The Atlantic Celts

The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? (1999) by Simon James

Rating: ★★★★★

The theory presented by Simon James in The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? is that the pre-Roman inhabitants of the British Isles were not a single people united by language and culture, that had invaded, destroyed or assimilated earlier unrelated peoples, nor indeed were they ethnically related to the Celts in mainland Europe. Discoveries in Britain of ‘La Tene’ style artifacts prove only the existence of trading links or raids to and from Europe.

The term ‘Celt’ was used by the Greeks and Romans as a designation for some of their barbarian neighbours to the north. ‘Celt’ as applied to the Scots, Welsh and Irish was not used before the eighteenth century, and appears to be an explanation entirely dependent on similarities in language. The term was quickly developed by other scholars to describe cultural or national identities.

In his 1707 work  Archaeologia Britannica , Oxford scholar Edward Lhuyd proposed that similarities in the Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Irish, and Scots Gaelic languages were attributable to a common European origin. In that same year, the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland created a new political identity: ‘British’. The same political pressures sought the assimilation of Ireland through the Act of 1800. The confusion, however, may have originated with Julius Caesar. He identified three major tribes within Gaul (France) prior to the attempted invasion of Britain, “Gaul comprises three areas, inhabited respectively by the Belgae, the Aquitaini, and a people who call themselves Celts, though we call them Gauls. All of these have different languages, customs and laws.” The idea that people living out on the islands of the Atlantic fringe might call themselves ‘Celts’ came much later – and in effect involved the adoption of an imaginary ancestry and heritage. The Britons, who according to the Welsh triads, called themselves Khymry, were not Gauls, never called themselves ‘Celts’ but may have been closer related to the Belgae or Aquitani..

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The Lost Gold of Rome

The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric’s Treasure ( 2007) by Daniel Costa

Rating: ★★★★☆

In AD 410, Rome suffered a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions when a foreign army led by the Visigoth king Alaric sacked the city and carried off its most valuable treasures.The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric's Treasure

This was the first time in 800 years, during which time Rome itself had accumulated the wealth of Empire. Alaric played a significant role in the dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the west, but he died before he could leave the Italian peninsula. His followers buried him in a secret tomb allegedly laden with the plunder of Rome that may have included the Jerusalem Temple treasures of the Jews, deposited in the so-called ‘Temple of Peace’. Daniel Costa’s account traces the life and death of Alaric and explores the modern quests to discover his grave, including the efforts of the Nazi Heinrich Himmler. Despite the likelihood that the grave has now finally been found, no definitive excavation has taken place..

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The Rosette motif in ancient art

THE PHAISTOS DISK, CRETE- note the four appearances of the eight-petalled rosette, described as a star anemone

Eight-petaled rosettes similar to those on the Phaistos Disk and on various ancient game-boards, such as discovered at Ur in Mesopotamia, and the example shown here from Knossos, Crete, appeared also on many other objects, over a wide geographical area and span of time. They appear to be solar symbols, or more precisely represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so indicated the passages from one state of existence into another.

Silver and Lapis lazuli gameboard from Knossos, with a border of 72 sixteen petalled rosettes

In Mesopotamia, the eight-leaf rosette was also the emblem of the fertility goddess Ishtar and her associated planet Venus. However, this apparent broadening of the symbol only confirms the basic meaning of birth, death and rebirth.

In a well-known myth, Ishtar descended into the underworld and was held there as if dead, before she returned to life, just as Venus the evening star disappears from the sky for some time and then heralds as the morning star the return of the life-giving light.  The symbolism is the same as that derived from the cycles of the sun.

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The Mildenhall Treasure

Roald Dahl (1997)The Mildenhall Treasure

Rating: ★★★★★


During the last years of the Roman presence in Britain, in the late third and early fourth centuries, evidence in the form of buried treasures gives a picture of troubled times. A wealthy family living near Mildenhall in Suffolk, presumably at a time of panic, and intending to retrieve it later, buried a hoard of silver treasure for safety. It could have course already been stolen, and buried with similar intent.

Sixteen centuries later, during the Second World War, a ploughman, Gordon Butcher, set his plough four inches deeper than usual. He was on the lookout for coins, for this land had often produced them. He struck some encrusted metal objects which he gave to his employer, Arthur Ford. They returned to the field, retrieving more items.

In 1946, an inquest declared the find to be treasure trove, and their true significance came to light. The Mildenhall treasure is probably the most important collection of Roman works of art ever to be found in Britain. It consists of 34 pieces of highly ornamented silverware, priceless in value, with a total weight of about 25 ½ kilos. When cleaned, the pieces were found to be in an almost perfect state of preservation, made of the finest quality of silver, dating from the fourth century AD to perhaps as early as the first century, which assuming it was part of one collection at the time of burial, represents a collection accumulated over a considerable length of time.

The centrepiece, discovered 25 metres  from the remains of a fourth century Roman building, is a magnificent dish, two foot in diameter, andweighing 8 ¼ kilos. A relief shows the head of Oceanus, god of the sea, in the centre, with sea monsters surrounding him. Much of the decoration relates to Bacchus, Pan and female companions, common motifs on silverware of the Roman period. Other pieces of the treasure include a circular niello dish, two convex platters, goblets, a fine bowl with a lid, and eight spoons, five of which are of the kind that may have been used as christening gifts, with the Chi-rho symbol inscribed on the handles, and two with the names Pascentia and Papittedo. Altogether, the hoard forms a curious mixture of pagan and Christian elements. It is thought most of the treasures were either made in Rome or Gaul, but some items, such as the fluted bowl, may have been worked in Britain..

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The Long Walk

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (1956) by Slavomir Rawicz


Rating: ★★★★★

The Long Walk, first published in 1956, is a gripping account of a Polish officer’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag in 1940, his escape and then a trek of 4,000 miles (6,437km) from Siberia to India, surviving unimaginable hardships along the way, testing the seven men and their companion, a seventeen year old girl they came across on the way, to the limits. Its dramatic passages tell of extremes of exhaustion, starvation and thirst as they survived snowdrifts and storms and even the pitiless Gobi Desert.

In the shadow of death we grew closer together than ever before. No man would admit to despair. No man spoke of fear. The only thought spoken out again and again was that there must be water soon. All our hope was in this.”

Australian director Peter Weir, celebrated for contemporary classics such as ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Truman Show’, decided the account deserved filming. “As a feat of endurance and courage and the tenacity of human beings to survive, I thought it was superb. I asked, ‘Does it stay with you enough to want to pursue it as a film?’ And this was the case.” The film, inspired by the book, but not a straight re-telling, was released December 2010 as ‘The Way Back’.

The subtitle of the book is ‘The true story of a trek to freedom’ but there is a controversy over this. There was evidence that suggested that Rawicz had not told the truth about his past, and that although he had been a prisoner in the gulag, he never escaped, but was released under an amnesty in 1942, and the documents, discovered by an American researcher, Linda Willis, in Polish and Russian archives, also show that rather than being imprisoned on a charge of espionage as he claimed, Rawicz was actually sent to the gulag for killing an officer with the NKVD, the forerunner of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. This could of course, be a fabrication.

Peter Weir researched the controversy. “It was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that’s how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film.”

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Henry II and Thomas a Becket

Out of the thirty four years of his reign (1154- 1189), Henry II spent twenty-one on the Continent. Socially and culturally, England was a backwater compared with the continental parts of the Angevin dominion.

Henry introduced several major reforms to England. Prior to 1166 trial by ordeal was a common way of determining guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Under this system, an accused person might have to pick up a red hot bar of iron, or pluck a stone out of a boiling cauldron. If their hand had begun to heal after three days they were considered to have God on their side, affirming their innocence. Henry gradually replaced this rather painful system with a jury of 12 men. He also introduced the first personal property tax. At the same time he forced Wales to at least nominally acknowledge the sovereignty of the English crown.

Henry was married to the forceful Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, and in their squabbling she turned their sons Richard, John, and Geoffrey against him. The “Devil’s Brood” intrigued, fought, and rebelled against their father. By 1174 she was influencing the ‘young King Henry’ as well (see below). In the end, the crown went to Richard, while John “Lackland” received nothing, until 1185, when he was offered Ireland. Geoffrey received even less; He died before his father.

Henry desired to be absolute ruler of his dominions, both Church and State, and could find precedents in the traditions of the throne when he planned to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy, which he regarded as fetters on his authority. As Henry’s chancellor since 1155, Becket enforced the king’s traditional medieval land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including the churches and bishoprics, assisted by a force of 800 knights. This created both a hardship and a resentment of Becket among the English churchmen. To further implicate Becket as a secular man, he appeared an accomplished and extravagant courtier and a cheerful companion to the king’s pleasures. Thomas was devoted to Henry’s interests with a firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness.

It is not for his political successes that Henry is best remembered, but for his role in the murder of Thomas a Becket. In June 1162, Becket had been consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. In the eyes of many contemporaries, Becket did not deserve the highest ecclesiastical post in the land. Despite his clerical education, his appointment was without precedent (he was a secular cleric not monastic)..

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Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2006) by Clare Asquith

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is a revelatory new look at how Shakespeare secretly addressed the most profound political issues of his day, and how his plays embody a hidden history of England.  In Elizabethan England many loyal subjects to the crown were asked to make a near impossible choice: to follow the dictates of the State, or their conscience. Four hundred years removed from the English Reformation, it is nearly impossible for us to know what it must have been like for the country to have been ripped asunder and subjects actively persecuted, or even tortured and killed, for their religious beliefs. The era was one of unprecedented authoritarianism: England, it seemed, had become a state dependent on espionage, fearful of threats from abroad and plotters at home. This age of terror was also the era we know as an artistic ‘golden age’ with the greatest creative genius the world had ever known, William Shakespeare. How, then, could such a remarkable man born into such volatile times apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work? He did. But it was hidden. Why? There were sound reasons for not addressing political events directly. Two of his most gifted contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe did not fare as well. Kyd died after undergoing torture, and Marlowe was almost certainly murdered at the instigation of government.

Revealing Shakespeare’s sophisticated version of a forgotten code developed by 16th-century Catholic dissidents, Clare Asquith shows how Shakespeare was both a genius for all time and utterly a man of his own era, a writer who was supported by dissident Catholic aristocrats, who agonized about the fate of England’s spiritual and political life and who used the popular playhouses to attack and expose a regime which they believed had seized control of the country they loved. Shakespeare’s plays offer an acute insight into the politics and personalities of his era, as well as reflecting the feelings and beliefs of ordinary people. For example Hamlet, interpreted here as a drama of the hesitancy and indecision of the Catholic party in the country, is modelled on Sir Philip Sidney, who was outwardly Protestant but secretly a Catholic sympathiser. Of course there are many candidates for the model of Hamlet; such boldness in identification here simply underlines her own belief in this theory..

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How the Irish built Britain

McAlpine’s Men: Irish Stories from the Sites (2010) edited by Ultan Cowley

Rating: ★★★★★

Britain owes a debt to the Irish navvy, the migrant labourer willing to do the back-breaking shovel work others baulked at. By the 1970’s there were over 200,000 of them. Nobody has done more to document their cause than the author Ultan Cowley, who wrote the definitive book on the subject called The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy (2001). The book stripped away decades of ignorance about the Irish navvy. It also forms a fitting memorial to a race of men whose contribution to British society, especially during the post-war construction boom years, has for too long been undervalued.

The term ‘navvy’ originated with the building of the 18th century canals, the ‘inland navigation system’ in Britain. The diggers became known as ‘navigators’ or ‘navvies’. The pioneering construction methods of these canal builders were then adapted by the railway engineers and the excavators who, working on this new transport system, kept the name ‘navvies’.

Post-world war two, the new generation of Irish immigrants who worked on the construction of the motorways, hydro-electric schemes and other massive civil engineering works were given the same name. In this way, the word navvy became synonymous with Irish migrant labourers, the ‘heavy diggers’ who came to dominate the ground-works aspect of construction in Britain..

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Theories of Fairy Tales

During the past century at least, folklorists have taken a serious look at fairy tales. The familiar tales from our childhood  are not as simple or as childlike as we might think.  It has been argued that the original context of traditional folk and fairy tales involved little or no differentiation between adults and children, and that these tales served predominantly to instruct and entertain adults. How significant was the role played by these tales in shaping social norms, values, aesthetic tastes and aspirations? Is there a difference between myth, fairy tale, and legend?

Folklorists have abandoned the search for origins, but there is still an effort to construct a “scene of origin”, a primal scene of narration, to explain how fairy tales came into being. It is usually pictured as peasants sitting around the fireside telling tales while they are repairing tools, patching clothes or spinning yarn.  Many of today’s fairy tales can be, and have been extensively re-worked. They are stories about the quest for power, wealth, and romance, often moralistic in tone, but the characters are mostly opportunistic, they respond to circumstances as they happen, as children themselves often do..

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The Marked Year 1914

The 5th Lancers Re-enter Mons, November 1918 by Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927).











The four years between 1914 and 1918 were, as Graham Wallas observed, “four years of the most intense and heroic effort the human race has ever made” (Human Nature in Politics – Third Edition , 1921). When that effort was spent, illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 turned to massive disillusionment, an image not unlike the luxurious, class-conscious RMS Titanic, which sank just two years before. The only gain, if any, for humanity was a painful reminder of its own limitations.

“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours, in wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs.”   ( The Guns of August)

“The nineteenth century, the great age of European civilisation, was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty, but with dark cellars below. Its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope, more careless ease, but also hypocrisy, injustice and false sentiment” ( Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914)..

Looking back on that world, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet, dedicated his work “With emotion, to the man I used to be”. Ninety-six years later, it is increasingly difficult to remember the pre-1914 world that used to be. Here is a reminder… Continue reading The Marked Year 1914