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This blog usually focuses on historical and cultural subjects (mostly because I’m a historian) but I thought this BBC article along with the associated Radio 4 programme was fascinating. So we’re straying into science, but with a historical context – I didn’t know that the word ‘left’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lyft’, meaning ‘weak’, while of course ‘sinister’, the Latin word for left-handed, has come to have very negative connotations.


Why were medieval knights always fighting snails ?

After a rather prolonged absence from the blog, I’m returning with a question which captured my interest and made me think that perhaps this is something that should concern me, even if the marginalia in medieval manuscripts is not my day-to-day reading matter. Which sadly it isn’t…

The Smithsonian magazine is posing the question, and apparently there has been much scholarly debate surrounding the question, but rather disappointingly there is no definitive answer.  The Smithsonian and the British Library (from one of whose 13th century manuscripts the image below comes) have given us some suggestions, including that the snail represents the Resurrection, or the inevitability of death, or the Lombards. Or that it could just be a joke…..





Obituary: Queen Anne of Romania

Only the Telegraph could produce an obituary like this, whose subject “was queen of a country whose language she did not speak and on whose soil she did not step until she was nearly 70.” The connections back to 19th and early 20th century history through Anne’s lineage is fascinating, if you’re a royalist!–obituary/



Titanic sails on .. and on

After two years working on the content for Titanic, Belfast in 2010-2012, and total immersion in the story (ahem), I can’t resist the odd Titanic story on this blog. Often, Titanic interest in the media is connected to the sale of memorabilia – ship’s biscuit, postcard, letter etc –  which isn’t particularly novel, but here is a genuinely interesting story which highlights a fascinating research project. The ‘Hidden Lives Revealed’ blog features stories from the archives of The Children’s Society, in this case that of Frederick Fleet.

Fleet was one of the lookouts on Titanic the night the ship collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and he was also placed in a children’s home at the age of two. The blog relates the sad story of his early years.




The centenary of the first day of the Somme

So much has been written and broadcast on this subject today that I don’t feel I can add much. Other than that while it is important this day is remembered, there are so many others that should be remembered too.

This is the Thiepval memorial, which I visited in 2009, and which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector during the Great War and who have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916.

Somme 008Somme 009Somme 012


In praise of the permanent collection ..

I went to the National Gallery on Monday. I didn’t go to see a temporary exhibition, or attend an event, or even visit the café or shop. I went to look at the permanent collection – and it was wonderful to walk around the Gallery’s many rooms and see so many familiar, and unfamiliar, paintings. The rooms were largely empty, although there had been a large queue to get in to the Gallery when I arrived at opening time. It’s so easy to forget the extraordinary permanent collections in our museums and galleries, and in London, many of them are free to visit.

This was one of the paintings I saw, Anthony van Dyck’s magnificent Equestrian Portrait of Charles I (1637-8).

charles i

The best war films ever ?

On 11 June in connection with a new exhibition on war movies at the Imperial War Museum, the Saturday Times ran an article asking military experts to name their favourite war films. I can’t provide a link to the article as the Times has a pay-wall, but a few caught my eye:

Max Hastings went for the relatively traditional – The Dam Busters, The Cruel Sea, Saving Private Ryan, The Sorrow and the Pity, Zulu and the Guns of Navarone

Anthony Loyd, Times war correspondent, chose Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Ice Cold in Alex, relating the latter to his own experiences in Libya

Antony Beevor chose Letters from Iwo Jima, Das Boot and The Pianist – the latter rather a surprising choice, and also not really a war movie, but an incredible story set in wartime

Janine di Giovanni, war correspondent, had the most esoteric choices – In the Land of Blood and Honey, directed by Angelina Jolie, The Thin Red Line and Incendies, a 2010 French film set in Lebanon which until I read this article I had never heard of

Former SAS soldier Andy McNab also went for Zulu, as well as Catch-22 and Restrepo, the latter an extraordinary docu-drama about Afghanistan.

I’d find it very hard to choose 10, but I’d like to recommend Kajaki, released in 2014 and with a screenplay written by a friend, which tells the story of a group of British soldiers trapped in a minefield in Afghanistan. It’s interesting how few of the films selected deal with conflict in the last 20 years.





History at your feet

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have just launched a rather eye-catching initiative to encourage us to look at interesting floors. Their blog has a rather wonderful call to arms to appreciate historic flooring more:

and have released their list of Top 20 Floors, including the Chapter House steps at Wells Cathedral and the black and white marble floor in the chapel at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich.


One of my own favourites which is not on the list is the mosaic floor in the main entrance of the National Gallery in London – everyone goes to see the great art, but the mosaics, begun in 1933 by the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep, are witty and colourful, depicting Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo.


Photo of steps at Wells Cathedral from SPAB; of mosaic of Churchill as Defiance from National Gallery


One in an occasional series on interesting sounding jobs in the museum sector

Today, freelance project conservator for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, working at Horseshoe Island in Antarctica..




Russia and the Arts at the NPG

This is a really excellent exhibition, small but perfectly formed, and introducing the ignorant visitor (me) to a time and a place about which I know very little – late 19th and early 20th century Russia, before the Revolution. It includes this gorgeous portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova  and many others.


State Tretyakov Gallery