Monday, 23 January 2017

Gutemberg and the Power of the Press

It is difficult to pin point what the most influential invention that has ever been developed actually is, though Gutenberg's movable type printing press is certainly up there. No doubt the inventions that have been the most influential tend to be the oldest, such as domestication of animals, farming, the wheel, and of course the alphabet, and anybody who has played Sid Meyer's Civilisation will no doubt be familiar with the technology tree, that is that technological developments come about from earlier developments, which in turn come from even earlier ones. For instance, without the development of the wheel there is no way you are going to be able to build a car (and while, to us, the wheel seems to be a pretty basic invention, it actually isn't all that easy to work out, especially when you incorporate things like axles, and of course making sure that it doesn't break apart when you apply loads). Like the wheel, the movable type printing press no doubt thanks its origins to developments such as the alphabet, writing, and of course literature (because without literature all you are going to be printing are financial ledgers, but then again there are people out there who consider that the only legitimate form of literature is the Annual Report).

The main reason that I am writing this post about Gutemberg, and printing in general, is because when I was in Germany I visited the Gutemburg Museum. Mind you, the main reason I was there was because I wanted to travel by train to the end of the line, and I noticed that the S-Bahn in Frankfurt actually went to the nearby towns and cities. Mind you, the German Railway System, otherwise knowns as Deutsch-bahn, is so extensive that you can pretty much get to any part of Germany without having to have a car, or even catch a bus (though it seems that not all places outside of Germany are accessible because according to my travel app, the Eurail App, you can no longer get to Prague by train). Anyway, as it turns out, the Gutenberg Museum is here, but considering Mainz was where Gutenberg lived, and died, this is not all that surprising. As a museum it was pretty cool, that is except for when I was told off for taking photos (despite there being no signs telling me otherwise, but then again I should have asked - I did so with pretty much every other place I visited), which is probably not surprising considering that there are some pretty old books located in there.

A Museum of Printing

I have already written a review on the Museum on Yelp (I so prefer Yelp over Tripadvisor, but I'll leave that for another post to explain why), so I won't try to go over any ground that I have already done so. Further, no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find a photo of the museum. Fortunately there was one on the Wikipedia entry, which I have to admit is much, much better than any of my photographs. Anyway, I didn't find the museum all that great, though a part it had to do with getting told off for taking photos (and nobody likes being told off). However, I will mention that the museum is much more than just Gutenberg's invention. In fact, it explores the whole history of printing right up until the modern day, and it is a shame that I didn't take any more detailed notes, but fortunately you can get a good idea of the collection, and the background, from their website.

The museum itself dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century to celebrate the 500th year of Gutenberg's birth, and from that time began collecting printing presses and books. It was initially located in the town's old library, which was also the palace of the Elector of Mainz (the ruler that would form a part of the institution that made up the Holy Roman Empire, and held the title of elector not because he was elected, but because he was entitled to vote for the Holy Roman Emperor). In 1925 Gutenberg's workshop was reconstructed from woodcuttings, and then as the museum grew it was moved to its current location, Zum Römichen Kaiser, which is located across the square from the Mainz Dom. The building didn't escape the destruction of World War II, but fortunately the collection did manage to survive due to being stored in a secure bunker.

As well as the collection (which is strewn over three levels and multiple rooms in these levels), the museum houses the Gutenberg Society, the workshop replica, as well as the administration and restoration workshops. There is also a small cinema that shows a short film on Gutenberg's revolution, though when we went and watched it it happened to be in German. Even though I can sort of speak German, the problem was that my German isn't that good that I am able to understand a film without subtitles. Also, as I discovered, trying to understand a language that you only have a basic understanding of can be incredibly exhausting.

Gutemburg's Revolution

To say that the printing press was a revolution is an understatement. Okay, working out how to write things down, and how to create paper and ink to be able to write things down, were also pretty revolutionary. Mind you, the need for more scrolls became ever more urgent with the birth of philosophy:

Just needed an excuse to post this
Anyway, the thing with the pen and paper (or quill, ink, and scroll) was that you needed to write everything by hand, and if you wanted multiple copies then you would have to, well, make multiple copies. In fact, a whole industry arose that simply involved copying scrolls (and many of monasteries during the Middle Ages preserved texts simply by doing just that). As such books were very, very expensive, even if you got the literate slaves to do the copying (because even though they might be slaves, they aren't necessarily cheap), which meant that only the rich and powerful would have access to them. Of course, if you happened to be a slave to the rich and powerful then no doubt you would also have access to the scrolls. The other thing was that if you were a philosopher, or teacher, then you would need to have patrons (and it is interesting that we are seeing this concept reborn in the form of the Patreon Website), which is probably why Socrates never wrote anything down, namely because he eschewed the whole patron system.

However, Gutemburg was not the first person to invent printing - the accolades go to the Chinese. In fact there were two styles of printing: woodblock and movable type. The movable type was similar to Gutenberg's invention, though appeared in China during the 12th Century. Woodblock printing is much more primitive in that the book, or picture, is carved out on a single block of wood. While this could speed up the copying of texts, it was still very time consuming creating the wooden blocks. What movable type meant was that you can change the individual letters (or symbols as is the case in Chinese) which is much more practical, and allows for much more flexibility in being able to print text. As for woodblock, that style didn't necessarily go away, and in fact a style of art was developed where the artist would carve the image onto the woodblock and then use the block to print pictures - it was a much quicker, and cheaper, way of producing art in bulk.

The thing with woodblocks was that you couldn't change the woodblock after you have finished using it and needed a separate woodblock for every page. However movable type meant that once you have printed the number of identical pages that you wanted then you could change the block and then print the next batch. Dealing with errors was also another important aspect as if there was an error in the movable type you can simply change it whereas with the woodcut you would effectively have to discard the whole block and start again.

Bring on the Renaissance

Yeah, he looks pretty dodgy.
Ironically, according to Wikipedia that is, Gutenberg actually started out as a bit of a scam artist. Actually, he started out as a blacksmith, which is not surprising because you probably need to have some blacksmithing skills to be able to develop something like a printing press, but before that he had came up with this mirror which he claimed was able to catch the rays of light from heaven, and he was intending on selling it to the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately severe flooding meant that he couldn't get there in time, and as a result got into a little bit of trouble with his investors. Actually, a lot of trouble, namely because he was broke, but he solved that by claiming that he had a backup idea, a special type of printing press which you could use to print books much quicker and faster. Actually, it wasn't Gutenberg's idea but rather a Dutchman named Laurens Coster (though as we know the Chinese had come up with the idea some two-hundred years before).

Another interesting thing that was happening at the time was that Italy was facing a refugee crisis from the East, namely the inhabitants of the former Byzantine Empire were fleeing the sack of Constantinople (though that had been happening since the Venetians sacked the city during the Fourth Crusade, though it could be argued that the crusades were just as much about destroying the power of the Eastern Orthodox church as it was about conquering the Holy Land, but that is another story entirely). Anyway, these refugees were bringing lots of books with them, namely the writings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, many of which had been lost in the West. This influx of lost knowledge spurned a movement that has since become known as the Renaissance, but the invention of the printing press made it much easier for the knowledge to be recorded and disseminated - in essence marking the end of the Middle Ages.

Anyway, Gutenburg's first project was to print a copy of the Bible, called the 42 line Bible, not because he only printing 42 lines (meaning that it probably consisted of a single page) but that a bulk of the pages have 42 lines. Anyway, the Christian Fundamentalists seems to make a really big deal of the fact that the first book that Gutenberg printed was the Bible, however my secularist view of the world suggests that there was nothing Holy or Spiritual about the fact that the first book ever printed using movable type was the Bible (which in fact it wasn't - see the note on China above), but rather because it was the most common, and well known, book of the time, and he no doubt would have had easy access to it. Sure, he could have printed copies of the letters to his lover, but they would probably be a little personal, and anyway he didn't want her husband to find out.

He actually printed something like 180 of these
nother thing about books at this time was that they were works of art - while the bulk of the text would be normal writing, the first letters of a page, and a paragraph, would be intricate pictures. In fact the whole book would be full of beautiful pictures. However, the thing with the printing press was that it was supposed to speed up printing, which sticking with the medieval tradition didn't really do. It wasn't just the difficulties to creating the larger letters (which would all be individually stylised) but also the difficulties of using different colours. The thing is that it wasn't so much hard, but rather incredibly fiddly, and really slow, which sort of defeated the purpose of creating something to speed up the process. As for colour, well, you had to dry out the page before running it back through the printing press with a different colour, and you had to do that with all the different colours you wanted (and make sure that the images lined up perfectly or else it is back to square one).

Enlightening the Mind

So, the renaissance, along with the printing press, brought about great change to Europe - old ideas and stories, long thought lost, were brought back into circulation, and with that new ideas were born. Suddenly writers were pouring over the Ancient Roman texts, writing advice to nobles on how to attain power and remain in power, or they were studying the astronomical texts and looking to the skies, realising that weren't actually the centre of the universe. They were also demonstrating that objects of different masses fell at the same speed, and along with that they were writing some of the most beautiful stories (even though the author was literally pining over a woman that had no chance whatsoever of getting involved with).

Another thing that was changing, that the Renaissance brought about, was that people were no longer accepting traditional doctrine as fact. Instead they were starting to question it, and they were researching in an attempt to find out the truth - in ways that would begin to undermine the powers that be. Mind you, this was a time when the church was actually in decline - the hey days of Pope Innocent III were long behind them, and they had effectively fallen into petty squabbles which resulted in the Great Schism and the Babylonian Captivity - this was a breading ground for dissent and rebellion, and ripe for the beginnings of the reformation.

There was another thing that happened as well - the printing press. As I mentioned, it made the production, and distribution, of tracts much quicker and easier, something that a little known Monk took advantage of after nailing a bunch of statements to the door of the church at Wurtemburg. Once again, Luther wasn't the first to challenge the church theologically - there had been outbreaks of sects throughout the history of the church, though until Luther's time many of them were brutally suppressed. Actually, Luther and his contemporaries didn't find it easy going either - however even though Luther was put on trial for spreading heresy, the fact that Germany at this time was made up of a collection of city states and principalities, meant that Luther was able to gain sanctuary with princes who weren't particularly happy with the church, or the Emperor.

Rise of the Rag

With the cost of producing written works dropping significantly meant that literacy began to increase among the lower classes - when books are expensive to produce the literacy levels will inevitably remain low, namely because the ordinary person would not have access to books. However, as the cost of producing books begins to drop then the ability of the average person to read, namely due to having access to these books, increases. Mind you, the average person still needs to be taught to read, and while it is all well and good to know what the letters and words mean, one still has to be able to comprehend what is being written - which is why English literature is so important. It is not so much learning how to read but learning how to interpret and understand the ideas that the author is putting across - sure lots of people can read, but if one's ability to read is limited to newspapers and instruction manuals (if the instruction manual is even read) then that is not necessarily an indication of literacy.

With regards to the rise of printing the 16th century saw the development of a range of literature, especially after the thirty years war when peace once again returned to Europe. Firstly we have the rise of libraries, particularly those which where open to the public, and rare and collectible books began to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Of course, the ability to print, and to be able to disseminate information rapidly, and cheaply, brought about the rise of the scientific revolution as the scientific class began to build upon the research of those that came before them, and also proceeded to develop a method where answers were developed through repeated experimentation. We also begin to see the rise of complex performances and literature, such as the plays of William Shakespeare and the writings of the likes of Goethe, Dafoe, and of course Milton - being able to print meant that such things could be put down to posterity, and performances could be held more frequently.

So, the rise of printing, and the rise of literature, also brings with it the rise of the pulp novel. Okay, maybe there weren't as many pulp novels back in those days, but maybe there were - the thing is that only books and novels with staying power continued a print run through to our times (though if you hunt around the Antiquarian bookshops in London you are sure to find some books that you no doubt have never heard of). Also, along came the 'pocket book', namely a book that could fit in one's pocket - for most of history books were huge affairs, or simply a bunch of scrolls, the pocket book, which eventually became the paperback, meant that books could be taken with you on a journey as opposed to being left at home and read in the reading room.

Another interesting thing with literature, and of course the rise of the city and the scientific method, is that things start to speed up - a lot. Literature means that news begins to spread, and as news begins to spread people want to remain up to date with the latest happenings. Mind you, kings and generals have always needed to remain up to date on the movements of the enemies, however the rise of commercialism meant that the middle class had a stake in that as well - for instance a merchant needed to know where the best place to sell their goods was, and the scientist needed to keep abreast of what was happening elsewhere. As for the normal literate person, well, they also needed to know what was going on, and to meet this demand came the newspaper - otherwise known as the daily rag.

Another thing that appeared was the Encyclopedia - a means to attempt to collect all of human knowledge into one place. This feat was initially accomplished by Diderot and d'Alembert, who produced the world's first encyclopedia. Mind you, for an encyclopedia to contain 'all' knowledge would mean that the work would be huge, however what it did act as was a reference from which one could then go and look for information elsewhere. In fact it is interesting to note that as I grew up the one thing that seemed to be the mainstay of most houses was a set of Encyclopedias - we had the Funk and Wagnells, but we also had a children's encyclopedia. Interestingly these encyclopedia companies, such as Britannica (which seems to have been killed by Wikipedia) went beyond encyclopedias as they also produced sets containing what was considered to be the greatest works of literature.

Modern Media

In a way I have already written about the modern news media, particularly in the day of the internet. Interestingly while things did change, they didn't change as much until the internet came about - the news cycle pretty much remained the same where we would receive morning and evening updates in the paper and on television (that is if the city had a morning and evening paper - in many cases it would be the paper in the morning and the television news in the evening). Okay, we did have CNN, and Fox News, which created the 24hr news cycle, but that didn't really come about until the eighties, and in a way it didn't morph into the cycle that we have now, particularly since the cable networks are effectively in competition with the internet news sources.

As for books, well interestingly enough books will still come and go - novels and pulp fantasy will either crash and burn, have a time in the lime light and then vanish to the back corners of the secondhand bookshop, or become a classic with endless print runs. Mind you, with the advancement of knowledge in pretty much most fields, text books are literally having a shelf life of less than a year, as are the encyclopedias (though they have been subsumed by Wikipedia). While the digital economy has produced e-readers like the kindle, it seems that there is still a great passion for the physical book, as I discovered in Paris - it is much better walking around reading a hard copy of 'A Movable Feast' as opposed to a digital version on your phone or tablet - first of all it drains the power enormously, and secondly people can't actually see what you are reading, and from my perspective a part of the idea of reading a book is so that others can see what you are reading.

Creative Commons License

Gutemberg and the Power of the Press by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Gutemberg Museum By Pedelecs by Wikivoyage and Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Gutenburg Bible By Raul654, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Monday, 16 January 2017

Wandering Here and There

Normally I would leave a post about travel for my travel blog, however as it turns out I have recently finished a book by Bill Bryson about a time when he decided to travel around Europe. As such, this book enables me to actually write about travel as well as writing about a book that I read. Actually, I write quite a lot about books that I have read, however I tend to migrate over to this blog when what I want to write about tends to be quite long (as is the case when it comes to writing about Europe). Mind you, I won't be going into too much details with where I went and what I did, namely because I want to leave them for my travel blog, and also it will probably be much longer than what I would be comfortable with putting into a single post.

One thing that I should mention is that the experience of travel back when Bryson went around Europe, and the experience of travel today, almost twenty-five years later, couldn't be any different (and more so when he first went over to Europe in 1971). These days we have the Schengen Zone, which is a collection of European countries with an open borders policy, that is where you don't need to show your passport, or get a visa, to enter. Then there is the Eurozone, which means that there is a common currency across the region (though there are a number of countries that haven't adopted the currency, but then again Switzerland doesn't consider itself part of Europe). I still remember my Dad telling me how he attempted to enter France from Switzerland back in the early 90s and was denied entry because he had an Australian passport (Australia and France were at odds over nuclear testing in the South Pacific).

Disused Border Post on the French-Belgium border

However, traveling across Europe doesn't feel as if you are traveling across different countries. Sure, you still see border posts scattered about, as we did when we crossed from Belgium to France, however it simply feels as if you are crossing state boundaries in Australia - there is a simple sign welcoming you to Victoria, and a few reminders that they have drug testing for road users, and also that the speed limits change. In fact a part of me wonders what's stopping people traveling to Amsterdam, loading up on marijuana, and then traveling back into France. So, when Bryson talks about how Switzerland is basically lots of electric cables stretching across mountains, and along railway tracks, it doesn't actually register to me that we are in another country - to me we are just in Europe.

Anyway, I probably should include a map of my travels, for both journeys that is:

This is the route we took in 2011

This is the route we took in 2016 (though it is a little more convoluted)

First Impressions

So far I have been to Europe three times, the first time I came in through London, and the next two I entered through Frankfurt. In a way, to me, the only way to get to Europe is by plane. Okay, I could go by boat, but that would be hideously expensive, or I could go by land, but that would involve having to enter China, and Russia (or cross through the Middle East), which is a difficult proposition at best. Also there is the fact that there aren't any ferries from Australia to Indonesia, so once again I would have to get there by jumping onto a Cruise Ship - something that I have no burning desire to do.

The thing is that the trek to Europe involves a twelve hour plane flight from one of the major South East Asian Capital cities (or via the United Arab Emirates). Okay, Qantas is launching a direct flight from Perth, but after they broke a flag of mine and basically said 'too bad so sad', I haven't flown with them since (not that they particularly care). However, the trek basically involves me traveling to the other side of the world, which means that the trek sends me into some sort of dream like state, which upon emerging I realise I am as far away from home as I could ever imagine. Then there is the view from the plane where I am descending over London - or more so in a holding pattern waiting for Heathrow to give us permission to land. Mind you, I never had that particular problem at Frankfurt - rather I was looking out of the window, while it was still dark, and seeing this city surrounded by numerous towns and villages - it isn't like my experience in Australia, where cities just sprawl, but rather there are green belts keeping them all separate.

As for my first arrival in London, I ended up simply crossing from one terminal to another so that we could catch our next flight to Athens. Mind you, Heathrow is huge - it took us two hours to get from the train to our terminal the last time I was there, though a part of that time did involve standing in the checkin line. It wasn't so bad that time simply because we were transferring flights, however when I glanced at the huge lines at UK Border Control, I was somewhat glad that I was bypassing that (though I almost took the wrong turn, which would have resulted in us missing our plane). The first time I came into Frankfurt I passed through customs pretty quickly, namely because it was 5:00 in the morning, but due to some significant delays the next time, we arrived at noon, and found that customs wasn't as efficient as you would expect from the Germans.

Bryson's Travels

Obviously there are a number of places that Bryson has visited that I haven't and vice versa, though I will only try to stick to our common travels. Mind, his first trek involved traveling all the way up to Hammerfest in Norway, specifically to go and see the Northern Lights. Obviously I haven't been up there, nor have I seen the lights, but from what I gather it can be pretty hit and miss. In fact you could travel all that way and never actually see them. Also, it seems that the only way to get there is by bus, though I suspect there are planes that travel there these days. However, due to the unpredictability of the Northen Lights, and the fact that you can really only see them at the height of winter, I'd probably just watch them on Youtube

He also traveled across Yugoslavia and into Bulgaria, which surprised me somewhat because I was under the impression that you couldn't travel as a tourist into the Eastern Bloc. Well, okay, my high school history teacher did say that he went to Hungary, and notably pointed out that if you wanted to eat you had to go for the packed lunches. However, from what Bryson indicated, this wasn't necessarily the case in Split, as he spoke of visiting bars and drinking beers. In fact he indicated that this was the case in Sofia as well, though when he was back it was at the height of the economic crisis and was witnessing first hand the breadlines.

As for me, while I have been to Greece, I haven't been into Yugoslavia or Hungary, however I have been into the Czech Republic. It was interesting traveling through there by train, since you would pass old communist era steel mills. The other thing is that the Eastern Bloc is still quite impoverished, at least compared to the rest of Europe. Mind you, it doesn't necessarily look like that, at least from what I could see in Prague, but then again I was only in Prague for one night before we then jumped back onto the train and headed towards Berlin (while passing through Dresden). However, I do remember wandering into a night club in one of the old towers, a nightclub that was touted as the 'largest nightclub in Central Europe'. Mind you, I was pretty lucky because when I arrived I walked straight in, however when I left the line was stretching quite a way down the river.

As for Scandanavia and Denmark, well I have to admit that I haven't had the pleasure of traveling there, though Bryson does suggest that Stockholm is wet and miserable. However, from what I gathered from this book, all Bryson seemed to be able to do was complain, which is why all of the Americans writing poor reviews about The Lost Continent now makes sense - all he seems to do is complain. Still, when things go wrong on a holiday you are going to want to complain.


The French have unfortunately been hit with the label of being rude - I believe that that is further from the truth - they are no more or no less than other countries. In fact I had more problems with the Germans that I had with the French. Mind you, that didn't necessarily mean that there weren't rude service staff in France, I met a few of them, but I also found some quite pleasant people as well. For instance we wandered into a pub in the middle of the country, and when they discovered that we were from Australia they became really excited. I had a similar encounter in Amiens, when I met a local who simply wanted to speak to somebody who could speak English.

Mind you, as I mentioned, there were some quite rude people, particularly when you are wandering around Montparnasse, but then again that part of Paris is incredibly expensive. I discovered that at the first Hemmingway cafe I visited to discover that the price of a beer was incredible. Mind you, of the six cafes that I visited, four of them were pretty good - they even showed me where Hemmingway used to sit (and another showed me where Picasso would sit). Of the other two, they were more than happy to take my money, but the impression that I got was that people like me generally don't visit their cafes.

And this is the stool upon which Hemmingway sat.

People suggest that Paris is overrated, but personally that isn't any further from the truth. However, I suspect it really has a lot to do with why people travel - a lot of people go to Paris, and visit the Louve, simply because that is a thing that people do. However, they simply grab a brochure at the front counter and go and visit the things that everybody wants to see, such as the Mona Lisa. As for me, I visited the Louve not simply to see the Mona Lisa, but to see what it had to offer, and they have a lot - an awful lot. In fact I was there for four hours (or more - I lost track of time) and still didn't get to see everything, particularly the statues in the Richelieu wing.

Sarcophogai from Cleopatra's Egypt

There are other things about Paris that I love as well, such as the square in Montmatre where artists sit around painting pictures of anything and everything, as well as the museum that happens to be in the garden where Renoir produced his masterpieces. Then there is are the gardens, such as the Jardin Luxembourg, or the Tullaries - the thing that people seem to do there is sit in front of their favourite statue and read a book. Hemmingway would also talk about how he would visit the Jardins Luxembourg for some peace and quiet, though from my visit I could hardly say that the place was all that peaceful.


I could go on and on about Paris and France, especially since the second time I passed through my eyes were opened to the amazing nature of the place (and also reading A Moveable Feast, and visiting Jim Morrisons Grave), but I will leave that for another time and move on to the next country that both Bryson and I visited - Belgium. Well, it sounds as if he made a trek to Brussels, Antwerp, Bruge, and a small village outside of Leige. Well, my experience of Belgium is Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent. Once again I would have to disagree with Bryson's assessment of Belgium, especially Brussel's old town - it certainly didn't seem to be dominated by modern buildings. Okay, we did go for a trek out to the railway museum, which took us through some of the inner suburbs, and I have to admit that the city still had a lot of charm.

A chocolate alchemist

However, the thing that really stood out in Belgium were the beers. In fact you would walk past a shop that would advertise having over 200 different types of beer on sale. One of my trips even involved renting a car and driving down to Chimay, where you can find Scourmont Abbey, which makes the beer of the same name. Sure, there are a few other monastries that make such beers, but this was the one that I was able to work out how to get to. Mind you, the abbey itself is, well, an abbey - you can wander through the gardens and visit the chapel, but they won't show you where they make the beer. Actually, I suspect it is made a few kilometers up the road at a place called 'Espace Chimay', since it had some buildings that looked suspiciously like a brewery. However, once again, you don't get an opportunity to see the beer being made because it is a trade secret. If you want though you can always go and visit the museum (which I didn't, though I did buy some cheese).

Trappist Beers

And they all have a glass to go with them

Talking about beer, there was a place in Brussels where you could go and see how beer was made - ironically called the Beer Museum. Mind you, it was located in the market place, an incredibly beautiful square surrounded by old buildings. One of the buildings is the town hall, however all of the other buildings were the former guild halls, no doubt the beer museum being the brewer's guild. We went for a wander around down there, and there certainly was a lot of brewing equipment, however it was the modern section that was operational, the part of the museum housing the old equipment was just haphazardly scattered about. Fortunately the entrance fee included a beer.

One view of the Grand Place
I could go on about my visits to Antwerp, Ghent, and Ypres, but other than the fact that Antwerp has a gorgeous railway station (considered to be a cathedral of railway stations), I'll leave my further discussions for another time.


Well, I have visited Germany a few times (three to be precise), but one of the reasons that I have done so is because I speak German. Mind you, people do get a little confused when they arrive in Germany and discover that everything is in German - it is as if Germans simply speak English with a strange accent, much like the Indians, the Jamacians, and the British. As it turns out, they speak German, though the reason for this misconception is that all of the Germans that one tends to meet outside of Germany speak really good English - they wouldn't be able to survive otherwise. It isn't like France where people see no reason to learn English. However, when you are in Germany it turns out that quite a lot of Germans don't know English anywhere near as good as the Germans that I have met in Australia.

What I love about Germany are the trains - they are fast, efficient, and can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go. In fact I could spend my entire time in Germany simply traveling on their trains - well, not really, since there are other things to see and do there as well. However, the other thing about Germany is that it used to be the heart of Europe, especially the region along the Rhine where I have since discovered is a huge cluster of cities. A friend who has lived over in Germany has indicated that this used to be where the former Holy Roman Empire was ruled, and Bonn used to be the capital of West Germany. Mind you, being located on Europe's major river was always going to have a heavy focus on trade.

The other thing about Germany, and in fact Belgium and the Netherlands, is that it is decentralised. It isn't like pretty much every other country out there (with the exception of Italy), where basically everything happens in the capital and the regional areas are somewhat uninteresting (well, I am exaggerating a bit, but it is like that in the Czech Republic and Hungary). The reason for this is that Germany is actually a new country - it is less than two hundred years old. For most of its history the strip of land between the North Sea and Italy was a collection of independent city states that were loosely ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, though his power was incredibly limited. As such, one can visit quite a few parts of Germany without ever going to Berlin (and there actually isn't all that much in Berlin).

Okay, there is the Brandenberg Gate, and the Museum Island, and the awesome nightclub in the power plant.


Well, I've been to Europe three times, and I've been to Amsterdam three times. Personally, I'm not sure why, though it probably has something to do with the coffeeshops. Mind you, the last time I was there I realised that there is actually more to Amsterdam than the coffeeshops, though when I was much younger that was all people ever talked about. Actually, it wasn't until I was preparing for my third trip that I discovered places such as the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Rembrant House.

And of course the Kattenkabinet
However, the one thing that the Dutch know how to do is to throw a street party. In fact when I arrived this last time I discovered that it was gay-pride week. It certainly left the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for shame. It also answered the question as to why the hotels were incredibly expensive when I was booking them. At first I thought it was because Amsterdam is basically an incredibly expensive city, but it just turned out that I had booked my accommodation at the wrong time. Still, it was an experience, especially with my brother, who was determined to have some chicken McNuggets, barging through the heart of the street party.

Still trying to work out what this is
Also, the canals are absolutely gorgeous, as are the buildings, and the beer. There is just something about Amsterdam - maybe its free wheeling attitude, and the idea that there are laws and there are laws, and the law that says that one shouldn't go skinny dipping in one of the canals is one of those laws that probably doesn't need to be enforced. However, don't take photos in the Red Light District, and watch out for the cyclists - in the war between pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists, in Amsterdam the cyclists won. Mind you, if you did go skinny dipping in the canals you would probably find an awful lot of bicycles, and a couple of cars as well.


People seem to have a love/hate relationship with Italy. Bryson loved it, however my Dad, and one of my friends, absolutely hated it. In a way it has a lot to do with what one would call organised chaos - Italy is incredibly chaotic in a very organised sort of way. Personally, the Italians were lovely people, as long as they didn't work for the government. For instance don't even think about buying a ticket for a train at one of their railway stations because you will be waiting forever. Fortunately when I was there they had machines that would dispense a ticket. Mind you, I had a Eurail pass, but nobody told me how to use it, which meant that I ended up on the wrong end of a ticket inspector. Actually, I landed up on the wrong end of a ticket inspector in Dusseldorf because nobody told me I had to insert the ticket into a machine - in fact I didn't even see the machines until the ticket inspector told me I had to insert my ticket into it. Also, they neglected to inform me that I had a first class ticket as well.

However the more I think about Italy the more I start to warm to it, namely because of the cities that I visited. Okay, Naples is an absolute dump, namely because there doesn't seem to be anybody that goes around collecting the rubbish. In fact when I landed in Naples I suddenly realised that I was going to have a bad time, namely because when I went to arrange the hire car I discovered that the hire car agency in Greece had placed a block on my car and that it wasn't going to be released for two days. I ended up having to spend more time in Naples than I originally anticipated. However, despite the fact that the hotel was located in this horrid cement and steel commercial district, once we entered the old city Naples turned out to be amazing, especially the three castle around the place. We even found a way down into the ruins of Neapolis, the Ancient Roman city.

The funny thing was that we went on a tour of Pompei, and I had no idea that the suburban train would take us there, not until we caught the train down to Sorrento. However, despite the fact that she didn't let us wander around the stalls outside of the ruins, or grab something to eat, having somebody explain to us what was going on and what we were looking at was quite helpful. Mind you, we didn't get an opportunity to head up to the top of Vesuvius, but I tell you want, that volcano can be seen throughout the city and hangs there like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

See what I mean
Come to think of it I could write quite a lot more about Italy because after Naples I went to Rome, and then Florence, and even stopped off at Pisa to check out a rather ordinary leaning tower. I also went to Milan, however that was for one night and my experience of Milan was tearing my hair out trying to find a place to dump the rental car. Actually, that was so painful that the only parts of Milan I got to see was the hotel, the railway station, and the airport, and then I received a fine because I caught the wrong train to Venice, namely the express.


I was going to write a little more about Switzerland and Austria, however my experience of Switzerland was basically having a beer in a pub in Lausanne, and then driving from one end of the country to the other. Okay, he did catch the train down to lake Geneva and had a look around, and then went back, but we didn't spend a huge amount of time in Lausanne. In fact the only reason I went there was because my brother had spend three months there back in the early nineties.

As for the rest of Switzerland, all I ended up seeing was a motorway. Okay, I saw a little more that a motorway as we crossed from Basel in the North to Italy in the South, but what annoyed me was that we couldn't stop and admire the view - it simply seemed as if they didn't believe in setting up rest stops where you could actually get a really good look at the mountains - all of the rest stops were actually pretty horrible. That is why were decided to pull off the motorway and park the car in Lucerne. Here we caught a cable car up to the top of the mountain, which during the winter is a ski resort, but during the summer is a place where people go hiking. However Switzerland is a beautiful country, as long as you avoid the north which is basically full of industry. Oh, and it is also an incredibly expensive country, as I found out the hard way.

After a short stop in Milan and Venice, we then caught a train up to Salzburg, which is basically my impression of Austria. Actually, there wasn't any train going to Austria from Venice, so we had to catch a bus, but like Switzerland the journey was an experience. Actually, that first trip to Europe I seemed to spend more time traveling than actually enjoying the places I was visiting. For instance we spent most of the day traveling from Venice to Salzburg, and then a couple of hours wandering around Salzburg. At least I managed to see the world's smallest violin, and also go for a trek up into the castle, were I could see over the border into Germany


Okay, Bryson didn't go to Greece, but I did, and I have to admit that it was amazing. Okay, the country is also pretty dodgy. In fact on the first night some guys invited us to come to a special nightclub, which we politely declined. Anyway, having studied Classical Studies at University, there was always this desire to go to Greece and actually walk where some of my Ancient Grecian heroes walked, and to see the places where the battles were fought. In fact I caught a ferry from the Pireaus simply so I could see where the battle of Salamis was fought. We also hired a car and head all the way up to Thermopylae to see where the 300 Spartans valiantly held off the Persian army (though I couldn't find where the battle of Marathon was fought, no matter how hard I tried).

Modern Thermopylae Memorial
Once again, like Italy, Greece is what you would call organised chaos. Don't even think of driving in Athens. I remember when I picked up the hire car they had to bring it from the airport, and when they arrived the parked it hanging half on and half off the sidewalk, and I spent ten minutes trying to get it off without crashing into anybody else. I eventually did that, found my way onto the motorway only to discover that the speed limit was 40 kph, and that everybody except me ignored it, which meant that there was a lot of angry tooting.

The other thing about Greece is that the restaurateurs seem to think you have a bottomless stomach. In Corinth one of the restaurateurs refused to tell me were the ruins were unless I agreed to come back and buy some food, while the ones at Mycene would run out into the middle of the road and stand in front of your car to invite you to come into the restaurant and have something to eat. Oh, and there was also this guy in Athens that booked us to have a meal at his restaurant as opposed to the other way around. However, one thing you need to watch out for is that some of these people have no problem slipping you fake money as change, as I had the unfortunate experience to discover.
Creative Commons License

Wandering Here and There by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 9 January 2017

Cymbeline - Back to Britannia

A part of me felt that it was a little ironic, with all the the furore over Brexit, that this play was being performed by the Royal Shakespeare company around this time. Mind you, unless they had a crystal ball, I have a feeling that it may have been a coincidence that Cymbeline was being staged, though we must remember that Brexit didn't happen in a vacuum, and there was a huge debate over Britain's role in the EU and the European community in the lead up not only to the referendum, but also the general election of 2015. The thing is that one of the major themes of the play, and it as just as important back when it was first performed as it is now, is the role of Britain in Europe, and how much influence should Europe have over British (or more precisely English) sovereignty.

One of the main reasons that I ended up seeing this film was because Cymbeline is not only one of those plays that is rarely performed, but also because I have not had the opportunity of seeing it, or even reading it. Mind you, while I knew that the play was going to appear in the cinema screens, I didn't know when and it was a freak accident that I decided to check up on when King Lear was going to be released that I realised that this was was playing, well, that week, which meant that I pretty much changed my entire plans for Saturday (which basically involved me lounging around at home, as well as going to a church dinner, and a morning Bible study) on a moments notice. Fortunately the play was being screened at the Palace Westgarth, which is not all that far from where I live, so it didn't mean traveling halfway across town.

This is a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and was filmed at their playhouse at Stratford upon Avon. As I was walking into the theatre the one thing that came to mind was that I have yet to see a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that is until I realised that I saw The Alchemist at the Barbican, and also saw a production of Midsummers Night Dream when they did a tour of Australia. So, I guess I should be more specific and suggest that I haven't seen one at Stratford upon Avon, which is not surprising considering that I have yet to go to Stratford upon Avon. However I have seen two Shakespeare plays at The Globe, and I must admit that The Globe is by far the most uncomfortable, and annoying, playhouse to watch a play at, though I will say more about that when I get around to writing a piece on the Scottish Play.


Okay, first I probably should write a synopsis on the play, though since I have discovered that a movie was released back in 2014, though after watching the trailer it looks like it will be different enough (it is about bikies and cops, and looks pretty awesome) that I probably won't be covering a lot of ground again. Anyway, Cymbeline is set during the Reign of Augustus when Britain (or Britannia) is under the rule of the Roman Emperor, and Cymbeline is basically a puppet monarch. Cymbeline has three children, however the elder two were kidnapped as babies leaving Imogen as the sole heir to the kingdom. Imogen has secretly married Posthumous, much to Cymbeline's horror, namely because Imogen is supposed to marry a proper British noble so as to produce a legitimate heir, and as such the marriage is annulled and Posthumous is banished.

We then follow Posthumous to Rome where he is hosted by Philario at a party, and talks about his love for Imogen. As is typical with Shakespeare Posthumous talks about how loyal and faithful Imogen is, whereas Philario doesn't belive him and as such makes a bet with Posthumous that she will be unfaithful. Philario then travels to Britain, meets with Imogen, and through guile and trickery, removes the bracelet from her wrist that was given to her by Posthumous as a sign of their eternal friendship. When Philario arrives in London he pretty quickly discovers that seducing Imogen isn't going to be all that easy, particularly when she rebuffs all of his advances, so he instead hides in a chest and in the middle of the night steals the bracelet, and also has a peak under the sheets and discovers a mole on her breast.

Meanwhile the queen (or as is the case with this production, the Duke) wants to get rid of both Cymbaline and Imogen so arranges for Colten, the duke's child from an earlier marriage, to poison them. However the poison is switched by the doctor who realises that the Duke is up to no good with a harmless sleeping potion. Philaro returns to Rome, shows Posthumous the bracelet, and in his rage arranges to have Imogen taken to Milton Haven on the Welsh Coast where she is to be murdered, though their servant, Pisano, decides to reveal Posthumous' orders to Imogen, who proceeds to disguise herself as a man (named Fidello), and disappears into the Welsh wilderness.

Cymbeline decides to stop paying tribute to Rome, and in response Rome sends troops to Britain to remove Cymbeline from the throne. At Milton Haven, we meet Belarius, Guiderius, and Arvirargus, who are living as hermits in the wilderness. They encounter Imogen, who at this time has become gravely ill, and takes her back to the cave, but she ends up drinking the sleeping potion, and when they return to the cave they believe that Imogen is dead. Clotis also arrives at Milton Haven, but is ambushed by Guiderius who proceeds to remove Clotis' head, and throws it into the river, while leaving the body next to the sleeping body of Imogen. However, Clotis is wearing Posthumous' clothes, so when Imogen awakes she believes that it is Posthumous' corpse lying next to her, and when she is discovered she pretends to be the page boy of her dead master.

The Roman force then meets the British troops and a battle ensures, however Belarius and his companions join battle with the Romans and with their help the British managed to win the day. The Roman commanders are captured, and the general is to be executed, however Cymbeline decides to hold off. To cut what has turned out to be a really long and pretty complex story short, everybody reveals who they are to everybody else (including Arvirargus and Guiderius revealing themselves to be Cymbeline's lost children and Imogen's lost siblings), Philaro reveals his tretchery to Imogen, and everybody ends up living happily ever after.

A Rather Complex Play

As I have mentioned Cymbeline is rarely performed, but that probably has a lot to do with it being incredibly complex plotwise. Actually, looking at where it comes in with regards to Shakespeare's plays it is quite late in the piece (being the third to last play ever produced). There are actually three, or even four, plots which slowly intertwine to what turns out to be a pretty complex ending - the missing children, the treacherous duke, the relationship between Cymbeline and Rome, and the love story between Imogen and Posthumous. However what I noticed is that there are quite a lot of things that appear in a lot of Shakespeare's other plays to the point that in many cases it doesn't actually feel original - in fact it feels as if Shakespeare took the successful elements from his previous plays and wove them into one play - Cymbeline.

For instance, we have the story of the woman who disguises herself as a man, though unlike the other plays Imogen isn't actually as strong willed as some of Shakespeare's other characters. In fact Imogen is much more feminine, to the point that she barely survives her ordeal at Milton Haven. Compare this with character such as Rosalind from As You Like It, or Viola from Twelfth Night - they seem to be much stronger characters, and much more capable of being able to pass off as a man. It isn't as if Imogen isn't mistaken for a man - she is - it is just that she doesn't come across as strong as some of the other characters, even though the other characters, Rosalind in particular, did come from a courtly background.

We also have the action moving from the city into the wilderness, which once again is similar to As You Like It, and also A Midsummers Night Dream. The poison that is switched for a sleeping potion, and the character drinking the potion and then being mistaken for being dead is taken straight out of Romeo and Juliet. Of course we also have the deceived lovers, which comes from Merchant of Venice and Othello, as well as the missing siblings, twins no doubt, which come from A Comedy Of Errors (and I believe there is another play that deals with missing siblings, but the name escapes me at this stage).

The other interesting thing about this play is that it was initially labeled as a tragedy, but some have suggested that it is a comedy, or even a romance. The problem with it being a comedy is that people (such as the Duke/Queen, and Clotis) die, and characters do not die in Shakespearian comedies. However it is technically not a tragedy either because everything works out well in the end, and that generally never happens in a tragedy (and the fact that the stage is not littered with bodies also supports that). In the end I would probably lean more towards the comedy element, though by this time Shakespeare's play are much more complex.

The RSC Production

Well, the major thing that stood out with this play is that Cymbeline was played by a woman, which mean that the evil queen was now the evil duke. A part of me feels that there may have been another reason being this change that simply didn't involve it being what could be considered creative license. In my mind it has more to do with the wicked Queen being female than anything else - in a way it sort of paints a rather bad picture of women. It is interesting that all of the female characters in the play tend to be good, while all of the villainous characters are played by males. Actually, that is another reason I am leaning away from categorising this play as a comedy and that is because the villains are actually quite villainous.

The production is set in a dystopian future which sort of relates to the the modern nature of the play, though I will touch on that when I look at the political elements in the next section and how they relate not just to Shakespeare's time, but also to ours (and how the Roman setting reflects that). However a part of me also felt that there was a lot of modernity in the play - it felt as if it were one of those modernist productions that you see that completely destroys the original setting so that us moderns can sort of understand it better. This surprised me a little because I generally wasn't expecting something like this from English Theatre, though I have seen National Theatre productions that have used a modern setting for a Shakesperian play. Mind you, the plays that I have seen in England (and in the cinema) do tend to retain the traditional setting (though not always - mind you the Globe is incredibly traditional, but then again it is The Globe).

One of the biggest problems that I found with the play, and they indicated it in the introduction, is that it can be a bit confronting when the play begins and you are struck with the Elizabethan language. Okay, I have always claimed that it is still English, and you can generally work out what is going on (it is sort of like reading the King James Bible - it is archaic, but you can generally understand it - though Shakespeare is actually poetry, which throws a further spanner into the works). However, since I am not at all familiar with the play it is actually really easy to get lost in the action (which I why I read the synopsis on Wikipedia during the intermission). Okay, not having a huge amount of sleep the night before didn't help either, but that is beside the point.

Britain and Europe

Britain and Europe have always had an uneasy relationship namely because of what could be considered their moat. Being separated by the Channel has meant that they have in part grown up separately from the rest of Europe, though that all changed when Julius Ceaser landed on their shores. It is due to the Roman occupation that we now have Scotland, Wales, and England, with England being the region that was occupied by Rome (and is why the old Gaelic languages are still spoken outside of England, though that are getting ever more scarce). However, up until 1066, England was the subject of a multitude of raids from the vikings and the Danes, and for a period was occupied by the Danish. However, it was after 1066 that England really began to take on it's own identity as opposed to being a whipping boy of the much stronger nations (and that probably had a lot to do with the Normans doing a pretty good job at subjugating the realm, though over the next couple of centuries Normandy effectively became England).

Before Rome England was basically little more than a collection of warring tribes - what Rome did was that it created a unified culture. Mind you, the Britons didn't necessarily welcome the Romans, as was the case with the revolt of the Iceni under Boedecia. However, Rome generally held sway, and over the next couple of centuries Britannia (as it was then known) became civilised. However, when Rome left, they were quickly overwhelmed by the Scots to the north. The interesting thing is that even though Rome may have left militarily, they did bring in another massive cultural change - Christianity.

Let us then fast forward to Shakespeare's time and we discover that England is facing another conflict with Rome - this time modern Rome. A century of so earlier King Henry broke away from the Catholic church under the pretext of wanting to divorce Anne Boylen. However, it goes much deeper than that as what was really happening was a power struggle between the Pope in Rome and the King in London - it was a question of who had ultimate authority, and whether England was little more than a puppet of the Vatican - in Henry's eyes he wasn't.

However, consider 1066, when William invaded Britain from France and made it part of Normandy. Before we know it the throne is moved from Rouen to London (though that happened over a century or so), and all of a sudden England is no longer under the rule of the Normans, but rather they are ruling Normandy from London - in a way there is this rather independent streak that runs through the English people, which in part is why Henry reacted in such a way to the Pope's interference.

Yet in Shakespeare's mind England is still a backwater, which is the suggestion in the play. Italy is the heart of European culture, the birthplace of the Renaissance - this is probably why a bulk of his plays are actually set there. Notice that many of the tragedies are set in the wild fringes of Europe (Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Cyprus, the Scottish Play, though Romeo and Juliet bucks that trend), while the comedies tend to find themselves placed in Italy or round-a-bout. What was happening at the time was that England was undergoing its own renaissance, and Shakespeare is pushing for England to embrace the culture of the continent - let them not isolate themselves, but rather integrate so that this budding renaissance may grow and flourish.

Life After Brexit

Yet, all of the sudden we find ourselves back in a time where Britain is trying to pull away from the European community and to exert its own influence - whereas in the past it was a reaction against rule from Rome, these days it is a reaction against rule from Brussels. It is not a question of the European Court of Human Rights (though that doesn't help one bit) but rather a reaction against what is perceived as a foreign power exerting their influence over a sovereign nation (despite the fact that Britain was one of the key instigators of the modern European community). Okay, I have already written about Brexit in a previous post, so I won't go other similar ground here.

This is probably why the play is set in such a dystopian world - like in Shakespeare's time London was technically at the fringes of the world (though this was beginning to change as it was during Elizabeth's reign that England began to develop what was eventually to become an unbeatable navy), and by rejecting integration she was doomed to miss out on sharing in what could well have been a prosperous Europe. Mind you, Spain had just conquered the New World, but after having lost it's fleet on a bungled invasion of England, and an insurgent war in the Netherlands, her glory days had long gone. However the United Provinces of the Netherlands had risen to take her place. Yet, what we see back then is that the Catholic realms were decreasing in influence to be slowly taken over by the Protestant realms.

So, now we find ourselves at another turning point, but this time at the other side of the glorious empire. The British Empire has now come and gone, and the prosperity and wealth that it enjoyed is now in the past. The question now is whether they integrate or they don't integrate, and in many cases it is a question of not integrating. In a way it has a lot to do with do different political and economic outlooks - the contiental nations tend to be a lot more left wing than does Britian (and the rest of the Anglosphere, that seems to be drifting ever further towards the realm of economic fundamentalism), and this conflict with economic philosophies seems to be at the core of the debate. However, this is not necessarily the case with the people on the streets, who see it more in light of immigrants taking their jobs, and by booting out the immigrants they will get their jobs back - which is unlikely to happen.

As a final note, one interesting thing that emerged from the commentary on the play is the origin of the term 'mother tongue'. Back in Shakespeare's day educated people spoke Latin, and if you wanted to engage in high society you needed to have Latin (and here we have the Roman influence again). However, it was only the men who learnt and spoke Latin - the women didn't - they spoke the vernacular tongue, which is why it is referred to in the feminine.

Creative Commons License

Cymbeline - Back to Britannia by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me