Archive for July, 2011

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its people (book #111)

31 July 2011

Alan K Bowman, 1994.

Quotes Auden’s poem Archaeology:

The archaeologist’s spade
Delves into dwellings
Vacancied long ago,

Unearthing evidence
Of life-ways no one
Would dream of leading now,

Concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
But guessing is always
much more fun than knowing.

Refers to the letters of Claudius Terentianus, an Egyptian who was in the Roman army in the second century. These were sent mostly to his father and were excavated at Karanis in Egypt. I like the list of things he sends his father in one letter:

a bag well sewn, in which you have two mantles, two capes, two linen towels, two sacks and(?) a linen covering. I had bought the last together with a mattress and a pillow, and while I was lying ill on the ship they were stolen from me. You have also in the bag a cape of single thickness; my mother sent this to you. Receive also a chicken coop, in which you have sets of glassware, two bowls of quinarius size, a dozen goblets, two papyrus rolls for school use, ink (for use) on the papyrus, five(?) pens, and twenty Alexandrian loaves. I beg you, father, to be content with that. If only I had not been ill, I was hoping to send you more, and again I hope so if I live.


And this letter explaining that he is going with the army to Syria:

Since they were nothing to me – (I say this) in the presence of the gods – but words, I conceived a hatred(?) of no one. I went . . . by boat, and with their help I enlisted in the fleet lest I seem to you to wander like a fugitive, lured on by a bitter hope. I ask and beg you, father, for I have no one dear to me except you, after the gods, to send to me by Valerius a battle sword, a . . ., a pickaxe, a grappling iron, two of the best lances obtainable, a cloak of beaver skin(?), and a girdled tunic, together with my trousers


And this description in another letter:

Saturninus was already prepared to leave on that day when so great a quarrel broke out. … He paid no more attention to me than to a sponge stick, but (looked only) to his own business and his own affairs.


I like the vulgar phrase “no more attention than to a sponge stick”.

To go back to Vindolanda, here is a sock excavated there:

Vindolanda sock

Unseen Academicals (book #110)

30 July 2011

Terry Pratchett, 2009.

Now what would I do at this point if I were in a romantic novel? Glenda said to herself as the footsteps died away. Her reading had left her pretty much an expert on what to do if you were in a romantic novel, although one of the things that really annoyed her about romantic novels, as she had confided to Mr Wobble, was that no one did any cooking in them. After all, cooking was important. Would it hurt to have a pie-making sequence? Would a novel called Pride and Buns be totally out of the question? Even a few tips on how to make fairy cakes would help, and be pretty much in period as well. She’d be a little happier, even, if the lovers could be thrown into the mixing bowl of life. At least it would be some acknowledgement that people actually ate.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (book #109)

15 July 2011

Mollie Panter Downes, 1999 – the stories were originally published between 1939 and 1944.

I like the way she shows the positive side of the war, like Major Marriot having a lovely time as an ARP warden in “It’s the real thing this time” (published 15/06/1940):

‘They dropped the poor devils by parachute in Holland. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that fella was mad enough to try it here,’ he said hopefully … [he had] the absent-minded tenderness of a man who loved women and danger but had somehow ended up with Miss Marriot [his sister] and a warden’s rattle beneath crossed assegais.

She also shows the social problems, such as Roger and Madeline moving in with Gregory and Laura in “Combined Operations” (published 29/08/1942): “‘Mad talks brightly at breakfast, and Roger is always in the lavatory when I go there'”.

She’s good on mixed or unpleasant feelings – in “The Hunger of Miss Burton” (published 16/01/1943) Miss Barton, constantly hungry on rations, feels “a sense of utter, wonderful repletion” when her colleague Margaret has argued with her fiancĂ©.

And on awkward social encounters and inadequacy. In “It’s the Reaction” (published 24/07/1943), Miss Birch regrets the end of the Blitz because it’s the end of the communual sleeping in her block of flats and the resulting friendliness. She visits Mr Masters to try to re-ignite their camaraderie – “with lightning, cruel clarity she knew the visit wasn’t going to come off”.

I like Mrs Dudley’s evacuees returning to London in “The Danger” (published 08/07/1944) “as joyfully as cats plunging back into a dustbin”. Mrs Dudley is happy with the peace in her empty house, and then a friend of her daughter-in-law turns up wanting to come as a paying guest with her baby. Panter-Downes achieves sympathy for both:

Everywhere was full, Mrs. Craig said, trying to smile and not succeeding, in a perfectly adult way. … She waited [having refused Mrs Craig] for the usual rush of pure happiness to flood over her at the thought [of being alone in the house] … But today something was wrong, for nothing happened. Nothing at all thought Mrs. Dudley, staring miserably at the clock, which soon told her that the London train would now be steaming out of the station [with Mrs Craig on it].