Every item has a story

Every item has a story attached to it. Some are boring, mundane; recycled rubbish. Others are extraordinary, but all have stories framed by their interactions with and interpretations by us humans. Some of these stories span decades or even centuries, and if we look beyond the first few pages and deep into the dusty tome of its existence, we arrive, perhaps, as close as we can get to the people who wrote the opening lines of the objects story.

I have a jetton coin. It’s a counter that used to be used for chequer-board accounting, such as the Royal Exchequer in England. They were popular throughout the middle ages and early modern period, until Arabic numerals, and their much less complicated 1’s and 0’s, replaced the cumbersome Roman numerals. My jetton is in poor, green-and-rust condition you sometimes see in pennies that have been drowning at the bottom of a well for too long. It’s made from an incredibly thin piece of brass, but despite its age it’s still possible to read on the obverse side GLVCK KVMBT VON (good fortune comes from God), and on the reverse; HANS SCVLTES NOR (that’s the makers name, Hans Schultes, and Nor is short for Nuremberg, which was a centre of Jetton production). There were a few Hans Schultes, so it can’t be dated for certain, but it was produced sometime between 1586 and 1612.

Despite the age, it’s not valuable in monetary terms. As well as the poor condition, some previous recipient decided to poke a hole through the middle, and at some point in time it was folded across the centre. More chapters added to the jetton’s story.

Folded coins are often signs of pilgrimage, particularly in England. People would pray to a saint for good health of better fortune, and bend a coin as a sort of token that would then be offered at a saint’s particular shrine should they fulfil their part of the bargain. Was this the case with the jetton? It’s impossible to tell for certain. Like a story, there is often subtext and allegory. To say that someone almost 400 years ago was going through such difficulty that they made a pact with a saint is to scrawl our own notes over their manuscript.

Of course, the jetton also a hole punctured through the centre. To be worn as a pendant in memory of the saint’s intercession, perhaps, if our own notes are highlighted in bold. This reading offers its own plot twists and conundrums; when did the jetton arrive in England, and who in such a strict protestant country would openly practice such a Catholic tradition as veneration of Saints?

Perhaps our notes need to be rubbed out so we can better read what they wrote. The puncture may simply have been a merchant’s mark so that the jetton wasn’t passed off as a coin to be traded. Did this happen in Nuremberg? Elsewhere in continental Europe? Is there any significance in it being pierced through the obverse? Was it folded deliberately at all, or rather trodden on?

History isn’t a short-story; it’s a saga of epic proportion. To look into the past is to try to understand which chapter goes where in order to produce a coherent narrative. And the story of history will never reach its conclusion. Grab your pens and start scribbling.

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Exchequer table. Notice the pile of jettons bottom left.

 

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Weaver

 
 
 

At first, I thought her singing was something different. I didn’t have time to think what else, but the very fact it took me a few seconds of staring at her to link the sound I was hearing with the women walking across from me suggests a curiosity at the unusual. She had a nice voice, I thought, though she was quickly out of earshot. Headphones on, she was clearly somewhere else; not strolling down the road on a pleasant but cold end to an otherwise miserably grey day.

I could quite easily imagine the disapproving glances aimed at the singer, the exchanged looks and raised eyebrows, the whispers. The horror some might have that the proscribed norm had been broken. Buskers sing, but then that’s expected. People walking alone down quiet streets usually don’t. It’s not an environment we’re supposed to express ourselves in. It’s too residential, conservative. Keep the shenanigans for city centres, not the suburbs.

It got me thinking about the story of Arachne, the brilliant weaver who drew the jealous interest of the goddess Minerva, the very embodiment of weaving. Arachne, confident in her ability – or just plain arrogant – challenges Minerva to a weaving contest. Minerva’s tapestry is rigid, almost statuesque; it’s a set of schematics. Arachne’s is a fluid, almost lifelike vision. It is clearly better than the goddesses, so Minerva tears it up and turns Arachne into a spider, doomed for eternity to weave the same design over and over. She’ll never create something unique again; that is her real punishment.

Let’s all express ourselves. That’s what we as humans are; it’s the one thing that separated Minerva from Arachne. It’s what makes us write, makes us paint; makes us sing on the street. We’ll never stop creating. Let the gods hurl their thunderbolts, let them try to turn us all into spiders. We’ll admire their beauty as they light up the sky.

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How it feels

I remember the moment I first sent a manuscript to an agent. It was midnight, early October. Coffee was keeping me going. Quite literally years of work had led up to this caffeine-enhanced night; not just my own, but also my editors who had taught me that its’s isn’t a word. I think I already knew that. It must have been a typo…But anyway, I felt like I wasn’t just sending it on my behalf, but on theirs too.

The weeks beforehand had been spent on the stuff most writers seem to hate; cover letters and a synopsis, not to mention researching agencies. Now was the time to finally take the step; to cross the boundary between dreamer to author. Every hundredth time I had reread a particular paragraph, all those hours spent agonising of an insignificant point; thousands of tiny decisions had led to this – a completed manuscript. Finally.

Of course, the first three chapters – which is all most agencies want – were slightly more completed than the remaining twenty two. So there I was, email all written up, files attached. Everything was set up. I hit send.
I don’t think I was electrocuted, but I still ended up on the floor, shaking slightly. It was done. My manuscript was out there, in the big wide world of smiling, trendily dressed agents. Having survived the first attempt, it was easier sending it to other agencies. Waiting was more difficult.

Every writer knows that they’ll be rejected. It’s an almost certainty, and every website and book that deals with publishing will have somewhere in big, flashing letters; YOU WILL BE REJECTED. How many times was that famous, respected author rejected before an agent finally took them on? Plenty. I remember thinking that my preferred agency shouldn’t be the very first one I sent my manuscript to. Logic dictated that it would be rejected. They always are, at least once.

I knew this. I knew I would get a rejection because everybody does, and sure enough, so did I. To be honest, I was just excited to hear back from the agency, and the email they sent was nicely worded and made me feel as if they hadn’t personally spurned me; it wasn’t that my manuscript wasn’t good enough, it was that they were too busy….right?

Or there’s that other line they love to copy and paste; It’s not quite what we’re looking for, but keep looking…

Ok, this sounds like I’m jumping on the agent-slagging bandwagon. I’m not. Really. From what I had read online, I expected each rejection to go something like…

Dear author?

Unfortunately, having used your manuscript as toilet paper, I never got a chance to read it. I can tell you though; it didn’t flush very well…

In fact, I found them to be relatively polite, most of the time. Anyway,
they’re busy people reading all those manuscripts and sipping all that expensive wine. The first rejection was expected then, the second was disappointing. The third was disappointing. The fifth was mildly annoying. The tenth was expected. And that’s probably how it should be, otherwise it would just hurt too much. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best may sound a bit negative, but it’s a form of self-defence and it works for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t still send off manuscripts in hope (though I must admit, I haven’t in a while). Never give up on your stupid, stupid dreams. I like that saying. Never give up. We’ll all get there in the end.

Here’s my first rejection. Quite nice.

Dear Matthew,

Thank you so much for sending me your work. However, having considered it carefully, I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel it’s right for my list.

I’m sure you’ll understand that the extremely high volume of submissions I receive means that unfortunately I’m not able to give more detailed feedback.

I wish you the best of luck with other agents.

With best wishes,

a broken ode to that feeling you sometimes get when you write

I still haven’t found the balance between writing because I need to, and writing because I have to. I want everything to be an outpouring of the heart, to occupy my every thought. That’s not practical though, despite in the past not caring too much for practicalities. I want a story to consume me, to take me over and allow me to become it – but at a cost to my own self? It may ultimately be me who kills them, but they don’t half make it painful. And joyful. And there’s excitement and frustration and laughter and apathy and boredom and wonder. In a way, that’s what I’m afraid of opening myself up to again. I want to keep them at a distance, yet fear that will compromise what they are and who I want them to be. I know it won’t be long before they infiltrate my life again. Part of me wants that. Part of me fears it.

Writing

Writing is fire. It is a need, a necessity; there’s no choice to do without it, to drop your pen and darken your mind. Fire consumes, burns. It dances to its own tune, appears how it wants to appear, goes where it wants to go. You cannot tie a leash around it. To stare into the flames is to surrender yourself to something else – something you can’t quite comprehend. It is beauty; raw, powerful, elemental. It’s something you want to touch, want to be, but then it burns you and turns you to dust. Embers drift like a thousand ideas; only a few will spark and combust, take over, burn relentlessly. When it rains the flames will cower beneath a cloud of steam, kicking and hissing against those who try to douse it. Fire burns even when you close your eyes; you feel the heat even when you’re not close by. And when the fire does dim, does shrink to a smouldering orange glow, it will always rise again, because without it, you will freeze. Writing is fire.

Apollumi

 

I have a bad habit of ignoring short stories in favour of novels. I wrote the following a couple of months ago, with the intent of dealing with past attitudes in a non-judgemental, objective fashion. It’s easy to take the moral high ground when examining history, but to do so is to juxtapose our cultural norms with their cultural norms. If we judged historical figures by own standards, we would likely end up being disgusted, shocked, horrified. As L.P. Hartley wrote; ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.’ And it’s best we just accept that.

 

 

Greek Terminology:

 

Metic – Foreigner

Lacedaemon – Spartan

Polis – City-state

Oikoi – Household

 

Apollumi

 

It was a mild night, but that didn’t make my task any less urgent.

I followed the salty smell of rotting fish to the harbour. Oil lamps flickered all along the seafront as watchers gazed over Poseidon’s realm. Black triremes bobbed on the gentle current, their brass rammers twinkling beneath Selene’s passing gaze. The gods were busy tonight, both within the walls of Piraeus and in the ashen fields beyond.

Athenians slept rough like poor metics who had just arrived from some far flung part of Greece. I kicked an old, desperate looking man out of my way as if he were a disobedient slave, not a citizen of a polis. An Athenian. A democrat reduced to lying awake whilst his crops were trodden underfoot and his livestock slaughtered by the Lacedaemons. And all the while Pericles spoke of the courage of Athenian men, even as smoke from the Attic countryside stained the sky.

I stumbled closer to the waste dump. The smell was more potent each night, and I found myself covering my nose with my sleeve. I proceeded some way into the dump, before stopping and listening, trying to disconnect the separate sounds; to decipher the message on the wind…Wood creaking, sea breathing, cattle stomping, voices raised in the night…a baby balling. I held my breath and concentrated on the hungry infant’s cry, waiting for it to louden desperately, calling for someone, anyone; ordering attention like a master bossing his slaves.

Its commands were heralded and it stopped screeching, mouth plugged by its mother’s breast.

I continued my search. Broken pots grinded beneath my sandals, and I saw that I wasn’t alone, but was in the company of young boys who were making a game of sliding down the rotting hills whilst searching for anything valuable the swollen city might have unknowingly expelled. I shooed them away. They were competition, after all.

My decision not to bring an oil lamp seemed to have been the wrong one, as cloud rolled overhead and dulled the moon’s light. It wasn’t self-consciousness at what I was doing that had determined by decision, rather there were too many strangers in the city to risk showing myself off. So, I stopped where I was and I closed my eyes and I listened to the voices on the wind and again I heard something. Screaming. It didn’t stop.

Such a scream connects us all. From kings to slaves, everyone has screamed to such a tune like that I could now hear. This infant was more determined in its bossing of the world, like an old tyrant frantically calling to his many servants without realising that they had all left him to die alone. I was careful where I put my feet, especially when the volume of the cries rose to such an extent that I winced. So close to it, I felt a fluttering of compassion for such a tiny creature, an illogical anxiety that I still would not find the infant, rather someone else will.

All of that tension soon dispersed when I at last found the bossy baby, still wrapped in swaddling clothes, screeching and stretching. I picked it up gently, supporting its head. It calmed down slightly, perhaps in expectation of a meal. I checked to see that it was a girl, two days old perhaps. Her father had come to the decision that she wasn’t wanted quickly, as was his right. All he would have seen in her pink face was a dowry he could not afford – someone who would be married off to propagate another’s oikoi, whilst leaving his own poorer.

I held the lively child against my chest, having found with my own children that the heartbeat of another often soothes. The girl took pause from her frantic display, and looked at me with black eyes, wondering perhaps if I was her mother, who she will never see again.

I moved quickly, yet careful not to risk damaging the infant by stumbling or tripping over. Her tears resumed, and I whispered to her stories of Orpheus and his quest into Hades to rescue his love, and Orion’s doomed obsession with the beautiful Pleiades. Distracting myself like this, it seemed like no time at all until I was compressed within the Long Walls which connected Piraeus with the city proper. The route was crowded with refugees from Attica. There was a pestilence there making people cough until their eyes were blood red, vomit until they could no longer stand, so ravaged by ulcers that it hurt them too much to even move. Some were saying the Lacedaemon’s had poisoned Piraeus’ reservoirs; others that the gods were getting their revenge for some ill deed done towards them.

I left the worse of them behind and found the atmosphere in Athens less wretched, but still discernibly tense. Hoplites, in a panoply of armour despite the late hour, moved agitatedly between burning lamps, wondering when the day would come for them to march out of Athena’s city and meet their foe head on.

Approaching the Agora, I turned so that my back faced the Acropolis and carried on for a while until there was a wooden storehouse to my right. The child in my arms was silent, having fallen asleep some time ago.

I knocked on the door to the storehouse. Moments later a panel retracted and a pair of suspicious eyes stared at me. Trading hours had long since ended, but I was a familiar face, and the door soon swung open. The slave who had admitted me carried off the box he had needed to stand on to reach the peep hole, and went to call his master. The child in my arms threatened to scream again, perhaps disturbed by other infants she could hear crying.

One of the side doors opened and a tired-looking proprietor entered, accompanied by a freedman and a female slave. “Antenor,” he greeted me.

I acknowledged him. “Xenagoras.” I shifted my arms so as to show him the infant. “Another one exposed at Piraeus.”

Xenagoras nodded towards his freedman, whom I handed the child over to. She immediately started screaming. After examining her, the freedman gestured towards his former owner, before setting the infant down on a set of scales.

“A good weight,” Xenagoras said, clicking for his coin purse. “I’ll give you fifteen drachmas for it.”

“Twenty,” I said immediately. “And you can sell her for five times that amount in twelve years.”

“It’s the twelve years that cost,” Xenagoras said with a chuckle. “Seventeen, or you can put it back where you found it.”

I decided not to fray my working relationship, and so extended my hand and shook on a deal. The baby was handed over to the slave girl who would act as her wet nurse. Before they left I said to the slave, “Tell her a story if she needs calming down, just not the one about Niobe and the Twins.”

Business concluded, the freedman counted out the coins and hands them to me. I hid them in a pouch in my tunic.

As I was readying to leave, Xenagoras called out to me. “I heard your household has grown since last I saw you.”

Proudly, I turned back to him and said, “A little girl, two weeks old. I named her Cassandra. Her brothers seem to think she’s a toy, but gods’ willing she’s a strong, healthy child.”

 

 

 

 

Sunburn

Some things pass from existence with a gentle flutter, hardly noticed. Their sudden absence does not change the fundamental workings of our earth. Our planet is good at keeping going. It has been blasted by asteroids, choked by super volcanoes, frozen beneath sheets of ice, and yet when faced with disaster, it has proven resilient enough to wipe the slate clean and start over, to rise from the ashes of calamity.

The earth is not a never-changing rock, a timeless blue dot. It is not a permanent feature in the universe, and nor is it our species’ eternal refuge. Even if we survive our own appetite for self-destruction and earths fraught journey through the cosmos, there is one conclusion this world cannot escape.

The sun is getting brighter. You won’t notice it, and neither will your children. Or your grandchildren. Or your great-grandchildren. It might be tempting to disregard the sun’s demise as an irrelevance; in many ways it is, at least to us personally. We won’t be the last to experience a perfect day on our home world, the last to watch flakes of snow melt on our outstretched hands. We are not going to be witnesses to a celestial murder.

Yet what we will lose, what every person who ever has lived will lose, is our home. The home of our friends and family; the home of Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Galileo, Shakespeare. The long-away destruction of our home matters because our home is our self. Everything we have ever done as a species has been acted out on the stage that is planet earth. Every memory ever made has its setting on this world or close by it. Whilst, in the future, mankind may reach out for other planets, other stars, and there make new memories, they will be disconnected from us today. Alien. Our anchor is set on planet earth, and the chain stretches back all the way to its genesis.

We will not face the Armageddon of the sun’s death throes. We will never see the sun shine bright enough to overwhelm every photosynthesising plant. The oceans won’t boil before our eyes, and we will never lose sight of the stars behind thick, burning clouds. No one will stand on the new Venus to watch in awe as the sun swells an angry red, devouring the whole horizon each time it rises. If any humans are still around in the solar system, they will have to view from afar as the bleeding sun pulses off its vendetta into space, and shrinks into a cold, white speck.

When astronomers recently discovered a white dwarf star – similar to what our sun will become in billions of years’ time – they found traces of oxygen in a circumstellar disk orbiting it. They came to the conclusion that an asteroid had once orbited GD61 which contained a large amount of water; maybe it was a small part of a larger world broken up during the cataclysmic death of its sun; a living world. Perhaps one day someone will see the white light of our frozen star, find traces of oxygen and conclude that it too might once have supported a world with water, which may have plausibly housed life. That will be our world’s legacy. Our legacy. Words printed on a gravestone for others to read.