Black Panther Movie Review

Earlier this week I went to see the Black Panther movie.  Some of you may know that I despise comicbook based movies.  Just going from the trailers they seem very generic, derivative and not very deep; I like science-fiction but there should be an element of intelligence in the story or plot.  However, I do like Africa.  My house has got plenty of African statues and pieces of art.  I’ve been there three times, I have watched African and African set TV shows and films from an early age.  I also studied it’s history and politics at university amongst many Africans from all walks of life.

The hype said that Black Panther was going to be revolutionary and so with nothing better showing on Monday morning, that’s what I went to see.

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T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of Wakanda  which is an El-Dorado or Shangri-La.  A magical, powerful land in Africa, hidden to the world by impenetrable jungle and some hi-tech shielding.    Part of the role of being the King is that the individual also gets to wear a black super-heroes outfit which turn them into Black Panther!  Other characters in the film include Michael B. Jordan who plays the villainous Erik Killmonger and he, quite frankly, steals the show from Boseman’s rather stilted, if regal performance. Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s very own “Q,” Shuri is also wonderful.

The plot is rather stagy but at times effective. After the murder of his father, T’Challa comes back home to Wakanda to become king. At the ceremony, he is challenged by Jabari Tribe leader M’Baku, and what ensues is a quite exciting combat sequence between the two, which ultimately has T’Challa prevailing and keeping the throne. Enter Killmonger, now an ex American black ops soldier hellbent on dethroning the king to ship Wakandan weapons, filled with Vibranium, to black operatives all around the world.

Vibranium is what allowed Wakanda to become the place it is today when aeons ago a meteor crashed into this part of Africa containing a mountain full of Vibranium, the strongest substance in the world.   Killmonger follows his goal which is for black people to fight and take control with the use of Wakandian firepower and using agents in New York, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere, lead black people across the planet out of oppression.

The eventual ritual combat for the throne between T’Challa and Killmonger leads to the former’s ousting and a new king being reigned into power. Thinking T’Challa is dead, Killmonger proceeds with his plans for a new world order.  However he doesn’t get very far before a climatic battle, where a down and out T’Challa has to overcome a hellbent arch nemesis, a showdown that leads to final words in a rather  Shakespearian death scene and the revelation that we are all ‘One Tribe’.

Before getting to the alleged politics of the film, let’s take a bit of a look at Wakanda and this Afrofuturistic vision.  Wakanda is hidden behind clouds and mountains, far from the evils of white colonisers.  It’s hinted in the trailer that we will get to see some fantastic natural African sights of vast Savanna scenes and landscapes that couldn’t be anywhere else on earth.  Instead though, we largely are confined to a rather generic and not particularly futuristic looking city.  It seemed a bit of a lost opportunity and not particularly rounded and real though there are the odd exceptional city scene or futuristic shot in the mountain mining complex.

I guess this is part of the problem with it being a Marvel film.  One day it might be New York, the next London or Hong Kong or Dubai but really it is all the same as is the case here.

If the men are at the centre of the film’s plot, the women in “Black Panther” are the actual highlights. There’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s widowed mother, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the one that got away for T’Challa, but most impressively Danai Gurira (best known to many from The Walking Dead) as Okoye, leader of the all-female Wakandan army. Every time she’s onscreen she lights it up. With her head shaven, and a muscular physique, Okoye is the heart and soul of Black Panther.

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A big problem with “Black Panther” is that there simply isn’t all that much excitement to go around. Almost everything you expect to happen happens. There isn’t anything memorable, no moment that sends your pulse pounding, your spine tingling. This is a straightforward telling of a story that on paper should not be straightforward at all or, at the very least, safe.

A minority of people don’t seem to like the film as it is a film with almost entirely a black cast but that doesn’t bother me one bit.  That being said, I don’t understand the need these days that people need heroes that look like them to aspire to.   Growing up, my favourite TV show was Star Trek and I loved Mr. Spock.  I still haven’t met a real life Vulcan but that’s ok as I relate to him despite my lack of pointed ears and him being an alien and all.   Growing up I repeatedly watched the miniseries Shaka Zulu, a largely true-life tale of one of the towering figures of 19th Century black Africa and I hadn’t ever met a black person in real life when watching it.

For a film so supposedly revolutionary then I was actually disappointed.  Unless one is shocked by a film almost entirely featuring black people (which makes sense for most of Africa) then where is the revolution?  If it is for black people in the USA then why not just make a super-hero film with largely a black cast in America which is where it seems it should have been set.     I can’t really see how a character in a fictional African country has that much of a real-life similarity with a black boy in Los Angeles or Paris.  It’s sad if people need someone to look like them to identify with them.  Come to think of it why can’t Superman be black?  Dr Who is now a lady.   I’d rather watch a show about an interesting green walking-talking Grasshopper than watch any old film just because it has a white leading actor or cast.

 

I’d hoped for a more authentic African experience.  Why have so many American and British actors in it with a slightly generic African accent?  Why not have an entirely African cast…. heaven forbid speaking something other than English.  Forest Whittaker is a great actor but he isn’t really any more African than I am except for the superficial skin colour and that shouldn’t be a factor.  Whilst I’m at it, why have a white English actor play an American FBI agent.  Why must the only other second tier baddie in the film be portrayed by another British actor as a stereo-typically villanous South African?  Why not have a real Afrikaans actor who maybe even an actor from the Maghreb who might be African but have an Arab appearance?  Or one of the many Asians from Eastern and Southern Africa.

Though I appreciated some of the mixes between African culture and a futuristic setting, a lot of things seemed to be very generically African.  You have people wearing clothing from all over Africa rather than any one or just from Wakanda.  For example the beautiful colourful blankets from Southern Africa alongside a gentleman wearing a lip plate which is from an entirely different part of this vast continent.  It’s all a bit superficial and Hollywood but if that is what is seen as revolutionary then so be it.  They can’t usually get Britain right so maybe it’s expecting to much for them to give Africa more than a token gesture.

Maybe I am otherthinking things but it’s also very generic and in this case just wrong to have a white American casually dismissed as a coloniser.  Maybe that is why they couldn’t have a black FBI agent?  I know they have them in real life.    Also mention is made of there being Wakanda agents in major Western cities that would be in place if needed.  If this film is to inspire black people, does it mean that white people should fear black people in New York and London for example or even expel them.  Black people whose only home is in these cities and likely been to Africa no more than I have, if at all?  As if they are ISIS agents just waiting to strike terror across the world.  It doesn’t seem well-thought out, especially in this time when the media like to scare people into Islamic terror threats.

I’d rather watch more realistic African films or even African genres.  Why not a police film in Addis Ababa?  A student from Timbuktu who against all the odds gets accepted into a Madrassa.  A small time family drama about a fisherman and his family in Angola with entirely local casts.  That would be my idea of revolutionary.

The film concludes with the “We are all one tribe”, I for one kind of went into the cinema with that taken for granted just as I would have 40 years ago.

If you just want to see what I’d call a brain-dead action film you might like it.  If your sole criteria is to see a film with a black cast (there are countless thousands of others if you look) then this does the trick. But my rating is 4/10  The all black cast were fantastic but everything else… not so much.  Comic book films are so not for me 🙂

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Posted in Life, Movies and Films, Opinion, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

There’s English and there’s English.

Language is very important to all of us, which ever one it is that we speak.  Over 20,000 people a year read my old post on 102 Words That Aren’t In English But Should Be 102 Words That Aren’t In English But Should Be.  A few weeks ago however a report appeared that put the cat amongst the pigeons and it discussed a divergence between British English and the English that people around the world learn as a second or third language.

It all comes down to idioms and the British are proud of the idiomatic humour of their language.  My professor once told me that 3 people can read a page of Persian literature and they would each come to a different conclusion as to what the text is about.  British English isn’t quite like that but it does have its moments.

An academic has argued that that British English and global English is diverging as us British use phrases that are deeply ingrained in our language which are not taught elsewhere.

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton, says that people who speak English as a first language are bad at changing their speech to suit non-native speakers, meaning they struggle to be understood.

The divide means those who speak English as a second language speak it very differently to native speakers – and the two groups are increasingly unable to understand each other, she argues.

Native speakers are also unwilling to make allowances for others by changing their speech patterns or slowing them down – meaning they struggle to socialise with non-native speakers who are better able to communicate with each other in English than they are with the British.

The dynamic means the two groups could be unable to understand each other in as little as a decade – putting native speakers at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

In one case she interviewed Hungarian, German and Italian students who said they could speak to each other perfectly well but only had trouble when a native English speaker joined the conversation.

“Not only did the British keep to themselves but they also said that they get along very well, they understand each other, and the only trouble comes when a really British person comes and joins the conversation,”

In another case, interviews with 34 PhD non-British students who spoke English revealed that they struggled to understand their British counterparts who “didn’t make any allowances for the fact that they came from a different language, they spoke very very fast, used very idiomatic language, they joked a lot, the lecturers joked a lot, using very British-referenced jokes,” she said.

The theory appears in a new book, “Languages After Brexit”, as part of an essay in which Professor Jenkins argues that native English speakers are worse at communicating clearly than people who have it has a second language.

She cites one case where an interviewer on BBC Radio 3 asks Italian opera singer Roberto Alagna whether his trip to London was “going swimmingly”. It was clear that singer did not have any idea of what this idiom meant, and the interviewer, after an uncomfortable pause, realised this and asked instead ‘Is it going well?’

Another interviewer, a Channel 4 news presenter who was bilingual, asked then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron how he would challenge the country’s rightward move by asking “So how would you buck that trend?” leaving Macron confused.

“While in both cases, the interviewer, especially the second one, was able to paraphrase fairly speedily (which is by no means always the case), these two anecdotes demonstrate that native speakers who have experience of speaking English with non-natives, and even those who have other languages, may find it problematic to adjust spontaneously away from their local use of English,” Professor Jenkins adds.

English as spoken by foreign countries is also developing new grammar rules which are seen as incorrect by native speakers but are valued abroad because they are logical and efficient.

For example, nouns which do not become plural in native English, such as “feedback” or “information”, are made plural by foreign speakers into “feedbacks” or “informations”.

Whilst I can see what the research is getting at; I don’t think it is a particular problem with the English language.  It is only that British people are immersed in the language which has shaped our history and culture for thousands of years.  No-one else could be expected to learn the intricacies.  Whilst people say they have learnt English, generally speaking they speak a simplified, approximate form of English to each other, which is to some degree impoverished relative to their respective native languages.   This means having learnt it in books or by repetition at school they can communicate for most everyday purposes such as travel or socialising.  However, they are restricted in what they can express and miss out on precise shades of meaning, specific reasoning, wit, irony, allusions, wordplay etc.
That’s okay though, I can say that I can speak French and German.  I can read newspapers, get around on holiday and chat with varying degrees of success.  However it by no way means I can speak German to anything like the sophistication of a German.  Probably a German 5 year old would have all sorts of slang that isn’t in the text books, let alone a 50 year old.   If I wanted to speak a specific sentence then I might be able to do it in two ways at best in German.  It doesn’t mean I haven’t learn German properly it is just that only Germans can properly speak German.  People aren’t robots and it would be really boring and surprising if they kept precisely to what they encountered when reading as a four year old.
Language isn’t just a method of communication but an important part of culture and that is something that you can’t really teach.  Personally it seems quite obvious that a British speaker or indeed American or Australian etc should simplify their language when speaking to someone who obviously has learnt it as a second language but it also goes to show that just because you qualify in anything, a language, a qualification or even a driving test it doesn’t mean that you know everything and in most cases you really only know the basics with the intricacies all dependent on years of experience.
I really enjoy all the quirks and unsual aspects of foreign cultures and languages; the concepts or ideas that aren’t articulated so well in English but likewise I would hate it for English to become banal and boring, simple and logical just so that everyone can speak it to a lower level.  English isn’t just a tool but like every other language a rich elaborate branch of culture and if a comparative reliance of idioms distinguishes it from the more standardised business English then that’s great.
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Straight From The Horse’s Mouth is available from the UK in Kindle format from Amazon here and paperback format here.      American Amazon readers can squirm their way through the book in Kindle format here and in paperback format here.   As well as being available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Nook, you can also get in on the action on your favourite Apple product by purchasing the book on iBooks by clicking below!

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James Bulger 25 years on – the crime that shocked the nation.

25 years ago this week, a crime shook Britain and the city of Liverpool in particular with such revulsion that no-one who was alive at the time will ever forget.  It was a crime where society sank to a new low and thankfully in the intervening years, nothing quite so sickening has ever happened since.

It was a relatively common enough event at first, a little 2 year old boy had wandered off from his mother whilst out shopping.  For two days Britain held its breath waiting to see if baby James Bulger would be found.  His famous image along with the creepy CCTV footage of his young abductors filled the airwaves as we hoped against hope for a happy ending.  Not only was the happy ending not to be but the eventual outcome was more shocking than anyone might have imagined.

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It was the first time out that young James had been out shopping and free to walk around outside the confines of his push chair.   In the few seconds when his mother had to let go of his hand to pay the cashier, he was enticed away to his eventual death.

Little James was led away by the depraved duo while his mother , Denise was in a butcher’s shop at the busy shopping centre. A picture taken from CCTV footage shows the tot being taken by the hand in what would become one of the defining images of the shocking case.  His mother immediately left the shop looking for her son who was with her moments ago.  Tragically she turned right and if she had only turned left then she would have seen him being led away just a few feet away.

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The killers walked James for two and half miles and were spotted by 38 people – some of whom challenged the pair. Venables and Thompson told passers-by that the distressed toddler was their younger brother or that he was lost and they were taking him to a local police station.

 

One woman even wanted to take the trio to the station, but was with a dog who was jumping up and was scared the animal would bite the children. She directed them to Walton Lane police station instead.

They three even all stopped at a tropical fish shop, seen tapping the glass to make the fish move.

Hours later they looked across the road to Walton Lane police station before taking little Jamie up the embankment of a comparatively little used railway line.    What happened to the baby next is so shocking that the full details have still yet to be released and likely won’t ever be whilst his parents are alive.

Having earlier all ready dropped him head first to the ground they then poured modelling paint into his eyes, stoned him and clubbed him with bricks, inserted batteries in his mouth and kicked him in the face before finally dropping a heavy 22lbs/10 kg iron bar on the boy before leaving him on the railway line under a pile of bricks to be hit by a train, they hoped it would disguise the method of his death.  Though the train cut his body in two, James was all ready dead.

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After killing the tot they left his body near the tracks where it was discovered two days later.  A pathologist later said that there were so many injuries – 42 in total – that not one could be isolated as causing the little boy’s fatal wound.

CCTV surveillance from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, Merseyside taken on Friday 12 February 1993 showed Robert Thompson and Jon Venables casually observing children, apparently selecting a target. In fact they had previously led a child away only for them to be stopped by the childs mother as they headed to the doors.

The 10 year old boys were playing truant from school, which they did regularly. Throughout the day, Thompson and Venables were seen stealing various items including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint, some of which were later found at the murder scene. One of the boys later revealed that they were planning to find a child to abduct, lead him to the busy road alongside the shopping centre, and push him into the path of oncoming traffic.

 

The police quickly found low-resolution video images of Bulger’s abduction from the New Strand Shopping Centre by two unidentified boys.  The railway embankment upon which his body had been discovered was adorned with hundreds of bunches of flowers. The family of one boy, who was detained for questioning but subsequently released, had to flee the city due to threats by vigilantes. The breakthrough came when a woman, on seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television, recognised Venables, who she knew had played truant with Thompson that day. She contacted police and the boys were arrested.   Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were only 10-years-old when they became the country’s youngest murderers in 250 years for the murder of 2 year old James Bulger.

Despite their young age Thompson and Venables were charged with murder on 20th February 1993 with their eventual trial in November 1993 at Preston Crown Court seeing numbers of up to 500 protestors outside the court as it took pathologist 33 minutes to run through the various injuries that Jamie had suffered, many after he had been stripped naked from the waist.   Police suspected that there was a sexual element to the crime, since Bulger’s shoes, socks, trousers and underpants had been removed.

The boys, by then aged 11, were found guilty of Bulger’s murder at the Preston court on 24 November 1993, becoming the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. The judge, Mr Justice Morland, told Thompson and Venables that they had committed a crime of “unparalleled evil and barbarity… In my judgment, your conduct was both cunning and very wicked.” Morland sentenced them to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, with a recommendation that they should be kept in custody for “very, very many years to come”, recommending a minimum term of eight years.

Due to widespread public outrage, their jail terms were extended on more than one occassion for 15 years but this was reduced as it was seen unlawful by the High Court and the European Court of Human Rights believed that having 11 year olds stand trial in an adult court environment was unfair.

As such and after being through various education and treatment programmes so they were said to no longer be a threat to the public, the boys were released, forbidden from returning to Merseyside or contacting members of the Bulger family and almost uniquely in Britain, were given new identities to safeguard their lives from members of general public who would undoubtedly do them harm.

Little has been heard of Robert Thompson since his release though Jon Venables has repeatedly re-offended having become involved in fracas, twice revealed his true identity to friends and more recently found guilty of possession child pornography.

Their period of incarceration and protection since being released has so far cost several million pounds, the father of James Bulger along with many others publicly state that Venables should lose his hidden identity and his name and whearabouts should be made public in the name of public welfare and the protection of children everywhere.

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Tracing words back through time

Back in the mid 1990’s when I was studying at SOAS, one of the classes that I most enjoyed were those given by Professor Alexander Piatagorsky.  He is said to have been the greatest Russian philospher of all time and one of the lesser known but greatest thinkers of the modern world.   Sasha was quite a character and no doubt I should write a blog post on him one day.

Without wanting to sound like the Brain of Britain, although I am sure there are others, he is the only person I have ever met who I knew was unquestionably more intelligent than myself.    It was evident just from his knowledge of languages and he was proficient in Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanscrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetian languages and also German, Russian, French, Italian, English, Spanish and Swedish.

One of the many things we used to talk about, for his classes were wonderful in the way they immediately veered off-topic was the etymology of words.  Where they came from, how they evolved from one area to the other.  He could quite happily take a random word from India for example and then take it through a dozen tongues before it reached English.

Not surprisingly, he was an inspiration to many and one of the things he piqued my curiousity with was language and how words from different languages are linked to each other through the mists of time.

Indo European languages

This is just once branch of the language family, the Indo-European.

Most languages that we speak today in the nations from India to Ireland all have a common ancestry which can be found in what is called Proto-Indo-European.  It was last spoken between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 BC by our ancestors from all over Europe and Asia.

Originally it is thought to have originated on the steppes to the north of the Caspian Sea.  Geographic distances combined with physical and cultural changes resulting in our ‘mother tongue’ evolving over time to spawn more than 440 modern languages in the world today.  Whether from the happy sounding Scandinavians, the poetry of English and Farsi, the melodic Italian and the harsher soundes of the Slavic languages. They all came from the same source and it is interesting to some (well myself) on seeing the similarities and tracing the heritage of these words.

Whilst just a few speakers remain of ancient languages such as Aramaic, the language of Jesus, there are none who speak the language which supplied us with Punjabi, Pashtun and Portugueese.    Rather like we have the skeleton of dinosaurs but have no idea of their skin colour or noises they made, as we have no real texts exist from the time, linguists have struggled to reconstruct this original language and the way it sounds remained a mystery.

Martin O’Leary has been working on visualising just some of the common every day words we use in English today.  Though there is a bit of a lack of words with a Persian heritage, you can get the general idea.

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Here are a few other blog posts I have written over the years relating to words.

How did countries get their names?

Languages with no vowels

Words We Use From Shakespeare

The ever popular 102 great words that aren’t in English but should be!

Dr Samuel Johnson, his quotes and his dictionary

How Shakespeare influenced Pop Culture

And not forgetting my own modest tome, Straight From The Horse’s Mouth

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The Roman Ruins Under A London Hairdressers

I hope you’ve all enjoyed my recent guide to some of the remaining sights of Roman London.  Since writing those posts, last week I carried out my very first Roman Walking Tour of London from someone who must have seen my posting.

The tour went very well with the friendly chap from Istanbul, a city with more than a bit of Roman history though surprisingly not as lengthy as in London.

One of of segments of the tour takes us through Leadenhall Market which despite its Dickensian Splendour, is best known to foreign tourists for it’s connections with Harry Potter.

Built on top of the foudnations of the biggest Roman building north of The Alps, Leadenhall Market is looking very festive in a Dickensian way.

Built on top of the foundations of the biggest Roman building north of The Alps, Leadenhall Market is looking very festive in a Dickensian way.

More than worthy of a blog post in itself,  Leadenhall Market dates back to the 14th century and is situated in what was the centre of Roman London. In Roman times this was the site of a forum, which contained a basilica.  The original forum was built about 30 years after Londinium was founded (around 71 and 85 AD).  It was later replaced (around 100 – 130 AD) by a much larger forum – covering over 2 hectares.

The basilica in this forum was the largest Roman building north of the Alps.  It housed offices and administrators for the governance of London.  Its size (52 by 167 meters or 172 by 547 ft) made it larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

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The Roman Forum and Basilica of Londinium

 

Sadly much of the complex was originally destroyed by the Romans themselves as punishment for London citizens supporting the wrong figure in a power struggle with the stones mostly being repurposed or lost under repeated layers of civilisation until remnants of  were discovered during the construction of the current Leadenhall Market in 1881.

Always being one to to discover new things, I’d heard rumours of a fragmentary ruin underneath the hairdressers at one of the entrances of Leadenhall Market.  The shop doesn’t advertise the ruins at all, no doubt as they don’t want too many tourists to get in the way of doing their day-job.  I imagined though that it might be in their leasehold agreement that they wouldn’t be able to refuse access to anyone who wanted to see the ruins.

When I told my my tourist friend about this, he seemed a little non-commital if not slightly apprehensive.  I felt the same, it’s not every day you go into a very plush shop in London with no intention of buying their products or services but asking to go into their basement to have a nose around.

 

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On the outside, a regular hair dressers.

 

I was going to say it was a first for me but then I remember doing similar to see some alledged old prison cells under The Viaduct Tavern Pub for one of my pub tours.    So I went inside and asked the friendly lady at the front door whether we might be allowed downstairs to look at the Roman Ruins.

I expected an answer somewhere between “There’s no ruins in here” and “Get Lost” or a ruder London equivalent.  To my surprise with a big smile she pointed to the stairs and said we were welcome.  My surprise wasn’t quite as big as my tourist who couldn’t quite believe it.

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The salon is set on two floors, the street level and a basement level and the basement was busy with people, mostly ladies, sat having their hair worked on.  You’d think finding a Roman ruin in brightly lit basement would be an easy thing to do but it took a little while to find it as not knowing where I was going felt like I was rather imposing on things.

Still we found it soon enough, behind a glass door and window and slightly obscured behind hair dryers and other paraphanalia.  There is a light switch with a timer switch and a large information board and as if by magic, the only known remains of the largest Roman bulding north of The Alps appears.

 

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A steamy look through at the Roman ruins.

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This photo is from the wonderful Spitalfields Life website.

 

In a way it is quite fitting that these ruins can be found in a modern day hair dressers.  The Forum was for all intents and purposes a leisure and commerce venue.  2,000 years ago you would find Roman hairdressers plying their trade here along with every other service a relatively wealthy Roman Londoner might need.

 

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Looking back into the hair salon.

 

Suitably impressed, my tourist and I walked back up to street level and contineud with the rest of the tour.

This is the final entry in my series of Roman London Blog themed posts.  If you missed any of them then you click on them below:

Londons newest attraction – The Roman Temple of Mithras

An Ancient Roman Road In London Re-Opens – Watling Street Revived

Watling Street – A Roman Road Through The Heart of Britain

The London Coloseum

Of course if you’d like to try out my Roman Walking Tour then let me know!

 

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The London Colosseum

We’re all familiar with the Coloseum in Rome, one of the architectural wonders of both the ancient world and Italy but though the Colosseum is by far the most iconic, there are actually Roman amphitheatres to be found across North Africa and the Middle East, much of Europe and also the British Isles.

There is a small amphitheatre just 5 miles from where I live in the Roman city of St. Albans.  In fact it was a longstanding mystery of why there wasn’t a coloseum in London, especially as the nearby Roman Forum was the largest building in the Roman Empire above The Alps.

The answer of course is that London or Londinium as it was then known did indeed have an amphitheatre but that the city is probably unique in it’s 2,000 years of constant development in the name of progress, intermixed with various natural and man-made disasters.

Map of Roman London - Londinium

Map of Roman London – Londinium

After more than a hundred years of searching by archaeologists, London’s Roman Amphitheatre was finally rediscovered in 1988 hidden beneath Guildhall Yard which is towards the NorthWest corner of the ancient walled city.  The Guildhall itself is a fantastic building and attraction in its own right though largely unvisted by tourists.

The history of the amphitheatre is a rather tumultuous one. Built in AD70 as a simple wooden structure, the amphitheatre had a more substantial makeover in the early 2nd century taking its capacity up to 7,000 people. During this time the arena was used for public events, animal fighting, public executions and, of course, gladiatorial combat.

London Guildhall with outline of the London Ampitheatre on Guildhall yard     Photo by 3BRBS

London Guildhall with outline of the London Amphitheatre on Guildhall yard Photo by 3BRBS

After the Romans abandoned Britain in the 4th century, the amphitheatre, like many other buildings, was dismantled and much of it used for building materials. It lay derelict and in ruins for hundreds of years, though soon a growing population and overcrowding in London forced the repopulation of the area.

At first the buildings that steadily encroached onto the old amphitheatre were simple ones; mostly timber houses built by a wave of Viking trade settlers. Over time these buildings gave way to an institution that Londoners are now most familiar with; the first ever Guildhall and in an entirely different way, the site had once again become the centre of London.

After a thousand years or so of being entirely being built over, it was finally re-discovered.  Obviously due to the pilfering for building materials and generally being built upon, it is in now in no way comparable to the Colosseum in Rome. Sadly, all that remains in London are the foundations of what was the east gate, and the wooden drain that ran in the ground from the arena out through the gate.

 

The outline of the London Coliseum in the Guildhall Yard from above

The outline of the London Coliseum in the Guildhall Yard from above

However even though its remains are small and fragmentary, it is made up for in other ways.  Most obviously it is about 8 metres or 24 feet underground and under an art gallery and visiting it is something of a unique experience from the moment you see it through a window in the basement of a very plush Guildhall gallery.

By using careful lighting and luminescent paint in a dark basement room, visitors are easily able to imagine what the amphitheatre was like during its use in Roman times as the missing elements are represented in a fantastically imaginative way.

 

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The stunningly illuminated missing elements of the London Colosseum

 

You don’t even have to go underground to get an idea that something is below.  The paved Guildhall Yard has an 80 metre  curved dark line of stones that illustrate the outline of the amphitheatre below.  Not many visit the old City of London and even of the few who do and happen across the yard and even notice the outline, seem to think any of it.  This isn’t helped by an almost total lack of advertising but then it means that when you go inside then you are likely to have the underground arena to yourself.

The actual remains of the amphitheatre are located around eight metres below the ground, buried beneath layers of ancient rubbish and rubble.

 

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The outline and foundations of the London Coloseum

 

Once inside however you’ll see the remains of the original walls, the drainage system, and even the sand which was once used to soak up the blood from wounded Gladiators. There are also plenty of information screens and artefacts that have been recovered from Roman life.

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If it is a little hard to imagine 7,000 Romano-British onlookers baying for blood, it does at least have a special, quiet feeling and one can’t help connecting with the events that must have gone on here 2,000 years ago and now very deep beneath the busy streets of the city they helped create.

If you’d like to explore Roman London with me on a fabulous private, guided walking tour then do check out https://stephenliddell.co.uk/ye-olde-england-tours-2/our-tours/london-tours/roman-london-walking-tour/

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Watling Street – A Roman Road through the heart of Britain

Though the Romans are famed for their roads along with many other things, they didn’t invent the idea of roads but rather vastly improved upon what had gone before with better engineering, money and manpower to it easier for their vast armies to police the empire and to a lesser extent to enable trade and commerce.

When the Romans arrived in Britain there was already a road system of sorts that dated back thousands of years.  What was to be come Roman Watling Street was a broad, grassy trackway that had been used by ancient Britons for centuries.

Watling Street in Northamptonshire

This stretch of Watling Street in Northamptonshire is no longer used for vehicular traffic but is still a right of way and it’s appearance is likely similar to how it was before the Roman invasion.

It stretched from Richborough on the English Channel to a natural ford in the Thames at Thorney Island at what is now Westminster. Today it is hard to imagine Westminster being on an island but that was precisely the attraction why Westminster Abbey was built where it was.

Roman Roads in Britannia

Roman Roads in Britannia

From Thorney Island, the trackway went up to Wroxeter in present day Worcestershire where it diverged with one route going westwards towards the NW tip of Wales whilst the other ran up hundreds of miles past Chester and the current Hadrian’s Wall to Pictish Scotland.

The original British and indeed Roman name for the road is unknown and it’s quite possible that the Romans may not have viewed it as a single route at all, dividing it amongst two separate itineraries in one 2nd-century list.  The name Watling Street can be derived from the Latin term ‘Via Strata’ which was the designation for any paved roadway and ‘Waeclingas’ or “people of Waecla” who were a tribe who lived just a mile or two away from where I am writing this in the lands around the old city of St. Albans

Most traffic in pre Roman times were between the areas of modern Canterbury and St Albans but the Romans later paved the route, which then connected the Kentish ports of Dubris (Dover), Rutupiae (Richborough), Lemanis (Lympne), and Regulbium (Reculver) to their new bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest past Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Viroconium (Wroxeter). The Romans considered the continuation on to Blatobulgium (Birrens) beyond Hadrian’s Wall to be part of the same route, leading some scholars to call this Watling Street as well, although others restrict it to the southern leg as indicated on the map on this post.

The Romans began constructing paved roads shortly after their invasion in 43AD. The London portion of Watling Street was rediscovered during Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of St Mary-le-Bow in 1671–73, following the Great Fire of London. Modern excavations date its construction to the winter from ad 47 to 48. Around London, it was 7.5–8.7 m (25–29 ft) wide and paved with gravel and it must have looked very impressive compared to its surroundings.  It was repeatedly relaid, including at least twice before the sacking of London by Queen Boudica’s troops in 60 or 61AD who famously burned several cities to the ground, including Londoninium with about 70,000 dying in the process.  In fact such was the destruction that archealogists use the thick layer of burned charcoal deep under the soil as the most reliable way to date events in ancient London.

The road ran straight from the bridgehead on the Thames to what would become Newgate on the London Wall before passing over Ludgate Hill and the Fleet and dividing into Watling Street and the Devil’s Highway west to Calleva (Silchester). Some of this route is preserved beneath Old Kent Road that to this day runs southeast wards from Southwark (the southern end of London Bridge) and 1,000 years later in the first modern English literature, the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would have walked it on their route to Canterbury Cathedral. 

Fittingly for the Romans who used their fine roads for military use, it was midway up Watling Street not too far from Chester that was the location of heroic and indeed barbaric Queen Boudica’s defeat by the Romans.

By the time of the Saxon invasions, the Roman bridge across the Thames had presumably fallen into disrepair or been destroyed. The Saxons abandoned the walled Roman site in favour of Lundenwic to its west in modern day Covent Garden, presumably because of its more convenient access to the ford on the Thames by Westminster. They did not return to Lundenburh (the City of London) until forced to do so by the Vikings in the late 9th century. Over time, the graveling and paving itself fell into disrepair, although the road’s course continued to be used in many places as a public right of way. “Watlingestrate” was one of the four roads protected by the king’s peace in the Laws of Edward the Confessor, the last great Anglo-Saxon king.

London Street Map in 1300 AD

London Street Map in 1300 AD

Watling Street was such an impressive feature of the British Isles that it has been used as a boundary of many historic administrative units, and some of these are still in existence today, either through continuity or the adoption of these as by successor areas. One of the most important as these was the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum where it is thought that Watling Street was made the SW boundary of the Danelaw (lands conquered by Danish Vikings).

More peacefully, the route remains the boundary between the counties Leicestershire and Warwickshire which may itself be a legacy of the ancient treaty.  Additionally Watling Street forms part of the boundary of four London Boroughs in the shape of Harrow, Brent, Camden and Barnet.

In more modern times, the first turnpike trust in England was established over Watling Street northwest of London by an Act of Parliament on 4 March 1707 in order to provide a return on the investment required to once more pave the road. It was what might today be called a Toll Road.

Much of the road is still in use today, apart from a few sections where it has been diverted. The A2 road between Dover and London runs over or parallel to the old path. A section of Watling Street still exists in the City of London close to Mansion House underground station on the route of the original Roman road which traversed the River Thames via the first London Bridge and ran through the City in a straight line from London Bridge to Newgate.

Ancient Watling Street, just a few seconds walk from the revived Watling Street in the form of Bloomburg Arcade.

Ancient Watling Street, just a few seconds walk from the revived Watling Street in the form of Bloomburg Arcade… heading off to St. Pauls Cathedral.

The sections of the road in Central London possess a variety of names, including Edgware Road and Maida Vale. At Blackheath, the Roman road ran along Old Dover Road, turning and running through the area of present-day Greenwich Park to a location perhaps a little north of the current Deptford Bridge. The stretch between London and Shrewsbury (continuing to Holyhead) is known as the A5. Through Milton Keynes, the A5 is diverted onto a new dual carriageway; Watling Street proper remains and forms part of the Milton Keynes grid road system.

Watling Street just a few minutes walk from London Bridge just as it was 2,000 years ago.

Watling Street just a few minutes walk from London Bridge just as it was 2,000 years ago.

A number of Old English names testify to route of Watling Street either by using the name outright as is the case where I live or in related names suchBoughton Street in Kent; Colney Street in Hertfordshire; Fenny Stratford and Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire; Old Stratford in Northamptonshire; Stretton under Fosse and Stretton Baskerville in Warwickshire.

If you’d like to explore Roman London with me on a fabulous private, guided walking tour then do check out https://stephenliddell.co.uk/ye-olde-england-tours-2/our-tours/london-tours/roman-london-walking-tour/

 

 

 

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