be possible to understand until more time has gone by. There was massive destruction archaeologically then Sadam Hussein, theoretically so to speak, modelled himself on the great kings of Assyria. There are posters of him in his chariot like Nebuchadnezzar or Ashurbanipal hunting lions or shooting arrows at the enemy. And he, on placards and other media, tried to give the impression in this childlike way that he stepped into or out of their own great history and stood on the shoulders of giants.

So the massive destruction and cruelty and waste to which Iraq has been subjected is obviously common knowledge. In terms of cuneiform studies, cuneiform research, the first thing is that although we have a very large collection of tablets in the British museum from the 19th century and there are many other collections like the Louvre and the Met and Berlin where there are holdings of these resources even if you put all those together, the material which is in the museums of Iraq, but more importantly still under the ground in Iraq, is of uncountable volume because when you have an ancient culture which lasted for about 3,000 years with the literature written on clay, it’s not that one city here and one city over there had a bit of writing, literacy was universal and there must be tablets under the ground everywhere in the country by their millions.

So when you take a long term view, that resource is yet to be rescued or rather excavated long before there is any question of how to deal with it. So within Iraq now the antiquities departments in universities are climbing to their feet, students are doing research learning to read, learning archaeology, we have a programme here where Iraqis come twice a year. Groups of them for the latest up-to-date training in scientific techniques of excavation and so forth. So we do what we can to nurture this but there is an upcoming number of young persons including people who can read cuneiform script who will, in due course, have their own students and hopefully when things become more peaceful, the harvesting can begin of this unimaginable richness.

This interview is being published in several parts. In the coming parts Dr Finkel will be talking about the sheer volume of ancient material written thousands of years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets still to be translated; His period as President of The Coracle Society; The time he built a half-sized replica of the Ark described in his discovery; The best source for the best bitumen; and Whether Noah had a beard.

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Interview: Harpy (20 March ’20)

“Sometimes the life beyond Edinburgh for a piece comes in a way you never imagined. It always surprises.”

WHO: Philip Meeks: Writer

WHAT: “National treasure Su Pollard gives a one-woman tour-de-force performance in this razor-sharp and bittersweet dark drama.

Birdie’s a hoarder. The neighbours call her a harridan and a harpy, although most have never even met her. They see her hoard as a hazard for house prices. But it isn’t rubbish. It’s her life’s work and it exists because years ago something deeply cherished was stolen from her; Birdie’s not been able to give up anything since.
She’ll do anything to get this priceless thing back. Anything at all.

National treasure Su Pollard gives a one-woman tour-de-force performance in this razor-sharp and bittersweet dark drama from Fringe First award-winner Philip Meeks (‘Kiss Me Honey, Honey!‘, ‘Murder, Margaret and Me’).”

WHERE: Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh

DATES: 20 March

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why Harpy?

Harpy is one of the many derogatory terms about women borrowed from mythology. I’m sure these terms were originally used in this way by men and since one of the themes of the play is that men are frightened of women, like rich people are frightened of poor people, I decided it was a good short sharp title.

The play is also partly a homage to the sub-genre of horror films often called Grand Dame Guignol. The first of these was ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane‘, which was born out of cruelty. Jack Warner wanted to see how desperate two of his aging out of work stars really were. He cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aged grotesques and then marketed the film by spinning tales of battles between the pair on set. Of course, these two fantastic women triumphed and the movie saw a revival of both their careers. So, Harpy has a sort of dark thriller feel to it.

Finally, the story is about a hoarder and in mythology Harpies hoarded precious things they often stole from their victims.

Harpy premiered at EdFringe’18. Does the Fringe still have value as an incubator of productions?

Absolutely. But you have to really work out what you’re doing when you take something there. I’ve tried taking plays that already existed and it can feel like knocking a square peg in a round hole. I think its best if you do something you create specifically for the environment. An idea you know you will be able to expand and build upon beyond the time and production constraints of Edinburgh. But first you have to have to focus on making it as complete as it can be for Edinburgh and have no expectations for a life beyond. Often you can have a huge success and the play will never see the light of day again. Sometimes the life beyond Edinburgh for a piece comes in a way you never imagined. It always surprises.

Of course you need stamina for Edinburgh. It’s a bit more brutal than it used to be. But whenever you feel you’ve got a huge disaster on your hands you don’t have to try too hard to find someone having a tougher time than you. In 2018 one of the shows at our venue was really struggling and I overheard one of the actors desperately trying to flog it to punters by saying, “you must come and see us. We share a dressing room with Su Pollard.”

Are there any differences between what was on stage in ’18 and what’s going on stage in 2020?

We have a largely new creative team and the director Abigail is bringing a wonderful energy to the proceedings – she’s really asked me why I’ve written what I’ve written. It’s great to be challenged so wonderfully and makes the writing process far less lonely. The production is bigger and we’ve now got an elaborate set full of surprises, more musical moments and far more nods to movies that inspired it. I think its sadder and funnier. I’ve also been able to build upon the fact that it is set in the corner of South London where I live and all the people Birdie encounters actually exist.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals? 

Why there are so many parakeets living in London! The reason is now in the play and it’s one of my favourite bits.


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“The absolutely primal nature of this religious idea was something I wanted to include at the very start of the saga, and have it endure all the way up to the dawn of Christianity, when Constantine decides that all amulets should be outlawed.” – Author Steven Saylor discusses his Roma trilogy

“I must confess, military history bores me.”

WHAT: “”Roma” is the story of the ancient city of Rome, from its mythic beginnings as a campsite along a trade route to its emergence as the centre of the most extensive, powerful empire in the ancient world. Beginning with the prehistory days when Roma was a way station among seven hills for traders and merchants and the founding of the city itself by Romulus and Remus, critically acclaimed historical novelist Steven Saylor tells the epic saga of a city and its people, its rise to prominence among the city-states of the area, and, ultimately, dominance over the entire ancient Western world. From the tragedy of Coriolanus, to the Punic Wars and the invasion by Hannibal, the triumph and murder of Julius Caesar, and the rise and decline of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of Imperial Rome, Saylor’s breathtaking novel brings to vivid life the most famous city of the ancient world. “Roma” is Saylor’s finest achievement, an epic in the truest sense of the word.

…AND…

In the international bestseller “Roma“, Steven Saylor told the story of the first thousand years of Rome by following the descendants of a single bloodline. Now, in “Empire”, Saylor charts the destinies of five more generations of the Pinarius family, from the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, to the glorious height of Rome’s empire under Hadrian. Through the eyes of the Pinarii, we witness the machinations of Tiberius, the madness of Caligula, the cruel escapades of Nero, and the chaos of the Year of Four Emperors in 69 A.D. The deadly paranoia of Domitian is followed by the Golden Age of Trajan and Hadrianobut even the most enlightened emperors wield the power to inflict death and destruction on a whim. “Empire” is strewn with spectacular scenes, including the Great Fire of 64 A.D. that ravaged the city, Nero’s terrifying persecution of the Christians, and the mind-blowing opening games of the Colosseum. But at the novel’s heart are the wrenching choices and seductive temptations faced by each new generation of the Pinarii. One unwittingly becomes the sexual plaything of the notorious Messalina. One enters into a clandestine affair with a Vestal virgin. One falls under the charismatic spell of Nero, while another is drawn into the strange new cult of those who deny the gods and call themselves Christians. However diverse their destinies and desires, all the Pinarii are united by one thing: the mysterious golden talisman called the fascinum handed down from a time before Rome existed. As it passes from generation to generation, the fascinum seems to exercise a power not only over those who wear it, but over the very fate of the empire.”

WHO: Steven Saylor is an American author of historical novels. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and classics.

Saylor’s best-known work is his ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ historical mystery series, set in ancient Rome. The novels’ hero is a detective named Gordianus the Finder, active during the time of Sulla, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra. Outside this crime novel series, Saylor has also written two epic-length historical novels about the city of Rome, ‘Roma‘ and ‘Empire’. His work has been published in 21 languages..

MORE? Here!


Why Roma & Empire?

The late Nick Robinson was one of the last independent publishers of the old school. He founded Robinson Books in the 1980s (which later bought Constable and then was bought by Little, Brown/Hachette). Once he brought me to London on book tour and invited me to his Mayfair flat, where I had been told by my breathless editor, “Nick has an exciting proposal for you!” Over cocktails, he said, “Steven, we’ve done quite well with your Roman mystery series, but I think it’s time for you to step it up a notch. I want you to write…a big book.” And that was it. A big book! But that no-frills invitation did call to mind an idea I’d been mulling for a while, namely one of those epic family sagas where a place is the title and also the main character, like James Michener’s Texas or Edward Rutherfurd’s London. No one had done that with Rome. Nick and also my US publisher said, “Do it!”, so I was off.

I first thought I could pack everything from Romulus and Remus to Fellini in a single volume, but there’s just too much Roman history and too many great stories. So for Roma I settled on the first thousand years, from Iron Age trading post to burgeoning world capitol under Julius Caesar. The sequel, Empire, bit off a shorter time period, because I had to fit in all those crazy emperors between Augustus and Hadrian, which brought us to the very height of Rome’s empire.

Your narratives take place entirely within the locale of the 7 hills. How easy was it to run and rerun the course of honour without recourse to a military career or three?

My first rule was that Rome would be not just the main location of the novel, but the only location. We never leave Rome. All the battles take place off-stage, as they do in a Greek drama.

I must confess, military history bores me. My friend Lindsay Powell writes biography of Roman generals and he can cite every detail about every legion and its insignia and so forth over dinner, bless him, but I start fiddling with my napkin and daydreaming about sex and politics. It’s the sex and politics that grab me, and you never have to leave Rome to find that.

But the books do have plenty of blood and gore—riots in the Forum, gladiator games, Nero burning Christians. My US editor had me trim a few passages from Empire for fear the reader would experience what he called “cruelty overload.” The Romans had an enormous appetite for violence. As do we, only ours is mostly indulged in movies and TV and sports, where people don’t actually die.

Central to each narrative is an amulet. When and where did you first encounter that device?

The great T.P. Wiseman in ‘Remus: A Roman Mythpostulates that a reported sighting of a phallus floating in a hearthfire may be the first purely Roman myth. That eerie phallus was a god named Fascinus. Little replicas of Fascinus became everyday talismans, each called a fascinum. The Vestal virgins, ironically, were in charge of a big fascinum, which they had the sacred duty to load out of sight under the chariot of a triumphing general, where it protected him from the Evil Eye of the envious. Mothers would likewise put a fascinum in baby’s cradle, to ward off the envious gaze of barren women. The absolutely primal nature of this religious idea was something I wanted to include at the very start of the saga, and have it endure all the way up to the dawn of Christianity, when Constantine decides that all amulets should be outlawed.

Can we expect a third volume without recourse to the arm twisting and threats of violence that compelled Conan Doyle to resurrect Sherlock Holmes?

Yes! The third novel will be out in 2021. It follows my fictional family from Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor, to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. It’s a critical period of world history, as paganism dies and the Christians triumph.

Along the way we meet Elagabalus, the drag-queen emperor (not around long), Zenobia of Palmyra, a real queen who challenged Rome, and many other little-known but fascinating figures including (you can’t make this up) a certain Senator Messius Extricatus.

The third volume has taken so long to write because the research was endless, and arduous. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to savour what I call “slow writing.” Rather like slow cooking. It will taste even better when it’s finally done.

Was Gibbon right about life under the Antonines being as good as it gets, or would you opt to live elsewhen in your story arc?

Gibbon got that idea from an ancient author named Aelius Aristides, who wrote a long oration praising the Roman empire of his time. If you had money and citizenship, life under the Antonines could be mighty sweet. If you were a slave in the mines, not so good. Every era can be the best or worst of times, depending on your circumstances. But overall, yes, to be young and healthy and reasonably wealthy in the time of Hadrian would offer about the best chance of happiness in the history of ancient Rome. They had peace and prosperity and a vibrant literary scene. Authors could do quite well.

Other than the amulet, what’s the one item you’d want to personally own from the stories?

I’d love to lay hands on an item from the forthcoming third volume: the scepter of the emperor Maxentius, a gilded staff topped by a glass ball, which was discovered in Rome only a few years ago. Archaeologists think it was hidden by his supporters on the very day of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Maxentius drowned in the Tiber and Constantine rode into Rome as a conqueror. That was a decisive moment in world history. That scepter is a one-of-a kind symbol of lost causes. If any pagan magic survives from ancient Rome, it would be in the scepter of Maxentius.

When you aren’t writing about Rome and the Romans, which other authors are you reading?

Lately I’ve been reading everything by Deryn Lake (who also writes as Dinah Lampitt). Her ‘Sutton Place Trilogy‘ is a remarkable feat of historical fiction, with just a touch of the supernatural. I just finished reading her latest, a ripping yarn about Bonnie Prince Charlie called ‘The Prince’s Women‘.

Who’s the one historical character you wish you could have included who didn’t make the final cut?

Not a historical character, but a fictional one: I’d love to have slipped a sly cameo into the last chapter of Roma for my sleuth of ancient Rome, Gordianus, who has 16 books of his own. But ultimately it just didn’t feel right to include a nudge and wink of that sort in Roma. The two series—Gordianus on one hand, the family saga on the other—are completely separate in my mind. It’s almost as if they take place in two different universes, both called ancient Rome.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

I would eschew the chance to experience the endless horrors of Julius Caesar’s military campaigns—too many war crimes. A day at the Library of Alexandria would be much too short a stay, unless I could check out a boatload of books and bring them back with me. (Would I have to pay the overdue fines?) So I choose to hang with Hadrian and his circle for two glorious weeks. Talk about living like the 1%! The libraries, the art galleries, the fine dining, seeing Suetonius read from his Caligula bio and then take Q&A, Hadrian getting drunk and babbling on and on about his lost love, Antinous—well, maybe not that last part. We could put Hadrian to bed early, and then have a really good orgy.

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Interview: Hay Fever (25 – 28 March ’20)

“Why not put on play where you can forget the outside world and just laugh?”

WHO: Martin Foreman: Director

WHAT: “Meet the wealthy, self-obsessed and eccentric Bliss family; grande dame of the stage and mother Judith, novelist and father David, and their two children Sorel and Simon. Each has invited a guest to spend the weekend at their country house in rural England – and each has neglected to tell the others. Needless to say friction and hilarity ensue in this classic British comedy of manners.

As we enter the new decade EGTG takes us back 100 years with Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. Inspired by Coward’s acquaintance with silent film star Laurette Taylor, Hay Fever has been popular with audiences since its premiere in 1925, remaining relevant with its astute observations of family life and human folly.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy

DATES: 25 – 28 March

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why Hayfever?

The end of March, when the play is put on, is the beginning of spring, just the right time for something light and frothy. Besides, whether we’re talking climate change or domestic or international politics, last year was turbulent and this year is turning out to be just as bad – and that’s before we factor in coronavirus. Why not put on play where you can forget the outside world and just laugh?

If you scratch below the surface, however, you can see both how cleverly plotted Coward’s play is. Independently of each other, the younger generation of the household invite older guests while their parents bring in visitors young enough to be their children. The volatile dynamics of the household – everyone strong-minded and with few restraints on their behaviour – mean that conflict is inevitable and the guests struggle to keep their emotional balance as the repercussions ripple through the evening. And while the cast – particularly the Bliss family – are close to caricatures, there is enough humanity in each of them to hold our attention and to find their situation believable. By the end of the play it is almost a relief to find that the storm has passed and everyone has come through it more or less unscathed.

What’s the one thing about this show that everyone should know BEFORE they take their seats?

Zoe is a cat.

All right, if you want something more substantial, the fact that Coward based the character of diva Judith Bliss on an American actress, Laurette Taylor. Whether she knew that was the case – he confessed in an autobiography that was published several years before she died – is unknown. I like to think that Taylor would have been flattered by the comparison.

What makes this production unique?

The cast! A group of very talented actors, half of whom are EGTG regulars and the other half new. Everyone is very supportive and rehearsals are definitely fun. I don’t want to name any of the nine-strong cast in particular because they are all good and contributing the same enthusiasm.

I would like to say something else, but when we proposed a significant change to the Noel Coward estate that we felt would enhance the comedy while keeping the spirit of the play, they said no. Perhaps we will go back to them in a few years to see if they have changed their mind.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

We didn’t pay attention to the fact that there are far too many props! It’s a very complicated play to put on on a relatively small stage. Drawing paper, drinks, flowers are just a few things that are brought on and have to be taken off. Meanwhile Clara the housekeeper has to serve breakfast for eight at every performance. Haddock, anyone?

Costumes are another issue, since everyone has to dress for dinner and the dressing-room will be crowded with skirts coming off and gowns going on, while the men fiddle with ties and braces. But practice makes perfect and with backstage help – without which no play goes well – I expect the production will run smoothly.


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“The world-historical significance of Martin Luther simply cannot be gainsaid.” – Author Richard Rex discusses The Making of Martin Luther

“Luther may have been kicking the scholastics in the teeth, but he was standing on their shoulders to do it.”

WHAT: “A major new account of the most intensely creative years of Luther’s career The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel.

Focusing on the most intensely important years of Luther’s career, Rex teases out the threads of his often paradoxical and counterintuitive ideas from the tangled thickets of his writings, explaining their significance, their interconnections, and the astonishing appeal they so rapidly developed. Yet Rex also sets these ideas firmly in the context of Luther’s personal life, the cultural landscape that shaped him, and the traditions of medieval Catholic thought from which his ideas burst forth. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers.”

WHO: Richard Rex is a historian. He is the Professor of Reformation History at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge. He is also the Polkinghorne Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he is Director of Studies in Theological and Religious Studies, Tutor for graduate students, and Deputy Senior Tutor. Although not a frequent performer in the travelling circus of modern academia, he nevertheless makes occasional guest appearances at the Academia Moriae, Amaurote, as well as at universities and schools closer to home.

Richard’s other titles include: ‘The Theology of John Fisher’ (1991); ‘Henry VIII and the English Reformation’ (1993); ‘The Lollards’ (2002); Lady Margaret Beaufort and her Professors of Divinity at Cambridge 1502-1649′ (2003); ‘A Reformation rhetoric Thomas Swynnerton’s The tropes and figures of scripture’ (2004); ‘The Tudors’ (2006); as well as ‘The Making of Martin Luther’ (2017).

MORE? Here!


Why Martin Luther?

The world-historical significance of Martin Luther simply cannot be gainsaid. The Reformation, that shattering of the Latin Christendom of centuries in two or three decades, was not all about Martin Luther. But Luther himself saw truly enough that the throng of other ‘reformers’ who followed after him all poured through the breach he had made in the walls. They would have known nothing, he said, if he had not written first. So no Luther, no Reformation. That’s ‘why Martin Luther’.

Yours is the story of a mind and world view developing and maturing yet we tend to think of Luther as a fixed figure in the intellectual firmament. So as well as WHY Martin Luther, WHEN was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther ‘happened’ in 1518. It was in 1518 that the ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ (originally dated 31 October 1517) actually burst onto the public stage and made him famous in weeks. And it was in 1518, probably in Lent (and certainly by Easter), that he first attained his most fundamental and revolutionary theological insight, namely that the true Christian should believe with absolute certainty that he or she definitely enjoyed the grace of God and was therefore forgiven their sins. This mental state of certainty, summed up as ‘justification by faith alone’, was a new demand, or perhaps better a new offer, in Christian theology, and it was the principle from which all else in his thinking stemmed. In the seven years that followed, Luther worked out the full implications of his insight. His notorious appearance before the Reichstag at Worms in April 1521 marked his definitive break with the Roman Catholic Church. And his outspoken polemic, ‘The Slave Will’ (1525), written against Erasmus’s ‘Free Will’ (1524), marked the final stage in the evolution of his views. His last two decades were characterised by consolidation rather than by the fierce creativity of those seven years. But it began in 1518.

Luther ended his life believing that the Papacy was THE enemy. Did he ever suggest that the Papacy could be defeated by the forces of Reformation? What did he imagine victory might look like?

Luther’s theology was deeply sceptical of the value of human effort. Nobody could do anything to save themselves or to merit their own salvation. He certainly did not expect the papacy to be overthrown by any human power, because he saw it as the temporal embodiment, almost literally the incarnation, of ‘Antichrist’. Even more than most zealous Christians, he seriously felt that he was living in the last days. To reverse the modern cliché, it was the end of the world – if not that minute or that year, then within a century or so. It was precisely his perception of the papacy as the Antichrist enthroned in the temple that convinced him that the end was nigh. So it would not be ‘the forces of Reformation’, but the second coming of the Lord that would settle accounts with the papacy. The only ‘victory’ he expected was the vindication of the elect on the last day.

Keynes described Newton as the last of the magicians rather than the first of the scientists. Was Luther’s a medieval or a modern mind?

The dichotomy is of course too simplistic, and must at some level be resisted. Yet it is structured into our thought, and we cannot resist collaborating with it. The analogy with the Keynesian diagnosis of Newton is strangely apt. One might say, in imitation, that Luther was the ‘last of the scholastics’. Certainly, Erasmus, the stand-out humanist of that generation, thought Luther had more in common with the scholastics than with the more flexible and dialogical approach cultivated by himself and his followers. And Luther’s theology is almost unimaginable without the backdrop of the medieval scholasticism he was confronting. Luther may have been kicking the scholastics in the teeth, but he was standing on their shoulders to do it. The answers he gave were often radically new, and he developed a new vocabulary in which to give them, but the questions that he asked were either traditional scholastic questions or at least near variants upon them. Thus, the question of whether a Christian could be certain (without a special direct revelation from God) that they were in a ‘state of grace’ had been asked for centuries. Luther was simply the first theologian to answer ‘yes’.

Luther had a lot to say about Jews and Judaism. Is there any evidence that he ever actually talked with Jewish scholars or experts?

Not as such. He probably had tuition in Hebrew from Matthias Adrian, a converted Jew who taught the language for a while at Wittenberg. And he had some acquaintance with the tradition of rabbinical exegesis, and very occasional written contact with Jews. But there was no Jewish community at Wittenberg in his time, nor at Erfurt (where he had himself been to university), so he had little opportunity. And his profound hostility towards Jews would not have inclined him to take up any such opportunity had it been presented to him.

How did Luther square his bibliocentric vision with his intense belief in the relatively non-canonical antichrist?

Luther’s unquestioning acceptance of the ‘Antichrist’ myth is one of the most ‘medieval’ aspects of his mindset. Another, of course, was his acceptance of the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. Though he was capable of acidic and acerbic scepticism at times, he was not by nature a doubter. Doubt was not his default position. Nor was doubt a methodology for him, as it was to be for Descartes. ‘Antichrist’ was too familiar a figure, and played too central a role in his theology, for him to bring to that myth the mindset he brought to indulgences, purgatory, or the sacraments. He did not need to square any circles here, because he saw no difficulty in accepting the biblical foundation of ‘the Antichrist’ – even though he did, characteristically, reshape the doctrine of Antichrist to fit better into his doctrinal perspective.

How did one be (not become) a famous author in the time of Luther? Did he receive income from his writings? Were there book launches, appearances and signings?

The modern rigmarole of authorial book-peddling was undreamt of in Luther’s time. There were no liturgical assemblies of devotees in bookshops or literary festivals to celebrate the cult of the author with handshakes, selfies, and signed copies. For most authors, the tangible rewards from publishing were indirect rather than direct. Publishing a book which sold well brought an author reputation, and this could be traded into lucrative office in church or state. One of Luther’s busiest opponents, Johannes Cochlaeus, was as tireless an author as he, but far less popular – and far less gifted! He often had to pay printers to produce his books, and they were far harder to sell than Luther’s, and far less often reprinted. But the judicious distribution of free copies, or better still of dedication copies, to powerful patrons could pay handsome dividends in cash or office. Duke George of Saxony eventually made Cochlaeus his secretary, and various church authorities bestowed benefices upon him in recognition of his efforts. Another German opponent of Luther’s, Dr Johann Eck, dedicated his widely read refutation of Luther to Henry VIII and came to England to present a copy in person: he left with £25 in his purse – equivalent today to a whole year’s salary, and a very good salary at that.

The direct profits in the publishing industry went to printers, not to authors, and printers throughout Germany rapidly cottoned onto Luther’s commercial value. Yet although Luther’s sales were in the millions, which would have made him a wealthy man today, even he made nothing directly from them. He owed his financial security to the Electors of Saxony – whose university in Wittenberg he had singlehandedly made one of the most famous in Europe. The students who flooded in brought wealth to the city, as did the huge output of his books from its burgeoning printing industry, which he had in effect created. As Andrew Pettegree has shown in his Brand Luther, Wittenberg developed a cutting-edge printing industry on the back of Luther, producing vast numbers of his works in high-quality editions that were distinctively authorised with the ‘Luther seal’ that he devised.

In return, his prince granted him the Augustinian friary as his family home, along with a good salary as the leading professor of theology in the university itself.

Could Luther ever have been neutered or muted with promotion to high ecclesiastical office?

No. He was on the fast track to leadership in his own religious order anyway when he began to develop his new approach to Christianity, and he was not in the least deterred by the obvious damage he was doing to his career prospects. And while he might have risen to be ‘Provincial’ (head of a province), or even perhaps more, in the Order of the Hermits of St Augustine, it is unlikely that his abrasive character would have equipped him for high office in the wider world, so that at a deeper level the question does not arise. Nobody could ever have seen him as, administratively, a ‘safe pair of hands’. The practical details of organising everyday life in the emerging Evangelical Churches of the German Princes were sorted out not by Luther but by his acolytes – Johannes Brenz, Johannes Bugenhagen, and the rest.

Luther was never in any sense ‘an organisation man’. While he was undoubtedly a ‘charismatic leader’, and the experience of being the focus of a personality cult was evidently one he relished, he was not driven by any of the obvious kinds of ambition or careerism. Making him a bishop would simply have given him a bigger pulpit, literally and metaphorically, from which to preach.

You describe how a personal cult began to burgeon around Luther in his own lifetime. Had his worldview admitted of sainthood, and were you the curator of his leading pilgrimage site, what would be the top relics you would want to possess?

History answers that question. For his worldview, and that of his followers, did not manage to exclude the trappings of sainthood quite as cleanly as might be imagined from the theological emphasis on Christ as the unique mediator and on the immediate experience of ‘justification by faith alone’. In a world in which literacy was slowly but steadily increasing, and in which, perhaps thanks to print, respect for books and writing was higher than ever before, later Lutherans particularly valued things he had written – actual letters, ‘autographs’ (in our sense – examples of his actual signature), books he had published (especially early copies of his translation of the Bible) and, in particular, copies of books in which he had personally written.

So if I were running a Luther shrine, I would want it to focus on things he had physically written. There are interesting parallels here, by the way, with the early miracles reported of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. The miracles credited to Ignatius are often associated with examples of his autograph signature. But buildings with which Luther had been associated also came to be highly prized in later Lutheran tradition, in particular two houses in Eisleben: the one in which he had been born, and the other, in which he had died. It would be fanciful to detect here an echo of the Holy House of Loreto, the shrine in northern Italy believed by some to have been the actual Nazareth home of Jesus, miraculously transported to its new location by angels. Yet while Luther’s houses had stronger historical claims, there is a common factor: both traditions embodied in their own ways a new sense of the centrality of the ‘nuclear’ family in western Christianity.

What are you currently working on?

An edition of an exchange of letters between Luther and Henry VIII in 1525-26, an episode hardly ever noticed in biographies of either man. Accompanied by an introduction setting this storm in a teacup within the broader perspective of their interactions over some twenty-five years, this edition will be published by Boydell and Brewer. And a Short History of the Tudors for Bloomsbury Continuum. Maybe one day I’ll get to write a ‘big book’.

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Interview: Catch-22 (12 -16 Nov. ’19)

 

“When I discovered that Heller had done his own stage adaptation I knew it was something I wanted to direct.”

WHO: Hannah Bradley: Director

WHAT: “Captain John Yossarian is a U.S. Army bombardier and the last Assyrian alive, and he would very much like to keep it that way. Convinced that an entire army is trying to kill him, Yossarian desperately tries to evade battle (and the increasing demands of his superior Colonel Cathcart), but finds that there is always a catch. Meanwhile, the unit’s long-suffering Chaplain has found himself inadvertently caught up in a strange war of his own. And everyone is trying to locate the mysterious Washington Irving.”

WHERE: The Biscuit Factory

DATES: 12 – 16 November

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why ‘Catch-22’?

I fell in love with ‘Catch-22’ when I read the book in high-school. It’s one of the few novels which has made me laugh out loud. And Heller has such a way with words, it’s like reading a 500-page poem, there’s a unique rhythm which carries you through the story. When I discovered that he had done his own stage adaptation I knew it was something I wanted to direct. The timing has been fortuitous with George Clooney’s mini-series earlier in the year introducing so many more people to these characters. I think that’s why it’s persisted as a classic – the characters are relatable, even with their faults. And they find themselves in situations that we all do, subject to the whim of the machine.

What’s the one thing about this show that everyone should know BEFORE they take their seats?

It’s one of the best satires of the 20th century. So iconic in fact that the term Catch-22 comes from the book.

What makes this production unique?

We’re staging it at The Biscuit Factory which is giving the show a totally different feel. This isn’t some black box or black canvas; it’s industrial, it’s grungy. It’s been a really cool and interesting space to work with and adds another element to the show.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

The challenge of directing 14 actors in 40 parts – that’s been a real learning experience. And how difficult it is to dye silk with tea!


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“The best advice I got (and ignored) is grow garlic that’s suited to your climate.” – Author Robin Cherry discusses Garlic, an Edible Biography

“Humans have been eating garlic for least 5,000 years. Three of the world’s oldest known recipes, written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped marks) on clay tablets, include garlic.”

WHAT: Garlic is the Lord Byron of produce, a lusty rogue that charms and seduces you but runs off before dawn, leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Called everything from rustic cure-all to Russian penicillin, Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, garlic has been loved, worshipped, and despised throughout history. No writer has quite captured the epic, roving story of garlic—until now.

While this book does not claim that garlic saved civilization (though it might cure whatever ails you), it does take us on a grand tour of its fascinating role in history, medicine, literature, and art; its controversial role in bigotry, mythology, and superstition; and its indispensable contribution to the great cuisines of the world. And just to make sure your appetite isn’t slighted, Garlic offers over 100 recipes featuring the beloved ingredient.

WHO: Robin Cherry is a Cleveland-raised, Hudson Valley-based writer with a passion for Eastern Europe, undiscovered wine regions, and garlic. She has written for many publications including National Geographic Traveler, Afar, The Atlantic,and Wine Enthusiast. She is the author of Catalog: The History of Mail Order Shopping and Garlic: An Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World’s Most Pungent Food. After majoring in Russian history at Carleton College, she almost joined the CIA but she can’t keep a secret.

MORE? Here!


Why garlic?

Initially, I was intrigued by how pervasive garlic was throughout history then I became fascinated by the dark side of garlic — how it was used to discriminate against Jews, Italians, and Koreans. My father was Jewish and the fact that Nazis issued buttons with pictures of garlic bulbs so wearers could broadcast their antisemitism staggered me. I was also intrigued by how many dictators liked garlic (largely because of where they grew up) — Stalin, Mussolini, and Slobodan Milosevic all loved garlic. When Milosevic was in prison, he felt a pain in his chest and asked his fellow inmate for a head of garlic as garlic is regarded as a natural healer in Serbia. Somewhat improbably, the inmate got the garlic but to no avail. Milosevic died the next morning.

How long have humans been eating garlic?

Humans have been eating garlic for least 5,000 years. Three of the world’s oldest known recipes, written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped marks) on clay tablets, include garlic.

Do any animals eat garlic?

I’ve read different things on this so I can’t answer definitively. Most people say garlic is toxic for dogs and cats; some say it isn’t. Most animals don’t seem to appreciate garlic’s many positive properties — leaving more for us.

Have you ever grown your own garlic? What are your top tips?

I have. The best advice I got (and ignored) is grow garlic that’s suited to your climate. I tried to grow a Creole variety in upstate New York and it was too cold. Since you grow garlic from individual cloves, pick the biggest, fattest ones you have. Buy good quality organic garlic from a professional grower; don’t try to grow grocery store garlic as it has often been treated to prevent sprouting. Plant garlic in the fall so the roots can form before the ground freezes and if growing hardneck garlic, cut off the scapes after they reach about ten inches long so the plant’s energy will go to increasing the size of the bulb. (Garlic scapes make a great, mild pesto). Most importantly, don’t be intimidated. Garlic is pretty forgiving and easy to grow.

There are many heirloom varieties of garlic. Which are your top 3?

I love hot food so I go for spicy varieties like Georgian Fire, and Pennsylvania Dutch (plus my grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch). I also like Music — probably the most popular variety as it has good flavor, keeps well and its cloves are large and easy to peel. (Music isn’t named for its beauty — it’s named for Al Music, a Canadian garlic grower.)

You’ve ended up running the kitchen of an especially bad-tempered, omnipotent, but garlic-loving autocrat. They’ve ordered you to cook them garlic for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What’s on each menu?

Great question. For breakfast, I’d prepare garlic bread avocado toast topped with a fried egg and garlic tea with honey and lemon.

For lunch, I’d make a steak sandwich with arugula, provolone cheese, and a garlic aioli served with curly garlic fries and garlic lemonade.

For dinner, I’d prepare Stalin’s favorite dish, Chicken Satsivi — chicken in a rich walnut-garlic sauce from his native Georgia and a strong martini garnished with garlic-stuffed olives so he’d nod off and I could get some rest.

What’s the one garlic accessory that no kitchen should be without?

A chef’s knife and/or a microplane rasp. You don’t need any fancy gadgets and most chefs hate garlic presses as they say they bruise the garlic and make it bitter. Anthony Bourdain even said, “I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.”

What’s the biggest thing happening in garlic right now?

I think the biggest thing happening in garlic right now is Fermented Garlic Honey which is quite popular. To make it, pour raw honey over lightly crushed garlic cloves in a jar — crushing the garlic will create allicin which helps in the fermentation. Seal the jar and leave it at room temperature for three days. After that, remove the lid and stir the garlic and let it ferment for at least a week (stirring every other day). The mixture can ferment for a month or longer and will become sweeter and mellower over time. Fermented Garlic Honey can be used in marinades, vinaigrettes, and sauces — and some swear that it’s great on pizza — or as an immunity booster during cold and flu season.

What variety of garlic do you think makes the best black garlic?

It doesn’t matter as they all taste the same — delicious — after they’ve been cooked at a low temperature for two to three weeks.

What are you currently working on?

A children’s travel book series that features my young niece, Eden. I’ve been lucky to travel to over 100 countries and the series will feature the places I’ve visited as if seen through her eyes. I’m still trying to come up with a new micro history idea so any suggestions are welcome!

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