Sunday, November 14, 2010


While sorting through the heaps of old stuff in my grandfather's study Kristen found this folding knife.When it came out of the drawer it had probably been sitting in for decades, it looked a little the worse for wear—black with tarnish and encrusted with years of paint and handsweat.

I'm not really much of an outdoorsman (quite a laughably long way from it, in fact) but there's something pleasing about this thing. It's so old and sturdy. I cleaned the blade with liberal quantities of Brasso and treated the handle to a few much needed coatings of teak oil. I think it cleaned up pretty well. I expect if I kept at it for long enough I could get the blade back to its shiny original state, but I feel like that would be a disservice to something this old.
I'm not sure how old it is, exactly, but it has some markings at the base of the blade that give me some clues. The first is the maker's name: J Roger, Sons, & Co. Sheffield. The second is the little logo on the other side (pictured below), which shows a little union flag with a crown under it. 
It seems that the company existed from some time in the mid-19th century to the second half of the 20th century. I know they used this particular logo during the 1890s, and possibly earlier than that. It was probably my great-grandfather's, but it may have been in the family for a generation before that. My dad's family are not in habit of throwing away good tools. The scratches and paint smears on the wood suggest that it has been used a lot over the years.

Being a office-working urbanite, I've got no reason to carry this around—and doing so would probably get me arrested—but I feel I should find something to do with it. I put a good edge back on the blade with a whetstone, and oiled up the hinge.

Perhaps I'll take up whittling.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Long distance running, ancient history, and stupid myths.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm currently working on a travel book on Greece. This involves writing the odd historical-interest sidebar or perhaps a little feature here and there on the local culture and events. When writing about the area around marathon I decided I'd combine these two and write about the history of marathon running.

Now, being a person with a near pathological fear of running long distances (with good reason, see here) I can't say I know a great deal about marathons. I was aware, however, that they were inspired by a classical myth but I couldn't remember the details. I opened one of the travel guides I'm using as an occasional reference and there it was--the story of Pheidippides. He was, the book said, a soldier who fought at the Battle of Marathon then ran all the way back to Athens to inform the Athenians of their victory. It's one of those tragic/glorious stories though, because he gets back to the city, delivers the message, and promptly dies. In addition to the marathon, this story has inspired some pretty crappy art, like this.(related side note, why was it decided in the 19th century that hardly anyone in ancient Greece owned any clothes?)

This story set off some pretty powerful bullshit alarms in my head when I read it. I mean, why the urgency? and more to the point, since when has a 26 mile run been enough to kill a fit young soldier? With most of these myths, I wouldn't have cared---if they say Artemis demanded a daughter-burning, who am I to question that assertion?---but this one was routinely phrased as if it was a historical fact, tied in with events that are known to have happened.

Being of curious bent, and having access to the internet, I decided to go a-googling. There dozens of repetitions of the same stupid sounding story. Interestingly none of these seemed to agree on the details, it looked like each one had been tweaked slightly because the writer, halfway through telling the story he'd been told, got self-conscious about the fact that it made no sense. They added in extra details like Pheilippides had already run to athens and back that day, or that he'd been wounded in the battle, or something like that. None of these changes made the essential flaw of the story--why?--go away. Among all these repetitions, however, I found one account that not only made more sense, but also cited its sources.

The source, it turns out, was none other than big-daddy Greek historian Herodotus (the same guy mentioned the other day). Now in most regards Herodotus is about as reliable a source of information as a sugar-crazed ten year old (see here), but when it comes to this period of history his account seems plausible enough. He was, after all, writing about things that had happened close to his home town and within living memory. The anedotes-heard-in-the-pub method he typically used is more reliable when there's a reasonable chance that the bloke in the pub was a eyewitness. Rather than attempt to summarize it, I'll just quote it here. Picture the scene, the Persians have invaded, there's a lot of them, and they need to be repulsed at their beachhead or everyone's royally buggered. The Athenians have put together an army, but it's not big enough...
And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta [a distance of about 150 miles] a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner. This man, according to the account which he gave to the Athenians on his return, when he was near Mount Parthenium, above Tegea, fell in with the god Pan, who called him by his name, and bade him ask the Athenians "wherefore they neglected him so entirely, when he was kindly disposed towards them, and had often helped them in times past, and would do so again in time to come?" The Athenians, entirely believing in the truth of this report, as soon as their affairs were once more in good order, set up a temple to Pan under the Acropolis, and, in return for the message which I have recorded, established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.

On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens- Upon his arrival he went before the rulers, and said to them:-

"Men of Sparta, the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aid, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians. Eretria, look you, is already carried away captive; and Greece weakened by the loss of no mean city."

Thus did Pheidippides deliver the message committed to him. And the Spartans wished to help the Athenians, but were unable to give them any present succour, as they did not like to break their established law. It was then the ninth day of the first decade; and they could not march out of Sparta on the ninth, when the moon had not reached the full. So they waited for the full of the moon.
So there you have it. Pheidippides wasn't a tragically unfit soldier, he was a professional long-distance runner, and the job was urgent because the Athenians urgently needed to know if they'd be getting any reinforcements.

It has to be said though, if you didn't know which was from the more authoritative source, you'd definitely assume that the 26 miles story was the more authentic one. I mean, look at the details-- A man running about 300 miles in 2-3 days? The God Pan appearing to him and having a little chat? The Spartans turning down the opportunity for an ass-kicking? None of these seem plausible.

Despite these anomalies, however, I think this may actually be one of the few cases where Herodotus got the story dead right.

While it sounds crazy, the distance Pheidippides covered and the time that he did it in isn't impossible. In 1982 a group of RAF officers (who, being handlebar-moustached British officers, were of course familiar with their classical history) asked local historians to draw up the most likely route Pheidippides would have taken to Sparta. Surprisingly the paths and roads Pheidippides would have taken have changed very little in the last two and a half thousand years. The three officers managed to run the course in 36 hours. A feat that is doubly impressive when you consider that they had no decent maps, spoke no Greek, and spent most of the trip being attacked by village dogs. Since then, the race has become a fixture in the ultra-marathon community, called the Spartathlon. The record for Pheidippides' route is held by the Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who covered the distance from Athens to Sparta, over hills and across rivers, in just 20 hours and 25 minutes.

As for Pan appearing to him, this doesn't seem implausible to me at all. Ultra-endurance athletes are no stranger to Mr Hallucination, or even Mr Full-Blown-Psychosis, as is described in fascinating detail here. It may have actually been a confused goatherd standing by the side of the road, but I don't doubt that Pheidippides thought he saw Pan.

As for the last one, well, this is a minor error on Herodotus' part. He had a tendency to ascribe strange ritual motivations for all sorts of decisions, when he actually just didn't know why things had happened the way they did. The most likely explanation is that the Spartans just weren't logistically ready to march a huge army halfway across Greece at such short notice. It is interesting to note that they did mobilize a week or two later, as Herodotus describes:
After the full of the moon two thousand Spartans came to Athens. So eager had they been to arrive in time, that they took but three days to reach Attica from Sparta. They came, however, too late for the battle; yet, as they had a longing to behold the Medes, they continued their march to Marathon and there viewed the slain. Then, after giving the Athenians all praise for their achievement, they departed and returned home.
I love the way that the Spartans were willing to march 26 miles out of their way just to poke some corpses and marvel at all the gore. Truly, there has never been a manlier culture... "Duude, look, that guy's been cut in half!, that's totally badass..."

So there you have it. The real story of Marathons, in which we learn that marathons should be 150 miles long.
 I doubt as many people would be up for that though.

P.S. If you were wondering where the more commonly recounted story came from, it's generally thought that it was invented by a Roman historian a few centuries after the event. He'd probably read the account in Herodotus, but mixed up the story of Pheidippides with the actions of the Athenian army after the battle---anxious to get back and defend their city against a possible secondary attack, they made the march home in just a few days.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Another quote from an ancient Historian, this time Thucydides (460–395 b.c.), who wrote the following in his History of the Peloponnesian War
For I suppose if Lacedaemon [Sparta] were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is. We have therefore no right to be skeptical, nor to content ourselves with an inspection of a town to the exclusion of a consideration of its power
I've just been writing a section for a travel guide where I noted that, while it is a historically significant site, there's bugger all to see in Sparta.

I think Thucydides is staring at me.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ten Thousand-Daktyloi Stare

I'm currently working on a book about Ancient Greece, and I found this quote when reading Herodotus' account of the Battle of Marathon in 490 b.c.

A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.

I did a quick bit of googling and found that yes, this is indeed widely accepted by psychologists as one of the oldest known descriptions of what we would now recognize as an extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Gentlemen's Club

About seven years ago, a few months before my 18th birthday, I got a job working at the local branch of the Co-op. Over the preceding months I had tried, and failed, to get a job in any number of local shops. In every case I was defeated by the mind-numbingly stupid questions most retail chains put on their application forms. After ticking the obvious 'right-answers' for a while I'd inevitably start to overthink things. There'd be a question like "A Crazed gunman runs into the store, do you A: Hide, B: Grab the moneybox and go flying out the back door, or C: Bravely continue to scan items until killed in the line of duty." I'd stare at questions like this thinking "surely they don't expect me to say C, this must be a test of whether I'm a lying cretin or not, I'll put A" and as a result, I'd not even get asked in for an interview.

...In reality my first choice would have been B, I was skint.

I got the Job at the Co-op because of two important factors: 1: the manager, Andy, couldn't be bothered to read through application forms—he preferred to ask a trusted member of staff if they knew anyone who was looking for work, then hire whoever turned up. And 2: My friend Dave was a supervisor there. My interview consisted of Andy sitting me down in the staff canteen and telling me that Dave said I was sane and that the job was mine if I wanted it.

After a few weeks of nervous mistakes, I settled in as a reasonably competent, but certainly not zealous, member of staff. Me and Dave worked together on the Saturday evening shift, which lasted from 2pm to closing time at 10. We'd spend the day serving the nutters and the drunks; providing the yellow-fingered with their cigarettes, the incoherent with their booze. Occasionally our evenings were enlivened by a visit from Crazy Joe, Hag-Lady/Witch-Features, or the incompetent octogenarian shoplifter (never did think of a nickname for her) but for the most part, it was dull work.

The fun would start at about 9:30, when the flow of customers had largely dried up. Paul would wander down from his place of work (I forget what it was at the time) and join us as we picked our way around the shop, facing up the shelves and generally doing end-of-the-day busywork. Using our staff discount cards we'd stock up on beer and Cadbury's eclairs (for Paul), which would be stashed in the office in readiness for closing time. Just before 10 Paul would head round the corner to get us a few pizzas from Domino's while me and Dave heaved the big metal shutters down and closed up shop. 

This was all preparation for the weekly meeting of what came to be known as "the Gentlemen's Club." This was a high-class al-fresco establishment for working gentlemen connoisseurs of fine Belgian lager, Italian cuisine, and high-quality British confectionery. We three were sometimes joined by Colin (Sainsbury's), Howie (Pizza Hut), or Danny (Sainsbury's Bakery)—the latter two sometimes supplemented our feasts with gifts of cold pizza and burnt pastries.

The meetings of the gentlemen's club usually took place in Eltham park, near where we all worked and lived. Eltham park is a funny place, it's divided into two halves by the A2 motorway. The southern half is a huge flat field with lots of poorly lit pathways. It's dreary little car-park is a well-known hangout for the area's pervert population, and local youfs used to gather there to get into pointless fights and spray obscene graffiti on trees.

The northern half, on the other hand, is almost entirely wooded, and built on a pretty steep hillside. Curiously, the stabby-stabby hardnuts who wouldn't be afraid of any dark alleyway recoiled from the woods at night, leaving it free for people further down the food chain, like myself. Encircled by the woods and the railway, there was a large meadow, about 200 meters across, in this part of the park. For some reason I never understood, the council always mowed a perfect circle in the middle of this field, like tractor driving aliens, while they left the rest covered by waist-high grass.

It was in the middle of this little circle that the gentlemen's club would meet. It sounds like some kind of occult thing, but our choice of venue was based simply on the fact that it was a long way from the nearest path or streetlight. At night we could sit in the darkness (I use this term relatively, it never really gets dark in London, there was always enough light to eat by and see each other's faces) and see anyone coming long before they saw us.

Given the years that have passed, and the large quantities of alcohol that usually accompanied these meetings, I'm surprised to find that I can actually remember what we talked about pretty clearly. It seems strange now, but most of the conversations at these gatherings were actually on pretty serious subjects. We talked about our relationships, our plans, and our worries about the future. Obviously, these discussions were always supplemented by a constant stream of profanity, toilet jokes, and insults—we were teenage boys after all—but things were generally quite deep.

Most of us were in the process of figuring out how adult relationships, with all their attendant complications and fumblings, worked. I was trying to figure out how relationships worked full stop, having been caught completely mentally unprepared when a girl finally showed an interest in me. Despite what people expect of teenagers, these conversations very rarely drifted into territory that couldn't be shown before the 9 p.m. watershed (as long as you bleeped out all the swearing). I think this was mostly because none of us were really the bragging jock type, but there was also the fact that our social circle was rather incestuous. Dave had known my girlfriend since preschool, while me and Paul had both been friends of Dave's other half for years, lascivious details would have been seen as not only disrespectful, but also as a definite TMI.

Another recurring theme was a desire to know how things were going to pan out... You know how at the end of some films there's a little block of text, just before the credits, that explains what the characters went on to do with their lives after the events described in the film ended? Well, the summer of 2004 had a distinctly cinematic feel for us (I think that's normal when you're 18), and we all wanted to know what was written in that last bit of text.

One one occasion, I remember the subject of weddings coming up, which led to us discussing, then taking bets, on which one of our social circle would get married first. As I recall, my bet was on a Christian friend of ours, because I assumed she'd ascribe more importance to such rituals. I seem to recall that Paul and Dave agreed that it would be Howie, because they thought he'd get married to the first person who suggested the idea, whether he liked them or not, for fear of making a scene.

I don't remember now what the stakes of the bet were, or if there even were any. Seeing as Paul got married on Sunday, however, it seems to be rather irrelevant. None of us picked the right one, so I guess we all have to do shots or down a glass of lemon juice, or something else like that. I think 18-year-old me would have been very surprised by this turn of events. But I think he would have been pleasantly surprised, not only by the wedding, but by how everything has turned out over the last seven years. Mostly by the astonishing fact that I still count these people as some of my closest friends. Of the original 10 or so in the broader group, only two (one being my then-girlfriend) have drifted out of touch.

Although it seems like it was a major fixture in my teenage year, the Gentlemen's Club was relatively short lived. The first spontaneous gatherings took place at my parents' house in February or March 2004, and it became a regular fixture (and acquired its name) when it moved outdoors in April or May. Over the course of that long summer we met on most weekends, and sometimes during the week as well. It stopped being a regular fixture when me and Dave quit our jobs at the Co-op in late August, but there were still a few sporadic meetings over the next month or so. The last one, as I recall, took place a day or two before I left for uni in late September. It was briefly revived in the following summer, when we'd all finished our first years of university, but it wasn't the same somehow. Every now and then, I'm tempted to grab a case of beer, a few pizzas, and head over to the local park, but I doubt that the others—now a married man and a primary school teacher—would be up for that. I'd probably get cold and want to go inside myself after a while.

And Domino's pizzas taste like greasy arse. But then, they always did.