History, writing, storytelling, poetry and my conversation with AJWrites57 !

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(The earliest form of history writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt was the Sumerian King list. The Weld-Blundell prism, above, was discovered at Larsa in 1922. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes ‘fair use’ in illustrating one of the first documents of writing.)

Instead of me leading the reader down a brief history of writing, I asked my good friend AJWrites57 to participate in a blog/interview. His love for writing and poetry is immense and has somewhat shaped the person that he is today. Through a series of questions I hoped that AJ would lead us down a path of discovery, I otherwise may not have considered. Let me tell you, AJ doesn’t disappoint us with his breadth of thoughtful answers. Dotted throughout the blog you will also find my thoughts and commentary. I hope you will enjoy reading about some of the things AJ and I are interested in. It may also inspire you to reflect on those things that influence and interest you that we often take for granted as readers and writers.

An overwhelming part of our human history is unrecorded. It is quite sketchy for us to know exactly what people thought, their beliefs, motives and aspirations were. Sure, we can piece together reconstructions from artifacts and so on, but it isn’t quite the same as actually recording it. Much of our knowledge of ancient times, therefore, is a matter of interpretation. The invention of writing in early human civilisations is credited to the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians around 3500 BC. They were the masters of pictographic scripts.

Literature and writing, as a more ’true’ form of written expression developed later first with the Greeks and Romans. The first epic poems such as Homer’s The Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses inspired generation of scholars and readers alike. In the East, Islamic culture and literature would be encapsulated in wonderful folk tales like The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Further east in China, the first great military author, Sun Tzu would bequeath to the world his The Art of War. This book alone has influenced many modern military tacticians and officers today. It is here that I will transgress from purely a narrative on the history of writing and open with my conversation with AJ about “all things literary.”

What books have most influenced your life ? “The Bible for a philosophy of life. The Odyssey for heroic inspiration and ancient thought. To Kill a Mockingbird for the moral teaching and revelation of Southern life and soul. Crime and Punishment because of Dostoevsky’s grasp of the human condition and description of the Russian soul. Paradise Lost because of the powerful imagery, language and message. (Finally) Shakespeare’s Sonnets because of his use of the English language and his view of the human condition, especially the theme of love.”

Odyesseus_sirens

(Very much like AJ, I too, cherish the epic Greek poem ‘The Odyssey’ enormously. It is, in part, a sequel to Homer’s The Iliad. Its epicenter follows the Greek hero Odysseus and his long journey back home after the fall of Troy. The image above appears to be in the public domain. It depicts Odysseus encountering the Sirens.)

Out of all of these books above, I would dare to say that one of these is your favourite book ? Which one and why?To Kill a Mockingbird captures the  life of a small town, in the rural South, wrestling with racism, morality, prejudice, child-rearing, single-parenting, the effects of one man standing against insurmountable odds for what is right, and the importance of a father’s influence. I’ve read this book many times and it still moves me each time, as does the film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. It’s as faithful to the book as any movie has ever been.”

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(For such a wonderfully gifted writer, Harper Lee published only one book. Thank goodness it was the Pulitzer prize-winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). I believe my inclusion of this first edition cover constitutes as ‘fair use’. I wish to show its importance as a historically important book. Source Wikipedia)

AJ, you have known me for a while now and that I love history. You wont find many fiction books in my home library, most of my books are about Roman history, Europe and war. I also know that you read my blog and have an interest in history too. What is your favourite history book and why? From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Martin Barzun. Barzun’s sweeping chronicle of Western Civilization is breathtaking in its scope and wisdom. It’s encyclopedic content was overwhelming. I was familiar enough with world history to be able to follow and digest his great book. His conclusions about civilization are somewhat pessimistic but one can only marvel at his grasp of history.”

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(Jacque Barzun wrote over 40 books and at the age of 84 wrote his swan song ‘From Dawn to Decadence’. He was honored for his achievements in writing, cultural history and education. He died in 2012 at 104 years of age. The following portrait of Barzun was painting by Eric Robert Morse. Source Wikipedia)

If you had to choose, which writers would you consider a mentor? (If possible, please name at least one ancient, medieval and modern mentor. Briefly, why ?) “The (authors of) Bible because it is the revelation of God to man and the chronicle of His people. It provides a basis of a moral philosophy to live by. Homer because through The Iliad and The Odyssey we catch a glimpse of the ancient Greek world and their worldview. Also, Homer reveals how the Greeks related to their deities. Sophocles because, through his plays, he depicts the struggle between man and his gods and the struggle to understand why things happen in the world. Aeschylus, often described as the Father of Tragedy, reveals the human conflict in and relationship to the gods. Augustine because of his teaching and influence on the Early Christian Church. Hildegard von Bingen because of her faith, her gifts, her music, her spirituality and one of the first feminine influences in Church History. Dante’s Divine Comedy because Dante encapsulated the teaching of Thomas Aquinas in his literary masterpiece. His imagination and art have influenced me. CS Lewis because of his approach to explain and defend the existence of God. Francis Schaeffer because of his approach to explaining and defending the existence of God; also because of his description of a Christian worldview. (Last but not least) Ernest Hemingway because of his writing style and subjects.”

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(Hemingway is often regarded as America’s foremost literary celebrity, who spent more than 30 years in the spotlight. What some people don’t know and others overlook is that what a ‘lucky’ man he really was to live through his 61 larger than life years. I described Hemingway in one of my articles as ‘a man with nine lives’ ! He was a Noble prize and Pulitzer winner for his novel ‘The Old Man of the Sea’.)

I can see why Ernest Hemmingway is considered one of your mentors. Great choice ! He is one of those larger than life characters that also interests me. Others writers mainly historians inspire me like John Julius Norwich and Lars Brownworth. From a creative point of view, J.K. Rowling inspire me, as she has inspired a generation of new readers and writers, to dream big. Which writers inspire you to write ? “Yes, I would choose Hemingway for his ability to tell a story simply and concisely. E. E. Cummings for his brilliant approach to poetry. Dostoevsky for his romanticised view of life, sentimentalism, and Christian themes and symbols. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry from the Imagist Poets, such as Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams. I’ve discovered that some of my poetry could be classified as imagistic. Pound’s definition of the image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  Capturing this image, almost like a photograph, in words.”

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(Ezra Pound was a controversial American poet and critic who died in 1972. Disillusioned and outrage by the horror of the Great War, he blamed the war, in part, on capitalism. He would in the years that followed embrace fascism. Outspoken on sensitive political issues, he would be arrested for treason. As famous as he was for his political views, he was also regarded as leading figure of the early modernist movement. Image source Wikipedia. )

What is the hardest thing about writing ? “Two things: 1) Making time to write or being able to write anytime, anywhere. It used to be easier for me to do this. 2) For me, writing dialogue is the hardest part of writing. I’ve given up writing short stories until I can study and master dialogue.”

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer ? Apart from making sure I proofread my work Lol.  “Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” And also, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

  • Write early and often.
  • Record your thoughts on your phone verbally, for later reference.
  • Practice, practice.
  • Experiment
  • Try to write about new things.

Stephen_King_Misery_cover

(Steven King is a prolific genre fiction writer. I believe we would be fools not to listen to any advice he had to offer. My favourite Steven king book is ‘Misery’, a psychological horror. I believe my inclusion of this 1987 first edition cover constitutes as ‘fair use’. I wish to show its importance as a historically important book. Source Wikipedia)

When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer ? How did you catch the writing bug ? “I’ve written a lot of different things over the course of my life but it only has been in the past year that I have considered myself a writer. I have been consumed with learning more about writing and poetry.”

In life, where do you find inspiration to write ? “Music: jazz, classical, love songs. Nature, seasons. Relationships. Movies. Literature. Poetry.”

What do you think makes a good story ? “There is great discussion about whether or not a story should be plot or character driven. I think it is best to have both, but if a book doesn’t make me love or hate the characters, the plot doesn’t hold me. And I think dialogue. I love to read a story and be able to follow the dialogue without trying to figure out who is saying what!”

There are so many great writers and interesting books around the world, except we struggle to gain access to them, partly because there are no reliable translation and publishers who are willing enough to bring those books to us. Why is this such a great disappointment ? Is there anything we can do about it ? “I’m not sure I have an answer. I do know that many of the works by polymaths (a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas) who write in different languages, remain inaccessible. Many works of South Americans, Spanish, and Arabic are out of reach. For example, Alexandre Dumas was so prolific and I have read almost all of the works that were translated in English but was shocked at the number of volumes that have not been! Naruda is an example of a poet’s work translated to English in the past 10 years or so. Well, in this day in age we have more of a voice than almost any other time in history. Indie or self-publishers. So maybe there is hope in this avenue.”

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(Alexandre Dumas was a French writer, whose work has been translated into almost 100 languages. Some of his famous works include The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Image source Wikipedia)

Every now and then I seek inspiration from reading your poetry. Your work allows me to clear my head on those days where not everything always goes as smoothly as we hope. Why is reading so therapeutic ? “I’m humbled and honored that you find my poetry inspirational and therapeutic. I think if one can write words that resonate with other’s joy or sadness or suffering or any other emotion, one has succeeded as a writer or poet. If the reader can imagine his or herself in the creation, he  or she knows someone else has lived in that humanity.  For a short moment in time, the reader and writer can transfer feelings and thoughts across time. (Stephen King calls this “telepathy”.) “

And is writing therapeutic too ? “Yes, absolutely, writing can be and should be therapeutic. Sharing one’s ideas and feelings, can be soothing or cathartic. Writing, just getting the words out there, if not spoken, then in writing. Some of my darker poems have helped “purge” some negative emotions.  (Layers of Sadness and Sisyphus Sadness).”

Can you tell the reader about any books you are reading now? “I have two I’m working on now: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is the first of three novels discussing the colonization of Mars. The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates is a description of the Ancient Greek’s method of retaining vast amounts of information and traces its use through the 17th Century.”

Finally AJ, I was hoping you could indulge me with this final question. Truman Capote is an amazing writer who could change between writing styles. He is famous for his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he was also easily able to switch between genres to write true crime ‘In Cold Blood’. Should writers today be able to change at will or should they stick to want they know best ? “I believe that a writer should first be true to himself or herself. For some, switching styles or genres may be easy or may be a challenge they are willing to tackle. I think anything that would serve to improve one’s writing should be an option. Such as a fiction writer might attempt a journalistic venture. Or maybe poetry.

 

A Long Impressionist

A huge thanks to AJ for his patience, time and contribution. You can read AJ’s amazing blog and poetry at AJWrites57.

 

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A history of the First World War in one hundred blogs ! No.3 Was war inevitable ? The blame game and some thoughts on the July crisis of 1914.

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(The Balkan pot threatens to boil over in this 1912 Punch cartoon by Leonard Raven-Hill. Unfortunately imperialist and nationalistic tension could not be contained by August 1914. Source Wikipedia)

“What decided the German government to prepare for an eventual European War was a crisis that was brewing not in the highly industrialised and capitalistic West, but among the primitive communities of the south-east of Europe. War came to the West from the East; it was forced upon the West by the East.”

This is a statement made by French historian Elie Halevy some ten years after the First World War. It was first brought to my attention by modern historian Richard Vinen, in his book on Europe in the twentieth century. He rightly points out that Halevy’s statement is ‘a beguiling explanation’ that lets the Great powers off the hook. I, too, have a difficult time swallowing this ‘came….from the east’ statement. Right from the opening salvo, all the major participants began documenting their own stories and accounts of who started the war and its justifications. I have my own theories and so do many others about who is to be blamed. Interestingly enough, Germany takes the fair share of blame and rightly so. Was it not the German emperor himself, who said it was ‘now or never’ in relation to a new conflict ? A new war was to be provoked, like Germany had provoke France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the assassination of the Archduke provided the perfect moment. Though, it is here with the assassination of the Archduke, that Austria-Hungary, not Germany, is first assigned guilt for planning to use war ‘as an instrument of policy’.

Austria had been frustrated by Serbian aggression for years and now finally they got the excuse that they had been looking for to teach Serbia a lesson. Beating his chest for war, more than any other Austrian official, was General Franz Conrad Hotzendorf, chief of Austro-Hungarian general staff. He had been ‘hell bent’ on a war with Serbia as early as 1908, but had been kept in check by Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, with the Archduke’s murder, nothing now stood in the way of an immediate attack on Serbia.

The Austrians were utterly convinced that the Serbians were behind the assassination. Serbian Prime Minister Pasic did his best to appear conciliatory and respectful towards Vienna, but even he knew that Vienna believed that Princip and his co-conspirators had links to Belgrade. In the end, Austria’s resolve to pinpoint the blame for the Archduke’s murder led back to at least one Serbian official. This official’s name was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, also known as Apis. He was ‘the motor of the whole operation’ that was the Black Hand. Ultimately, the Archduke’s assassination was a plan devised by the Black Hand and carried out by native Bosnian Serbs. In the end, it was more than enough in evidence that Austria needed to carry out its plans. Serbia had tried in vain to humble Austria, in fact, arguably embarrass its status as a Great Power. Many smaller nations too, wished for its demise, but Austria at the turn of the twentieth century desperately wished to survive and prosper. It was almost inevitable, that Austria had to show Serbia, who was in charge in the Balkans. Consequently, Kaiser Wilhelm’s military cabinet offered to back Austria-Hungary with a ‘blank cheque’ of support in relation to the tragedy in Sarajevo. From here on end, Germany’s involvement becomes more implicit.

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(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef was more concerned about how well military manoeuvres were carried out in Sarajevo than the death of his nephew Archduke Ferdinand. His lack of remorse was recorded behind closed doors in the build up to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. Image source Wikipedia)

In my opinion, I believe Austria and Germany must accept primary blame for the eventual outbreak of war. Germany was a willing, if not the driving participant in the events leading to the outbreak by encouraging Austria to take extreme measures against Serbia. The ‘blank cheque’ essentially gave Austria the go ahead to do whatever it thought was necessary. Germany was itching for war and ultimately hoped Austria would take action against Serbia sooner rather than later. To strike ‘while the iron was hot’ would be to the advantage of both Germany and Austria against their ‘enemies’. Unfortunately, Austria’s initial reluctance to strike against Serbia and to choose to play out a waiting game at first was arguably her undoing ? It allowed the great powers, especially Russia time to mobilise. In an interesting footnote in the history of the First World War, Austria would later, as Hew Strachan points out in his book, “cast aspersions on its ally, holding Germany responsible for getting it into a war which was bigger than it could handle.” Some historians also argue that Germany’s military, in particular, the Kaiser himself, was either criminal or ignorant in making it easier for the whole of Europe to be dragged in a wider conflict.

Why would strong intelligent and industrial nations like Britain, France and Germany embarked on a war of such great destruction ? That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question that is far too detailed and complex to outline here. However, in short, what happened was a product of fear, militarism, ambition and a complicated set of alliance.

Germany played an important key role in aggravating the Great Powers rivalries. Germany was keen to preserve and expand its growing empire at the expense of its neighbours. Already forging ahead in modern industries, Germany next sought to become a colonial power and was part of the “scramble for Africa”. With Germany trying to attain the same prestige as Britain and France, one of the consequences of this was the build up of military muscle. The warship, in particular, came to be seen as the symbol of power and Germany embarked on expanding its navy, in the hope of rivaling Britain’s supremacy of the sea. Both Britain and France viewed this as a threat to their colonial dominance and wealth. As a further consequence an arms race followed. Armies were professionalized and a policy of compulsory military service was either introduced or extended. With numbers of servicemen swelling to unprecedented numbers it created a further feeling of fear amongst the Great powers.

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(A French cartoon depicting Bismarck dividing Africa like a cake and giving pieces to the European Great Powers. Image appears to be in the public domain.)

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(Germany’s colonial ambitions stretched across the globe. This is a stamp from German New Guinea of the ‘Kaiser’s Yacht’. It was apparently never placed in circulation because of the First World war. Image appears to be in the public domain)

What would be years of ‘sabre-rattling’ between the Great Powers as they pushed each other to the extremes without actually engaging in a real war, would finally come to head with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Germany, who had already felt that it had been surrounded by its enemies for years, decided to guaranteed Austria-Hungary support in retaliating against Serbia. Austria, unwittingly, became an accomplice in Germany’s plans, keen on using the assassination to fight a nationalistic Serbia, its rival, for supremacy in the Balkans. Four weeks after the assassination and when all the evidence that could possibly be gathered against Serbia, an ultimatum was delivered to Belgrade on the 23rd July. A list of formal demands and measures was meant to strike at the heart of Serbia’s dignity- in particular a clause that would allow Austria the right to intervene in Serbia’s domestic affair. A few days later Serbia agreed to most of Austria’s demands except those that belittled her sovereignty. Austria, unimpressed by Serbia’s resolve, broke off diplomatic relations and on the 28th of July declared war on Serbia. At this point, a series of poor political decisions, suspicion and a further misdirected sense of honour would plunge the Great Powers into a deeper crisis. They were about to embark on a course that there was no turning back from.

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(This inventive cartography depicts the central powers as cramped and surrounded by its enemies on all sides. Image appears to be in the public domain. I believe my use of it constitutes as ‘fair use’ in depicting a unique portrait of the Great Powers in a bygone time.)

 

Notes and Further Reading
Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism,War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, Penquin Books, 2000.
Paul Ham, 1914: The year the world ended, Doubleday, 2014.
Peter Hart, The Great War 1914-1918, Profile Books, 2013.
Michael Howard, The First World War, Oxford University Press, 2002.
John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson, 1998.
Hew Strachan, The First World War, Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Norman Stone, World War One: A short history, Allen Lane, 2007.
Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, Little, Brown & Co, 2000.

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The Tale of Pomona and Vertumnus

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(Vertumnus and Pomona by Francesco Meizi (1493-1570). Pomona is often seen surrounded by fruit or a fruit platter. Source Wikipedia)

The Romans worshipped countless numbers of gods and goddesses. Many of these were first deities of the Etruscans who lived in Italy before the Romans built their vast empire. In time, the Romans integrated gods and goddesses from other people they conquered, particularly the Greeks. It was also a common practice amongst Romans to offer up prayers to their pagan gods. Some of the most familiar of these were Jupiter, Juno and Apollo. In Roman mythology though, there are two deities that I was not too familiar with, that I came across recently. To my surprise I would learn that these two deities featured in works by European sculptors and painters of the 16th through to the 18th centuries. I am, of course, talking about Pomona and Vertumnus.

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(Vertumnus and Pomona 1613 by Hendrick Goltzius. Vertumnus appears before the wood nymph Pomona as an aged crone. This image is in the public domain.)

In artistic depictions, Pomona is usually shown as a wood nymph surrounded by fruit or a fruit platter. In Roman mythology she was said to be from Latium, the region of central western Italy in which the city of Rome was founded. She was the goddess of fruit trees and orchards, who watched over the fruit harvest. She carried a pruning knife and was often seen among her fruit trees tending to their needs.

Vertumnus was originally, an Etruscan god, in which the Romans adopted as one of their own. His cult arrived in Rome around 300 BC. Vertumnus was ‘god of the changing seasons’. He could change his appearance, using his powers, according to Roman poet, Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid).

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(The statue of Vertumnus and Pomona 1760 by sculptor Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne. Source Wikipedia)

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(Vertumnus and Pomona by Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651). The pruning knife in Pomona’s hand is always associated with her in legend. Source Wikipedia)

In Ovid famous poem called the Metamorphoses, Vertumnus and Pomona play out in a curious tale of love and seduction. In the story relating to the two deities, Pomona is pursued by many of Rome’s gods because of her beauty. She scorns the love of these gods to remain devoted only to her garden. However, one of these gods, Vertumnus, does not give up easily. Using his powers, to change his appearance, he adopts many disguises to seek the hand of Pomona. He would come to her first as a harvester, then the keeper of a vineyard, a fisherman and a soldier, yet she would still continue to hold him in contempt. In almost a last-ditch attempt, he comes to her as an old woman, describing the virtues of marriage and dangers of rejecting love. But Pomona weary of the aged crone simply refuses to listen. Nothing it seemed was going to succeed in wooing the beautiful maiden. Finally, Vertumnus, decides to appear as himself and when Pomona sees what a handsome man, he actually was, she instantly falls in love with him. In the end, they take residence in her garden tending to her fruit trees together.

There are many who have tried to interpret this story. To me, it appears that a seemingly desperate moment evokes an awakening in both protagonists. True love or just simply mutual desire ?

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(Vertumnus appears before Pomona as himself. Painting by the great artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Source Wikipedia)

 

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A history of the First World War in one hundred blogs ! No.2 Vienna, the scourge of Belgrade/The rise of the assassin/ The aftermath and the anti-Serb riots

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(Archduke Ferdinand and his wife emerging from the Sarajevo Town Hall. A short while later the couple were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. Imaged used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. Source Wikipedia)

Was it coincidental that the young group of Serbian nationalist chose to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th June 1914 ? For that date was steeped in history and reverence for the Serbian people. The Battle of Kosovo of 1389, on June 28th (June 15th, old style calendar) was fought between the armies of the Serbian prince Lazar and Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I. The battle was fiercely fought with massive numbers of casualties on both side, but ultimately in defeat for the Serbs. The consequences saw the utter collapse of Serbia and the complete encirclement of what remained of the Byzantine Empire. The Battle itself, in the years that followed became a symbol of Serbian patriotism and a desire for self-determination. Some five hundred years later, Princip and his terrorist band would use this day of reverence , to honour Saint Prince Lazar and the Serbian martyrs who gave their lives to defend their country and faith. (The irony is that none of the conspirators were practicing Orthodox Christians. In fact, Princip was a self declared atheist.) In my opinion, it is no coincident that Gavrilo Princip was commemorating the day at least, as a new beginning for the long-suffering Serbian people. One of victory, rather than of defeat.

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(Painting of the Battle of Kosovo (1870) by Adam Stefanovic. Serbian Prince Lazar is mortally wounded on top of his horse on the far left. Source Wikipdeia)

Vienna, the scourge of Belgrade ?

Serbia’s rebirth and rise as a new nation gathered impetus dating back to the early 19th century when it was still under the yoke of Ottoman oppression. In a series of uprising it gained autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and full international recognition by 1878. Some will argue that its rise was a direct threat to the security of the region. Austria-Hungary was one of the first to sense this threat by conveniently moving into neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878. By 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire decided it was best to officially annex B&H with claims that Serbia’s spy networks and conspirators were destabilizing the Balkans. Serbia, of course, was outraged by the Great Power’s interference in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Within Bosnia and Herzegovina lay a large Serbian population and with the annexation of the region by Austria, it had truly dented Serbian dreams of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s inclusion into a greater Serbia (something that resembled their medieval kingdom). It had first tried to reunify Bosnia in 1876, but was prohibited from reuniting by the ruling of the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

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(An illustration from the French magazine Le Petit Journal on the Bosnian Crisis: In it the Balkans is being torn from the helpless Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. What is interesting is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is being annexed personally by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. Imaged used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. Source Wikipedia)

Serbia later embarked on an expansionist policy with its eastern neighbours Greece and Bulgaria against the sickly Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War of 1912. Further territorial gains in Second Balkan War of 1913 left Serbia as the most powerful Balkan nation south of the Danube. As always the Great powers would have their say in the aftermath of any new boundaries that were drawn up. Although Serbia got to keep most of its territorial gains, it had to give up its outlet to the Adriatic. Largely thwarted by Austria-Hungary (and Italy), it only re-enforced Serbia’s resentment of its northern neighbour. Belgrade’s relationship with Vienna from here on end would remain precarious. Belgrade would have to tone down its aggressive behaviour at the insistence of its ally Russia, but that did not stop fanatical groups continuing a secret war.

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(Serbian soldiers during the Second Balkans War. Source Wikipedia)

The rise of the assassin.

At the turn of the 20th century, the age of political assassination had intensified. This was a disturbing trend that concerned many leaders worldwide. It was one thing to plot an assassination, whether you had the nerve to carry it out, was usually the difference between failure and success. Between 1900-1913, some forty assassinations were committed worldwide to heads of state, politicians and diplomats. Almost three-quarters of these assassinations were carried out in Europe alone. The rise of nationalism and terrorism often went hand in hand, especially in the case of the young group led by Princip. Known as Young Bosnia, they shared a loose association with The Black Hand, who had the resources and ‘the ability to meddle in high politics.’ The Black Hand was a treasonable organization based in Belgrade that ‘took over the dirty work of terrorizing and assassinating Serbia’s enemies’. The Black Hand helped train Princip’s group, provided them with weapons and bombs and successfully smuggled them back into Bosnia.

Archduke Ferdinand official visit to Sarajevo was the golden opportunity that Princip had been planning for since his days as a student in Sarajevo. The controversial Archduke was a hated man amongst dreamy patriots. Princip believed that killing the Archduke and anyone that stood in their way “would serve the larger goal of undermining Austria-Hungary as a force in the Balkans.” Princip’s rise was furthermore, fueled by nationalistic sentiment for a united Slav state (Yugoslavia). So as fate would have it, the controversial Archduke Ferdinand, on the 28th June would be gunned down on the streets of Sarajevo. Whether or not, the archduke’s visit in the end was seen as ill-timed or a provocative gesture to the Serbs of Bosnia, it will no doubt continue to be debated. Though what is clear is that given the political nature of the Archduke’s visit and his harsh stance against Slav nationalism, all the warning signs that something just might go wrong was sufficient enough. The Austrian ministry also apparently received lukewarm warnings about the possibility of pending danger. Whether or not this warning filtered down through to him is unclear. Some suggest that the Archduke chose to ignore the dangers of visiting Sarajevo. If this is the case, in the end the Archduke’s stubbornness was his undoing and a little bit of luck on the part of his assassins.

The aftermath and the anti-Serb riots

In the aftermath, as the Archduke and his wife lay slumped in the back of the royal vehicle, the crowd immediately surrounded Princip. Bystanders began beating Princip, He was disarmed and eventually arrested and dragged away. Sarajevo was suddenly the centre of the world’s attention. An outpouring of grief amongst Sarajevo’s population was unprecedented. Muslims and Croats began singing traditional songs and carried mourning pictures of the Emperor. By nightfall Sarajevo had descended into an orgy of violence and hate against Serbs. Serbian property, churches and schools were destroyed. They were also numerous attacks on Serbs themselves, resulting in two deaths on the first day of anti-Serb riots. Across Austro-Hungarian Empire, many other anti-Serb demonstrations took place, in particular in Zagreb, Croatia. Old wounds were opened up between Croatian Catholics and Orthodox Serbs. The police and local authorities in Sarajevo and across the Empire did very little to prevent anti- Serb violence. In a nutshell, the violence was characterized as a pogrom.

1914-06-29_-_Aftermath_of_attacks_against_Serbs_in_Sarajevo

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(A crowd gathers around destroyed Serbian property in the streets of Sarajevo 1914. In the 2nd image, Serbian shops have been robbed and ransacked. Source Wikipedia)

Yet across the Danube, Serbia swung between openly rejoicing at the news of the Archduke’s death and conciliation. Serbian newspapers hailed Princip as a national hero and ‘a young martyr’. People in the street were heard shouting that it was ‘revenge’ for the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everyone from London to Istanbul held their collective breath at what would happen next. Or did they ?

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(Hero or villian ? Graffiti depicting Princip in modern downtown Belgrade. Sections of Serbia’s community still believe Princip is a hero. Across in Bosnia in the suburb of Istocno, Sarajevo, for example, he is also still hailed by many as a national hero, who fought against Austrian oppression. Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. Source Wikipedia/Goldfinger)

 

Notes and Further Reading

Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism,War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, Penquin Books, 2000.

Paul Ham, 1914: The year the world ended, Doubleday, 2014.

Michael Howard, The First World War, Oxford University Press, 2002.

John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson, 1998.

Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The Assassination of the Archduke, Macmillan, 2013.

Norman Stone, World War One: A short history, Allen Lane, 2007.

 

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L’Américain

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The month of July has always been for me about the Tour de France. Every summer millions of people like myself are mesmerised by the theatre and drama of this gruelling three-week event, that takes the worlds best riders through 2000+ miles of French countryside. I fell in love with this great race in 1985 watching many of the greats complete for cycling’s ultimate price. That year was no different from any other previous edition of the race except that L’Américain almost stole the show. Immediately, I was mesmerized up this young gun who dared to turn a cycling tradition on its head. A year later he would win the ’86 race beating teammate French legend Bernard Hinault. Their fiery rivalry ‘broke every rule in the book’, but that is a story for another day. Greg LeMond is the name of the young gun that I have been alluding to thus far. He is the reason why I love the Tour de France. Critics are often divided by their opinion of him, but his influence is still felt years after his retirement from professional racing in 1994. Honest, honorable and courageous is how I describe Greg LeMond, one of my favourite people of the 20th century. These are the qualities I like to think I share with my sporting idol. What I love most about him is that when the chips were down, he always rose to the occasion. He stood up to tyrants, like Lance Armstrong, who bullied, vilified and tried to ruin his reputation all because he wouldn’t go along with the lies. Since 2001, LeMond has been in the firing line for his stance against Armstrong. He dared to speak about things that others weren’t willing to say. He stood strong for over a decade with a small group led by journalist David Walsh against the world’s greatest sporting cheat. Lets not forget that during his colorful career, he was the new kid on the block, who challenged European cycling traditions (do’s and don’ts). He popularized cycling in the States and was possibly the most innovative cyclist ever ! He would go onto win the Tour de France in 1986,89,90 and for a long time he was the only non-European to win the Tour until Cadel Evans.

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(Greg Lemond. Photo taken at Play the Game 2009. Photo by Jens Astrup. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. Source Wikipedia)

This year’s race is the 101st edition of the Tour since its commencement in 1903. (It has rarely skipped a beat with the exception of the war years between 1915 to 1918 and 1940 to 1946. During the First World War, the only bicycle riding that took place during those years were by soldiers on the frontline.) I will be seeking for a new victor to cheer and rally behind. LeMond too, has his own predictions of who will win this years race as he returns to the Tour de France full-time after years in cycling’s wilderness. As part of Eurosports commentary team, he finally feels welcomed back to the sport that shunned him because of his opinions about Armstrong. Unfortunately, in these recent year of scandal and controversy, I have not found my next Greg LeMond. The Lance Armstrong years has left a deep scar on the psyche of cycling, as it did on LeMond himself. Fellow Australian, Cadel Evans has come very close to emulating LeMond’s feats on and off the bike, but he is still racing and is now at the twilight of his career. I will reserve my judgment of him later. Until the next L’Américain or his equal in my eyes comes along, there will always only be one Greg LeMond.

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If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History: My Year in Review.

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I have always loved history. Memorizing important dates and events comes easily to me, probably because I am an avid reader. Ask me to generally pick up a novel and I will struggle to get through it. Unless, of course, it is something like The Lord of the Rings, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Zombie Rebellion. It’s not that I am not interested in story telling or imaginary worlds that jump off the page, it’s just that I love real stories. My wife likes to remind me, from time to time, that she is the imaginative or creative person in our marriage and that I am the analytical one. Maybe that’s true ?

When I began this blog a year ago I had hundreds of stories bottled up inside my head that just needed to be told. Sometimes I feel like Ted Mosby, from ‘How I met your Mother’, when he goes off on one of his tangents explaining “did you know facts” and antidotes. When your partner starts to pretend listening to you with “Mmm, and really !” It’s time to tell your stories to someone else who hasn’t already heard them. You !

I am not the most gifted of writers and yes it sometimes doesn’t come easy to me. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to start a blog. I haven’t written seriously since my years at University in the mid 90’s. So, I was inspired to give it a go. The first thing that became obvious to me was that there are literally thousands of bloggers out there. Then it dawned on me, who was I going to write for ? A general or history audience would be nice, but that wasn’t of the utmost importance. In the end I decided I was going to write for me, about the things I liked, all the while hoping that there were like-minded bloggers out there who would read it too.

Though before I go any further, now is the perfect opportunity to thank three bloggers in particular, who have inspired me and supported my blog from the beginning. These fantastic people are Pacific Paratrooper, Maryanne Holloway from If Only I Had a Time Machine and Sean Munger. Pacific paratrooper was the inspiration behind my Bone Sewing Needles article (after we shared a joke about threading the eye of the needle). Maryanne often writes “on this day in history” blogs, which I can’t get enough of and she was kind enough to nominate me for an award (which I graciously declined). Sean Munger is the big brother I wish I had. We share a love for all things Byzantine and often reblog and contribute to each other’s blogs.

Forgive me everyone, I haven’t forgotten about the rest of the amazing blogs I follow and read. It would be insane for me to mention you all. However what I will say is that I am always impressed by the quality rather than the quantity of the blogs that I read. I am blessed that I can read something new and interesting everyday. It is partly one of the reasons why I don’t blog often enough myself because I get bogged down in reading everyone else’s great stories. Though I will give an honorable mention to Princess of Eboli and Crafty Theatre, who both have amazing blogs.

Nevertheless, on this day twelve months ago I dipped my toe into the stratosphere that was blogging. I tested the waters with a small article called Croatia becomes the 28th member of the European Union. Over the course of the month I became a little more adventurous and wrote my first war article entitled Le Tour de France ? Not in this War ! You may have noticed since then I have written many articles about Australians at war and more recently I have started a bold new project to present a history of the First World war in one hundred blogs.

As my confidence grew I started to write about stuff I really loved like my article on the Religuary Statue of St. Foy and the Byzantine Empire. (Oh how I would have loved for Scarlett Johansson to be a real Byzantine Empress !)

I also delved into areas of art, mythology and interviewing to name a few. Two of my finest achievements were both interviews I did with my literary heroes. My article with Lord John Julius Norwich was my first, followed by a more polished second interview with Roger Crowley. I have two further interviews I am currently working on that I hope to present in the near future.

I will not bore you much longer, but I will end my review of the year by naming five of my favourite articles below. I am proud of them because of the time and effort that I put into them. No.1 Napoleon and Josephine, Love Letters and Angst  No.2. The Winds of Change, New York City 1945-46  No.3. Coffee and the Ottoman coffeehouse  No.4. Christmas Day, Rome, 800AD  No.5. Hollywood’s Darling meets Soviet Premier

I hope all my friends and fellow bloggers will continue to read my blog because I have only just begun.

Cheers Rob

 

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The 2000 Incident: Tragedy at Roskilde.

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The first ever staging of the Roskilde Festival near Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand, Demark, was in 1971. It had progressively grown from humble beginnings to be one of Northern Europe’s biggest musical festivals. Annually, tens of thousands of music fans visit Roskilde at the end of June. Some of the worlds biggest acts have played there, including Status Quo, U2, Lou Reed, Eric Clayton, Metallica and Leonard Cohen to name a few. On 30th June 2000, Pearl Jam was playing as a headline act at Roskilde. Unfortunately, for fans, event organisers and Pearl Jam, the 2000 event will only be remembered for its tragedy.

Pearl Jam had belted out eleven of their songs to an audience of approximately 50,000 strong before they broke into one of their more melancholy songs called Daughter. It was at this point that they realized something was wrong in the audience. Responding to a frantic request to stop playing, Eddie Vedder receives a message from event security that audience members were being crushed. He pleads with the audience for calm and to stop pushing towards the stage. He asked people to take “three steps back.” But it was too late. The unimaginable had happened on that wet and moody night: nine concertgoers were tragically killed and another thirty injured. The tragedy shook the festival to its core including the band. Vedder is seen visibly shaken after his address to concertgoers, as bodies of the dead and injured are carried out of the arena. At the time, PJ was unaware of the deaths of nine concertgoers. It wasn’t until after their set had finished that the badly shaken members of PJ were informed of the tragic deaths. Absolutely devastated the band issued a statement and amongst other things said, “…Our lives will never be the same, but we know that is nothing compared to the grief of the families and friends of those involved. It is so tragic…there are no words.”

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(At the commencement of the 2001 Roskilde Festival, an official memorial was opened in memory of the nine lives lost the previous year, with 9 birch trees placed in a circle around a huge stone with the inscription “…how fragile we are.” I believe my use of this image and the one above by KD Larsen, constitutes fair use in highlighting an important historical moment.)

Many years later as part of PJ’s twenty year anniversary together, Vedder would look back, “I just wanted to get out of there. I just didn’t want it to be true. It was happening right in front of us, but I just didn’t want it to be true.”  

Pearl Jam almost contemplated breaking up. Their very existence was in doubt in the days and weeks that followed. PJ would cancel the rest of their European tour. Late on the day after the tragedy, legendary guitarist Pete Townshend would offer his deepest sympathies in a statement (and personally to Vedder.) A similar tragedy struck in Cincinnati in 1970’s when 11 people died at one of The Who’s concerts. Unlike The Who, who were hostile to the media in the aftermath, PJ did everything humanly possible to cooperate. The police concluded that the deaths were accidental and no criminal charges were laid against the festival organisers nor Pearl Jam. However, there were always going to be some elements out there, including a Danish deputy chief, who would lay blame at Pear Jam’s feet, assigning them with ‘moral responsibility’ for the tragedy. The inference seemed to suggest that PJ seeks out trouble or incites violence at their concerts by encouraging people to push, scream and fight to get as close as possible to the stage or band. As a PJ fan and concertgoer myself, I have never been witness to such antics and find the contemptuous suggestion absurd.

In the year 2001, important safety procedures were overhauled, in order to avoid the same thing happening again. This took place not only at Roskilde, but also at other music festivals in Europe.

The Roskilde tragedy was also a turning point how the band dealt with concertgoers in the future. It also profoundly changed every member in the band from their outlook to life, their relationships with each other and their music. PJ had also made efforts to reconcile with many of the families of the deceased. Eddie Vedder, in particular, shares a close bond with the family of Australian victim Anthony Hurley.

To this day PJ continues to mourn those that lost their life on the 30th June 2000. Back in 2002, when they released their album Riot Act, Eddie Vedder made a beautiful reference to the people who lost their lives at Roskilde with the line “Lost 9 friends we’ll never know…2 years ago today.” Movingly, Vedder changes the lyrics to reflect the passage of time since the tragedy every time they perform Love Boat Captain in concert.

 

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