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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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.

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.

 

 

 

Eternal End

The End.

It seems a good way to start a blog. The end tells us a lot. It signals that something is over, has ceased to be. It underlines and crosses it off. Finished. Done. Move on.

The end also reflects upon what has been, since it is a deliberate statement of conclusion. Something has gone before, be it a book or a life, and now it is no more. It has said what it wanted to, or was given time to say; its personal dialogue has been silenced. It can be talked about and discussed by others who are still scrolling through the previous pages, but they will all, eventually, turn the final page and see a blank white sheet with ‘the end’ stamped on it in bold, indomitable letters. For in the end, there is always an end. It will triumph, because nothing is infinite. There is no forever in this universe.

All things come to an end. That’s not to say all things die, since the vast majority of everything was not alive in the first place. A rock cannot die, so to say that the universe will die is to anthropomorphise it, to transform it into some greater presence; a godly collection of gasses and darkness. So the Universe will end, many trillions of years from now, as the cosmos expands and cools, the last dwarf stars having burnt what remained of their dwindling fuel and a perpetual blackness descending upon an already bleak and lifeless chasm, clouded with the ashes of stars. It will take trillions of more years until everything cools to the same freezing temperature, and then the universe will fall still. Nothing will ever happen again.

Or will it end earlier? Is the end the death of life or the death of ‘things?’ What is the universe when it’s not interpreted by curious life forms, be they humans or whatever else is undoubtedly out there in the vast complexity of the universe? We are the universe’s eyes and ears; it cannot rationalise or interpret itself. Without life, the universe will not exist. Not in any meaningful way. Something vast and magnificent, yet senseless and unknown. Like a great work of art displayed in a black pit; it may as well be a crayon sketch. It takes humanity to flash a light on it, to give it meaning. We view the universe from the inside as separate beings, and yet are dependent on it for everything. All we are and all we have are gifts from the cosmos. It is us, and we are it. Inseparable.

So the Universe will end, will cease to be interpreted. We are merely a by-product of a series of events which have been in motion for 13.75 billion years, events that will continue to evolve until they end. There will then simply be an absence. A void. The blank space after the end. Something I’m not sure it’s even possible for us to comprehend.

Donnia Italia, a freed slave who died at a time when Helios was thought to drive the sun across the sky with his chariot, had an epitaph inscribed on her tomb by her former masters. ‘I was not, I was, I am not…’1

We, life, will one day not be. And that is when the universe will truly end.

1Hope V.M. (ed.) (2007) Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook, Abingdon, Routledge