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Oldest house in Wales found in Cardiff

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An excavation in Cardiff has revealed the remains of what may be the oldest known house in Wales.

The find was made by archaeologists and volunteers in a dig at Trelai Park in the Caerau area of Cardiff. The park contains the remains of the 1st century A.D. Ely Roman Villa on its grounds, and is just half a mile from the Iron Age Caerau Hillfort. A geophysical survey earlier this year revealed a roundhouse beneath the grounds. Archaeologists thought it might be a late Iron Age settlement and arranged the dig in the hope that the roundhouse might reveal new information about the site during the period between the late Iron Age and the early Roman era, crossing the bridge between the occupation of the hillfort and the construction of the Roman villa.

The excavation unearthed tools, post holes and pottery fragments. The roundhouse was enclosed by a fence — that’s what the postholes were for — with an exterior ditch for defense. About a quarter of the roundhouse emerged, all told, but the most significant find was made in the last week. It is a clay pot whose design marks it as a Bronze Age piece around 3,000 years old. That means the roundhouse was far older than the late Iron Age, likely built in the mid-to-late Bronze Age between 1500 and 1000 B.C. If those dates are borne out, this is the oldest house ever found in Cardiff.

Dr Oliver Davis, CAER Project co-director, based at Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: “What we’ve found is completely unexpected and even more exciting. This enclosure could be providing us with the earliest clues on the origins of Cardiff. The pot that’s been found is beautifully decorated and well preserved. It is extremely rare to find pottery of this quality. It’s also unusual to find a Bronze Age settlement in Wales  – there are only one or two other Bronze age sites in this country.

“The people who lived here could have been members of a family whose descendants went on to build Caerau Hillfort.” […]

Tom Hicks, an archaeologist who came through Cardiff University’s Exploring the Past pathway and volunteer Charlie Adams both found and recovered the pot during the dig.

Tom said: “This is a very well-preserved example of Bronze Age pottery and a significant find for the archaeological record in the region. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn more about the lives of the people living on the site around 3,000 years ago.

“The beautiful decoration on the pot shows that these people wanted to display their creativity to others and further scientific analysis may be able to tell what the pot was used for before it ended up in the enclosure ditch and how or where the pot was made.”

Hundreds of volunteers have been involved in the excavation, and will also be involved in the conservation and exhibition of the artifacts.

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thedimpause
29 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Country diary: We should open our eyes to the wonder of wasps

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Wasps were there throughout the decades that Mrs Weston – “Auntie Vi” to generations of climbers along the cliff-rimmed coast of south Pembrokeshire – ran Ye Olde Worlde Cafe opposite the Vicarage Field campsite. On a recent sunny afternoon I ​sharply ​remembered her memory, her immaculate coiffure. Vespula vulgaris – the common yellowjacket – was still here, causing consternation around garden tables, doing no harm.

Why do wasps arouse such fierce human antagonism? They’re quite beautiful. I watch in fascination as, antennae in constant motion, they stalk round rims of paper cups that have replaced Auntie Vi’s best china. Eager wasps tumble into sugary dregs, to be fished out with a teaspoon –​ ​or​ perhaps​ not,​ according to the customer’s degree of panic.

Like wasps, climbers crave sugar and on the whole are not fazed. Both do well in the garden of what’s been lamentably renamed the Bosh ​Tea Rooms. Ivy still grows across its walls, chattering sparrows quest across lawns for crumbs, the sun beats down​,​ and memories glow of walks, climbs and friendships from long ago. The cafe’s an outdoor institution, at the start of ways down to Stackpole’s lily ponds and Broad Haven’s pristine beach. Why should the wasps not enjoy it here too?

I’ve had my moments with wasps, of course. Once, peering into a shed in an overgrown garden nearby, a speedy, immaculately striped, slim-waisted squadron of sentries zoomed out of a papery grey nest and ​into my open-necked shirt. They administered seven fiercely burning stings before I stripped off the shirt, whirled it about, and escaped their attentions.

Little harm came of the attack. I bear wasps no grudges, ​and ​came away from the experience with a healthy respect for them and a sense too of their capacity for cooperative action in defence of their nest. They appeared to be acting in concert, and to draw off by mutual agreement once warning had been given.

I’ve just read with avid attention Seirian Sumner’s marvellous book Endless Forms – a passionate plea for recognition of the ecological importance of wasps being on a par with, if not superior to, that of bees. She’s convinced me. If wasps inherit the earth, can they do worse than humanity?

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thedimpause
32 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Long gone, but speaking clearly to our age – Shelley, the poet of moral and political corruption

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“Shall rank corruption pass unheeded by,

Shall flattery’s voice ascend the wearied sky;

And shall no patriot tear the veil away

Which hides these vices from the face of day?

Is public virtue dead? – is courage gone?”

No, not a description of the moral void of contemporary Britain, but lines from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, an excoriation of the moral devastation wreaked in late Georgian Britain two centuries ago. It was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and published anonymously in 1811, in support of the radical Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who had been imprisoned for seditious libel after accusing the Anglo-Irish politician Viscount Castlereagh of the torture and executions of Irish rebels challenging British rule.

Shelley’s poem was “lost” for nearly 200 years, before a single copy of the pamphlet was “rediscovered” in 2006, and a decade later bought by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, so finally it could be read by the public again. A poem that speaks to our age as much as it did to the Britain of two centuries ago.

Friday marked the bicentenary of his death. He was drowned after his boat, carrying him home after visiting his friend and fellow poet Lord Byron in the Italian town of Livorno, capsized in a storm. He was a month short of his 30th birthday.

Wordsworth said of Shelley that he was “one of the best artists of us all; I mean in workmanship of style”. He is also one of our most significant political essayists, “the relentless enemy of all irresponsible authority, especially the irresponsible authority which derives from wealth and exploitation”, as Paul Foot, whose 1981 work Red Shelley helped restore the significance of Shelley’s political work, observed.

Shelley’s greatest gift was in the deftness with which he interwove the poetical and the political. Poetry had, for Shelley, of necessity to appropriate a political dimension. And politics required a poetical imagination. That was why, as Shelley put it in a celebrated line from his essay A Defence of Poetry, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

Poetry did not stand aloof from the world but sought to engage with it and to transform it. We live in an age in which working-class politicians can be mocked for attending the opera. For Shelley, the measure of high culture lay in the degree to which it could spark the imaginations of ordinary people.

Born into landed aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford, Shelley seemed destined for a life at the heart of the British establishment. However, he was also born into an age of tumult, a maelstrom, both intellectual and political, unleashed by the French Revolution.That tumult helped Shelley find his voice. And Shelley, in turn, tried to give voice to it. He was, as his most insightful biographer Richard Holmes put it, like his poetry, not ethereal as literary tradition would have it, but “darker and more earthly”.

Shelley’s first significant work – The Necessity of Atheism – published in his first year at Oxford, led to his expulsion from the university and strained his relationship with his father to breaking point. Living precariously as an itinerant writer, Shelley found his home instead on the radical edge of British politics, a crusader against moral and political corruption, a campaigner for republicanism and parliamentary reform, for equal rights and the abolition of slavery, for free speech and a free press, for Irish freedom and Catholic emancipation, for freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

His political ideals were often contradictory, his revolutionary spirit clashing with his Fabian instincts for gradual, non-violent change. Yet, unlike fellow Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley never abandoned his radicalism, his disdain of authority or his celebration of the voices of working people.

His personal life was tumultuous, too. He left his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, who later took her own life, to live with, and eventually marry, Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. He was forever trying to find refuge from debt collectors and eventually he and Mary left Britain to live in Italy. Mary Shelley would create, in Frankenstein, one of the great explorations of the contradictions of modernity and of what it was to be human.

Despised by the literary and political establishments, Shelley wrote for the working-class autodidacts for whom learning and culture were means both of elevating themselves and of challenging those in power. Fearful of the consequences, his work was suppressed by the authorities, either through direct censorship or through threatening publishers with the charge of sedition.

As a result, much of Shelley’s work was published only after his death. The Masque of Anarchy is perhaps the most famous political poem in the English language, written in furious anger after the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when at least 15 people were killed as cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 who had gathered to demand parliamentary reform and an extension of suffrage. Shelley sent it to his friend, the radical editor and publisher Leigh Hunt. But Hunt did not publish it, for to do so would have been to invite immediate imprisonment for sedition. Not until 1832 was the poem, with its celebrated last stanza, finally published:

“Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.”

In the decades that followed Shelley’s death, his poetry became an inspiration across generations and borders. Queen Mab became known as the Chartists’ Bible, read aloud at working-class meetings. The Suffragettes’ slogan, “Deeds, not words”, is taken from The Masque of Anarchy. And that final stanza has been on the lips of many who have “shaken their chains”, from striking Jewish garment workers in early 20th-century New York to protesters 80 years later in Tiananmen Square and a century later in Tahrir Square.

And most of all, perhaps, it is in his insistence that we question the claim to power of those in authority that we most need Shelley’s voice today. For, as he put it in Queen Mab:

“Nature rejects the monarch, not the man;

The subject, not the citizen…

… and obedience,

Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,

Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame

A mechanized automaton.”

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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thedimpause
33 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Portable Magic by Emma Smith review – a love letter to reading

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One of the most familiar visual tropes to emerge from the pandemic has been that of Serious People seated in front of their bookshelves. Whether it’s a cabinet minister on television or an accountant working from home, the poetics of Zoom insist on a backdrop of titles composed of equal parts stuffy professional manual, well‑thumbed Penguin Classic and, for those who like to raise the stakes, last year’s International Booker prize shortlist. Books don’t just furnish a room, they semaphore to the world exactly how you yourself would like to be read.

In this brilliantly written account of the book-as-material-object, Emma Smith explains that people have been posing in front of their libraries ever since Gutenberg started cranking up the printing press. Before, in fact: one of her earliest revelations is that people in China and Korea were printing books several centuries before sluggish northern Europe got round to it. Still, one of the most deft proponents of the early “shelfie” was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, also known as Madame de Pompadour, companion of Louis XV. In the 1750s, when Jeanne was making the tricky move from maîtresse-en-titre to femme savante, she enrolled her favourite painter, François Boucher, to manage the transformation. From now on he was to paint her either against a backdrop of crammed bookshelves or, better still, actually reading a book and looking thoughtful about it.

Boucher was careful to give bookish Jeanne the same creamy décolletage and luscious sweep of a silk gown that featured in her early publicity portraits, on the grounds that there was no reason why a woman couldn’t be clever and sexy too. It was a message that Marilyn Monroe took to heart when in 1955 she posed for the famous photograph taken by Eve Arnold, in which she wears a swimsuit while absorbed in Ulysses, a novel often described as unreadable. The following year Monroe would marry playwright Arthur Miller, prompting Variety’s famous headline: “Egghead Weds Hourglass”. Monroe’s “shelfie”, then, functions along similar lines to Madame de Pompadour’s careful self-staging as she transitions from pin-up to public intellectual.

In Portable Magic – the phrase is borrowed from Stephen King – Smith’s subject is the materiality of reading, or what she calls “bookhood”. Books in their physical form turn out to be endlessly adaptable, not just in the domestic space as doorstops, yoga blocks, and occasional kindling when times are tough, but out in the world too. In the first world war, pocket-sized Bibles were clad in full metal jackets in the hope that, carried close to the heart, they might save a soldier from enemy fire while also saving his soul. More mundane is the revelation that, at the beginning of this century, fragments of some 2.5m copies of Mills & Boon novels were used to create an absorbent, noise-reducing layer for surfacing the M6 toll motorway in the Midlands. This, though, should not be taken as a comment on commercial romantic fiction: Smith reminds us that being turned into substratum, or something like it, is the fate of most books, high or low. Her own publisher, the esteemed Penguin Random House, runs a large “centralised returns processing site” in Essex which shreds, crushes and bales around 25,000 of its own books every single day.

More joyous altogether is Smith’s retelling of the creative intervention perpetrated by Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell on their library books in the late 1950s and early 60s. Each week the men would take out the lustreless novels available from their local Islington branch and spend the intervening weeks snipping out the cover images and patching them up with something surreal before returning the books for circulation. Phyllis Hambledon’s 1960 bodice ripper, Queen’s Favourite, had its cover repurposed so that, instead of a young wasp-waisted woman in a ruff, the main figures were now two bare-chested male wrestlers. In a study of John Betjeman the photograph of the straw-hatted poet was replaced with one of a pot-bellied and heavily tattooed man in his underpants. Orton and Halliwell also had their way with blurbs, so that the inside flap for Gaudy Nights hailed Dorothy L Sayers “at her most queer, and needless to say, at her most crude!”

Smith reads Orton and Halliwell’s actions as a kind of queer performance art. They were not vandals or, at least, that is not all they were. The books they roughed up were mass-produced and easily replaced – this was not the literary equivalent of drawing moustaches on old masters. Rather, the men were engaged in a protest against the relentlessly middle-brow, heteronormative pap on offer to the citizens of Islington. Within a couple of years, Orton wrote Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane, the avant garde plays that shook up a British theatre that was already bored with the kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s. Still, Orton believed that the reason he and Halliwell were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment was because they were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The Daily Express reported, on the same page as the Orton–Halliwell book trial, that a drunken driver who had killed his passenger received the same sentence as the book vandals of Essex Road.

When the muddle-headed puritans worried about the “poison” that Orton and Halliwell were releasing into the body politic they were drawing on ancient terrors about the book as a vector of disease. As late as 1907, public health authorities decreed that any volume from a household recently visited by smallpox, cholera or tuberculosis should be disinfected, if not destroyed, for fear that it might carry contamination far and wide. Smith is quick to see a parallel here with the early days of the pandemic, when government guidelines warned that books that had been bought online should be quarantined for 72 hours before being deemed safe to handle.

How thrilling, then, to learn that this principle can also work the other way round. Smith explains that ancient volumes are now being harvested for accumulated DNA – skin cells and traces of nasal mucus from sneezes – left behind by early readers. At one level this allows us to glimpse people from the past as they lean over a particular volume: the detritus from a 1637 American Bible recently revealed the DNA of a northern European reader who suffered from acne. More therapeutically, plans are in play to swab old books to gather genetic material that predates modern medical problems such as antibiotic resistance.

Portable Magic is a love song to the book as a physical object. In tactile prose Smith reminds us of the thrills and spills of shabby covers, the illicit delight of writing in margins when you have been told not to and the guilty joy that comes from poring over traces left by someone else. It is these haptic, visceral and even slightly seedy pleasures of “bookhood” that she brings so brilliantly to life.

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thedimpause
46 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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‘It’s dopamine’: why we love to track our watching and reading habits

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The end credits are still rolling when I open up my JustWatch app to mark Luca Guadagnino’s seductive psychodrama A Bigger Splash as “Seen”, complete with satisfying green tick. I click on my Letterboxd account to do the same, logging the date I watched it, before scrolling back and finding my sense of achievement disintegrate into guilt that I have only managed to watch a measly two films in the whole of April.

I am one of millions for whom religiously tracking their cultural intake has become as instinctive as recording their steps, workouts, calorie count or periods. Letterboxd – dubbed “the social network for film-lovers”, who can log, review and discuss films with other members – recently hit 6 million members. The Amazon-owned GoodReads, which has been doing the same for books for the past 15 years, has a community of 140 million, with 5.1 million thus far pledged to take part in its 2022 Reading Challenge in which users set a target number of books to read over 12 months. Meanwhile, IMDb has more than 1 billion user reviews logged. Like wellness before it, cultural consumption has become yet another opportunity for us to measure, analyse and optimise our lives using cold, hard data.

I first started logging my cultural intake as an attempt to impose order on the deluge of content available to us, but I quickly succumbed to the buzz of box-ticking. Dr Karen Shackleford, editor of the Psychology of Popular Media journal, compares it to the positive feedback signals we get while playing video games: “It’s kind of amazing what little amount of reward will motivate people,” she says. “It’s dopamine in our brain, and it’s like a pursuit chemical so it keeps you playing.”

Despite the positives of this – that we are motivated to make space for things we enjoy – it doesn’t exactly feel in the spirit of great art to be gamifying it in this way. And the flip side of those gratifying “Watched” lists is their ominous (and guilt-inducing) “To watch” opposite numbers. What ought to be an enticing smörgåsbord of future entertainment begins to look like an impossible mountain to climb.

This is only amplified by tracker apps encouraging public sharing, as demonstrated by the Spotify Wrapped lists of people’s most-listened-to tracks of the year that flood social media every December. Professor Deborah Lupton, an expert on the self-tracking phenomenon and author of The Quantified Self, explains: “We’ve got used to this idea that it’s good to share our habits online, and that it’s nice to get feedback.” But there could be an adverse effect if it becomes “all about competition. I think that probably is a way of diminishing the pleasure.”

If your account on any of these platforms is public, there might even be performative pressure to curate your track record at the expense of honesty – say, logging The Power of the Dog but omitting Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Lupton believes that the expansion of tracking from the health sphere to our cultural intake was inevitable: a result of our sharing economy coming together with the migration of the arts to streaming platforms that have monitoring baked into their technologies. “In many cases we have no idea what they know about us,” she says. “But for things like Spotify or GoodReads, people are able to generate their own data.” And for those fully on board with the idea of tracking ourselves with technology, the more data we can collect, the better we know ourselves. As Lupton explains: “We have this mentality that metrics are more accurate or more insightful than other ways of learning about ourselves.”

That chimes with the fact that a popular feature of these apps is analysis: neat visualisations that will show you precisely who your favourite artists, actors and genres are. It is magnified when we are encouraged to assign a rating. “I understand the value of numbers,” says Dr Shackleford. “But sometimes I feel like it’s too reductionist. Everything you put a number on is hopefully correlated to a deeper reality but I can’t really quantify these things. Is Pride and Prejudice a five but Northanger Abbey a four? I don’t know! I would like to think that Jane Austen would find that appalling. It’s a work of art. It has value no matter what. Even though I’m a quantitative researcher, it seems off.”

Instead, she urges caution in accepting any of these numbers at face value: “Maybe you didn’t realise you watched five films with Colin Firth in, but just because you have, that doesn’t mean he’s your favourite actor. That’s still a human thing. The data might give you a false impression.”

That said, I can’t help but feel envious when I talk to someone who has a record of their viewing habits for almost two decades. James Morgan registered his first vote for a film on IMDb on 11 April 2004, when he was in sixth form. Now 34, he has logged 2,267 films on the site. (His list is private – a means of cataloguing what he has seen rather than something done for clout). Where I was concerned that tracking our cultural intake might turn us into more passive consumers, Morgan argues that accessing his viewing has provided focus.

“It’s trying to steer that compulsion to watch loads of films, rather than it being a bit aimless,” he says. “I guess there’s a perverse incentive pushing you to get that number to creep up and maybe that’s to the detriment of watching things you’ve already seen and loved. At the same time, I’m not sitting down of an evening [thinking], ‘Better watch a film and get my IMDb numbers up!’”

He does admit frustration at forgetting to log the odd film, though. “It actually pains me that occasionally I stumble across one [that I didn’t register first time around].” It all might sound fastidious, but for Morgan one of the main appeals of keeping track is the opportunity for reflection: “I distinctly remember watching [classic zombie movie] Dawn of the Dead on the BBC and it blowing my mind. I can see now the day I voted for it was in November 2004. It’s quite a nice thing sometimes to be able to look at.”

Despite the clinical nature of sticking every film you’ve ever seen on to what is essentially a spreadsheet, it all suddenly sounds quite romantic to be able to scroll through a lifetime of loving film or books or television. Dr Shackleford agrees: “If I could magically have a list of every film I’d ever watched and when, I would want that! There are theories in psychology that you watch certain things based on the developmental stage that you are at, or because something is happening in your life that you want to either directly address or avoid.”

Thus bad break-ups might be evidenced by a fortnight of weepy romcoms, or getting fired from a job by a month-long binge of revenge thrillers. The culture we choose to consume is more than just a sideshow; it’s an impression of our lives – our emotional or mental states reflected in how we choose to spend our leisure time. In that sense, there is no “winning” however much tracking apps might push us towards that mindset. It’s one thing to hit your goals on your exercise app, but culture is not something that can be “completed”. There is no payoff with fireworks dancing across my screen as an app tells me: “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE WATCHED ALL THE FILMS!”

Instead, I need to start thinking of my tracking habit as a companion rather than a driving force: a loose guide to alleviate the tyranny of choice, a convenient memory jogger and a journal that I can dip in and out of. Because, however meticulously we collect the data on ourselves, ticking a box will never be representative of the subjective, intuitive, unpredictable and intangible ways in which we respond to culture. And that is where the real value lies.

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thedimpause
46 days ago
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The love song of TS Eliot: intense letters reveal the passion behind the pen

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The great poet’s newly released missives to his lost love put the lie to his aloof image – but were dismissed by the man himself as fantasy

To many who knew him, TS Eliot was considered a remote and intellectually aloof man, as perhaps befitted the author of the bleak and foreboding epic The Waste Land. His contemporary, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, went as far as to describe him as “cold-storaged humanity”.

But previously unpublished letters show that the great modernist writer was actually an intensely emotional and passionate man.

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thedimpause
75 days ago
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