When I picked up Lost Japan in my local Waterstones I was expecting to read a book about Japan’s fading past. Instead, I received a book of Alex Kerr’s lamentations about how his concept of Japan was being covered over by concrete. He frames the Japanese as a people deliberately trained to be passive and disconnected from their heritage. It is certainly a read that has polarised reader’s opinions of whether or not this is a book worth reading.
There is no other period in history that excites the reader as much as the dark ages. The dark ages began with the fall of Rome and with it the search for knowledge. It ends, in Britain, with the titanic struggle for the throne in 1066 between competing Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Norse cultures. It is a difficult period to piece together due to the lack of written testimony left behind by the agents of change. “In search of the Dark Ages” attempts to give its readers an insight into this dramatic part of the British story by creating a narrative of carefully woven characters and events. The real question for us as readers though, is how successfully does this narrative convey the trials and tribulations of the Dark Ages? Continue reading
The Acropolis is one of those magical places. I have never been quite so awed by any place that I’ve visited before this. Sure there were hordes of fellow tourists, ongoing restoration works and a merciless sun beating down but these did little to detract from the sense of wonder such a place evokes. To think that such a place was constructed in the 5th Century BC is in itself enough to impress any visitor. To think that at the same time as people here in Britain were living in wattle and daub structures people were able to construct such engineering marvels as the Parthenon with it subtle use of perspective and geometry is shocking.
If you do visit the Acropolis make sure you get a guided tour. The structures are beautiful but the stories, myths and legends conveyed by a guide do so much to give a sense of the people that inhabited the place. For example, our guide pointed out the Areopagus a rock where murderers were tried so that they didn’t taint the city of Athens. We were also told that the Areopagus was the place where Orestes was tried for killing his mother and her lover. As well as this, the Areopagus is supposedly the spot where the Gods tried Ares for the murder of Poseidon’s son according to Greek mythology. These little bits of culture are not available on the few information signs scattered around the site and really did wonders for creating just that. A sense of wonder.
Most interestingly for myself, I was drawn to the Temple of Athena Nike rather than the far more impressive buildings constructed at the summit. This building is rarely open to visitors but our guide gave us a wonderful sense of the importance of what is otherwise a comparatively boring temple. She told us that the Temple is oriented to face the island of Salamis where the Athenian people sheltered as the Persian army under Xerxes I destroyed Athens in 480BC. It was here that the Athenian fleet beat the Persian fleet leaving Xerxes with no option but to withdraw his army from Greece. Whilst the battle story is interesting it is the consequences of the Athenian victory at Salamis that the Athena Nike really reveals. Fundamentally, Salamis was a battle where West beat East. Without Salamis, there would be no democracy, citizenship, philosophy, theatre and even trial by Jury. Salamis catapulted Athens to the forefront of classical civilisation and allowed many new ideas to flourish. The small unremarkable Temple of Athena Nike encapsulates some of the most important drama to unfurl in the history of Europe and it is far too easily overlooked by visitors in favour of the Parthenon.
This is the view that greeted us when we clambered up the last steep incline onto the summit of Mount Snowdon. In the distance low clouds moved ominously towards us and in a few short minutes they would obscure this view completely. We found ourselves asking, as the sun faded and the world turned a cold grey, was it worth it?
Our journey to the top of Snowdon started below the summit on the shore of Llyn Gwynant in a small 3 man tent. We started our day, sipping on warm tea made with yesterday’s milk and chewing on a breakfast bar with a handful of Jelly Babies for a pick me up. Ahead of us lay a 4 mile hike to Pen-Y-Pas and then another 4 mile hike up the Pyg Track to the top of the mountain. Sat at the start, it seemed like a lot for two slightly overweight young men to achieve but we’d been waiting for our window of good weather and finally it had arrived.
I wouldn’t say we jumped at the opportunity. It was with great reluctance that we abandoned our blue and red camping chairs overlooking the lake but leave we did. I won’t say that the first stage of our walk, from the tent to the start of the Pyg track, was easy. It wasn’t. The ground was soft as the constant rain that had plagued us for days had caused the local streams and rivers to swell. Squelching along through knee high grass on slippery ground we hoped our whole trip would not be so difficult. Whilst we were looking down, we didn’t get much time to look around us but when we did, the view of the valley was stunning. It was especially pleasant to see our little tent down by the lake getting smaller with every step.
After an hour or two, we reached the start of the Pyg track. Ahead of us lay, another 4 miles of walking and over 760 metres of elevation. Taking the last opportunity to use the facilities we steeled our already tired legs and started off again. Our footpath rapidly changed into a series of steps and we dragged ourselves from rest stop to rest stop. Doubts began to form in my friend’s mind, he didn’t think he was fit enough to make it. I pushed him onward, reluctant to let him give up on one of the easiest routes. Luckily we ran into a group of Irish scouts and we chased them all the way up to the top. Their positive attitude and crazy antics (including some very interesting leaning off ledges) cheered us up. The sun finally made its appearance around lunch time and we stopped a hundred metres below the summit for a sandwich or six.
One last trudge up what seemed like a near vertical slope brought us to the top of the mountain and seemingly the top of the world. As our vision cleared the top and we could gaze far over Wales we took a moment to watch the shadow of far distant clouds travelling ponderously over the hills and valleys. It was a view I shall not forget in a hurry. It made the hours of stumbling, sweating and struggling worth it. All too soon, the clouds began to blow in and we were left unable to see our hands in front of our faces. The temperature dropped by several degrees as we turned our back on the summit and started another long walk back to our tent, back to unfinished mugs of overly strong tea.
I’ll admit to it. I’m partial to an eclair or seven. I know its the time of the year when diets are all the rage but I just can’t help myself around them. It only occurred to me the other day, however, that I didn’t know very much about these delicious pastry treats. So I decided to have a quick search and this is what I found.
Whilst Lemon Curd is quite possibly my favourite topping for a slice of thick toasted white bread it is also a highly versatile preserve with multiple possible applications in the kitchen (though I will not be eating duck with a lemon curd marinade again). What you might not know is that lemons belong in the Rutaceae family (along with oranges, grapefruits and limes among others) and that they probably reached Europe around the same time that the Roman Empire was flourishing. Citrus fruits have a pretty cool history being at the cutting edge of human exploration, colonisation and conflict from being brought back from Alexander the Great’s invasion of India to their arrival with conquistadors in Florida.
There are around 140 countries producing citrus fruits but Brazil, The United States and China by far produce the most. Production of citrus is constantly growing but currently sits around the 110 million ton mark and covers 18.7 million acres. In terms of lemons and limes this figure is about 13.7 million tons (and no I will not be squeezing out any smiles there). In terms of the production per acre is usually around the 5.3-6.7 tons per acre mark. Most stunningly is the fact that about 90% of all the citrus fruits produced globally are actually consumed domestically (in the country of production). Whilst it’s not the biggest producer of citrus fruits the Mediterranean region is certainly the biggest exporter of citrus in its fruit (rather than juice) form. In terms of imports the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany are the biggest importers. This shouldn’t be too surprising as these countries suffer from bitter winters in which citrus plants struggle to survive and produce good yields.
Lemons are pretty great. They are hugely important in boosting the human resistance to a range of health problems thanks to their high vitamin and reasonable fibre content. The citric acid in lemons may help prevent the formation of kidney stones. Citric acid and vitamin C both help the body absorb iron which can help to prevent anaemia in people with low amounts of Iron in their blood. Their high vitamin C levels whilst beneficial when you have a cold also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease which is also helped by the plant compounds hesperidin and diosmin found in lemons.
Threats to and Impacts of Production
Whilst I’ve painted a pretty rosy picture so far but here comes the doom and gloom (sorry in advance). We’re going to focus on the production of citrus fruits in Florida here as it’s a pretty good representation of the threats to citrus production globally.
The majority of the water (about 90%) being used in Florida comes not from the sky but from the permeable aquifers underground. The extraction of this water has led to problems with sinkholes forming and saltwater permeating into previously fresh water wells. Agriculture isn’t entirely to blame but it does use around 50% of the water produced in the state. The problem with citrus groves is that they have relatively short root systems and they are very water hungry. Thanks to their tropical/subtropical origins they are evergreens that constantly shed and replace their leaves as they grow (resulting in a lot of wasted water). More damming is the evidence from Australian citrus production that shows mature citrus plants requiring 7-8 mega litres (1 Million Litres or 100,000 cubic meters) of water per hectare per annum to maintain healthy production. Ok, Florida’s stands in all honesty probably require a little less thanks to a slightly more favourable climate and some advancement in irrigation techniques but that’s still a lot of water. In the case of citrus, whilst it’s produced in 140 countries in how many of those countries is the climate suitable to long term sustainable production?
He waved rapidly, if not a little vaguely, at the bare top a nearby grassy hill. “It was there upon that hill where the Huscarl stood resolute as the Norman tide surged and broke against them” he spat the words whilst chopping and thrusting with his arms as if they were swords. “Arrows darkened the sky and slammed into the stout shields of a human wall. Crossbows made their first deadly appearance on British soil.” By now we had reached the bottom of the sloping ground. The Norman position. He gestured to his right where a tangle of wild flowers spoilt the verdant green. “The Bastard, William, unleashed his secret weapon from here. Knights. Not like the knights you’re imagining I’m sure. There’d be no plate on this battlefield and therefore no knights in shining armour here. These would have been the first knights, cavalrymen in chainmail, carrying a kite shield and lance. Swift of horse, manoeuvrable, deadly to isolated footmen. So alien to the Saxon fighting man that rode to battle and then dismounted to fight on foot.” Despite his advancing years the Professor charged up the slope, his thinning grey hair being lifted by a gentle breeze. I struggled to keep up. He was fuelled by passion, I merely flirting with the idea of it. Near the crest of the hill he stopped and turned to look back down the slope. His eyes, originally cold and a little hostile sparkled with life. “Here,” he whispered, “is where the Saxon story ends. This very spot.”
I took a moment to consider my acquaintance. I began to think to myself that this strange Professor may be a little unhinged but certainly not unlikeable. In fact he had me enthralled, carried along by his passion like a stone in a roaring river. Bouncing along just below the surface but very much a part of the process. There may have been a gulf of years between us but this man transgressed the ages as though the years were seconds. Whilst he seemed slow at first impressions he quickly traversed vast distances both physically and culturally. He was a man in love with the people of the past and that clearly endeared him to the people of the present.
By now he was gasping for breath have not stopped speaking whilst performing acrobatic feats a man twenty years younger would have been envious of. He stopped for a heartbeat longer, contemplative, finding the strength to renew his assault on the events of the past. This time from within the Saxon shield wall itself.
Eventually, this piece of writing might find itself fleshed out into something more. I’m just waiting for the inspiration to come to me.