the scythians at the british museum

interesting to think about the contrast between the rich, immersive environment created by the exhibition’s curators and the paucity of hard evidence of how the scythians actually lived their lives – so many conclusions are based on guesswork from knowledge of the geographical and climatic constraints on their lives, and from ethnographic analogues

visitors were made, as far as possible in a modern museum suite, to imagine that they were there in the steppe – projected vistas of grassy plains (sometimes with animated mounted warriors), audio loops of human shouts and equine snortings, the whole set of rooms in dark browns, olives and greens

gold belt buckles featured prominently – large, splendid, with designs usually containing a predator and its prey – a wide range of species – lion, tiger, panther, vulture, deer (particularly elk), dragons, and some humans – this was what was really worth seeing
barry cunliffe’s hour could only give an outline, but his literary-festivally warm audience went away with some context – the steppe is a latitude-limited corridor from china to hungary, allowing – even encouraging, through the ‘grass is greener’ gradient, movements from the drier east to the wetter, greener, west – the scythians were one of the many peoples who rode this corridor, identified by their greek contemporaries homer and herodotus

questions arise: what are the relationships between material culture, a people, and a name? is a change in the archaeological record (for example in the style of graves or pots), evidence of a new ‘people’ coming onto the scene, or (just) of the same people changing the way they buried their dead or stored their food? should we apply to ancient peoples, without caveat, names from classical authors? how far beyond those authors’ limited geographical experience should we extend the territory to which those names apply? and, wider questions about exhibitions – to what extent is the creation of a ‘what it was like’ environment no more, inevitably, than a misleading trick?

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The Moral Maze on veganism and animal rights (Radio 4)

chair: Michael Buerk
human exceptionalist: Clare Fox
three worried carnivores: Ann McElvoy, Matthew Taylor (whose book The Philosopher and the Wolf I later read), Giles Fraser

1. Anthony Warner (The Angry Chef)
Claim: ‘no guilt or shame about what you eat’
He was naïve and unthinking, and treated thus in the subsequent discussion. He hadn’t really thought about it and didn’t seem to understand the point of the question ‘What about eating dogs then?’.

  1. Samantha Calvert (the Vegan Society)
    GF: Is it the same, eating a chimpanzee or a fly?
    SC: I wouldn’t do either.
    That let GF attack the ‘bonkersness’ of not eating or killing flies.
    Also, SC has a carnivorous cat, which left her open to charges of inconsistency.
    CF: Are humans above animals? Is using them for medical research OK?
    SC: No.
    CF: Animals don’t have moral reason, so are different. SC is still putting human views at the centre, ignoring the animals’.
    CF ignores the ‘superior aliens’ argument (see below), but seems to be basically for ‘might is right’

  2. Bella? Williams (defender of animals for medical research, including vivisection)
    We don’t have to eat meet, but do have to do research, so the latter is actually ‘the moral use of animals’.
    MT: Why aren’t you a vegan then, if you (as you admit) seek to reduce the harm done to animals in science?
    BW: Fair point. I’m inconsistent.
    GF: Could superior aliens experiment on us?
    BW: Er, I suppose yes. ::as AW, she didn’t seem to have thought about this kind of question at all::
    GF: So what’s the moral difference between what humans do to animals and what aliens might do to us?
    BW: We are more sentient and advanced than animals…
    GF: How about vegetative humans then?
    BW: Er, that’s abhorrent, but logically OK I suppose.
    GF: You’ve conceded loads – there’s no morality in your position.
    BW: No – it’s morally right to experiment on animals to help humans.
    No mention yet of utilitarianism, which she could have used to some effect.

  3. Mark Rowlands (animals rights author, and philosophy professor)
    MB: How can animals have rights?
    MR: Babies do, so animals can.
    CF: But animals can’t take responsibility.
    MR: And we can? Young children aren’t criminally responsible.
    CF: I meant * a species* – ignoring outliers like people with dementia.
    MR: ‘Species’ is an arbitrary distinction – why not age or anything else? ::Yes – seems sensible to attack her primitive human exceptionalism:: ::He didn’t though push the ‘capacity to suffer’ line (see below)::
    MR: Why are animals inferior?
    CF: I ask the questions… but, we’re superior as a species.
    AM: What’s the link between moral status and ‘rights’?
    MR: Yup, we don’t need the word ‘rights’ – that whole agenda can be expressed in other language.
    AM: Why not a more nuanced set of views of how we can use animals?
    MR: Yes – one can use ‘needs’ and ‘wants’.
    AM: So why not nutrition then, as we’ve evolved to eat animals?
    MR: But nutrition is clearly a ‘want’, not a ‘need’.
    AM: So isn’t it just a personal choice then? You shouldn’t proselytise.
    MR: Morality is more than just a choice, else it’s not morality.

MT: AW was rubbish – no arguments.
CF: No need to worry about eating animals.
AM: Utilitarianism! Not ‘can they reason?’ but ‘can they suffer?’
::MB moved it on – just when they were getting onto an important point::
GF: (Re SC) ‘Bonkersness’ from her ‘extreme commitment to consistency’ (not eating flies).
CF: SC’s morality is human-centred.
MB: SC’s cat? AM: She was thinking of her cat’s health. Let’s not fall victim to ‘moral impossibilism’ ::great phrase!::
GF to CF: Even if we accept human moral exceptionalism, that doesn’t stop us reducing animal suffering.
CF: Agreed – wanton cruelty is wrong, but because of what it says about the human agent. If we go back to Bentham and suffering, putting animals and humans together ‘reduces humans to lumps of meat’. Our suffering is more than their (mere) physical pain. ::Wow – she’s really irrationally committed to a metaphysical human exceptionalism.::
MB: How about BW?
CF: The only way to defend animal experiments is through human exceptionalism. Aliens? ::She could argue it’s not analogous as we’re more sentient than animals::
MB: MR? CF – yes – meal is not a need (’vital interest’), but a want.
?GF: ‘We haven’t got a leg to stand on.’
AM: Yes – it’s about preferences.

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Space Oddity
Boxes pimped in transformative ending
Grease, Withnail on betrayal of youth in achieving worldly success
About getting jobs, crappy jobs, selling out
Technical skill in devising and moving the boxes, symbols at first of constraint and social straitjacketing (interviewees’ being asked to climb into small boxes) but in the climax of liberating play.
Redemptive but with a question mark, as the very end is a triumphant spacewalk, but a bit like a march, and at the very moment in Space Oddity where contact is lost with Major Tom. Difficult and thoughtful.
Boxes as costumes (hidden underneath at start, stellar at end; are costumes those of a false but necessary adult life, or childish fantasy?); Meg’s parts (Sarah, Tara, Amélie) – nods to acting

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a meeting by the river (christopher isherwood)

tales of the city by armistead maupin

the restaurant at the end of the universe by douglas adams

plato’s phaedo

neil gaiman’s stardust

book 1 of thucydides’ history of the peloponnesian war

dan leno and the limehouse golem by peter ackroyd

book 2 of thucydides

just read these on a family holiday, thanks to c. s. lewis’ suggestion to always reread something before reading something new. great idea, but I forget: I picked up the first three as rereads, but I think they were first-timers.

now making any notes in evernote, so farewell houyhnhnm for a while.

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In Plato Protagoras seems to be a pompous but likeable old chap who’s dined out on his cleverness for many years. In both Protagoras and Theaetetus he seems to focus on advising young men, both those in power and those seeking it, how to develop ευβουλια to make good decisions regarding their own lives, their households, and their cities. A consultant for ambitious yuppy/wonk types. Paul Allen, One-Minute Manager, etc., with a bit of L. Ron Hubbard thrown in. As Parmenides {controversial} and {uncontroversial surely?} Gorgias, he seems to have pulled this off by cleverly arguing positions which are at once difficult and almost unsustainable, but also attractive to up-and-coming we-know-it-all kids:
– the gods don’t matter
– personal beliefs and values don’t matter, it’s all about process (managerialism)
In other words a pure sophist, as in fact was Socrates (certainly by what conservative Athens thought of him); it’s just that Socrates didn’t make a Blairite mint out of it.

So, in other words, as with much ancient literature, we don’t know how serious their views are, how much they’re winking at their chums when they read their pieces. Is it largely an elite αγων?

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“Sweet Danger” by Marjery Allingham; “Have his Carcase” and “Whose Body?” by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers is great fun – Wimsey is a wonderful character, such a perfect epitome and caricature of clubland and the Edwardian aristocracy, and her murder mysteries are intricate and teasing. Allingham though is to be preferred: her Campion has greater depths, her plots are more imaginative (“camp”, as Jane Stevens puts it in her introduction to the Omnibus (whole text here I believe), she lacks Sayers’ “snobbery and racism” (ibid.), and her Penguin green covers look better.

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Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

The Illustrated Man was my previous experience of Ray Bradbury: beautiful and disturbing post-war sci-fi stories, set in our present.

Fahrenheit 451 is clearly, from the author’s various prefaces and the publisher’s blurb, a much more famous work, probably because of its theme of book-burning: it’s the lesser-known companion to Brave New World and 1984.

As with his other stories, there’s a superficial lightness of touch, a simplicity, which makes you think at first that his tales will be inconsequential. But they’re not: his hero Montag’s crisis as he begins to doubt the rightness of his career (burning books), and his distant but affectionate relationship with his tragic wife Mildred, are clearly and straightforwardly related, as are the book’s final scenes when he joins a group of dissidents in the countryside, watches his city destroyed in a bombing raid (with an incredible slow-motion description of one bomb’s effects), and joins his friends’ final mission to keep book culture alive. A strange book.

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