Ibn Sina: A Concise Life

On 14 May, the next in my series of concise lives of major Muslim figures is being published by Kube Publishing. Ibn Sina: A Concise Life does what it says on the cover, it provides a concise account of one of the most extraordinary men in history. Ibn Sina drained the cup of life dry, fitting daring escapes, rises to power and falls into prison, a scandalous disregard for the opinions of everyday Muslims into a life devoted above all else to the pursuit of philosophical truth. He was the last man to know everything, and he wasn’t above letting you know that either.

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Freedom to communicate or freedom to roam

Reading children’s books from the past, or indeed talking to older people, I am always struck by the freedom to roam that children had then. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the children are sent off for weeks on end, on an island, without life jackets, and not all of them can even swim!  ‘Go out and play and don’t come back ’til tea time,’ which was then a common enough parental instruction would now be regarded as parental dereliction. So, our children sit at home, in front of screens big and small, and talk.

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For what has replaced the old freedom to roam is a communication revolution that allows children to communicate, widely and largely unsupervised, through instant messaging, texts, Facebook, the full panoply of modern chat, and they generally do so with greater fluency and facility than their parents. Can this freedom replace the old freedoms? Before we get too misty eyed about the old days, it’s worth bearing in mind that research indicates in medieval and early modern England, children roamed freely, and, too often, paid for it, inquest reports being full of accounts of children drowning, falling, and in many different ways paying for their curiosity and intrepidity with their lives.

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So, no rose-tinted nostalgia. It was still a dangerous world, and even if people didn’t fear prowling paedophiles, there was always the danger of a bad-tempered horse kicking out, or the latent anarchy of unsupervised children running out of control. But, is it any wonder that children then became responsible adults so much sooner – after all, they had been responsible for themselves, and learned the consequences of recklessness, so much sooner. Today, with freedom to communicate but no freedom to roam, the sticks and stones of encounters with real, bristling, tangible dangers have gone, to be replaced with the subtle dangers of insult and upset. All real enough, but more easily resolved via an ‘unfriend’ or a ‘block’ than the problems of roaming. Is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to grow up these days? We have been physically removed from the key understanding of adulthood: that actions have consequences.

 

Current Archaeology Live! conference

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I will be at the Current Archaeology Live! conference this Friday and Saturday, the 1st and 2nd March, at Senate House in London. Look for me at the Bamburgh Research Project table, where I will be sitting alongside Graeme Young (archaeologist and director of the BRP) on Friday and Paul Gething (co-writer, archaeologist and BRP director) on Saturday, talking about the work of the BRP, Northumbria and our book, the fruit of the BRP’s researches.

Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom will be on sale at a Conference special price of £12.99, which is 25 per cent off the normal RRP. It would be great to see you there. Tickets for the Conference are on sale here.

How Not To Respond To Rejection

An editor friend received the below email in response to a story he had rejected.

Good sir,
Your rejection of the walls proves you are a dunderheaded ignoramus. It is the classic story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman. It is sad that you, good sir, are in charge of what is and is not approved. An editor who uses, “omg” is by far, just some crazy man within his own world who lives with cats and is overweight, got picked on a lot as a fat child and wants to play in a pretend world where he is king and queen. Please, good sir, go to college. Take American Literature and bone up on your skills, read some books on editing and volunteer for an actual magazine as proofreader before naming yourself the judge of author’s work in your fat little world. By being a dunderhead in a faux position, you are stifling people with actual talent, unlike fatheaded and fat-bellied self. A game of jealousy on your part, will only hurt your overfed belly and jiggle your neck fat as you heckle from behind a monitor which the state paid for due to your psychological disability. Waddle yourself into a brick and mortar book store and pick up a collection of American Literature and do some reading. That, is free advice from a man with a degree in the science of rocketry.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman is undoubtedly a classic. At 6,000 words it is also 4,000 words longer than the limit for my friend’s magazine. So a degree in rocketry appears to provide neither basic arithmetical skills nor graciousness in rejection (the letter writer had had one of his own stories returned previously).

Review of Imam al-Ghazali

Authors, being thin-skinned creatures with an unstable sense of the worth of their work, generally don’t subscribe to the view that any publicity is good publicity when applied to reviews. So, I’m delighted to get a good review from Publishers’ Weekly for Imam al-Ghazali: A Concise Life.

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As the reviewer likes the format, it also bodes well for my upcoming book on Ibn Sina for Kube: Ibn Sina: A Concise Life.

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Hermit Islands

This is the text of an article that I wrote for the now defunct Catholic Life magazine. I hope you like it.

Although the retreat from the world and its buzzing, tempting distractions was present in Christianity even before Christianity existed as a separate religion – think of John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness and Christ’s withdrawal into the desert for forty days of fasting following His baptism by John – yet the main foundations of Christian monasticism and eremiticism were not laid for some four centuries. Early Christians seem to have felt little need for the ‘white martyrdom’ of withdrawal when the ‘red martyrdom’ of public and prolonged execution was easily available. But with toleration of the Church granted by the Edict of Milan in 313 and its subsequent favoured status as Imperial religion, the lions were no longer an option. Other paths to Christ had to be found; perhaps less direct but, usually, less bloody.

This path had already been blazed by St Anthony, who set off into the Egyptian desert in 270 AD. As a twenty-year-old man, Anthony had heard the Gospel read in church: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and come and follow Me.” Anthony did. He was reasonably well-off, but he gave away what he had, save what was necessary to ensure the upkeep of his sister, and went off into the desert, striving in solitude against the temptations and attacks of demons for some twenty years. Only after that did he begin to see people again, and what started off as a trickle quickly grew into a flood, with hundreds of men living as hermits near him and crowds coming from nearby towns to see him. And thus Anthony lived the paradox of solitude: so often those who flee into aloneness are pursued relentlessly by those who would no more live alone than they would cut out their tongues.

But how do you disappear into the solitude of the desert when you live in a land where drowning by rain is a greater danger than dying of thirst? That was the problem faced by the first monks of Ireland. Never having been part of the Roman Empire, the human geography of the island was completely unlike the Romanised parts of Europe. There was hardly anything that could be called a town, let alone a city. The people were tribal and diffused, and thus the early Christian monasteries had no rivals as centres of learning and civilization. So monasteries grew large, and noisy, and oftentimes less prayerful. From them, men withdrew into the wilderness that Ireland did provide, a wildness of wind and water, physically cut off from human contact by the sea: islands.

Pilgrimage became one of the key features of Irish Christianity. Putting their trust in God and their goods in boats so small they wouldn’t even qualify as a dinghy today, groups of monks or even men alone would set off. Some, no doubt, foundered. Others founded new communities, or found the solitude they were searching for.

On Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean eight miles west of Kerry, are the remnants of one such community: six huts, made of slate and looking like nothing so much as stone beehives are perched 714 feet above the sea. It’s hard to tell what is more overwhelming here, the sea or the sky. The Vikings, though, made their own unique bid to be more overwhelming than the elements by repeatedly pillaging the monastery. However, the monks endured and, according to some accounts, had their ultimate revenge on the Viking raiders by baptising the future king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason. The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But even in this extraordinarily remote spot, there can still be a desire to withdraw into even greater solitude. This is illustrated perfectly on Skelling Michael by the even more remote hermitage, perched atop the south western peak of the island.

The Cambrai Homily, the earliest known Irish sermon, dating from the seventh or early eighth centuries, reveals quite precisely how these monks at the world’s end understood their calling:

Precious in the eyes of God:
The white martyrdom of exile
The green martyrdom of the hermit
The red martyrdom of sacrifice.

Combined with pilgrimage, it was a transforming and transformative package. But sometimes, relocation was forced. St Columba was exiled from Ireland for his involvement in a pitched battle over the ownership of a psalter – books were literally a matter of life and death then. He landed on the island of Iona in 563 and founded there one of the most renowned monasteries of the period. From Iona, missionaries spread out, taking the Gospel around the coast of the British Isles and on, into those parts of northern Europe that had lain beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the best example of this skipping-stone effect is provided by St Aidan. A monk of Iona, he was sent to the kingdom of Northumbria at the request of King Oswald to convert his heathen people. In the early days of Aidan’s mission, the king had to translate the monk’s Irish into the local language, but Aidan and his companions soon learned the language that would become English and set about creating a civilization. The luminous fruit of the monks’ labours are the Lindisfarne Gospels, on show in the British Museum but present in facsimile, physical and virtual, on Lindisfarne at the Lindisfarne Centre (01289 389004, www.lindisfarne-centre.com). The Lindisfarne Gospels themselves had been moved before finding their final home in the British Museum, hurriedly carried into hiding when the Vikings came calling to Lindisfarne too.

Even more precious to the refugee monks of Lindisfarne than their books was the relics of the greatest saint of Holy Island, Cuthbert. They carried the saint’s body with them on a meandering journey across Northumbria until he was finally settled in Durham Cathedral, where he remains to this day. But one suspects that Cuthbert might have preferred that his mortal remains stay on the little island, within sight of Lindisfarne, to which he in turn withdrew to escape his fame and focus more clearly on God. His fame was very great though, and for good reason. Soldier, visionary, missionary, ecologist, orator and ascetic, Cuthbert was all of these things, but in an era when miracle nestled up against the common place, Cuthbert’s reputation as a worker of wonders was unequalled. It’s hard now to tell how much credence to place on reports, but Bede, writing in a time when there were still eyewitnesses to Cuthbert’s deeds alive, reports him calming storms, stopping a house burning by prayer, healing and expelling demons, even turning water into wine. And when, on exhumation 11 years after death, his body was found incorrupt, his reputation as a wonder worker grew further.

The Farne Islands, to which Cuthbert escaped for eight years of relative peace, are still wild and uninhabited, save for the hundreds of thousands of sea birds who nest there over the summer, and the National Trust wardens who monitor them. St Cuthbert, who passed laws protecting Eider ducks and other nesting sea birds that were probably the first piece of wildlife conservation legislation in the world, would be pleased.

The Farne Islands, Lindisfarne, Iona and Skellig Michael are all, to varying degrees accessible today. But even the easiest journey, across the causeway to Lindisfarne, still takes modern-day pilgrims away from the bustle of the mainland and to places where different rhythms prevail.

Over the last few decades, more people have been called to the eremitical life, to such an extent that the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 makes provision for them. It is perhaps not surprising that in a world that daily becomes noisier and busier, the song of solitude is being heard as it has not been heard for centuries.

An Extract from Professor Tolkien of Oxford

In honour of the release of The Hobbit (and in an unashamed attempt to drum up some business) here’s an extract from my ebook, Professor Tolkien of Oxford. It’s from the chapter The Halls of Lore.

Hwæt!

Listen! This Anglo-Saxon cry rang through the halls of the kings of the Anglo-Saxons when the bard, or scop, stood up to begin a tale of heroism or adventure. It is the first word of Beowulf, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem that Tolkien loved, studied, defended and taught through all his working life. And it was the word that Tolkien would shout out at the start of his lectures on Old English, startling a room of gossiping undergraduates into silence.

Hwæt!

Words were the basis of everything Tolkien wrote. Not merely because he was a writer, but because it was the love of words, the intrigue of these nuggety bundles of sound and meaning that carry thought and love and history and the immense burden of human history on their unassuming backs, that made Tolkien into a scholar and writer in the first place. Words, their meaning, their derivation, the glimpses they offered into the deep past of places and peoples, were what brought him to Oxford and what made him stay. Tolkien was a philologist as much as he was a writer, and the two disciplines interpenetrated in his depths.

To read some more, buy the book!