Out Now!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Debenhams or Amazon?

Last year I was visiting Oxford and was seduced by a roasting pan. Not just an ordinary roasting pan but a non-stick one, made by Stellar and sold in the Oxford branch of Debenhams. I brought it home, looking forward to my first roast in my new non-stick roasting pan. And it worked fine. More importantly it cleaned easily with a wipe of a sponge.I roast, on average, about twice a month so I reckon it was used no more than eight or ten times at most. And then a few weeks ago this happened.

I resented having to throw away the meat juices I’d normally use for gravy. God knows what non-stick chemicals it had floating around in it. According to the Stellar website I had no reason to worry about this. In its own words: The coating is a completely inert substance. In the event of some of the coating coming off during cooking and being mixed in with the food and eaten, if would simply pass through the body in the normal way.” A bit like German troops marching through Belgium. I looked again at the devastated pan and was not reassured.

Even so I felt reasonably smug. I had the picture, the receipt, and a five year guarantee. 

I contacted Debenhams on line and received this very helpful reply.

Dear Mr Keyton,

Our reference: 527363

Thank you for your email.
I would like to apologise for any disappointment caused because your Stellar non stick oven pan has become faulty.
Promising start
Our products are inspected by their various manufacturers, in addition to checks carried out by our own Quality Assurance Department. This minimises the frequency of faulty goods being received by our customers.
Okay. Understood.

Please be advised that as you have purchased this item instore, I am unable to access any details of this order and offer you a refund or replacement.

I would suggest that the best course of action would be to return the item, with the proof of purchase, to the Sales Manager at Oxford Street store, who will be pleased to examine it and take appropriate action.

Why can’t I go to Debenhams in Cardiff? It will cost me getting there but not as much as bloody Oxford!

Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience this may have caused.

No I won’t accept your apology. It means nothing. And you wonder why Amazon is eating up High street!

Kind regards,


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Conan the Barbarian, the Romans and the Great Silk Road

I remember loving Conan the Barbarian. It was a platonic love rather than anything physical, though I doubt Conan would have reciprocated, Platonic or otherwise. It took me a little longer to locate precisely where most of his adventures would have taken place. And now I would stake every Conan comic I have that it has to be the ancient silk routes of Central Asia somewhere between the years 300 BC to 400 AD. With legendary towns like Khara-Khoto, ‘the black city’*, where else could it be? (And yes, I know Conan is meant to predate civilisation. But not Robert E Howard).

Take for instance another ancient oasis town - Miran on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert. It’s a remnant of an ancient culture, as evocative as the ruined towers, the fortresses, the half remembered stories that litter the great Silk Road  

But it is Miran that epitomises the heady cultural mix of these trade routes, the catalyst being Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great’s army had penetrated what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, bringing with him Greek culture, philosophy, concepts of art, as well as ramping up trade. This early fusion of cultures is best shown in the valley of Swat. Here the Gandhara school – an interesting mix of Graeco-Roman and traditional Buddhist sculpture flourished.

Below, the Greek Atlas supporting Buddha
Miran however is more distinctly Roman. Here the already culturally mixed Gandharan art of North West India fuses with the Roman. The murals and wall paintings from the 3rd and 4th century A.D show Roman techniques of portraiture and use of Chiaroscuro, and – a dead giveaway – they bear the signature of a mysterious Titus. We don’t know who this Titus is other than the distinct possibility that he led a school of itinerant artists, whose influence spread across an area larger than the Roman Empire itself!

On the other side of the Taklaman Desert there are similar murals to be found in the caves of Qizal. They are bordered by classical friezes that may easily be seen on any Roman wall from Britannia to Palestine. The figures within the friezes are more Indian in style, and it may well be that groups of different artists cooperated in the process. But whatever the case this Roman influence had its effect on the Gandharan school back in the Valley of Swat – and – unlikely though it seems may even have reached China. 

Note Lake Issyk Koul top left: a source of Pasteuralla Pestis ie the Black Death. Cross fertilisation is not always good.

At the Soghdian site of Qal’ a – i Khakaha in the western area of Tien Shan. A C7th painting of a she wolf suckling two infants has been found. It suggests Roman influence. Others argue it is just too far away, and we are looking at coincidence. Then again, an entire cohort of Roman soldiers did end up in China some time after the battle of Carrhae*, so who knows?
*See previous post.

Conan country
 *The  Mongolian name for a former city in a flourishing oasis in the Gobi Desert –

Friday, 14 February 2014

Better than being flayed and stuffed

 It is a shame that our rulers never lead from the front. Marcus Crassus may have been a vain and greedy man but he put his money were his mouth was, with unfortunate results. In pursuit of wealth and glory he attacked Parthia and was killed. His head and arms were dispatched to the Parthian King. This was followed by a triumphal parade and further humiliation for Crassus, who at least wasn’t there to see it. One of the prisoners, Caius Paccianus, who looked like Crassus, was dressed as a woman and headed the parade. He was accompanied by trumpeters and lictors who carried the heads of the recently slain at the end of their axes.

In fact Rome and Parthia were the Liverpool and Manchester United of their day. Neither gave quarter. The emperor Valerian 253 – 259 AD was damn fool enough to get captured by the Parthians and was used as a human footstool by Shapur II when mounting a horse. In the end he had Valerian skinned - the skin stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy in the main Persian temple. Other accounts differ, but one fact remains, leading from the front is risky. It is unlikely that we will ever see Obama or Blair, Putin or Hollande, used as a human footstool. They have others to do that for them.

Back to 53 BC and the battle of Carrhae where 20,000 Roman soldiers died and 10,000 others were taken prisoner. What do you do with 10,000 Romans? Why, settle them in the oasis of Merv of course. Turkmenistan. Just the ticket.

 Just the ticket, too, for a fine historical novel: Alfred Duggan’s Winter Quarters. 

 In it, two Roman soldiers from Aquitania fight at Carrhae. One is killed, the other ends his days a prisoner in Merv. His last flicker of hope that he may one day be rescued vanishes when he learns of the death of Julius Caesar. For this ex Roman legionary there is no escape from the far side of the world.

It’s a fine novel but there is evidence that a disciplined and well armed Roman cohort did escape, and that there was life after Merv. Because they couldn’t hope to fight their way home west through the Parthian empire, they marched east to the ‘Outer Ocean’ from where they hoped to sail home.

 Enroute they took service as mercenaries with a Hun war-band and joined in raids on China. In 36 BC a Chinese force caught up with the Hun force at the River Talass. Chinese records describe something they had never encountered before - the Roman Testudo - ‘tortoise’ formation of interlocking shields. They also discovered and recorded the standard layout of a Roman camp.

The Huns were slaughtered, but not the Roman mercenaries. The Chinese were intrigued. They were led off and took service with their new masters. One final link to the story is a record in the first century AD of a town called Li –jien sometimes referred to Li- kan– the name the early Chinese gave to the Graeco-Roman world. Mind boggling stuff, the thought that Roman legionaries from such far away provinces as Gaul, could have ended up living and dying in the Far East, subjects of the Chinese empire.  Better than being flayed and stuffed.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Rupert Murdoch and the Medieval Church.

               "Foul as it is Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of King John,” wrote the monkish chronicler, Matthew Paris.

One wonders whether today’s ‘post Leveson’ press would indulge in invective like this  – even against safe- to-attack hate figures like Nixon, Thatcher and Murdoch. The question is how history will eventually come to view them. It comes down, of course, to who writes the history. What we do know is that legends have their own momentum, and stories sometimes trump facts.

Seven hundred years later the historian J R Green would write of King John:
“In his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins…his punishments were refinements of cruelty, the starvation of children, the crushing of old men under copes of lead.” - And my favourite - “His court was a brothel where no woman was safe from the royal lust.” The image is wonderful, the foul John, lurking in shadow, poised to pounce on unsuspecting wenches. And yet J R Green’s opinion is based on just two chroniclers who wrote ten years or more after John’s death. Note, too, the plural - ‘the crushing of old men under copes of lead’ - as if it was a royal past time indulged in on rainy days.

               Roger of Wendover, the other chronicler, may have written his chronicle ten years after John’s death, but he was blessed with acute, extra sensory powers in his ability to recall the king’s exact words whenever the occasion demands. Thus we know John’s favourite oath: ‘God’s teeth!” Who knows, it could catch on.

He tells good stories like, for instance, how he daily knocked out the tooth of a Jew from Bristol until he revealed where his treasure was hidden, how he threatened to slit the noses of papal servants and take out their eyes. 

Roger doesn’t let a good story get in the way of facts. Thus, in the same chronicle we hear of the small black pig that sucks a woman dry because she took in washing on a Sunday; the loaf of bread baked on a Sunday, which ran with blood when cut. And, if you’re interested, there is an eighteen page description of the experience of a peasant called Thurkhill from the village of Twinstead in Essex who in 1206 was given a guided tour of Purgatory and Hell by St. Julian.  The problem is stories like these are recounted with the same authority as those he writes of King John. 

We can’t prove a small black pig didn’t suck a woman dry, but we can check on the stories he tells of John. So, in 1209, according to Roger, John ordered the crushing of Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Norwich under a cope of lead. That same Geoffrey of Norwich became Bishop of Ely in 1225.

And those we can’t check on we can deconstruct:
“About that time the servants of a certain sheriff on the confines of Wales came to the royal court bringing in their custody a robber with his hands tied behind his back, who had robbed and murdered a priest on the Highway; and when they asked the king how he wished such cases to be dealt with, her replied at once, “He has slain an enemy of mine, loose him and let him go.”

 Even if we didn’t know that Royal Records ordered the hanging from the nearest oak tree of anyone who injured a member of the clergy by word or deed, the story itself is deeply flawed. The chronicler is vague about when it took place, who the Sheriff was, and where about in Wales it all took place, yet he knows the exact words of the king.

The key factor behind all these particular chronicles is that King John quarrelled with the Church. Churchmen fulminated against his immorality, so royal officials kidnapped their ‘unofficial’ wives and held them for ransom. The church went on strike. John took some comfort from the fact that most people didn’t’ seem to notice or care. It also came with a bonus that John as feudal overlord could seize ‘church’ land since, by striking, they’d broken their feudal contract. All in all it made for a pretty quarrel, which accounts for the venom in these chronicles and puts one in mind of contemporary events. 

It is up to the reader to take sides: an over powerful church against a tyrannical king, a powerful press baron against an even more powerful establishment. Truth falls casualty to both sides. In Pilate’s words ‘Truth? What is truth?’