Day 3 – Let There Be Museums

Day 3 of my trip to Strasbourg.

Today, we were going to do more museums. The Museum Count currently stood at two; by the end of the day, we were aiming to have more than doubled it. So, we headed off first thing to the Palais de Rohan[1], which contained the archaeological museum, the decorative arts museum, and the annoyingly-shut fine art museum. The palace is a big Baroque-styled building on the south side of the cathedral square, which was briefly the town hall in the Revolutionary period. It’s quite attractive in and of itself, but we headed in to get on with the museums – several of the state rooms were part of the decorative arts museum, so we’d look more at the architecture later. Before talking about museums, though, it’s perhaps time to give some brief observations of Strasbourg itself, given we’d had a bit of time to wander round it. The old city is very pleasant and feels pretty medieval – there are a lot of narrow, windy shopping streets around the main north-south and east-west axes, which, unsurprisingly, follow the main streets of the old Roman legionary fortress. The architecture spans the medieval to the modern, but the place mostly feels enjoyably antique and historical and covers a much larger area than any UK equivalent, such as Bath or Canterbury. Being on an island is also great, because it makes navigation very easy – if you walk in any one direction, you’ll hit some water soon enough and you’ve also got the cathedral spire as a reference point – and because it means you can have plenty of attractive water features. We hadn’t really explored the parts of town nearer the water yet, though, so I’ll talk more about that later.


A generic Strasbourg street. This is one of the wider ones, following the east-west axis of the old legionary fortress.

Right, back to the museums: we started with the archaeological museum, which covers everything from 60,000 BC up to the early medieval period, i.e. it stops where the town history museum picks up. The first bit we came to was a temporary exhibition on how archaeology is actually practised, the main message of which was that all pop culture archaeologists bear no resemblance to real ones. So, none of Lara Croft, Indiana Jones nor Jurassic Park are accurate, it turns out. Who knew? We then went into the museum proper, which, as per usual, was a pot-fest. Lots and lots of potsherds. And some very well-groomed reconstructions of prehistoric men and women. There was all the usual array of Roman-era finds[2] – also mostly pot-based – and one room at the end about the Merovingians, the first dynasty of Frankish kings. That was more interesting and I wish there’d been more on them. I’m not saying the archaeological museum was a bad museum – far from it – but there’s only so much you can do with the same array of pots and stone tools.

After this, we headed upstairs to the decorative arts museum, which was half a set of state rooms and half a load of glass and porcelain[3]. The state rooms were impressive in the standard Baroque manner. If anything, they were actually somewhat understated – the ceilings were mostly plain, rather than dressed to the nines in allegorical cherubs and stucco, and the furnishings were, if not subtle, at least not as eye-wateringly opulent as some. Though I suppose that reflects more the status of the building as the residence of a provincial bishop rather than, say, the Emperor of Austria, as opposed to a lack of peacocking on the part of the bishops. It was, I imagine, a lack of means rather than ambition. The actual exhibits were a mix of the ridiculous and the not-quite-sublime-but-fairly-good. There were a lot of porcelain birds and food, the appeal or purpose of which escapes me[4], but also the oldest preserved automaton in Europe, a 14th-century cock[5], though not in working order, more’s the pity. Overall, it was worth going round as part of the 3-day museum pass, but I’m not sure I’d have bothered otherwise.

After a quick lunch, it was time for museum number three, which meant we had to leave the palace and cross just over the river to the Alsacian folk museum. Neither of us were quite sure what to expect from this one, but it turned out to be a surprising highlight of the trip for both of us. The museum mostly set out to recreate the interiors of rural Alsacian dwellings from the last 400-odd years and, in doing so, really reminded you how grim life was for most people for most of history for most of the time. ‘Dingy’ would be a fair description of your average Alsacian farmhouse. And also ‘stove-centric’: Alsace gets pretty cold in winter, so the house was built around the stove, which was the only heat source, acting as boiler, oven and radiator. Only one room of the house would be heated, so all the other rooms majored heavily on blankets. It also explained what all the big green-tiled things we’d been seeing in the corners of rooms were in the Palais de Rohan – they were old stoves. We had been a bit confused by them. But the most surprising thing was that Alsace is the only bit of France where laïcité is not the law. Laïcité is the term the French use to refer to the separation of church and state, which is very rigidly enforced in all public offices and spaces – witness all the debates about wearing burkas or crosses in public. In Alsace, though, this doesn’t exist, because it was part of Germany when the relevant laws were passed in 1905 and, for some reason that wasn’t explained fully, they weren’t enforced upon its return to France a decade later. So, in Alsace, there is religious education in state schools, ministers are paid by the state and so on. Though only four religions are currently recognised: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Reformed[6] and Judaism. There is debate about whether Islam, Hinduism, etc. should be admitted, but, so far, the club of recognised religions remains closed. But, I was genuinely astonished that there was a bit of France where public religion was a thing – my experience of living there had made me certain that all of France was draconically laïque. So that was an interesting fact to end the day on.

As per usual, Frederic was trying to learn something specific on the trip: in this case, I was mostly teaching him how to speak better French, which, given we were starting from what he’d admit was a very low bar, was not difficult. Even if his pronunciation was painful. But, if he was willing to learn, I was willing to teach. He also decided he wanted to learn about the order of succession of the Carolingian monarchs of West Francia (remember, ≈ France), which I was also happy to enlighten him on. Even though it’s bloody complicated[7]. But, he was making progress there too.

Also, as per usual, our conversation was starting to head into the surreal. Frederic had decided he wanted to be Holy Roman Emperor Frederic IV and possibly also Pope Hadrian VII. I did try to point out that the Holy Roman Empire didn’t exist anymore, so it wasn’t entirely clear who he should submit his claim to, but he remained undeterred. He also offered to make me Prince of Cornwall and Devon, should he succeed in his bid[8]. This plan[9] became a regular topic of discussion for the rest of the trip.

Back at the apartment, we played a couple of games: first up Watergate, the board game recreation of the eponymous scandal. One player is Nixon trying to cover everything up, the other is the media trying to uncover it all. I ended up playing as Nixon and lost, which was probably for the best – I’d spent all game feeling obscurely as if I should lose, because Nixon was certainly in the wrong, which made it challenging to really play for the win. It’s a good game, though. We then moved on to our stalwart of Carcassonne, which, for the first time ever for me, resulted in a tie. 174-174. I think I must be getting better at it, as I usually lose to Frederic. After that, we headed to an Italian restaurant for what we hoped would be a lighter dinner – finding something that was actually open on a Monday evening had proven surprisingly difficult – but pizza and tiramisu were a good way to finish the day. The Museum Count was now five.

[1] Unfortunately nothing to do with the Mark of the Rohirrim in Middle-earth, but named after a French noble family who were the local bishops for several decades in the 18th century.

[2] I like the Romans and the fact that they managed to spread a fairly uniform cultural model across the entire Mediterranean basin is very impressive. But it does mean that all Roman museums everywhere have essentially the same exhibits, unless there’s some sort of major monument in the area – e.g. Hadrian’s Wall or Pompeii. Pretty much what I’m saying is the Romans were too good at being Roman. Similarly, once you’ve seen one Neolithic hand axe, you’ve seen all Neolithic hand axes. There’s not a lot of variety appreciable to the amateur eye. Archaeological museums often therefore tend to be a bit samey.

[3] Essentially, fancy pots. People in all times and places just really like pots. Maybe we should rename ourselves Homo ceramicus? I find it slightly depressing for some reason that the best way to track the spread of settled civilisation is through pots. NASA’s got the wrong idea entirely – we shouldn’t be looking for evidence of life on Mars; we should be looking for evidence of pots. It’s potty. This whole day was, in some ways, the Apotacalypse. Pots. Everywhere. They’re coming.

[4] I mean, who was buying a life-size porcelain turkey? Really?

[5] We’re still on a bird theme here.

[6] i.e. miscellaneous Protestants.

[7] Straightforward dynastic succession based on primogeniture didn’t really become a thing until later in the medieval period. So Carolingian succession is mostly father to son, but there are a lot of occasions where brothers, nephews or cousins succeed instead. And they’re mostly called Charles or Louis. And the same individual can have several different hats. Charles the Fat, for instance, ends up as Emperor and king of East Francia and king of West Francia, but succeeds to them all at different times, inheriting them from different branches of the family. It’s not entirely straightforward is all I’m saying.

[8] After initially offering Duke of Rugby, which I flat-out refused.

[9] OK, ‘plan’ is a strong word, better read as ‘hare-brained notion’.


Day 2 – Let There Be History

Day 2 of my trip to Strasbourg.

Our first full day in Strasbourg began with two mysteries: the first being what some of the kitchen appliances were. There were a lot of random machines scattered on the worktop. We eventually worked out what all but one of them were, with our best guess on the last one being some sort of juicer, but its exact mode of operation remained mysterious. We didn’t care about it enough to bother turning it on, though. The second mystery was who the berk in the square outside with the Union Jack flag and a neon yellow hat on was. Our guess was some sort of tour guide, which seemed to be confirmed when he appeared to start giving a tour, but we passed a good while trying to work out why anyone would dress like that outside an EDL march. We really know how to have a good time.

The exiguous enigmas elucidated, we turned to a more pressing matter: securing breakfast. We needed to go shopping, as there hadn’t been time the night before. Doing this reminded me that a) the French are so far ahead of us on not using disposable plastic bags and b) they really do organic food a lot more than we do. Most British supermarkets have a selection of organic produce, usually next to the equivalent conventional items; in France, you get aisles of the stuff, even in what was the equivalent of your local Co-op or Tesco Express. One feels this is probably correlated with the fact that people in Britain tend to have unhealthier lifestyles. But anyway, once breakfast was acquired and consumed, it was time to start on the main attractions: museums[1].

First, though, we had to pick which museum. Strasbourg has a lot of museums, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go. In lieu of actually deciding, we wandered idly around the city centre with the vague intention of going to the cathedral. Let me say something about the cathedral: it is massive. It looms over the city like the Barad-dûr looms over the plains of Gorgoroth and is about as spikey, because it is doubleplusGothic. Inside, Gothic architecture is all about light and airiness. From the outside, though, Strasbourg cathedral is essentially a small mountain, which very clearly states that the medieval city had a lot of money and, more precisely, was both richer and holier than you[2]. It does look as if it were the tallest building in the world for about 200 years, which is was[3]. In sum, it is a very impressive bit of medieval building. Though we didn’t go in on this occasion, because it was Sunday morning and there was some sort of religious thing going on – almost as if the building were a real church, rather than purely there for tourists to gawp at – so, instead, we visited our first museum: the cathedral museum.

This is next to, but distinct from, the cathedral itself, and details the history of the cathedral and the wider town, to an extent. It is, in fact, the physical setting of the Strasbourg Cathedral Foundation, which was set up in the mid-13th century to raise funds for the building and has endured ever since, its main function for the last few hundred years being the ongoing maintenance of the building. As such, it has accumulated a fair amount of swag, unsurprisingly mostly of a religious nature. There is a lot of stained glass, including what was thought until recently to be the oldest figural piece of stained glass in western Europe, dated to 1070. Then someone re-dated it and it’s most likely 13th century, which makes it rather less remarkable. It’s still nice stained glass, though. And a lot of medieval art, which, as you would expect, is overwhelmingly religious in nature. So many Jesuses, Marys and St Sebastians[4] in particular. One diorama of the martyrdom of Sebastian was especially notable, as the crossbow wielded by one of the guards had been damaged, so it looked as if he were playing a nose flute, which changed the tone of the piece rather. There was also a statue of one of the Three Wise Men, which was clearly of the camp one, and a very tasteful pair of statues, one of the Church Triumphant and one of Jewry Defeated. Medieval Christians didn’t really go in for ecumenicalism. The most amusing thing though was noticing that the English translations on all the panels had been done by language students at the University of East Anglia. It just seemed a rather odd choice, though, to be fair, the translations were generally pretty good[5]. And, best of all, when we were paying for entry, I’d accidentally managed to convince the lady on the till to give us both the student-under-25 discount on the 3-day museum pass[6]. Despite Frederic not being a student and neither of us being under 25 anymore. I think she was so surprised that an English person could actually speak good French and had come to Strasbourg for its museums that she felt it necessary to do us a favour.

Needing a bit of a break after some hardcore museum-ing, we headed back to the apartment for lunch and to do some serious planning. Because you can’t just wander around without any idea what you’re doing[7]. That would be stressful. So, we lined up a load more museums to go and see, as well as a few other bits and bobs, though we did discover that we’d managed to be in town for the one week the Fine Art museum was shut for the setting up of a new exhibition, which was a bit of a shame. It didn’t say that was going to be the case when we booked the trip…. So, that afternoon we went to the town history museum, which does what it says on the tin, covering the history of the city from the 13th century to the present day. Upon entering, I was bothered by something continental museums always seem to make you do: wear your backpack on your front. I understand the rationale – it means you’re less likely to carelessly swing round and take out an exhibit, but it wasn’t a very big rucksack and it is bloody annoying to have to wear it the wrong way round. On the plus side, in this case there was a locker option, so we just stashed our stuff in there, but it doesn’t always work out quite so neatly.

So, anyway, what this means is that it’s time to give the promised summary of Alsacian history[8]. Here goes: the region was on the edge of the Roman Empire in antiquity, the Rhine being the effective border, with Strasbourg a legionary fortress called Argentorate. As such, it was very quickly Germanised[9] as the Western Empire tottered and ended up as part of the heartland of the Frankish realm that developed from the 5th century under the Merovingians and then the Carolingians. Then Emperor Louis I the Pious died[10], and things got interesting for Alsace. After a 3-year civil war among Louis’s three surviving sons, the region became part of Lotharingia, the kingdom of Emperor Lothair I, the eldest son[11]. Lotharingia[12] looks a terrible idea on a map: it was a big north-to-south swath of territory running from the Dutch coast down to central Italy. Not an easy kingdom to travel around in medieval Europe, with a sodding great mountain range sitting across the middle of it. The other two kingdoms, West Francia (≈ France) and East Francia(≈ Germany) look like much more rational territorial blocs. It makes more sense when you appreciate that, whilst there were three kingdoms, there was still one Frankish Empire. The division into three spheres of influence was an expeditious solution to the fact that there were three senior Carolingian males and future subdivision or reintegration was always on the cards depending on how many family members needed to be provided for at any one time. As it turned out, this broad tripartite division did largely persist – viz modern France and Germany – but Lotharingia fell apart after a few generations, with some bits being absorbed by East Francia (the majority, at least initially and nominally) and some by West Francia. In some sense, Lotharingia survived though: all those little countries between France and Germany – the Low Countries and Switzerland – are the legacy of Lotharingia. And much of what is now (south-)eastern France led at least a semi-independent existence for several centuries – Burgundy[13], Savoy, Provence, etc.

Anyway, back to Alsace: it was initially part of Lotharingia, but was then one of the bits absorbed into East Francia, meaning it spent most of the middle ages as part of the Holy Roman Empire and was therefore primarily German. The city emancipated itself from its bishop in the mid-13th century, becoming an Imperial free city, which basically gave it a load of economic advantages – exemption from some taxes, right of direct appeal to the Emperor, etc. – and, being in the Rhineland, was in fact at the economic heart of the Empire, whose economic powerhouses were always the west and south. Gutenberg lived there for a year or two before going on to bring printing to Latin Christendom. Calvin also turned up for a similarly brief stay in his early career. Strasbourg was very much a vibrant medieval and early modern city. Things went downhill a bit in the 17th century, with the city, like most of the Empire, getting a bit beaten up by the Thirty Years’ War – its bridge was the lowest downstream point at which the Rhine could be crossed – and then conquered by the armies of Louis XIV of France in 1681. And then Alsace remained French until 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War happened, Napoleon III turned out to be incompetent, and Alsace-Lorraine was once more German. Though, this time, we’re talking about militant imperial Prussian Germanness, rather than the more decentralised medieval Empire. By all accounts, the locals by this point overwhelmingly felt French[14] and were quite put out by being Germans all of a sudden. There followed 50-odd years of everyone being a bit unhappy, until 1918/19, and the return of Alsace-Lorraine to a victorious France after WWI. To whom it has remained attached since, apart from the period of Nazi occupation in WWII. Hopefully this gives you some idea of why Alsace remains a very distinctive region!

Not all of this was in the town history museum, but it seemed best to give the whole lot here, so you could understand the whole trajectory. What was in the museum, though, were a few oddities – as well as all the usual things you’d expect to find (town seals, charters, arms and armour), there was plenty of art of the ‘look at my bling, but it’s got a skull in, so it’s actually a profound meditation on death’ school, as Frederic described it, a gas-powered organ[15], and, most importantly of all, a 1666 painting that shows the locals doing what is best described as punt jousting. This is something drunk students will do on the Cam on occasion, usually resulting in them falling in to the river and getting their stomachs pumped as a consequence, but it seems to be a universal tendency for anywhere with a suitable river, flat-bottomed boats and people of questionable sanity. But, there it was: people clearly standing on the platform at the end of a flat-bottomed boat, wielding lances and trying to knock other jousters off their boats. Very unexpected. But there we are.

With that, we’d ticked off two pretty chunky museums and decided to call it a day. Dinner was provided by a Lebanese restaurant, which compared to the previous night, felt like a light snack. Back at the apartment, we played Meltwater – Frederic is a massive board games nerd, even more than me, and had brought a decent stock with him to help us pass the time. The premise of the game is that humanity has pretty much wiped itself out in a nuclear war and the only remaining habitable land, for a tenuous definition of ‘habitable’, is Antarctica, which is being fought over by the remaining Americans and Russians, with other survivors being press-ganged as required. One player is the Americans, one the Russians, and you have to use your small remaining population of civilians and soldiers to take over the continent and chase off or kill the competition. In terms of the basic mechanics, it’s all about manoeuvring, much like some kind of chess. But, there’s a fly in the ointment[16]: the sea’s radioactive, and as the ice sheet melts, the radioactivity penetrates farther inland, making more of the continent randomly uninhabitable and messing up your plans.

At this point, I’m going to explain why the premise of the game annoyed me considerably. Firstly, widespread nuclear warfare is well known for producing a hypothetical nuclear winter. As in making everything very cold. Having a game where nuclear war is melting the ice sheets is therefore a bit odd. Secondly, meltwater flows outward and most of Antarctica is above sea level, even without reckoning with the effects of post-glacial rebound as the crust springs back as the weight on it melts away[17]. So how is the radioactivity spreading inland? And, the really annoying thing, the vast majority of the continent was considered habitable because it was tundra. IT’S NOT TUNDRA. IT’S A 3 KM-THICK ICE SHEET. NOTHING GROWS ON IT. THERE’S NO WAY IT’S HABITABLE WITHOUT SUPPLIES. I realise the premise is the ice is melting, but there’s a lot of ice in Antarctica, and the East Antarctic plateau is not going to be tundra until there’s been an awful lot of global warming[18].

Notwithstanding the fact that, scientifically, it was a mess, it was a fun game. Neither of us had actually played it before, so we were initially quite inept. But, after a stunning mid-game turnaround, where it turned out one soldier could bully untold hordes of civilians, I managed to win and claim the remaining five hex tiles of un-irradiated Antarctica for the USA. The survivors of humanity would starve or freeze knowing it was their God-given freedom to do so. And that pretty much concluded the day.

[1] Come on, what else were you expecting me to say? I was hardly going to spend a week sitting on the beach or by the pool was I?

[2] Though not rich or holy enough to build the second spire, so the off-centre first one gives the cathedral a quirky asymmetry.

[3] Between 1647, when the spire of St Mary’s Church in Stralsund burned down, and 1874, when St Nikolai’s Church in Hamburg was finished. As any Russian hitmen could tell you the spire of the cathedral is 142 m tall.

[4] I can understand why Jesus and Mary got a lot of exposure, but why St Sebastian? I mean, there are a lot of saints, but if you looked at most western European medieval art, you’d think there were only about five.

[5] In case you didn’t know, I lived in France as a child, so I can make that judgement with a fair amount of certainty.

[6] Which got us free entry into all the main Strasbourg museums for those three days. Museums on the continent, even major ones, are rarely free like they are in the UK.

[7] This isn’t just me being over-organised. Lots of things in France shut on Mondays and/or Tuesdays, so we needed to work out what was open when, particularly as we had the 3-day museum pass.

[8] Which I know you’ve all been eagerly awaiting.

[9] In the sense of being taken over by Germanic tribes, rather than Germans in the modern sense. That happens later.

[10] Charlemagne’s son, in case you haven’t a clue who that is.

[11] The civil war also led to a notable Strasburgian first: the first surviving document written in the vernacular that was evolving into French is the AD 842 Oaths of Strasbourg, which is a treaty between Louis the German and Charles the Bald, Louis’s other two sons, to bury the hatchet and gang up on Lothair. Brotherly love was at a premium in Carolingian Europe.

[12] Whose name survives today in the French region of Lorraine.

[13] Burgundy is a little odd, because the name has been applied to different polities over the course of history. The famous one is medieval ducal Burgundy, which was held by a cadet branch of French royalty and mostly based in what’s now the Low Countries. But, before that, there was an early medieval kingdom of Burgundy, based in the French region of Burgundy, around the Dijon area.

[14] Now, of course, what with Alsace being French now, you might expect the museums to play up how French and loyal the region’s been since 1681, but there genuinely doesn’t seem to have been much residual Germanic solidarity after 200 years. One imagines because the Empire was never a centralised state, so the Emperor was usually a fairly distant ruler and regions were to some extent free to do their own thing, so Alsace was primarily Alsacian, rather than German, as such.

[15] As in a musical organ, where the notes were produced by gas-fed flames. It seems a case of coming up with an OTT engineering solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

[16] Or, in this case, a radionuclide in the snow.

[17] This is ‘springs’ in a geological sense. It only takes tens of thousands of years to happen.

[18] I’m not actually sure how much would be required to melt all the ice and get tundra there. I suspect we’d need 10+°C as a global mean. Let’s not try to find out.

Journey To The Heart Of Europe: Strasbourg 2019

Day 1 – Let There Be Trains

In what is possibly one of the more quixotic responses to Brexit, Frederic[1] and I went to Strasbourg for a week this year. About the most European place on the continent – a mishmash of France and Germany[2] and seat of the European Parliament. It seemed a good idea to get as much Europe as possible whilst we can still get there easily[3]. And, for a change, getting there easily meant catching a train or two, rather than visiting the pits of despair that are airports. So, after a very relaxed trip via Eurostar to Paris and TGV[4] from there to Strasbourg, we arrived on time, having encountered nary a hitch. The worst thing that happened was the all-pervading smell of urine we had to walk through outside Gare du Nord to get to Gare de l’Est for the TGV[5]. Otherwise, we passed an enjoyable journey and arrived not feeling all-over grungy and sore from the tender mercies of Ryanair/Easyjet/etc./etc. Travelling by train is definitely better than by air and wasn’t substantially more time-consuming or expensive than flights would have been, as you can book the entire journey through Eurostar – Strasbourg is one of their advertised destinations. It also gave me plenty of time to carry on with my book for the trip: A History of the Bible, by John Barton, which I can thoroughly recommend if you’re interested in how the Bible came to be in its present form across two different religions (Christianity and Judaism) and why those religions interpret it in very different manners, as well as the history of both religions more generally.

It was a little dark when we arrived, as it was 19:45 local time, and also quite damp, so we suspended our first impressions of Strasbourg until the morning, when we could see it properly, hopefully in the sunshine. We pretty much wanted to get to the apartment, drop our bags off and then get dinner, so that rather militated against forming any judgements anyway. It was a short walk to the apartment, which was on the 4th floor of a building on Place Kléber[6], one of the main squares of the city, in the heart of the Grande Ile of Strasbourg[7]. This meant we had a great view and were also within about a mile of the vast majority of the things we wanted to see. The apartment itself was rather idiosyncratic. It was a triplex, with very steep stairs between the levels – one of the staircases was a spiral one – decorated in what is best described as American Diner style. There’s an old fuel pump in the lounge. And an old vending machine. The bathroom has a porthole window onto the landing[8]. Red and black were the main colours, in a non-Les-Misérables manner, and there was a lot of chrome. It was, however, once you got past the décor, very well-equipped and comfortable. Though the downstairs toilet being entirely wallpapered in black was perhaps a step too far. It obscurely put me in mind of a recording studio, for some reason. And it was one of those toilets with a sink in the top of the cistern, which is a good space-saving idea, but also makes for a really small, rubbish sink. But, minor quirks aside, it seemed likely to turn out to be a good place to spend a week.

Having dropped our bags off and obtained a dinner recommendation from our host[9], we proceeded to take advantage of it and headed to the restaurant, an Alsacian[10] one. The underlying theme of Alsacian food is, essentially, German – imagine lots of heavy pork-based products and potatoes, and you’re in the right area. But, it has some French twists and one or two peculiarities of its own, as we were about to discover. Frederic had what is called a ‘tarte flambée’: imagine a very thin and crispy pizza base, topped with some combination of cream, bacon, cheese and mushrooms and you’ve got it. One of those certainly fills you up. They’re nice, but you wouldn’t want one every day, not unless you were aiming to have a heart attack. I, instead, ordered a ‘rosbif de cheval avec spätze’. What I was expecting was some sort of roast horse[11], though I wasn’t sure what the spätze would be – I presumed the carbohydrate. That is indeed what I got – roast horse with what turned out to be sort of cheesy gnocchi. What I hadn’t expected was the volume. It felt as if I had about half the horse on my plate. As I said, Alsacian cuisine tends towards the heavy. We followed this up with a normal-sized chocolate mousse for me and a massive wodge of blackberry tart for Frederic. We were both quite full.

Between the vast amount of dinner and the indifferent weather, we unsurprisingly didn’t feel as if we wanted to do much exploring in what was left of the evening, so retired for the night. Where we discovered that the only real disadvantage to being on one of the main city squares was that you do get a lot of silly people making noise at odd hours. Though far less, I think, than you would do in a similarly sized city in the UK[12].

[1] My boon holiday companion, who inexplicably still thinks going on holiday with me is a good idea. Three years in a row now. Fairly certain he’s mad.

[2] Don’t worry – there’s a summary of the history of Alsace as part of Day 2. So, if you were concerned that I was going to skate over all that and not explain why it’s sort of French and sort of German, you needn’t worry. Though I’m offended that you even thought it possible that I wouldn’t explain it.

[3] Though who knows where Brexit is going? It’s more-or-less turned into a cross between a random number generator and a sewage works. You’re never certain exactly what’s coming next, but it’s almost certainly shit.

[4] Inoui TGVs, the top tier of French trains – there are also Ouigo TGVs, which are the budget versions – are really nice. Two decks of seating per coach, plenty of space, everything. It’s almost as if not building your rail network with lots of small tunnels on, because you’ve done it first and in a really disconnected manner and haven’t thought about things properly, means you can have much bigger, comfier trains. Sometimes, it would be nice if Britain hadn’t invented half of the modern world first.

[5] For context, this walk is pretty much the same length as that between Euston and King’s Cross/St Pancras in London. With more urine.

[6] Kléber being the local heroic Napoleonic general, who was assassinated whilst filling the role of Governor of Egypt. His name pops up a lot in the city and the wider region.

[7] The old city is built on an island formed by the river Ill on two sides and a canal/moat on the other two. The suburbs are everywhere outside the island, essentially.

[8] Because that’s what you want in a bathroom. An easy way to see in. I think this one was less American Diner and more France Being Stereotypically French.

[9] Whose name, amusingly, was Mr Trumpet. Well, Mr Trompette, but that’s less obviously funny.

[10] I know the adjective for ‘Alsace’ is usually spelled ‘Alsatian’ in English, but if I use that, you’ll just be thinking of big dogs the whole time, which would be unhelpful. So, I’m going to Frenchify the spelling slightly as a disambiguator.

[11] When in Rome, as it were.

[12] The population of Strasbourg proper – ~300,000 – is about the same as that of Newcastle proper (i.e., ignoring Tyneside and the wider conurbation). One feels being in the middle of Newcastle on a Saturday night would have been substantially more raucous.

In Praise Of Walking

I like walking. I do a lot of it, not least because I continue to refuse to buy a bike on the basis that pretty much everywhere I need to get to in Cambridge on any vaguely frequent basis is within a 2-mile-diameter circle. Given I also walk fast, that means I can get everywhere I need to within half an hour[1]. On the odd occasion that I need to go farther afield in the local area, there’s usually a bus. So, I remain un-en-biked and resolutely pedestrian.

But why do I like walking particularly? Well, first off and fairly obviously, it’s a good form of exercise. Humanity evolved to be Good At Walking and it’s a mode of locomotion we’re naturally comfortable with and which our bodies are adapted to. So, you can get a pretty decent bit of exercise by walking fast without feeling as tired as you would after a run or a gym session. Walking also gives you time, should you wish it, to appreciate the landscape or environment through which you are travelling; perhaps more obviously useful on holiday, but also relevant to daily life.

Most importantly, though, it’s just really relaxing. Your body’s just doing what it’s built to do and you can pretty much switch off your mind and amble towards your destination when you’re walking. Cycling or driving, say, you have to keep concentrating the whole time to make sure you don’t splat (into) something, and you often arrive at your destination a bit ragged and narked, after having to deal with the frequent idiocy or aggression of other road users. Walking, though, you just have to keep the minimum awareness necessary to not walk into a tree/person/lamppost[2] or absent-mindedly drift into the road. Otherwise, you can switch off and let your mind wander. Throughout my PhD, I’ve lost track of the number of coding problems I’ve solved in 15 minutes on my walk home after having spent half a day getting nowhere with them in the office. This is perhaps why I get so annoyed at cyclists doing stupid things, as it means I have to actually switch my brain back on and pay attention to reality again when I really shouldn’t have to, rather than carrying on in my own little daydream.

So, personally, I think the Proclaimers were making a mountain out of a molehill – why wouldn’t you want to walk 500 miles? It’s the best way of getting there, assuming you don’t need to do it all that quickly and can do it within a short distance of your house spread over several months[3]. Walking: the best mode of transport.

[1] From which you can conclude that my walking cruising speed over good ground is a bit over 4 mph. I reckon my record is 2 miles in about 21 minutes, so 6 mph would seem to be my upper limit over any reasonable distance. There’s no point to this footnote; I’m just idly speculating to myself.

[2] As anyone who’s ever watched You’ve Been Framed or similar will attest, even this is sometimes too much for some people. But, usually, it’s pretty straightforward and, if you do get it wrong, the most serious injury is likely to be to your pride and you’re unlikely to be arrested for Dangerous Walking.

[3] If you do actually need to go 500 miles quickly, clearly the best solution is to get the train, for much the same reasons – it’s so much more relaxing than driving or getting a plane, usually.

Bike The Book?

You could probably call this post an en-cyclic-al. Two terrible puns, one a niche Papal historical one, and you haven’t got past the second line yet. You’re welcome.

Anyway, cyclists. I live in Cambridge. There are a lot of cyclists. Most of them are perfectly law-abiding. But. There are a lot who aren’t. To the extent that it’s a problem. Most days, as I walk the mile or so into work or back home, I can see a cyclist doing something downright stupid if not flagrantly illegal – cycling on a pavement they shouldn’t be on[1], running a red light, undertaking a bus – you get the idea. I’ve nearly been hit by cyclists several times over the years as I cross the road at a pedestrian crossing that is very definitely a green light for me and a red light for everything on the road, which includes cyclists. Now, drivers of motor vehicles, especially the taxi drivers, are also often pretty bad and drive aggressively or carelessly, but they’re not usually seen doing anything quite that blatantly dangerous and illegal. I’ve never nearly been run over by a car when I’ve crossed the road in the proper manner, let’s put it like that.

The difference, I think, is that to drive a motor vehicle, you have to pass a driving test. A major part of this test is drumming into you what the rules of the road are and that you have to obey them. If you don’t, you fail the test, or, if you’ve already passed, the police will probably pay you a visit that leads to a fine at the very least. So, nearly everyone on the road in a car[2] has a rough idea of how they should be acting and what the penalties are if they do otherwise. To ride a bike though, all you need is enough money to buy a bike. You don’t need to prove you can ride it more than a metre without falling off. You don’t need to buy any safety equipment or insurance. You don’t need to show that you have any idea what the relevant laws or the Highway Code is. You can just turn up, buy it and pootle off at your leisure.

The issue here is that everyone sort of assumes riding a bike is something you learn as a child, but that’s not necessarily the case. I had Cycling Proficiency lessons at school[3], but not every school offers those. Parents might teach their children how to cycle safely and legally, but, equally, they might not. So, it’s perfectly possible to reach adult life in this country and then start riding a bike with little or no notion of how the whole system works, certainly if you also haven’t learned to drive. In Cambridge, the problem is perhaps worse because there are a lot of university students and staff who didn’t grow up in this country, so who may be completely unfamiliar with, say, driving/cycling on the left, what British road signs mean, etc. In the first few weeks of the Michaelmas term, I’m always surprised more international students don’t end up laminated across the tarmac on account of failing to comprehend roundabouts, Give Way signs and so on.

I’m not saying cycling needs to be as heavily regulated as driving is – ultimately, a bike is a much less dangerous vehicle to other road users than a car is, though it might be more dangerous to the operator, as it were – but it is still, legally speaking, a vehicle that has to obey the same set of rules. It does consequently seem to me that there needs to be some system for ensuring that anyone who buys a bike has a basic understanding of the rules of the road, as much for their own safety as anyone else’s. In the same way that you have to go on a short course before you’re allowed to stick some L-plates on a moped and zip around with merry abandon, buying a push bike has to go hand-in-hand with a duty on the part of the cyclist to make sure they know how to use it safely. More enforcement of existing laws would also help – if people know they’re likely to get done for an infraction, they’re less likely to commit one. But, at the moment, neither of these things really seem to be the case. I know most cyclists are sensible and that it’s a minority that are causing the problem, but the problem undoubtedly exists, nevertheless. My expectation when crossing the road shouldn’t be that that approaching cyclist will ignore the red light, but, at the moment, it is. And if that’s not a damning indictment, I don’t know what is[4].

[1] Half the pavements in Cambridge are barely wide enough for the pedestrians, let alone someone on a bike. I know that cycling on the pavement is often a response to the roads being poorly designed and dangerous for cyclists, but Cambridge is (mostly) not in that category and it’s always possible and perfectly legal to get off your bike and push it on the pavement to get past an unpleasant stretch of road.

[2] I say nearly everyone. Inevitably, there’ll be some people driving who really shouldn’t be, but the system is good enough that it’s not very many.

[3] Which, if anything, made me less likely to ever get on a bike. The instructor was so keen to drum into us how potentially dangerous the roads were that I remember, as a 10-year old, feeling distinctly nauseated and scared about the smallest bike journey. Which is probably the reason I tend to avoid cycling even now. In a sense, the lessons worked, in that I’m very unlikely to ever have a cycling accident, but not quite in the intended manner.

[4] There is also a third, more libertarian, solution to the problem. Cyclists can continue to do what they like and are provided with grenade launchers to deal with bad drivers. But, pedestrians all get baseball bats and Uzis, with carte blanche on using them on any cyclists or drivers who inconvenience them. Also, at red lights, retractable cheesewire is strung at neck height across the road. Drivers get no extra help, on the basis that being in charge of a ton of high-speed metal gives you enough offensive force against any cyclists or pedestrians acting stupidly. Anyone who uses their weaponry in an unsanctioned capacity, though, is summarily shot by police snipers. It would be a bit messy to begin with, but I predict all road users would become very law-abiding very quickly.

Flame Imponderable

We all know the scene, be it from the book or the film: Gandalf is standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, facing down the Balrog[1]. He’s shortly going to smash his staff down, break the bridge, and send the Balrog plummeting into the abyss, though not before it manages to pull him over with it. The rest of the Fellowship then escapes to Lórien and Gandalf and the Balrog spend eleven days[2] playing King of the Hill, before Gandalf dies, is resurrected as the New, Improved Gandalf the White, and goes off to save Middle-earth. But, before all this happens, Gandalf speaks a memorable line: ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’ (LOTR, p.322). The Balrog looks a bit nonplussed, decides he’s bluffing and then finds out a bit late that he wasn’t. All good dramatic fantasy oration and duelling. But, what is the Secret Fire? Or, indeed the flame of Anor? Who does Gandalf serve and what does he wield?

You’d think this would be obvious, but neither of those expressions, as far as I’m aware, recur anywhere, nor are they explained at any point. So, it’s time for a bit of minimally-informed conjecture to attempt to work out what’s going on[3]. First, let’s look at the second bit: ‘wielder of the flame of Anor’, as this is perhaps more obvious. ‘Anor’, as you might know if you’ve spent some time around me, is the Sindarin name for the Sun. So, taken literally, this would mean Gandalf has a giant solar-fusion-powered flamethrower on his person. As far as we’re told, this isn’t the case[4]. What he does have are three things he could be said to be wielding: his sword, Glamdring, his staff, and the ring, Narya[5]. Of these, Glamdring doesn’t seem likely – it’s an Elvish sword, but it doesn’t set fire to things or catch fire, or anything like that. It glows blue when Orcs are around, but, last time I checked, the Sun wasn’t blue[6]. Also, I fail to see why the Balrog would be particularly bothered by a bit of glowy Elvish metal – it would have fought plenty of Elves with equally-glowy swords in the First Age and killed them[7] – so this seems an unlikely thing for Gandalf to be boasting about.

His staff is a possibility. He does use it to set fire to things on several occasions – the pine cones in Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire in The Hobbit, the wood on Caradhras to save the Fellowship from hypothermia when they’re caught in the snowstorm, and the grove of holly trees in which they’re attacked by wargs after coming down from Caradhras – and he also uses it to give light on the way through Moria. He can also produce bigger flashes of light, as when Thorin and Company are grabbed by the Goblins whilst sheltering in the cave in the Misty Mountains, and in Hall 21 of Moria to give the Fellowship a better idea of their surroundings. This sounds more like a bit of solar fire. Except, he doesn’t use it to attack the Balrog – just to break the bridge – and it also breaks apart once he’s done so. If the staff was worthy of being named in an effort to daunt the Balrog, one might think that it wouldn’t shatter quite so easily. And, again, I can’t see the Balrog being terribly bothered by a bit of wood, no matter how magical its bearer claims it to be.

That leaves the third possibility: Narya. Which, importantly, is the ruby-garnished Red Ring of Fire. This sounds more like it. And, more importantly, one of the three Elven Rings might actually give a Balrog a pause for thought – it would be something worth announcing. It would also explain why Gandalf’s announcement is so cryptic – he doesn’t want everyone present to know he’s got Narya, so he makes up some mumbo-jumbo that sounds good. Going further out on a limb, it seems reasonable to expect that, as an Ainu, the Balrog would probably have been able to divine that Gandalf was carrying some trinket of power and might have been able to guess that that was what he was referring to[8]. Though, it’s important to note that Narya is never referred to as having any particular relation to the Sun, beyond the generic fire element. However, of the three things that Gandalf could wield, it seems the best fit.

There is one further possibility, though: Gandalf may have just been referring to his own innate powers. Nearly all of Gandalf’s magic that we see is fire or light-based. He may have just been telling the Balrog ‘Look, I’m really good with fire too, so there’s no point trying to use that on me’. This would be borne out by his setting the ‘flame of Anor’, which, by extension, is the good, pure light of the Sun, against the ‘dark fire’ and ‘flame of Udûn’[9] a few words later. In effect, he’s telling the Balrog that they’re two sides of the same coin – the cleansing fire of the Sun versus the destroying fire of Hell – and that, consequently, the Balrog should be ware. The whole sentence also implies the superiority of Gandalf’s fire against the Balrog’s, which, I think, is where Narya really comes in. In terms of raw power, Gandalf and the Balrog are probably fairly evenly-matched – they’re both Maiar, a level or so down from the likes of Sauron and Eönwë – but, with Narya, Gandalf gets that bit of extra (fire)power that means he outmatches and can destroy the Balrog. As the champion of Good that he is, he’s giving the Balrog fair warning that, if it comes to it, he is capable of winning a straight-up fight between them, albeit at great personal pain and cost. That the Balrog doesn’t believe him, starts a fight and is thus killed is not his fault. He tried to warn it.

Turning now to the first part of the sentence (‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire’), this is equally unclear. However, I think an explanation can be advanced. The first point to note is that Gandalf says ‘a servant’, not ‘the servant’. So, whatever it is has multiple servants. It must also be on the side of Good and in some way superior to Gandalf, otherwise he wouldn’t be serving it. And, fairly obviously, it has to be hidden in some way. And fiery. The only thing that seems to fit the bill is the Flame Imperishable, which is described in the Ainulindalë. Exactly what it is is never made clear, but it’s the thing that Eru used to create the Ainur and which lies at the heart of the world, sustaining or creating it in some way. The crucial passage for the present discussion, though, is ‘He [Melkor] had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.’ (The Silmarillion, p.16).

This excerpt makes several things clear: the Flame is in some way identical with Eru; Melkor, and, by extension, all his servants, wished to claim it for himself and be its master; and it’s well-hidden. And fiery. So, calling it the ‘Secret Fire’ and claiming to be its servant would seem entirely logical in Gandalf’s case. Gandalf is a loyal Maia, servant of the Valar and, thus, Eru, who is the guardian of the Flame[10]. The Flame is most certainly a Fire and, from the Evil side’s point of view, it is most definitely Secret, as they were never able to find it. And Eru has, indeed, a multiplicity of servants. It would therefore seem that it satisfies all the criteria I posited above, making Gandalf’s utterance rather more intelligible.

To sum all this up, you could recast Gandalf’s rather cryptic expostulation as:

‘I am Eru’s besty, so don’t mess with me, and I also happen to know a lot about fire and my fire is better than your fire, and I have a +10 fiery power-up, so bugger off and leave us alone or I will end you, see if I don’t.’

It’s probably for the best Tolkien wrote it as he did rather than like that, though. It would have somewhat changed the tone of the book. But, at least it would have been clearer and the Balrog might have understood him better, which could have saved both their lives[11] and avoided a whole lot of hassle. Something to think about next time you’re defying an evil demonic being – plain-speaking may serve you better than cryptic fantasy allusions, even if you do lose points on your Heroic Actions Bingo Board.

[1] With or without wings and/or fluffy slippers, depending on your personal tastes.

[2] The confrontation on the bridge occurs on the 15th March; the final battle on the peak of Zirakzigil on the 25th. It was a very long bout, to put it mildly.

[3] Everyone’s favourite kind of Tolkien investigation!

[4] Or, if it is, he doesn’t use it, which seems rather an oversight.

[5] Though none of the Fellowship know this – only Círdan, Elrond and Galadriel, in addition to Gandalf himself, knew for certain where the ring was.

[6] It’s sunny whilst writing this, and I can confirm the big shiny thing in the sky isn’t blue. If it were, the Earth would be in all sorts of trouble, from an astrophysical point of view.

[7] The Balrogs, after all, were key in the deaths of Fëanor and Fingon, whose swords would have been just as potent as Glamdring, if not more so.

[8] Whether it would have been able to work out it was one of the Three is uncertain. The Balrog had been awake since 1980 of the Third Age (i.e. over a millennium), but had missed all the palaver surrounding Sauron and Celebrimbor’s original forging of the Rings, the Last Alliance and so on. It’s possible it might therefore have been entirely unaware of the existence of Rings of Power, though it would have encountered the one borne by the Dwarf Kings of Moria when it first awoke. However, that doesn’t mean it would have deduced the existence of other Rings. Sauron might have communicated with it, though, and filled it in on what had been going on whilst it took its career break, so we can’t be certain whether it knew of the Three.

[9] Udûn being the Sindarin form of Utumno, Morgoth’s original stronghold before his first defeat and imprisonment by the Valar.

[10] Or, indeed, is the Flame. As I said, it’s not entirely clear how far the Flame is a separate thing and how far it’s just a manifestation of Eru’s power. My feeling is that it’s the closest Tolkien comes to invoking the Holy Ghost.

[11] Don’t forget, Gandalf is responsible for making Balrogs go extinct in all probability. One imagines Yavanna had Words with him when he got back to Valinor.

Classical Dating

 So, in my head, this was what it would be like if the Olympian gods (and one in particular) discovered the world of online dating. I offer it with no further comment.

>> Welcome to Pindr, the dating website for Classicists!

>> To start with, please answer a few questions to help us find you some matches:

>> 1. Do you have a pulse (Y/N)?

$$ Y


>> Thank you, that completes the registration process.

>> You have 1 new match. Would you like to see your matches (Y/N)?

$$ Y


>> Your matches:

>> 1. Big Olympian Bear (100%)


>> Big Olympian Bear has sent you a message. Would you like to start a conversation (Y/N)?

$$ Y

** He must be keen. That was literally 3 seconds from me joining. Also, that registration process seems a bit lightweight. **


>> Conversation started:

&& Hey there, baby.

$$ Hi. Wow, that was fast!

&& Let’s just say I’m lightning, baby. Know what I mean?

$$ Not really. Also, you do keep calling me baby – you know I’m a man, right?

&& Sure, baby. It don’t matter to me. I’ll do anything to anything as anything. You ever fancied doing it with a swan? Or a bull? Or a shower of gold? Because, baby, it might be your lucky day.

$$ ??? Are you saying you shagged a cloud?

&& Baby, I was the cloud. Danae was on Cloud 9 that day, know what I mean? Incidentally, are you any good at cupbearing?

$$ I’m really confused. Who are you? And yes, of course I can hold a cup.

&& Baby, haven’t you worked it out? I’m Zeus, king of the Gods. The original pansexual. And talking to you. So whaddya fancy? An eagle? A bear? A goose?

$$ Hang on, isn’t Pan the original pan-sexual (geddit?)? And come off it, how can you be Zeus?

&& Pan’s a lovely guy, but he’s a) dead and b) half goat. Not a good look, baby. The Zeuster always goes full goat. Or vulture. Or ant. I go the extra mile when I want to get jiggy. And, baby, I always want to get jiggy. See what I’m getting at?

$$ I don’t believe you’re Zeus.

&& Baby, you hurt me. Let’s see if this changes your mind. Say hello to my little friend! And when I say ‘little’, I’m just being modest.

>> Big Olympian Bear sent you a picture. Cannot open: file size exceeds maximum.

$$ Possibly fortunately, that file won’t open.

&& No problem, baby, I’ll send it by Hermes. The signal’s not great up here – Hephaestos never really got the hang of things he couldn’t hit with a hammer. You don’t happen to live anywhere in central Greece, do you?

$$ Why is there a young man with winged sandals and an aggrieved expression banging on my window with a staff and an A0 brown-paper envelope? And no, I live in Croydon.

&& That’s Hermes, baby. He’s fast. Take the envelope off him. Croydon? No problem – I’ll get Boreas and Zephyros to pick you up.

$$ You really were being modest, weren’t you? Though I’m never going to be able to erase that picture from my mind. Wait a sec – are you abducting me?

&& Baby, that’s such a loaded term. It’s almost as if you don’t want to be impregnated by the king of the Gods! I promise I’ll make sure Hera’s out and that she doesn’t curse you and all your descendants.

$$ Just to repeat – I am a man; I can’t have children. And, I’m flattered, but I’m really not interested. Your track record in responsible parenting and not making Hera jealous is poor, to say the least. COUGH Heracles COUGH.

&& Baby, that’s what I thought, and then Athena happened. Trust me, if Zeus wants to give you babies, you’ll get babies. So, I made a few mistakes in the past, but I’m different now.

$$ This entire conversation is proof that you aren’t. I’ve just worked it out – this website is just a front, right? Everyone matches with you, don’t they? There are currently 2452 active users, it says here – are you trying it on with all of us simultaneously?

&& Damn, baby, when did mortals get so clever? I mean, I am a god – it’s gotta have some perks. Used to be that I could ravish anyone I wanted with a glance, and a thunderbolt was enough to impress them. Now, you’re all so jaded, even a full-on Titanomachy barely gets any notice.

$$ My heart bleeds. Didn’t the Titanomachy happen already?

&& Yeah, but now we’re all retired, we all get together and stage a re-enactment every 500 years or so. You heard about Tambora, baby? That was us and that was a big bang, and I know what I’m talking about.

$$ So all the Olympians and Titans and everyone are just sort of hanging around, idly chatting up mortals these days?

&& That’s about it, baby. People just don’t need us any more. Yahweh and Allah are all the rage right now. We get some consulting work through Bahá’í and other newer faiths, and do some supply work for the Trimurti and friends, and the orishas, loas, kami and so on – it’s amazing what you can do with prosthetics these days – but it’s basically the Costa del Sol up here. Can you blame me for having a bit of fun?

$$ Yes. Maybe you should try being faithful to Hera for once?

&& Baby, I would, but #MeToo has reached here as well. Hera and Aphrodite have realised they’ve been structurally oppressed for millennia and it’s all gone a bit Lysistrata up here. Ares is really pissed off, though that’s just his default state, to be fair. The only ones not bothered are Artemis, for obvious reasons, and Hermaphroditos, for reasons I’ll leave to your imagination.

$$ Perhaps you should apologise and promise to be less of a jerk? Why am I even having to tell you this? What am I even doing? I appear to be giving relationship counselling to an Olympian god! And stop calling me baby! We’ve established I have no interest in divine ravishing!

&& Your loss, baby. Looks as if I’ve just scored with a chick in Novosibirsk, so I’m off now. Think I’ll manifest as a wolf for this one. It’s a strong look. They’ll come round – Zeus always wins – he’s the king of the Gods! Let me know if you change your mind and want to hook up to be initiated into the EZeusinian Mysteries, know what I mean? Ciao, baby.

>> Big Olympian Bear left the conversation


**What a dick. This is definitely the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had. This’ll be one to tell the grandchildren. If I have any.**

Climate Change: The Next Generation

I did some outreach recently. SPRI ran a project to get 12 soon-to-be Year 12s, chosen after a lengthy selection process, to design and plan their own museum exhibition on climate change based on the collection of the Polar Museum. As part of that, they were subjected to a barrage of talks from various members of the institute, me included, about Polar research. Then they went away, thought about it all and came up with their exhibition, which will be on show in the Polar Museum in a couple of months or thereabouts. As far as I can tell, they were pretty intelligent and have come up with something that will actually be a good exhibition.

But, I’m not going to talk about that. Nor how young they looked. Nor even about how I managed to insult nearly all the other physical scientists in the institute during my talk[1]. No, the thing that most struck me was how disgustingly optimistic they were. I mean, I know I’ve definitely got more cynical and jaded over the last decade, but I don’t think I was ever as boundlessly positive as this group of teenagers were. It’s very heartening, though – optimism around climate change is in rather short supply at the moment and, if they were even slightly representative of their generation, maybe we’ll actually get somewhere before everything goes south. That would be nice.

But why are they so optimistic? Most people my age seem to have either buried their heads in the sand or drifted into cynicism and/or resignation[2]. I suppose it might be something to do with differences in the education system, or the greater urgency surrounding climate change compared to 20 years ago. Or maybe it is just youthful exuberance and it’ll get beaten out of them soon enough. I really don’t know. Regardless, I hope they manage to keep it up – we could certainly do with it as a country and species. It may be that Greta Thunberg isn’t quite so atypically motivated and forthright a teenager as she initially seems to be to the jaded older mind….

[1] It’s very easy to do this. You just say that remote sensing is merely ‘looking at pictures’ and has huge data gaps and no predictive power, and you’ve done it. Because 90% of glaciologists primarily do remote sensing, you don’t have to bother insulting anyone else.

[2] Personally, I think we can solve the problem, but I’m deeply cynical about world governments getting round to it in time.

Getting Up A Head Of Steam

It is currently the Ashes[1]. This is good, because it gives me something to distract myself from doing any actual work. The main talking point so far has been: how can England get rid of Steve Smith? The rest of Australia’s batting line-up is a little suspect without him; with him in, he becomes the proverbial immovable object and England haven’t so far found an irresistible force to displace him. The only thing that’s worked is getting Jofra Archer to bowl so fast that Smith gets hit on various parts of his body and ends up having to retire hurt. For those who missed it, Smith’s stay in the first innings of the 2nd Test was ended by a nasty blow on the forearm and then one on the side of the neck from a couple of Archer’s fast balls. He did return to the crease after retiring hurt and getting checked over, but was visibly shaken and perpetrated one of the worst leaves ever in professional cricket to quickly get out lbw to a straight one from Woakes.

This has rather re-ignited the debate about whether the laws of cricket should be changed to make bowling at batters’ heads illegal, particularly as Smith was wearing an old-style helmet without a stem guard (neck protection) and was hit in more-or-less the same place as Phil Hughes was, who later died. Smith seems fine, fortunately, but there’s clearly always going to be the potential for anyone facing a fast bowler to get hit in exactly the wrong place and die. So, should the laws be changed?

No, I would argue. Though not because I’m some sort of small-minded conservative who opines that ‘it’s all part of the game’ in the same way that some people objected to the abolition of the death penalty or corporal punishment in school as a matter of principle, just because it was a change. First, though, to play devil’s advocate, the argument for changing things: proponents of changing the laws point at, say, American football and rugby, where, after some high-profile injuries and deaths, high tackles and deliberate targeting of the head are now right out. Similarly, real football has started taking concussion injuries from tackling or accidental collisions  much more seriously. And, to be fair to cricket, it has followed suit, with the recent advent of rules surrounding the treatment of concussion and substitutes for concussed players, which we saw put into practice for the first time in a Test with Smith. But, given the adoption of new-style helmets with stem guards isn’t mandatory for players – they can feel more encumbering, rather than it’s players being stupid – accidental deaths could still occur. And, no matter how much we all like cricket, surely we should ensure that the rules, as far as reasonably possible, remove the possibility of such accidental deaths?

Generally speaking, I agree with this position and wouldn’t have any problem with making more protective helmets a requirement for any batter. But banning bowlers from targeting the head – moving towards a rugby model – would be idiotic. Because it wouldn’t stop balls hitting batters in the head AND would make the game much less interesting. In rugby, it is relatively easy to not tackle people around the neck. As the tackler, you are more-or-less entirely in control of where you make contact with the tacklee. Sure, they might dodge or jink, but, if you’re aiming for their torso/waist/legs, it’s very unlikely you’re going to end up smacking them in the face. It’s also very unlikely that going for the head is ever going to be your only option to make a tackle, so the ban on high tackles isn’t going to mess up the flow of the game particularly.

However, as a fast bowler in cricket, you can do everything humanly possible to avoid knocking batters out, but you could still end up doing it. This is because the trajectory of a ball once it’s left the hand of the bowler is only partially determined by the bowler[2]. You can aim at a particular spot on the pitch, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it exactly. How the ball bounces off whichever bit of the pitch it hits is, indeed, partly determined by the bowler’s intentions – how hard it was thrown, the angle at which it was thrown – but is also in large part a result of the state of the ball and the state of the pitch. In other words, a bowler can never be entirely sure how a ball will bounce after it’s hit the pitch. So, you could aim to bowl something that’s not going to bounce above chest height, but it could hit a patch of rough, spit up and take the batter in the face regardless. There’s also a further factor that complicates matters: the batter themself. They don’t stay still. Especially someone as fidgety as Smith. Wherever the batter is when the bowler releases the ball, they’ll quite probably be in a different position by the time the ball reaches them.

So, all banning bowlers aiming at the head would do would make them bowl exaggeratedly slowly and carefully to avoid any unintended chance of a ball doing something illegal, which would make cricket really dull. I’m not saying bowlers should be given carte blanche by any means – they’re not anyway – but bowling is too imprecise an art to make any rules governing the trajectory of the ball after it’s left the bowler’s hand in any way practical. It would be a bit like blaming a footballer for hitting someone in the face with the ball after their shot takes a deflection off another player or a ricochet off the woodwork. So yes, encourage batters to wear better helmets and discourage fast bowlers deliberately trying to smack people on the head, but don’t ban it, because it wouldn’t solve anything. The nature of cricket means there’s always a slim chance someone might get seriously injured, and the only way to deal with that would be to ban cricket. And that just wouldn’t be cricket.

[1] Note for Americans and people not interested in sport: the Ashes is one of the oldest sporting competitions in the world and is a bilateral cricket series between England and Australia, contested every 18 months or so. It is generally quite hotly contested and usually generates some sort of controversy. This post is therefore going to be about cricket. If you have no interest in cricket, you may want to stop reading now, because I can’t be asked to explain everything without using cricket jargon. Or you could skip the first paragraph and get to the bit where I start making a more general point.

[2] Unless you bowl a really horrendous full toss, in which case you probably shouldn’t be allowed to bowl.

So It Begins

As well as banging my head against my computer over the last few weeks[1], I have taken what feels like an irreversible step: I have started writing up my PhD thesis. It feels a bit as if the bell has just gone for the final round of a very long boxing match, we’re both level on points, and the end is coming soon, but whether that end is me being dragged KO off to hospital, winning on a technicality or split decision, or standing triumphantly over my defeated opponent remains to be seen.

But, it really does rather feel as if this is the beginning of the end. I’ve spent three years in a comfortable PhD bubble and, one way or another, starting to write up is what really marks the start of the process of exiting that bubble. I have to think about what comes next for the first time since February 2016, which is a little unsettling[2]. The only certainty is that things will change[3].

First though, I actually have to write the bloody thing. And. It. Is. So. Dull. I’ve talked before about how the writing style of academic papers is about as interesting as the paint-drying room at the Annual Convention of Beige-Paint-Watching Enthusiasts. Well, a PhD thesis is like that turned up to eleventy-stupid. The literature review is particularly bad – you’re just repeating what other people have said and/or propounding a load of very dry theory. The method section is also the worst – it’s just a list of things you did, hopefully with justifications as  to why those decisions you made two years ago because they sounded a good idea at the time actually are a good idea. After that, things go into a bit of a decline when you finally start talking about what you found out, but in such a recondite, joyless manner that you’d think it had been written by Marvin the Paranoid Android after having been lobotomised and losing his joie de vivre.

The only good bit is the acknowledgements, because you’re allowed to have a personality when writing those. I’m saving writing those for when I really need cheering up. I’m not sure what the record for ‘Longest Acknowledgements in a PhD thesis’ is, but I might have a good go at beating it. If only to stop me turning into Marvin over the next 6 months[4].

I think I will be very glad when this is all over. I don’t hate my PhD, but I think I could end up hating its physical embodiment. God, it’s dull. Hard work I can live with; it’s the boredom that is the real killer. No one warns you about this when you start out!


[1] Mostly figuratively. Mostly.

[2] As things stand, I still have no idea what is coming next. Given I don’t run out of money until March, it’s still slightly too early to be able to start nailing anything down. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself….

[3] That’s one of those truisms that sounds really profound until you actually think about it, when it turns out to be bleeding obvious. It’s a slightly higher class of platitude.

[4] I am fully aware that, should I stay in academia, as I hope to do, I will almost certainly have to examine a PhD at some point and, consequently, properly read someone else’s thesis. Obviously, I will do so, but I can’t say the thought fills me with elation.