Notebook

A Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii depicting a group of men having fun playing dice.

What the Romans did for fun

Blame the pandemic; blame social media, but as winter rolls around again it can feel as if we’ve forgotten how truly to celebrate. But antiquity offers us the key to re-learning how to have fun, as opposed to merely pretending we are.

A nineteenth-century engraving of Trabzon, formerly known as Trebizond.

Dreaming of Trebizond

The little-known empire of Trebizond was finally swept away by the rise of the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. But up in the monasteries of the Matzouka the dream of Byzantium remains.

Performer dresses as a pig to commemorate the Year of the Pig on Chinese New Year, 2007.

China’s neverending pigstory

The pig has long been a cornerstone of Chinese communities, playing a crucial role in the economies and the spiritual life of villages for the past 8,000 years. Recently however, Sino-porcine relations have become more distant.

'Mother Julian', illustrated by Stephen Reid.

Solitude standing

From medieval anchoresses to poets, singers, and writers throughout the ages, seclusion is often seen as a particularly female act. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced history, which speaks to society’s romantic fixation on the lone woman. 

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire taken in 1862 by Etienne Carjat.

Baudelaire grappling with God

Baudelaire’s poetry, both verse and prose, is at once an attempt to look the Creator in the eye as an equal, and also a means of throwing himself at His feet.

'A Maid Asleep' by Johannes Vermeer 1657. Domestic servants often tended to chores between sleeps.

Silent night: how we used to sleep

Lying awake in the dead of night is anathema to modern sensibilities – and an insomniac’s worst fear. But our pre-industrial ancestors understood (and experienced) night-time in richly complex ways.

Engraving depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Archimedean screw helicopter. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath, artist and inventor. Dated 15th Century.

Italy: Mother of all invention

The country loves to laud its inventors, veracity aside. History, after all, isn’t the past, it’s what we say the past was.

Letizia Bonaparte in The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David.

On mothers and politicians

Letizia Bonaparte, Napoleon’s so-called Madame Mère, loomed large in the emperor’s life instilling in him the tenacity and force of will which led him to conquer much of Europe.

Albrecht Durer's The Feast of the Rosary, 1506. National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic.

Dürer in Venice

Albrecht Dürer felt that he had to prove his ability as a painter to Italian audiences. His time in Venice left an indelible imprint on Italy’s culture and on the great artist’s legacy.

Boys from the Yao people participating in circumcision and coming of age rites, 2005.

Kids these days

Teenagers first emerged as a distinct group seventy years ago, sparking outrage and moral panic – as well as a rush by corporations to cash in on a new demographic. But adolescents have caused chaos, concern and confusion throughout history and in a variety of cultures.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, London, June 1974. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images.

Genius has its limits

Many 20th century rock stars have harboured literary pretensions and written novels and poems. The mercurial quality of their efforts shows that at least some of them should just stick to music.

French caricature of a portly Englishman, 1812.

Donnez moi un break

Franglais can be a charming way to bridge the gap between the ever-bickering neighbours, the UK and France, but only when the franglaphone bears both sides of the channel in mind.

Lion print for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes.

In search of Narnia

Read C.S. Lewis’ children’s classics as an adult, and their mix of fantastical imagination, complex theology, and philosophical ponderings converge towards a fundamental human desire for truth.

Pedestrians walk past clocks in the financial district of Canary Wharf, London.

The march of the sovereign individuals

Co-authored by James Dale Davidson, an American financier, and William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, The Sovereign Individual forecasted a world of ceaseless technological advancement and libertarian freedom. Do the 2020s match up to their grand prophecies?

'The Progress of Steam. A View in Regent's Park, 1831', 1828. Steam-powered coaches, horses, tricycles, including one with body like a teapot, are speeding along or blowing up and causing traffic chaos in Regent's Park, London. Aquatint after Henry Alken (1774-1851).

Is energy the god of progress?

American historian Henry Adams’ optimistic creed of progress and energy innovation foundered on technological forces unleashed in the 20th century.

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