Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Greece: let's prove the Cassandras wrong ... oops

Tsipras: The Cassandras will be proved wrong
I wish Alexis Tsipras well and foresee that soon socialists across Europe will be called upon to demonstrate in support of Greece’s new anti-austerity government. Already two days after being elected it is set on collision course with Brussels, as corporate-friendly politicians and central bankers try to beat the Greek people back into submission.

Cassandra: gift of prophesy
Nonetheless, the Classical Association of Ireland has drawn a faux pas to my attention and I feel duty bound to draw it to yours.  Before an audience of thousands of supporters, Tsipras announced: “Friends, the new Greek government will prove all the Cassandras of the world wrong. [There will be] no mutually destructive clash … We have a great opportunity for a new beginning.”

As the Guardian put it: Cue gasps of horror from Hellenists around the world.

We know of course what Tsipras intended.  By employing the Cassandra trope, he was making a reference to all the aforementioned politicians and central bankers who have variously predicted the end of Greece / the Euro / world economic policy / life as we know it, should his party Syriza get elected.  Cassandra’s prophesies of doom were all wrong, and all today’s prophets of doom will be proved wrong too.

The trouble is that when Cassandra foretold doom she was always RIGHT.  So drawing a parallel with today’s politicians and bankers was the very opposite of what Tsipras wanted, and has exposed him to Twitter ridicule. 

Cassandra was right (but not believed) when she foretold that her brother Paris, by abducting Helen from Sparta to Troy, would cause ten years of war and Troy’s downfall. She was right (but not believed) when she advised the Trojans to leave the Trojan Horse on the beach, and by no means to bring it into the city.  See Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Trojan Horse: Cassandra got it right
So who was Cassandra? A princess of Troy, both beautiful, and considered insane and a liar. This was the consequence of being cursed by the god Apollo. She had consented to have sex with him in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. The curse was that she was simultaneously given the gift of prophesy, and destined never to be believed. This is how the myth is told in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. There are other versions  if you’re interested, but you shouldn’t be, and neither should I, as we should be interested in what's going to happen in Greece.

The Irish left wing deputy Richard Boyd Barret commented this week:

“While [Irish prime minister] Enda Kenny hob-knobbed in Davos this week with the very people who inflicted such misery on the people of this country and Europe, the Greek people have shown us that our real allies are the ordinary citizens of Europe and that we need a European-wide movement of people power to demand debt relief and an end to austerity."

In closing, let's note alarm that Syriza has felt obliged to go into coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks who (if my information is correct) are racist and anti-immigrant ... and there are signs already of Tsipras compromising on
Syriza's programme and dropping some of their more radical proposals. But all the more reason to manifest support for Syriza outside Greece. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Coins in a museum - not as dull as it sounds

To the British Museum to see coins. Accidentally though, as my intention was to view a small exhibition about Indian Ocean trade in ancient times, of which more another day perhaps. Weaving my way last Tuesday through the galleries in search of room 69B, coins were in truth far from my thoughts. I normally have little difficulty walking past these quintessential museum objects, as they squat unblinking in their display cabinets. But a cluster of visitors round a small table aroused my curiosity. I discovered they were passing a small collection of coins from hand to hand, encouraged by a young curator named Kate whose only stricture was that we had to hold the coins over the table in case they fell through the cracks between the floorboards.

The bronze bar is mighty heavy. It's a tax remittance
Apart from the bronze bar, the heaviest was a copper 2d (bottom right, that’s a two-penny coin pronounced tuppeny piece) dated 1797. Jane Austen may have handled it. But unlikely, as it proved unpopular due to its excessive weight, and was withdrawn after a couple of years.  Known as a cartwheel.

A gold Dinar from Egypt around 1052 CE (top row, middle). Famed for the purity of its gold, it was much coveted in the West. Also much counterfeited in the West, using low quality gold.

When I was small my father read me Treasure Island of which my only abiding memory is a parrot chattering "Pieces of Eight" perched on Long John Silver’s shoulder, the prototype of all pirates. And that’s more or less all I knew. But now I can tell you that a piece of eight was 8 Reales (top right), also known as a Spanish Dollar. Struck from South American silver, it was the form in which the Spanish galleons transported their bullion across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century Pieces of Eight had become the first worldwide currency. 

A massive bronze bar weighed well over a kilogramme.  To pay your taxes in the Roman Republic, about 300 to 250 BCE, you had to buy one of these 'struck bronze' objects and take it to the tax office, or so we were told.  They are mentioned on this Wikipedia page, but not the bit about tax.

Silver siege money of the English Civil War (bottom row, middle). Minted in Newark in 1646, though minted may not be the right word as it wasn’t really a coin.  'Money of necessity' was issued by towns loyal to the King Charles, perhaps to reassure mercenaries, or simply to allow everyday transactions. Siege money was made from jewellery donated (I wonder?) by the citizens, and the one we handled had a hole near one corner, suggesting it was made into a pendant after the Restoration to proclaim “I fought for the king”.

Fakes, ancient and modern. £1 coins on the left, Roman on the right.
That was the end of the hands on session. Next, in a nearby case I came across the fakes. Roman coins and £1 coins. But the fake Roman coins weren't modern fakes to fool collectors, no: they were faked around 340 CE.  A hoard of 815 coins was found in Suffolk, faked from copper alloy. How do curators know they are fake, one wonders?  It's all here. And another fact: one in every 35 £1 coins in circulation today is a fake.

Lastly, what desperate circumstances impelled someone to bury this jug of gold coins under the floor in a house near Corbridge in Northumberland in 160 CE? They wedged two bronze coins in its neck in an attempt at deception, and never came back to reclaim their hoard. But whoever they were hiding it from didn't discover it either. It was found in 1911. When the jug was lifted the bottom fell out.

If you'd told me I was going to write a blog about coins in a museum I wouldn't have believed you. So there's a little lesson for us all.

Frederick Douglass and coffee at the embassy

Group photo in the embassy, includes Swedes - Tom's book - Tom (right) presents book to ambassador
Last Monday to a coffee morning hosted by the Irish ambassador in London. We have Frederick Douglass to thank, a major figure in US 19th century history, though little known on this side of the Atlantic.  Indeed I had never heard of Douglass till Tom told me about him. That’s Tom Chaffin, husband of my Swedish cousin Margareta and a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. The occasion was Tom presenting the ambassador with his book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary

Frederick Douglass - Daniel O'Connell
When they met in 1845
Douglass was about 27, O'Connell was 70.
So you could say these images are ill-chosen, for which I can only apologise
A memorable day, and what I didn't expect, the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, was himself an historian and a specialist on Daniel O'Connell, so had a real and not mere diplomatic interest in Tom's book, which includes Frederick Douglass's meeting with O'Connell in 1845. O'Connell is himself a colossus of Irish 19th century history. Dublin’s main street and bridge are named in his honour. A little digression here, the original name was Sackville Street changed in 1924 amidst a flurry of patriotic post-independence re-naming, and I always assumed O'Connell Bridge got its name at the same time as the street. But I crossed the bridge last week and was surprised by a plaque saying the Dublin Corporation re-named it in 1882. And to heap digression on digression, according to Wikipedia O'Connell Bridge is unique in Europe as the only traffic bridge wider than it is long: a circumstance evident in the photo below, though it had previously escaped me. Douglass’s bridge is in Washington DC, but I've sought in vain for any idiosyncratic facts about it to entertain you with.

Top, O'Connell Bridge over the Liffey in Dublin: broader than it is long.
Bottom, Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia in Washington, D.C: rather dull.
A bit more about Douglass. He escaped bondage in Maryland in 1838 aged about 20, and eventually earnt a living as an abolitionist lecturer, travelling widely across the North, enthralling audiences and raising funds for the campaign. When his prominence brought him into danger from slave catchers he crossed the Atlantic to lecture in the British Isles. Tom’s book is about the four months he spent in Ireland, and Daniel O’Connell’s influence on him. There were complex reasons why Douglass avoided taking sides on the Irish national question, which Tom deals with in this 2011 New York Times article.  Also worth reading, this one about Douglass and Lincoln, and how he influenced the president’s thinking on the emancipation question in the latter half of the Civil War.  An aspect of Irish and American history that I find of abiding interest, is the widespread Irish-American support for slavery, and hostility towards abolitionists. Here's a review of Tom’s book that focuses on this, and also on Douglass and the famine.

A salute

Can't finish this post without saluting John Green, Chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, who was the fixer for the day. Not only did he fix the embassy meeting, but also a lecture for Tom at Dublin’s Glasnevin Museum a couple of days earlier, and moreover he fixed a guided tour of London’s Tower Hill Memorial where my Swedish great uncle Axel is remembered. My mother’s sister Barbro was especially keen to see this. Axel lost his life on a torpedoed British merchant ship in 1917.

No space here for an essay on Glasnevin Cemetery. Originally established by Daniel O’Connell in 1828. If you’ve an interest in Irish history, the cemetery and museum are a must. My cousin Meta and I had a guided tour in twilight, magical! 

And finally, I said Douglass is little known on this side of the Atlantic. But Meta tells me our uncle Gösta used to give his books as presents, so maybe I ought to have said “little known to me” …  

John Green, fixer and Chairman of Glasnevin Trust