Tag Archives: history

Roamin’ roads, redux

The WaPo [via the good folk at Moving History] reports on some interesting research which comes to a conclusion that (I hope) no regular reader here would be surprised by: current geographical levels of population and prosperity in Europe correlate strongly with the Roman road network laid down around two millennia ago.

Dalgaard and his colleagues marshal convincing pieces of evidence to argue in favor of a causal link that runs from ancient roadbuilding to modern-day prosperity. For starters, Roman roads weren’t typically built with trade in mind: their primary purpose was to move troops and supplies to locations of military interest. Trade was an afterthought.

“Roman roads were often constructed in newly conquered areas without any extensive, or at least not comparable, existing network of cities and infrastructure,” Dalgaard and his colleagues write. In many instances, the roads came first. Settlements and cities came later.

Just because I’m not a quant doesn’t mean I don’t like to see someone run the numbers and do the GiS work; indeed, it’s a pleasure to see an instinctive qualitative conclusion bolstered by solid research. As such, it’d be nice for someone to run a more detailed study of the same correlation focussed on Britain (for which some fine person did a tube-map style plot of Roman roads a while back)… and as an imminently unemployed self-employed researcher with experience in matters infrastructural-historical, I stand ready should anyone decide they’d like to fund such a study. Our operators are waiting for your call, etc etc.

In the meantime, have you read Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power? Because, by whatever gods (or the lack thereof) you may believe in, you really should — because it’s a  brilliant book exactly about how those Roman roads formed the basis of the road network we have now (as well as how the civil engineer came to be a thing, and the relationship of infrastructural provision to the projection of domestic state power, and much more), but also just because it’s a brilliant book, full stop.

Roamin’ roads

Via kottke, this tube-map-style atlas of Roman roads lands foursquare in a gloriously tangled Venn intersection of Things I Really Love:

Subway-style map of Roman roads in Europe by Sasha Trubetskoy

If that’s whetted your appetite, the Stanford ORBIS Geospatial Model of the Roman World will take you all the way down the rabbit-hole. Those with a more parochial bent may prefer the tube-map atlas of Roman roads in the British Isles. (There are more of them than you think.)

The power of narrative

… narrative is the specific form taken by a written history to counter the permanence of vision. […] Narrative asserts the the power of men [sic] to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake “classical” civilisations; above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power, a will to truth and interpretation, and not an objective condition of history. Narrative, in short, introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision; it violates the serene Apollonian fictions asserted by vision.

From Orientalism by Edward W. Saïd; quote on p.240 of the 2003 Penguin edition.

A postcard from Chelsea

So, the last three weeks have been busy.

This is an understatement.

Let’s start with geography. I have once again left Velcro City behind me. Yes, this was rather sudden, but a shift of situation was followed immediately by the sort of opportunity that it would be madness to pass up on. When the wind blows favourable, you hoist your sails, right? So, long story short: I’m now living in London for the first time in my life.

And not just any part of London, oh no; yours truly is rockin’ an SW3 postcode, lodged like a lonely cigarette butt in the sumptuous banquet of oblivious privilege that is Chelsea. I’m used to standing out from the crowd a little bit, but when I walk down the King’s Road to the shops, people stare like I’m leading a troupe of tap-dancing zebras by chains made from links of fire and lost languages. To be fair, I do some staring back; there’s no shortage of eccentricity around here. It just expresses rather differently, y’know?

Historical ironies abound, also; maybe a few minutes walk around the corner from my new abode, an Indian restaurant occupies the King’s Road shop where – way back when, around the time I was born – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood acted as manipulative and Machiavellian midwives to the subculture that came to be known as punk. Gentrification’s apogee, ladies and gents; even the sanitised contemporary mutations of punk would look out of place in this neighbourhood. Walk a few minutes northward, and old chaps in colourful trousers (cravats optional, but still popular) stagger in and out of the Chelsea Arts Club; along the Fulham Road, boutiques decorated in earthy tones are staffed by willowy hungry-looking young women who look utterly uninterested in selling the ludicrous clothing that they label with ludicrous prices. Make no mistakes, I grew up with a port-side deck-chair on the SS Privilege… but the folk round here mortgage the damned boat to the cruise company, so to speak. I tend to feel at least slightly out of place pretty much anywhere I go, but the sense of being an interloper here is very tangible. It’s also quite fun. I’ve been doing a lot of cheery grins and how’d-you-dos to people I pass on the pavement. Politeness is a highly hackable protocol.

Alongside new digs, I’ve got new duties: my new Research Assistant post is getting interesting very fast, and there’s plenty of work to be doing. Ironically, considering I thought I’d successfully beamed off of Planet Webdev, a lot of this week’s work has involved thinking out a methodology for building a wiki for one of the projects I’m working on… and you can’t have a methodology without an information architecture, which means my inner librarygeek has been getting’ his taxonomy on, too. Guess all that talk about transferable skills means something after all, eh? Feels good to be stretching my brain around some real challenges.

And speaking of new challenges, I’m three weeks through the first semester of my Masters. The first two modules are going well; just about managing to keep on top of the reading lists and assignments and critical note-taking and what have you, and learning a lot in the process. But the biggest challenge of all attends next semester’s module on writing the novel, in that I need to have written a 90,000 word first draft of one… by January 9th.

In some respects, that’s not as bad as it first sounds; the challenge was set at the start of this semester, leaving the best part of three months to complete it. Nearly ninety days means you hit the goal by writing just 1,000 words a day. It may sound a little blasé, but a thousand words a day is easy; I probably do twice that wordcount most days, anyway.

But writing ninety discrete thousand-word lumps that all fit together and make a novel? That’s a totally different receptacle of ocean critters. We were ordered to start afresh rather than reboot an old or half-written project, so I dragged out one of my little idea nuggets from Evernote and got rolling… only to have become bogged down in the muddy verge. A third character/strand/scenario has been stubbornly refusing to cohere for the best part of the week, and at the lower right-hand corner of my monitor the date keeps changing with a sly, sleazy wink.

The whole point of the challenge, so far as I can tell, is to put us in a position where we don’t have time to think too hard about what we’re writing; we just have to write. This is a very alien position for me to be in. I am not what I think of as a “process writer”; the physical and mental act of writing itself, when I am conscious of it, is deeply unpleasant. It’s only when I cease to be conscious of the process that the decent stuff comes out, at least with non-fiction material; the leap to that higher quantum brain-state is not under my conscious control. Very rarely, it’s there first thing in the morning*; more often it takes two or three hours of battering the keyboard for the keyboard to disappear and the words to start stringing themselves through my mind like fairy lights. Some days, it just doesn’t turn up at all. Those are the days when this job is just typing, a joyless mechanical process that doesn’t even have the consolatory nigh-meditational oblivion provided by assembly-line work or physical labour.

Hark at me whining! One of the shibboleths of writerdom is that the writer who hates writing should do something else. Well, screw that. I hate writing, sure… but I love having written. Having written is the strongest, subtlest drug I know of. I suspect that I’m not entirely alone in this. Furthermore, I suspect that better writers than I have come to love the process for the same reason a junkie loves the needle’s kiss: the high comes after the pain, and – after a while – the association becomes established, a sort of Pavlovian tropism of the intellect. The prospect of a by-line rings bell-like in the hallway, and the imagination starts to salivate… but the reward lies at the far side of the minefield of your own insecurities.

And so it goes. It’s alarming and instructive to see how losing the momentum with which I started has allowed the daemons of of defeatism to raise their voices. You can’t pull it off, they mutter, it’s a step too far; you’ve done OK with non-fiction, but did you really think you could write a novel? Even a ragged first draft, with cardboard characters and plot-holes that could hide entire planets? Even if you can, it’ll probably suck.

Well, that’s the thing I’m trying to cling to, perversely enough. If I tell myself that, yeah, it’ll almost certainly suck, then somehow it doesn’t matter that it will suck.

No, I have no idea how that works, either.

Still, this psychological self-hacking ain’t gonna fix the more tangible and immediate problem, namely the lack of a third character where I need one to exist. Only one thing’s gonna fix that, and that’s me sitting down and writing until someone or something reaches out and tells me where they need me to send them… so it’s time to leave aside the tempting displacement activity of blogging (which, in reference to my claim further up the page, has already seen me assemble over a thousand words into something approaching order this afternoon) and do that thing where I try to press the keys in the right order: the order that makes them – and everything else in the room, maybe even the whole universe – disappear.

So, to work.

[ * Clarification: I adhere to the Warren Ellis definition of “morning”, namely (and I paraphrase): “the first three hours after I get out of bed, whatever the lying bastard clock says”. ]