Podcast Recommendation : History of Rome

Probably not much of a revelation to most this one. Mike Duncan’s excellent ‘History of Rome’ podcast has been around for years now, long enough for me to have run through it two or three times at least. The first time out of pure interest in the history but with subsequent listens as much to relax into the stories of Rome as anything.

All through the 180 or so episodes Mike does a brilliant job of tracing the lines of Rome’s rise and fall with just the right balance between interesting detail and a coherent, listenable flow. And it’s all rich enough to be immersive, drawing you into the ancient world just as well as any fictional effort can.

It’s not a course in academic history, so if you’re already an expert don’t expect revelations, but for the more casual historians amongst us, or those who just enjoy the story it’s perfect.

Mike’s also gone on to do other historical podcasts, all of which are, I’m willing to bet, very good although I haven’t gotten around to them myself yet.

You can find the History of Rome here on the blog, and I believe there’s also a full YouTube playlist which’ll save you from having to pick each new episode.

Highly recommended.

The Primal Country

The US is hard wired to a violent fixation. What other country since Rome can trace it’s own existence so clearly in flowing lines of physical conflict, oppression, panicked escape and reactionary vengeance? The earliest colonists were running from a continent riven by religious conflict and into a self-proclaimed new world where the borders were to be re-drawn by survivalist intent, the gun held not as a right but as a perceived necessity for existence. And like Rome the first boatloads become almost deified, an active denial of the eclectic nature of their intents – after all, no founding myth can be honest.

A nation was born by revolt, not for freedom – the US was never Haiti except in it’s own blurred and militant view of itself and it grew by genocide which was with every shot veiled with the comforting blankets of self-justification. Strength made it right, God made it right, civilisation made it right but an itchy trigger finger made it necessary above all else because the only identity to be had was one of force.

Slavery fuelled it, more righteous acts loudly proclaimed over the inhuman other shipped in to lend their blood and bones to the foundation of something that needed to exist because it needed to exist. Not towards some glorious end but because the violence had to be expressed. An export from an old world overflowing with it perhaps, a gladiator’s arena for the suddenly aloof excesses of a Europe obsessed since millennia before by the power of it’s own aggression.

A civil war fought to retain the right to stamped down human foundations for the land of the free and more and more violence. Ideas always secondary, concepts always divine only as far as they lent themselves to the ongoing quest to fight, oppress and expand.

More wars, endless wars, everywhere – no worse than any other continent or country but untempered, unsullied by the march of history which turned all other founding myths into functional self-perception. Rome slaughtered Gauls long enough ago for the violence to be honestly separated from the result by minds too young and too short lived to tie the two together. The Mongols who flooded through the great Empire were defined by that same impulse of the violent as the inescapable but they’re long gone too, subsumed into a far from peaceful history but one that has at least had time to assimilate it’s own fallacies of civility. Only the US stands in our working memory as a clear presentation of an earlier state, a flourishing human expression of cruelty born out of some necessity that but for kneejerk expressions met with tired horror we’ve come to abhor as alien no matter how common it may still be. Only the US is there to remind us of the megadeaths of history which brought us all to where we are, the Imperial equivalent of re-enactors spending a damp weekend in a field playing at being legionnaires or nomadic horsemen.

There’s no reflection here on the people of the country. Although from across the world we all search active shooters and twenty-four hour rolling murders for proof of who the inhabitants of the last conquering Empire are. People are people though, undefined by their country of origin when held alone, even if collectively the nature of the nation formed by all origins, all crimes and all acts does manifest into some sort of whole. A whole gone full circle now, revisiting the violent tendencies drained from the old world back upon it with smiling vengeance. Wars, music, film, art, games – the country founded by the necessary violence of it’s own existence reflects it all back on us. Daily trying to sanitise it, mythologise it and rationalise it – turning their own macro version of the Rape of the Sabine women into a blessing – looking for the victims to finally nod that yes, it was all for the best, or if they refuse demanding their silence in perpetuity. An easy desire to disdain if only we weren’t all as susceptible to it ourselves but for the jaded and comfortable ignorance blessed unto us by the dusty detachment of centuries.

What the US will be, what pedestal or grave it will elevate or entomb it’s vital sense of violence on to is now and for centuries to come unknown. All anyone can do is wait and see what lies history leads the giant to choose for itself and how bitter the truth beneath them will taste when the acrid burn of the first experience fades away.

The Elephant in Elephant & Castle

Elephant & Castle History

Some put it down to the drugs. I was never satisfied with that answer myself. Granted, there was a lot of drugs about in those days, a hell of a lot, but while you can say a person might hallucinate an elephant they’re unlikely to flip a couple of buses over as they do it. Nor are they likely to tear down bus shelters, or storm through a shopping center with all the hallmarks of a pachyderm weighing more than a ton. I don’t care what you’re on, these are not things you can do.

Others blamed the cults, the shamans and the like. And fair enough, maybe they were involved, I can’t judge that sort of thing and we all know about the Catford Cat by now so why not the Elephant & Castle Elephant? If those crazies beyond the Stanstead Road can conjure up some hell beast to watch over them, or God to worship, or whatever it is they do, then why couldn’t we do the same? But like I say, I’m not an expert and I sure as hell didn’t see any dark and macabre ceremonies going on in the run up to the maybe-elephant’s arrival.

What I did see was bad times. Bad times all over. No jobs, all the housing gone to billionaires who couldn’t find London on a map, never mind our little corner of it, the streets paved with the lost and the broken, at least where it wasn’t filled with people stealing what little they had left. Dark times, unhappy times but hey, the government’s always in North London, so what more can you expect? You just do what you can to get by and say no more about it. Now whether these bad times were connected to our big grey friend or not I can’t say. I know my history, people get hysterical when they’re on the edge, they start acting out. Like those towns that went crazy giggling when the plague swept through, laughing their way through the dead until they joined them. Again though, just as I don’t think it was the drugs I don’t think hysteria can leave giant footprints on the grass, no matter how far it goes.

It only lasted for a week. A long week, but still just seven days as the calendar ticks over. That’s all the time there was between the elephant arriving and the elephant disappearing. Both of which, I should add, took place at the tube station although how it could fit on the escalators I don’t know. I’ll admit, because I’m an honest man, that I was a little messed up at the time, who wouldn’t be? Like everyone else I was out on the street, no job and locked out of the big blocks of ‘executive living’ flats so if I dabbled a little in chemical relief then who’s to blame me? No one I’d care to listen to, that’s for sure. Still though, when it started stamping around the roundabout I was awake enough to see it and hell, I can’t have slept for three, maybe four days after that. No one did, no one who was capable of staying on their feet let their eyes get heavy, you didn’t want to miss the spectacle y’know?

I don’t know why the elephant was a trigger, or if it was, or how it was but we certainly rode a tide when that thing appeared. The whole place changed, for a few days there it was like the last days of Rome only with more busses. Debauchery like you couldn’t imagine, rivers of booze in the streets, mountains of drugs, feasts fit for a dozen kings and all the free love you could get – it was like finding out that the Oyster machine isn’t working and you don’t have to pay – the closest I’ve ever come to heaven. Probably the closest I ever will too, because my life hasn’t been entirely without blame I admit.

We became an unstoppable force for those few days, all of us combined into one great big seething mass of humanity. They sent the police and they ended up topless and dancing outside the Tabernacle. They sent the army and they were singing around the campfire that had once been their armoured car. They even sent an MP to talk the crowd down, they ended up buck naked and riding a police horse around while screaming out some of the most perverted shit I ever heard. That might just be MPs though, so I never connect that too much to everything else that was going down. And all the while the elephant just kept walking around, bumping into the occasional obstacle, trumpeting when it felt the need but not hassling anybody that I ever saw. Strange eh?

I hear they called us Anarchists, religious fundamentalists, revolutionaries, crazies, all sorts of things. I hear that the Evening Standard called us enemies of the state but really, who cares? We weren’t listening at the time and some of us still aren’t, even after it’s all gotten back to normal now. Around here people don’t need to talk about it, we don’t need to speculate, we were there you know? We lived it, we don’t need the stories or guesswork and it’s only out of politeness that I tell you about it now, because you asked nicely.

I never did see the elephant leave. As I said, I’m told it went back down onto the tube but I was busy at the time, rolling around somewhere with feathers in my hair and a smile on my face. I felt it go though, no doubt about that. That big grey bastard, whatever the hell it was all about I know I felt it go because everything sunk down again. The edge came off, suddenly we weren’t one mass any more, we were as we’d been, individuals. A whole heap of individuals suddenly wondering what we were doing, wondering why we were there. The police put their uniforms back on, though they never went back to work, the soldiers, I think, went AWOL, the MP resigned the next day. So things did change, but it was never so good again and now, as time passes, people have started to say it never happened. Bullshit, it happened. Though who knows what ‘it’ was.

The bad times are still here now but hey, you do what you do. Me? I like to remember the Elephant of Elephant & Castle. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be back some day. After all, we all know that the Catford Cat never left.