A sojourn through Ancient , Roman, Saxon , Norman , Medieval and Modern England

In 54 or 55 BC , Julius Caesar long before he said “Et Tu Brute” landed in Britain to punish them for their collaboration of the Gauls . He said “Imagine the gaul!!” and that phrase has caught on with us . He decided that since there was no name for the island , he would name it Britannia (whose biscuits are still sold and consumed in India and the Indian diaspora) . Some years later , a small village called Londonium was set up on the banks of the river Thames . Apparently the city was so popular with the Romans that they built a wall around the city to keep out the riff raff . They got this idea after they had their first fracas with Boadica , Queen of the Iceni who insisted on equal rights for women and gave them a good ol whooping . Embarrassed they put up a wall whose fragments survive to this day , one can be seen just outside the Tower hill tube station even today . However soon the Romans got tired of the cold English weather and found out that all roads lead to Rome except for the one in Britain which led to wet pants and shoes so promptly left . This was followed by was general good cheer among the natives who said “Mr Caesar ,tear down that wall”  .They liked the name of their little village except that they decided to expunge all roman influences like “ium” and called their city London instead.  Centuries later , the state of California and the city of Berkeley would do something similar , they would take their names from the elements called Californium and Berkeleyium and drop the oldish “ium” to sound totally modern and hip . Fast forward today London is a bustling metropolis of 9 million people.

Preparations

Other than the customary plane ticket , I decided that I needed more help so I asked some of the folks around , watched several videos by Rick Stevens (most of which I dont remember except for a admonition not to visit the strip clubs) , finally I decided to pose the question on Facebook to a group called Medieval British History and while they offered excellent suggestions as to places I should visit and places that I should skip , the most valuable suggestion turned out to be to get a British rail pass and a English Heritage Overseas visitor card . Somebody also suggested that I read 1066 and all that which turned out to be a hysterical summary of English history. I had decided to stay in a YHA and I ended up finding one at Earls court which is on the District line of the underground which connects all the sites in London as well as to the locations which serve the National Rail services. Avoid getting the mobile pass , most locations outside of London do not have a reader that can read a 2D barcode off your phone , so there is a lot of grumbling from the rail employees about their inability to read a 2D barcode from a phone when I would show them the pass to allow me to pass through their pearly gates.It costs an extra 2 pounds to have the ticket in paper form mailed to your home , I would gladly pay just so that that I would not have to listen to all the grumbling.

Day 1 at St Pauls , Westminister and Tower of London

I decided that I would do the big attractions today , namely St Pauls Cathedral , Westminister Abbey , Tower of London and Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven St (the last is a big one for me personally) . Scheduling them turned out to be an ordeal , finally I settled in on going to St Pauls first since it opened at 8:30 AM and went to the crypt which hosts a number of luminaries in their after life . The Napoleonic battle heroes like Wellington and Nelson are accorded honor here and of course the Architect himself , Sir Christopher Wren himself. There is an exhausting climb to the top which not only narrows to very tight proportions (especially for us Americans) but also seems extremely short but you are rewarded once you get to the top with an amazing panaroma. St Pauls was built in 604 AD and the current building was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the great London Fire of 1666.  It is a remarkably beautiful building even to my uneducated eyes

 

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Then it was a 20 minute trip to Westminister Abbey on the underground from St Pauls .

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Westminister Abbey was started by Edward the Confessor and has been the site of every coronation since 1066 i.e starting with Duke William of Normandy or William the conqueror as he is known today and there are several monarchs buried here including Edward the Confessor who is accorded a place of honor. But as I walked around there are an amazing number of luminaries buried here including Geoffrey Chaucer , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier in what is called the Poets corner . Everywhere that you walk, you seem to be walking on the graves of great men and women , I saw Charles Darwin , Isaac Newton , Ben Jonson . It is literally a whos who of British greats. Between the architecture and the people buried here , it is a remarkably humbling experience to walk through here.

And finally another short ride via the underground to the Tower of London .

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The Tower was built by William the conqueror and is witness to countless executions including 3 queens , two of whom had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII who was always looking for a reason to divorce. The most tragic of all the murders is actually a mystery , the murder of two young princes  aged 12 and 9, sons of Edward IV . It is suspected that Richard III , their uncle was behind these murders but never proved. There is a part of the tower that is dedicated to them

 

The biggest attraction inside the Tower was for the Crown Jewels ,the lines snake impossibly and quite frankly it was a letdown for me . Growing up in India , I had read about the KohiNoor diamond . But after seeing it I realized that somebody could give me a kohinoor and I would not know the difference from a cubic zirconium.  The one thing that I did not expect to encounter inside was the famed Ravens , they are fed a ration of 150 gms of meat along with biscuits every day. Talk about pampered Ravens!!

 

The amount of walking that was involved seemed like a lot but according to Google , I had only walked about 2 miles but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had started my Strava , I would have had a far more accurate number .

Day 2 at Covent Garden

I started off with visiting the Royal institution where Michael Faraday worked for the majority of his life . Michael Faraday along with Benjamin Franklin are two auto didacts that I admire immensely

 

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Saville Row is the street for expensive London tailors . I found out that if I worked my whole life in Silicon Valley then maybe I could afford to pay for one Saville Row suit , like the ones that James Bond wears.

 

Bond street has a similar reputation for fine jewelers and similarly if I work two jobs in Silicon valley , I might be able to get myself a decent watch from this place.

 

It is a short hop to Covent garden which has a massive market and a Freemasons Lodge

Along with being a shopper’s paradise , I was told to check out the Apple store , it was a little novel compared to other Apple stores .

John Soanes Museum is a hidden treasure around here . Sir John Soanes was an architect who collected antiques , paintings , books and then managed to get Parliament to pass an act where it is guaranteed to maintain the house as a museum with free access to the public . Unfortunately though it was the first time I saw a Sarcophagus , one of the early editions of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio and a ton of amazing stuff , it is not allowed to take any pictures inside this marvelous place so nothing to share except a recommendation that this is a must visit spot. IMHO it is far more interesting than the London Zoo, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and hordes of other popular tourist destinations.

Day 3 in Oxford

It was a sedate trip to Oxford

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Anybody who has seen Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister , this is the Bailey college that Humphrey went to

Day 4 at the British Library and the British Museum

It was quick stop at the British Library where I got to see one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta . There were several other treasures including Shakespeare’s first folio , a Gutenberg bible , an original of Alice in Wonderland , recordings of James Joyce reciting passages from Finnegans Wake , one of Da Vinci’s notebooks .

I moved onto the British Museum where I spent all day until they closed at 8:30 PM . One gets to see so many artifacts from so many places around the world that it becomes very easy for comparative analysis . The British Musuem is a treasure trove for folks who enjoy Greek epics , there is so much pottery depicting scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and various other Greek plays and mythology .There was one memorable one depicting the murder of Priam by Neoptolemus using the baby Astanyax as a weapon , that was horribly gruesome by any standards , to kill the grandfather using the dead body of his infant grandson .

On a happier note there were sections that shows you clearly how a mechanical watch works which was truly fascinating . Amazing things that I had always heard about and got to see were the Rosetta Stone , the Parthenon Frieze , the Elgin Marbles , Easter island statues , Sarcophaguses , bust of Rameses the Great , an actual mummy

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Day 5 at the Museum of Natural History

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After umpteen trips to the Smithsonian and NYC , I had yet to make a trip to the Museum of Natural History so I had go across the pond to view a museum of Natural History . It was an auspicious start given that Charles Darwin argued his case here . The amount of information presented becomes overwhelming even though they have taken great pains to present the information in small easily digestible formats . I suspect that they spent a lot of time with psychologists to reduce information fatigue.

I went over to the Science Museum next door but was quickly disappointed , they have one wing for Information Technology , I am spoilt by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View . I was expecting more mechanical marvels , I got to see a giant steam engine but very little details on how things work .

Day 6 in Hastings and Battle

I went over to Hastings which is a long train ride from Charing Cross. Hastings is the location where William the conqueror landed and quickly setup a fort.

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When I posted on the Facebook group for Medieval British history that I was going to Hastings , several people frankly asked me if I was planning on feeding chips to the sea gulls . I was appalled at the time. But having visited it now  , I have to agree . The ruins are present but give you absolutely no idea . For a 5 pound fee , you are allowed to go into a dungeon which is about 10 steps deep and then watch a movie which briefly shows the motivations of the characters involved . King Harold who was a powerful man and took an opportunity to take the throne for himself or William the conqueror who claimed that promises were made on account of the fact that he was Emma’s (mother of Edward the confessor) nephew.  Tragically for Harold who was incidentally the last native English king of England, he got stuck with an arrow in the eye . This also ended the Anglo Saxon rule in England

This is the scene showing Harold with an arrow in his eye . It is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo.

On 14th Oct , barely 3 weeks after landing in England  William  marched 8 miles north to meet King Harold’s men in a place that is known today as Battle.

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Battle is far more interesting than Hastings. This is a well maintained historical place and the ruined abbey inside it. The abbey was built by William who apparently did it as penitence for the blood that was shed on this ground . The high altar of the abbey was the place where King Harold fell.

Day 7 in Canterbury and Dover

This was a sojourn to Canterbury . In a way visiting Canterbury was as important to me as visiting Battle . To see the place where Becket was killed ,

to see the street where Henry II walked on his bare feet. To contemplate and marvel at the monks who having watched Becket get murdered helplessly flogged their penitent King.

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After visiting Canterbury Cathedral , I walked out to see the ruins of Abbey of St Augustine (no relation to the St Augustine of Hippo who wrote the City of God) . Legend has it that the pope Gregory saw some fair haired slaves who looked like Angels or Angles (which is the root of the word English ). After he learnt where they came from, he sent the Benedictine monk Augustine in 595 AD to convert this pagan nation to Christianity and save all their souls from eternal damnation.  There is a statue dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and another dedicated to Ben Jonson

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It is a 20 minute train ride to Dover from Canterbury . Unfortunately I did not get enough time to view the Castle which is a magnificent piece of work ,  built by Henry II. Dover is also home to the best preserved Roman built structures shown below

This was the best shot that I could get of the White cliffs of Dover

 

Dover castle has been gateway to the realm for almost a millennium. During WWII It  was home to Operation Dynamo which saw the safe evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk . There are wartime tunnels which also served as hospitals for the wounded . Unfortunately I reached too late to actually do the full rounds of Dover Castle and go all the way to the top. The only solace was that I had a full English breakfast with two pints of bitter for dinner. While I could identify most items , there was one in particular that I could not identify at all so I made brave to ask the owner /bartender and he burst out laughing . He told me it was black pudding. The texture is closer to a granola bar and the taste is extremely savory not sweet . I have no idea why it is called pudding . He proceeded to inform me it was pigs blood .

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Day 8 at the Imperial War Museum

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Day 9 at the National Gallery

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This is my first Da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks

It has Monet , Cezanne, Rubens, Michelangelo , Murillo , Van Gogh and more paintings and artists than I could remember . One of the paintings on my to see list was the Wilton Diptych

Day 10 in Bath and Stonehenge

Visited the city of Bath which was highly developed by the Romans who believed that this was a sacred place and dedicated it to Athena or Minerva

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Then onto Stonehenge . Words fail me as I try to understand how they set up these stones 4500 years ago . It is an elaborate site , amongst other purposes it is known to identify the Summer and Winter Solstice just by viewing the sun from particular locations around the stones.

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Unfortunately I missed going to Salisbury cathedral , I was too late coming back from Stone Henge . Next time I will drive rather than take the trains for long distance journeys. The cathedral is beautiful , it is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom . It houses the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta . There is an interesting anecdote about the Cathedral from World War II . During the battle of Britain , every part of England was bombed but not Salisbury . After the war, the interrogators asked the Luftwaffe pilots as  to why Salisbury was spared . The German high command had issued strict orders that Salisbury was not to be bombed . The spire was so tall and so distinct that German pilots would use that as their landmark and once they reached Salisbury then they could proceed to their respective destinations comfortable with the knowledge that their bearings were correct.

Day 11 at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Day 12 in Greenwich on the Prime Meridian

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Majority of the museums are free , these museums are magnificent houses of creations of humanity over the centuries , they take exceptional care of these artifacts , far more than these great pieces would have received in their homeland . One only needs to look at the Parthenon pieces which are preserved here or remember the Babri Masjid incident in India or the Bamiyan Buddha destruction by the Taliban or listen to fundamentalist regimes talk about destroying parts of their heritage which preceded their particular sets of beliefs  . So I was grateful to see these beautiful sculptures , carvings , paintings preserved and available to see for free . I dropped 5 pounds every time I entered these museums , bought books , bought over priced scones with butter and jam and cream tea or cakes . The experience of watching this was priceless so I would recommend everybody who has an opportunity should see it and if you can donate , please do so . We need to keep this alive for the sake of future generations

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An alcoholic epiphany

Long long ago once upon a time there lived a ….. . Oops, wrong story . I am always astounded by folks who say “This is what the founding fathers would have wanted” and interestingly I have known quite a few of these well meaning folks , one of the most vehement “This is what the federalists fought for”er was a 3 time divorcee who had never heard of Benjamin Franklin’s first rule for happiness

1. “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

One might argue that he was blissfully aware of the chastity rule as well but nature being what it is, it rarely allows us to indulge in both with equanimity so it had spared him of the temptation of violating that particular one, nonetheless he would kid the hapless waitresses or the secretarial staff until they blushed red, after which he would turn to me and wink and say ” she wants me” . I was spared further details of his exploits but this remarkable gem of the human species has many more qualities , one of which that profoundly affected me was a direct hotline to the founding fathers. He must have had telepathic communion  with the founding fathers in their after life to project the kind of confidence that he showed. For a while I was baffled and convinced that there was a ouija board.

Lest you believe that I come up with random hypothesis; what actually led me to this conclusion was a logical process that Sherlock Holmes would have approvingly nodded at . Whenever I asked him a question about his code , he would go into a deep trance akin to those wiccans that my ex wife spent so much time with . So I looked in vain , alas one of those unsolved mysteries that seem to surround me all the time . I marvel at these folks because most days , I barely know what I want , let alone try to figure out what men living 200 years ago would want me to do . Personally I do hold our founding fathers in the same vein as demi gods , some of the smartest people to walk the earth and I am grateful for their wisdom and foresight but nonetheless these are men who lived in a different zeitgeist , so how they could have predicted before the advent of all the magical things that we have today is a mystery to me . As in the case of these magical creatures living amongst us with a direct telepathic hotline through the land of the dead to our founding fathers , they simply amaze me .  But my epiphany is far simpler.  It is also more tasty , increases productivity and generally invigorating , so much so that one would not hesitate to call it the temporary fountain of youth.

I was informed recently by a mind no less than P.G.Wodehouse that while the duty of the chronicler is to inform , he must go to great lengths to ensure that the reader is never left in suspense for too long. So it is with a tinge of nervousness that I am proceeding down this route . I promise not to hold you in suspense for so long , the duty of a chronicler is that one should lay his groundwork well before he sets out on his argument . After all ,confusion is poison to the mind . We are an extremely inventive species . We have created  various processes of brewing different forms of alcoholic beverages .For example Beer is made by malting barley . Malting is just a fancy word invented by idle English professors to increase the highly inefficient vocabulary of the English language. It means  germinating the grain and then hot air drying  using coke / coal or peat ( form of coal found in marshes and is highly inefficient to burn hence smoky) . This is then fermented using yeast and later filtered .It is an well known secret that sprouting grains increases the nutritive value of foods , so much so that we have a store chain called Sprouts which seeks to anchor this idea in our minds every time we go grocery shopping . Another well known idea is that fermentation greatly increases the nutritional value of foods as well , and indeed one need look no further than yogurt , idlis , tempeh , Kefir , Kombucha , Kimchi , Sauerkraut to verify the truth of the same . So what we have here is a super mixture of sprouty fermented goodness to start with . At this point , this super nourishing mixture is filtered and hops are added to provide some spice and a natural preservative and voila , we have beer , a highly concentrated form of organic goodness in a bottle  . If that is not nutrition on the go , I dont know what is . Indeed Mothers looking for providing quick , natural and easy nourishment to their young need look no further than the familiar 6 pack in the grocery store. Grapes follow a somehow simpler route .They are just mashed but in this case it makes for a even greater compelling argument because no less a distinguished figure than the Surgeon General insists that we take in 5 servings of fruit a day. Even a confirmed fruit lover like myself loses that struggle daily , can you imagine having to eat 5 water melons every single day?  I tried that and spent so time in the bathroom but I digress .  Crushed grapes are fermented thereby increasing their nutritional value multi fold again and filtered to provide us with wine . And in this case , this has the additional benefit of having naturally occurring sugars , there by satisfying our natural craving for sugar. Indeed this might be a even better option for harried mothers looking for quick , easy and natural nutrition. Breast feeding mothers can pass on this nutritive storehouse in small quantities to their babies , a double win if ever there was one . Not only is this a nutritional powerhouse but it is a quick aid for restorative sleep , an argument so powerful that I doubt any new parent could find faults with this.

At this point if one decides to distill the beer mixture to concentrate this nutrition , one gets whisky or moonshine or ever clear . This is then aged in Oak barrels for umpteen years to remove the acerbic taste and give it a pleasant tang . Grapes follow the same fate to wine and then distilled to Brandy , potatoes to Vodka , corn to sour mash and so on . For reasons of sanity , I have ignored those magical processes where corn is actually turned into Bourbon in Kentucky , grapes turn themselves into Armagnac in the Armagnac province of France or cognac if it finds itself in the Cognac province of France where as in the rest of the world the fickle grape is content to be just ordinary brandy . I will call out to corn here ,Corn  is particularly interesting because it is generally considered to be indigestible , so it is a miracle that we have even perfected a process of secreting concentrated nutrition out of indigestible corn .

Indeed in my humble opinion, these distillation processes are merely a way to save on space while concentrating all the nutritious goodness in a smaller package .We were told by the first law of thermodynamics that the amount of energy in the universe stays constant . By this highly revered and respected theory, it is obviously evident that what we have here is an enormously effective way of concentrating the energy content of a large amount of grain into a small amount of alcohol so goes to reason that the nutritive value of alcohol in terms of energy is astronomically high . Indeed it is so high that it provides jolts of instant nourishment for the soul and the brain . The cells in the brain used to the normal reticent and reluctant  energy in grain becomes unusually lubricated by this sudden abundance and normally reticent men are known to burst in song after a couple of swigs of this delightful nutritious stuff.

Not too long ago , I was in a bar devouring a BLT . This was no ordinary BLT but the kind that stays with you. Indeed It was so memorable that I can see myself telling my grandchildren and all posterity so that we could all marvel together at it’s fine qualities and lip smacking goodness. But my worshipful reverie was interrupted by the picture of this young man who was quietly sipping cranberry juice . His was the kind of unhappiness that sours everything that is good in a place and it lost no time in creeping in on my scrumptious fare and while one generally prefers to mind their own business and devour the splendor that God wants us to, in this case  I decided to make an exception in the light of bonhomie and helping a fellow human in seemingly acute distress. I sidled up to him and greeted him

“Hi bro” , I said

“Ho ” , he jumped up like a cat that was lost in existential reverie suddenly confronted by the neighboring pit bull.

“Everything OK?” , I ignored the transition of  panic to annoyance followed by disinterest. The transition was so masterful and quick that it would have turned most werewolves green with envy and even kick started  a transition Olympics among them .

“Yes , everything is fine” . The tone told me to mind my own business , I wanted to punch the tone but things being what they are, I merely ignored it and continued on my altruistic struggle to better the sour mood of my fellow man.

“Why the sour face?” , he glared at me and looked away .

I am normally a reticent man who can take a hint so I did but I kept a close eye on him, pretty soon the reason was his acute depression was clear to me. It was in the form of a beautiful petite red head who seemed to be the life of the party two tables down.

Always the altruist , I promptly poured a shot of my vodka into his cranberry juice while his attention was still captivated by the bewitching red head.

The effect that it had seemed to perk him up . If an English longbow archer from the fields of Agincourt had happened to pass by, he would have recognized the effect as similar to that of his longbow . My pensive friend no longer seemed pensive, a light had come upon him. He knew that the world was for his taking , I imagine that he felt the same about the redhead , walked up to her and asked to dance with her. There was no dance floor but I cannot imagine that a normal happy go lucky girl would not be flattered by the attentions of so original a mind . Alas duty called me away so I had to leave before the credits rolled in and I got to see the young couple living happily ever after.

But I could not but reflect on the merits of this empowering and nutritious life giving fluids. I had seen a shy man who could barely look at a girl and the miracle of a small snifter had him leaping tall buildings in a single leap.

If the aforementioned psychic telepaths had lived in the 20s , they would known instantly that our founding fathers loved this fine tipple and we could have happily avoided the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition which caused no end of misery to all sorts of gentle folk including Al Capone (who was so sensitive that he would cry at operas) .

An inspiring tale of courage

For some bizarre reason , my library dashboard showed me this book and curiosity killed the proverbial cat and I put it on my list to read .

 

After I got it home , idle curiosity made me peruse it (I have a rather large list of books that I am currently reading and by no means was this even top of my list) but as I browsed through a few pages , everything was forgotten and I devoured the book in a few hours.

In an age where we have watched countless innocent journalists such as Daniel Pearl , James Foley and so many brave journalists and humanitarian workers murdered brutally and senselessly , it was inspiring to read about a journalist talking with these people , often going alone without her phone or any tracking devices . These fundamentalists are incidentally the same people who had to release a rape handbook for its members  because their atrocities against women made even these battle hardened veterans squeamish . I also found that Human Trafficking is also a lucrative source of income for these folks . So it was all the more laudable to read about her travails through these interesting times and places.

I have always been puzzled by the incidents of British born citizens who end up becoming part of these fundamentalist groups and commit abhorrent acts of terrorism. She offers interesting and disturbing explanations which I found perfectly plausible (though having never lived or visited Europe , I can neither confirm nor deny) .

Her brilliant and painstaking analysis of the Middle East itself is eye opening , a region that not only seems to be  at odds with the foreign policies of Western nations (AKA oil and Israel) but also the intense and horrific struggle between the two sects of Islam , Shia and Sunni . Henry VIII initiated the English Reformation (perhaps inspired by Anne Boleyn) and the results were near catastrophic for the masses . Today the struggle in the Middle East between the two sects seems oddly reminiscent of those horrifying massacres  .

When Arab spring happened in 2011 , I imagined that this was to be the flowering of democracy that people clamored for , instead we saw chaos . Again she tries to go into depth and explain why that was a very naive expectation .

The most inspiring piece for me was where she wrote eloquently about her own experiences growing up as a minority and working harder than everybody to shine and be noticed rather than play the victim.

I cannot do justice to the book because words fail me , it left a deep and poignant impression

History teaches us that those who forget history are damned to repeat it

 

Helen of Sparta … of Troy …of Sparta

Characters

Helen of Sparta .. of Troy … of Sparta

Teucer – Greek hero and brother of Ajax the greater

Menelaus – Husband of Helen

Theoclymenus

Servant of Menelaus

 

Helen is sitting in front of the Tomb of Proteous muttering . It looks as though she is praying. We go closer until we can hear her

Helen : I wonder how I can fool the son of Proteous ,Theoclymenus. He wants to marry me , but I am bored of these sappy doting Egyptian eyes .Long ago I was tired of Menelaus too which is why I eloped with Paris in the first place. I wonder why all these men are so boring  (she pauses) But I do prefer Menelaus , he is a strong man and the father of my daughter, I also miss my daughter that I have not seen in so long. But I was not sure if he has forgiven me and would spare my life; after all he did try to kill me once before and only stopped after he gazed upon my face . Regardless of what men like to claim about wealth and principles , he is obviously hurt about the fact that I , his wife left him for another man and though he is still smitten with my beauty , it is obvious he is hurt.  A cuckolded man will always bear a grudge so I need to convince him that I stayed true to him.

(she pauses again , this time much longer and muses thoughtfully)

Helen : The ship wreck is a blessing in disguise . The idiot that he left to guard me was certainly a blessing , all I had to do was blow some of the magic powder and he fell fast asleep. Now  maybe I can convince Menelaus that the gods were indeed playing tricks on him .

Teucer rushes in and looks upon with shock at Helen .

Teucer : What is this? I thought you were with Menelaus

Helen : Who are you, my brother ? Who is Menelaus?

Teucer : You look so much like Helen of Troy that I mistook you. Forgive me but I am trying to find the prophetess who is going to show me the way to my new home .

Helen : Brother, you best get out of here as soon as you can , her brother is slaughtering all the greeks that he can get his hands on.

Teucer – Thank you , my lady . You look like Helen but dont act like her . May you prosper unlike her .

Teucer leaves

Helen (muses thoughtfully) : I could certainly pull this off

Menelaus comes in and stops and looks at Helen in shock .

Menelaus: How is this possible ? I left you with my servant , how could you possibly be here?

Helen : Alas , Menelaus my one true lord , is that really you or are the gods playing a trick on me ?

Menelaus : What is the meaning of this ? I left you up on the mountains a week ago and now you claim to not recognize me ?

Helen : Alas my lord, the gods are playing a trick upon your eyes . They kidnapped me all those years ago and left me here , chaste and true to you but they created a fake Helen that they sent to Troy with Paris . I dont know what terrible deeds I have done to cause so much hatred among the gods that they seem this as a fair punishment for me.

Menelaus : How is this even possible ? You are lying

Servant of Menelaus enters ; he has not seen Helen yet .

Servant : My lord Menelaus , your wife , the queen vanished in a puff of smoke before our very eyes

Helen (turns towards us and smirks) : Thank god for fools, they are sorely needed.

Menelaus dismisses him pensively ,

Chorus – Menelaus , surely you have to wonder if that is truly the case . Had this beautiful wife of yours always been true to you and the gods just playing a vicious game with you . Surely a woman this beautiful and delicate not capable of causing the mayhem that was attributed to her.

Menelaus looked at her , her beautiful eyes welling with tears .

Chorus – Women’s tears fuel men’s emotions . The more beautiful the woman, the greater the impact

Menelaus : I believe you , my beautiful wife . I never ever doubted you but when the gods are bent upon making a fool of you, the best of us don’t stand a chance .

Helen (turns to us and smirks again) : I cant believe it was so easy

Helen turns to Menelaus and weeps : Yes my lord , accursed am I , to lead you into such perils

Menelaus : surely all is well that ends well now . Shall we get out of here ?

Helen : No my lord , the ruler of Egypt is in love with me and he has sworn to kill all Greeks

Menelaus : Maybe I can challenge him to a duel and fight him in single combat

Helen: No my lord, this needs us to out think him not out fight him. He is not a civilized Greek to honor your challenge

Menelaus : Let us run away , surely if he does not know where we are going, he wont know where to search

Helen (turning towards us): This dreadful world, things that I could have done if I was a man. Now I have to rely on an idiot

Helen (to Menelaus) : My lord, we need to convince him to give us his fastest boat so that he wont be able to chase us.

Menelaus : How on earth do you propose to do that?

Helen : Leave it to me . (rings for the servant of Theoclymenus)

Helen: Please ask your master to come here . I have received some dreadful news from the Greeks , this man who is my husband’s servant just told me that my husband drowned at sea. (Menelaus’s eyes widen)

The servant leaves to fetch Theoclymenus

Helen: My lord , with your rags it is easy to believe that you are a servant . You need to tell Theoclymenus that you drowned at sea and it is the Greek custom to have the burial rites at sea for people who are lost at sea . You also have to agree with me that until the burial rites are complete , I am not free to marry another man

Theoclymenus: My love , have you decided to marry me ? Your beauty is stupefying , I fail to see why you keep refusing to marry me.

Helen : My lord , I am already married but I have good news for you. My lord , Menelaus has drowned , this is his servant who just bought me the terrible news .

Theoclymenus : So you can marry me now ?

Helen : My lord, I have to perform the last rites for my husband, only then will I be free.

Theoclymenus : Why does he not do it?

Helen : My lord , it has to be done by near and dear ones

Theoclymenus : Fine , let us do it and get married as soon as you are done

Helen : My lord , this has to be done out at sea. He was lost at sea so the burial rites must be done at sea. Otherwise the gods will not deem me a free woman

Theoclymenus : ok , what do you need ?

Helen : My lord , I know I have made you wait too long , now I want to make it up to you and want to marry you as soon as I can . Would you not lend me your fastest trireme so I can perform this dreadful ritual and come back to start our life of happiness

Menelaus looks at her agog

Theoclymenus (eyes brimming with tears of happiness) : My love , you shall have it . I will instruct my chief commander to give you his fastest trireme . (he hugs Menelaus) Thank you for bringing me this wonderful news

Menelaus stares at the back of the departing king in bewilderment and turns to Helen

Menelaus : But dont we need 60 men for a trireme ?

Helen : Where are the soldiers who came with you?

Menelaus : Oh they are around .

Helen : Well in that case , we are going to get aboard that, get your soldiers on board , as soon as we are out at sea . We slaughter everyone who is not Greek and head to Sparta .

Menelaus (stares in admiration at Helen ): My love , you are so wise

Helen (smiles) : Hurry my lord

Menelaus leaves

Helen turns to the audience

Helen : Sometimes life is indeed too much of a bore for a woman of intelligence.Add some tears and a beautiful face and men are like putty , willingly acquiesce to be abused and treated like sheep. And now my choice is between two fools , Menelaus and Theoclymenus but Menelaus is a known fool and he has already swallowed the story that the gods had put a different woman in Paris’s bed and so I have always been true to him. (she stops ) He was a good lover, pity he is dead.

Menelaus enters

Menelaus : My love , let us leave now

Helen and Menelaus board the trireme , followed by his soldiers . The trireme commandant having received orders to do everything as ordered by Helen, followed all the orders

We finally see Helen and Menelaus on board the deck of the Trireme . Menelaus looking at her adoringly ,Helen looking out at the sunset

 


This has been inspired by the play Helen by Euripides . While the play is actually a comedy , I found it dreadful . A satirization seemed so much more satisfying

 

Hecuba

Hecuba was a short quick gripping read .  Quick primarily because the timeline seems so dreadfully short .The time frame is after the fall of Troy and men have been murdered , most of the women raped and taken as concubines .The agony of Hecuba seems to be something so poignant that though  we have a hard time relating to her pain , our own desire for the macabre insists on continuing , that is the genius of Euripides ; he starts off with an ingenious device ; our fore-knowledge of her son Polydorus’s death. So while we ,the audience are aware of this dreadful knowledge ,Hecuba is not and that provides for some of the excitement that curiosity fuels to see how she would react.

The ghost of Polydorus  informs us that he has been murdered by his host , King Polymestor of Thrace who was a close friend of Priam, King of Troy and was responsible for safe guarding him and the treasure that Priam sends along. Polydorus informs us that as long as Troy was safe and Hector was alive ,he was safe but as soon as the slaughter commenced after the fall of Troy, his host . Polymestor murdered him and threw him into the sea and usurped the treasure.

So full of foreboding we meet Hecuba at  this point . The ghost of Achilles has come to the dreams of the Greeks and demanded the blood of Polyxena, one of her last surviving daughters . So Odysseus has marched in with a contingent of soldiers to take Polyxena away . This is quite a dramatic shift in the points of view for viewing Odysseus . At some point in the past, Hecuba has spared his life but he shows no intention of repaying her kindness . He is depicted as a cruel ingrate who is very conscious about his power and reputation in the Greek army . Polyxena is the innocent pure tragic heroine who prefers death to slavery and leaves willingly after telling her poor mother that she pities her mother because she will actually be going off to Hades , a far better place than the fate that the Greeks have in store for them . When the Neoptolemus , son of Achilles is about to murder her on the grave of Achilles , she willingly offers herself without a fight insisting that she will not die as a slave and will not be bound. After her heroic death , we come back to Hecuba who is recounted the brave last moments of her daughter’s life who will now be given an honorable burial by the Greeks who were touched by the girl’s bravery.

Hecuba is inconsolable and tells her slave girl to fetch water from the sea for the last rites of her daughter . her voyage as the bride of Hades . And it is here that the slave girl finds the body of Polydorus . There is some brief confusion when Hecuba thinks that the body of Polydorus is the body of Polyxena and she chides the slave girl for bringing it here. But once she finds out that it is her son and he was murdered by Polymestor, she conceives of a dreadful plan and it is at this point that we see Agamemnon , King of Mycenae and leader of the Trojan expedition . Again , the great hero is shown in a very different perspective , he knows that the murder of Polyxena was an unrequited tragedy forced upon a suffering old woman , he worries about his reputation and does not stop the murder because he is afraid of the gossip that will ensue . His soldiers will reason that due to his affair with Cassandra , another of Priam and Hecuba’s daughter  , Agamemnon is weak and unwilling to sacrifice Polyxena. But unlike Odysseus , his private moral sense of honor does compel him to go along with Hecuba’s plan for revenge after he is told of Polydorus’s untimely death at the hands of his host.

Hecuba invites Polymestor with his young sons with the pretext of telling him a precious secret which must be told to him alone . When Polymestor comes over , she tells him that she will reveal the cache of gold that Priam had hidden , this cache of gold belongs to Polydorus and Polymestor is the custodian until the Greeks leave . Greedy Polymestor agrees and asks his contingent of bodyguards to leave . We are spared the morbid details of the actual murders but instead given a beautiful couplet

Life is held on loan,

the price of life is death

Those who take a life 

repay it with their own

Justice and the gods 

exact the loan at last

Hands which never held a sword

shall wrench your twisted life away

Polymestor  is blinded and both his young children are murdered by the women of Troy.

Hearing the uproar , Agamemnon who pretends to be unaware of Hecuba’s plan for revenge listens to both sides . It is a trial of sorts where Polymestor claims that the murder of Polydorus was a political necessity else the Greeks would have invaded Thrace and if the boy grew up, there would be a resurgence of Troy and more trouble for Troy’s neighbors but Hecuba claims that Polymestor’s speech is pure sophistry because he is not related to the civilized Greeks nor had any prior relations with them and the murder was driven exclusively by his greed. If he was truly a friend then he would have not waited until the sack of Troy to offer his services to Agamemnon . She finishes with a flourish  forcing Agamemnon’s hand by claiming that if he passed the verdict on Polymestor’s behalf then he would go down in history as an unjust man .Agamemnon does come down on her side and prosecutes Polymestor for murder. The play ends with two dreadful prophecies by the blind Polymestor , one that Hecuba will die by drowning and that Agamemnon will be murdered by his own wife .

If ever there was a play that can show us what depths we can plunge to , driven by circumstances , Hecuba would certainly qualify .  Hecuba starts off as a grieving mother but ends up performing the most dastardly inhuman acts  ; the murder of innocent children. She is driven by her circumstances , driven by her captors to lose the last shreds of humanity, compassion and kindness .

Democracy or Free Press!!!

Growing up  I assumed that everybody knew the importance of a free press to a democracy . As I read about the horrors perpetrated by governments and those in power and the efforts by the free press to reel them in (Watergate , The Pentagon papers and the press in India during the Emergency readily come to mind ), I cannot help but believe that journalists are replaying the same role that Brutus played in ancient Rome when he assassinated Julius Caesar . Regardless of personal motivations , at the heart of the treachery was a love for Rome that overwhelmed his affection and loyalty to Caesar (the anti-Antigone behavior where the state comes before the self)  . To me this symbiosis of democracy and free press is as essential to democracy as oxygen to living creatures; even to a democracy as venerable as ours or especially to one as venerable as ours .

I love change.org and have support several of their initiatives including the brutal butchery of sharks for their fins , puppy mills , blood lions, human trafficking, dog fighting and even supported one initiative which recommended that we deport the lion killing dentist back to Zimbabwe to face trial (given the quick disappearance of that particular incident from the collective memory, I imagine life is back to normal for him). But the one that I remember the most is one that I did not vote for , it was so audacious that it has stuck with me. It was an initiative where they wanted  Facebook and Google to verify the authenticity of news that was being spread on their platforms . I love Facebook which I use to keep in touch with my family in India as well as friends in India and Ohio and it also serves as my online scrapbook for all the pictures that I take .But while Facebook is a luxury , Google is a necessity . I would starve to death without Google , every day I search for dozens and dozens of resolutions to issues that I cannot resolve and given the diversity of platforms , languages and libraries that software engineers have to deal with , Google is a life saver . So needless to say , I am grateful for both of them but I do not expect them to vet my news for me . Portals of free information on the internet cannot  be expected to be held to the same standards of reputable news papers.

Recently I listened in mute fascination to an associate who was reciting to me her total faith in the FDA.  Sometime back I was working for a giant pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia and I was part of the engineering team which comprised of mechanical , electronics , electrical , instrumentation and software engineers and on the pharmaceutical side was an army of PhDs . We had to document everything as was required by the FDA , my software was the glue that triggered the syringe to squirt the drug  , measure the volume of the drop , weigh the pill and send all this information to the central data repository that was a write once read many (WORM) database . Awesome stuff !! Great lengths to prevent tampering. Admirable except there was nobody who could audit what I had written , little to prevent a bug in my calculations (an implementation of Integration by parts; mention of calculus would have most software engineers in tears) , little to prevent an overestimation in the amount of drug in the drop and I certainly do not expect a FDA employee or even an army to go through the mechanical design, the electrical design , the software and the vagaries of organic chemistry to understand the drug . So we had to produce voluminous amount of documentation that they keep as part of their records .  What does this have to do with a free press ? a free press keeps everybody on their toes , some thing that is common to all Pharma companies is their fear of negative publicity , anybody remember Vioxx?  The FDA was bought into existence by Theodore Roosevelt who read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was horrified to learn that it was not unusual for lard to have human remains .The vats were massive and it was extremely difficult and expensive to stop them . So if the odd Lithuanian immigrant happened to fall in , it was cheaper to pay money to his non English speaking family and if some nosy government agent started asking questions (as did happen after TR read “The Jungle” ), ship them back to Lithuania or Latvia . While the FDA is essential , it is the free press that keeps the Pharma companies in line . The particular process that I worked on was for a painkiller , the machine was first of its kind but once they found that the drug was causing cancer in rats , not only did they have to abandon the drug but also the machine , it was mandated as part of the FDA process which is overkill but it is due to the fact that they are seriously under equipped to deal with the technology and rapid innovation. At the other extreme are FDA agents who visit Joel Salatin’s grass farm in Virginia . They are hampered by his concepts like the open air abattoir which obviously do not require adherence to regulations that are in place to protect the McDonalds customer . If I buy a chicken from the Salatin farm , they slaughter the chicken in front of you if desired or the same day that you buy it alleviating the need to protect yourself from E-Coli or Salmonella. The McDonalds meat comes from some mystery farm in Kansas raised on a diet of who knows what . If interested ,read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan , a delightful book. In light of all this , it is easy to see that while we need the FDA , they are inundated and under equipped . Therefore our biggest defense is a free press that is not afraid to print and hold our businesses to high standards.

Cleveland ,OH is home to the Great lakes Brewery , the beer is delicious enough to almost claim it to be a micro brewery. I meet quite a few North East Ohio expats in the bay area and almost invariably the conversation becomes rueful once The Great Lakes brewery is mentioned because we don’t get it here. They have a delightful collection but the one that stands out for me is called Burning River. I wish it was just the amazing imagination of the brewer but unfortunately it is inspired by the Cuyahoga river which caught fire in June 1969 . I will let you digest that for a minute , the river caught fire!!! It was caused by the  chemicals that were being dumped by the companies who had nothing to stop them . President Nixon created the EPA to deal with issues like these . I have had zero dealings with the EPA but I imagine the same issues that plague the FDA plague the EPA as well and again it is only the free press which is our last defense against companies who would go to great lengths to avoid negative publicity and therefore try to hold themselves to higher standards.

I reserve my last argument for the financial regulations especially the Dodd-Frank Act. I have read almost all of Michael Lewis’s books where he details Wall Street’s antics  , the Wolf of Wall Street did little to assuage my growing anxiety and anger reserved at Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank act was created after the gigantic cluster f*#@ that was the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short clearly details how many in Big Finance knew but did nothing to stop it quite the contrary.Around 2015 , one of my closest friends got a call from one of his drunk classmates who happens to work in Wall Street. This fellow had just received a huge bonus for creating a enticing financial product.  Being drunk , he could not help bragging about the fact that he had 7-8 $10000/hour hookers and proceeds to tell my friend that this product will be a poison pill in about 10 years but right now it is extremely profitable for his employer and hence the bonus. It was a scene right out of the Wolf of Wall Street. This is obviously after the Dodd-Frank act and under President Obama’s so called age of regulations . So the Wall Street analysts are still having a gala time . About 2 weeks ago another close friend and his wife go to their financial planner for advice , he was all agog with excitement because President Trump had promised to dismantle all of these regulations which was crippling the financial industry and he could offer them much better products . All I could think of was Bernie Madoff!!! The financial crisis caused trillions of dollars to vanish and yet nobody went to jail . Not too long after the rescue of Citibank in 2009, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about a Citi stock broker getting a bonus of $340 million. Here is another interesting article. All of this happened in spite of extensive news coverage so I am convinced that we need every weapon possible to protect us from them including government regulations and investigative reporters.

Growing up , I was of a libertarian bent of mind which believes in less government but the more I read of businesses that hire armies of lawyers and accountants to seek loopholes , engineer financial products that is engineered to swindle us out of our hard earned money, I am convinced that regulators are needed , they don’t exist to provide jobs to incompetent government bureaucrats but to protect us.I don’t know what is going to happen to these government regulatory bodies or regulations which are in place to protect us, the common man and woman . What I do know is that our only defense against big businesses or politicians running amuck at this point is a free press which is not afraid to print what they see . Regardless of  right or left leanings, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian beliefs, we need a free press to thrive in order to have a thriving democracy , to protect the land we love.

A free press cannot survive without its subscribers . I started my annual subscription to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal . I urge every one of you to do the same , whether the subscription is to your local newspaper or a national one.