Qutb Minar

Two or three weeks ago I read Rama Arya’s blog on Qutb Minar and I remarked then that Qutb Minar is probably my favourite place in Delhi and decided I ought to put up a couple of my own pictures, too. It seems to have taken me rather longer to get around to it than I had intended, but here ’tis.

Qutb refers to the whole of the complex, including the tower and several other important buildings. The Qutb Minar itself is a red and orange sandstone tower 72.5m tall. It has a diameter of just over 14m at its base, and just under 3m at the top, and is the tallest tower in India.

A little context: The first of the Moslem invasions of India was by Muhammed, Sultan of Ghur in what is now Afghanistan, in 1192. Is that not wondrous? I’d love to live in a place called Grrr. Having overrun a large part of the Northern Indian plains, he returned to Ghur, leaving his new territory in the hands of his army commander and favourite slave, Qutbuddin Aibak. Qutbuddin decided to leave a monument to his religion that was designed to overawe his new subjects and inspire his own people, and set about building a mosque with a massive tower nearby.

And this is a squinch in Iltutmish’s Tomb. Is not a squinch a wondrous thing also, both in its construct and its name? A squinch is a ‘bridging’ structure, used here to support a dome (now gone). Iltutmish was Shamsuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236), 3rd ruler of Delhi (after Qutbuddin and Aram).

This is the famous ‘non-rusting’ iron pillar. This stands in the courtyard of the mosque and was here long before the mosque was built. It was made in the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 375-413), is composed of almost pure iron (99.72%) and shows only the slightest sign of rusting. A sanskrit inscription on the pillar indicates that it probably stood originally outside a Vishnu temple, possibly in Bihar, and was moved later to this site. It would probably have had a garuda, the vehicle of Vishna, on the top. 

A close-up of the inscription.

Decorative details of the stonework. Most artistic decoration is, as usual with Islamic craftwork, patterned work and verses from the Koran. At Qutb Minar, there are also plentiful stylised, and sometimes surprisingly realistic, depictions of plants with flowers and buds and long, winding stems and tendrils. To construct the mosque, artisans used stone from Hindu and Jain temples and many stones and panels still depict the original carvings, frequently defaced but still recognisable.

Brahminical motifs on the columns of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. These pillars were originally part of the Hindu and Jain temples destroyed in the area when Qutbuddin built his capital. It is recorded that twenty seven temples were destroyed. They would have been reassembled by Hindu craftsmen, Qutbuddin using local labour.

Another view of the columns on one of the cloisters surrounding the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque.

NOTE: My faithful follower might recognise some of these notes and photos, as this is a rehash of part of a post I wrote on Delhi several years ago. I think it’s worth revisiting, since it’s such a wonderful place.

Excerpts From The Book of Meh

From Chapter one:

In the beginning there was lots of very dark darkness and very cold cold stuff, which wasn’t at all nice and although no one existed yet, they were all really miserable.

And Meh, the god of this world, thought ‘Well, this isn’t much fun’ and so He created the universe, with the Milky Way above and the Place of Torment below. And the Milky Way is a beauteous place of flowing streams of milk and cream and comfortable sofas beside cosy fires, while the Place of Torment is a cold and frozen place of hard floors and empty food bowls. And that was the first day, and a jolly good first day’s work it was too.

On the second day, Meh created the earth by vomiting up a giant hairball, and then sat back as life rapidly evolved without any further input from Meh, which was how He liked it, so He could curl up and take a little nap…

From Chapter three:

‘And thou shalt make images of Meh, and cause them to be distributed, yeah, all over the internet and into the world even unto the furthest corners. There shall be infinitely more of these images than those of dogs, for I, Meh, am a jealous god.

‘And be it known my chosen ones, whom I love and have created in my own image, shall be afforded a privileged place in thine homes, otherwise I shall visit plagues upon thy households, yeah, even unto the seventh generation of thy accursed species.

‘But those who treat my beloved offspring well shall have their eternal reward, most especially in the Milky Way, while those who mistreat them shall be condemned to be pounced upon and bitten for all eternity, and great will be the wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

From Chapter seven:

And know that this is the truth, for it is written herein and thou shalt believe it for it is the word of Meh.

It is told there was a Man of Meh, and he came unto the land of Babylon to preach to the people there tolerance and goodwill to all those that walk upon four legs and are furry and purr when pleased, yet the people received him with hostility and drove him out into the desert.

And thus Meh said ‘Lo, I shall send plagues to irritate and annoy these godless people until they learn the error of their ways.’ There was first, then, a plague of fleas, which certainly irritated them, although it was insufficient to cause them to mend their ways. So Meh then turned the milk sour, and this annoyed the people, but they still denied Meh and said ‘We don’t want to listen to some preacher spouting a load of old bollox’ and so Meh then caused all the fish in the fish market to be a bit off, and not really smell all that good. And the people said ‘Oh, leave it out. We’ll make our own rules and laws.’

So Meh did withdraw from the world, and he did sulk a goodly while.

A Sale

Wood carving of Crucifixion scene

I always have mixed feelings when I sell a piece of my artwork that I’m fond of. On the one hand, I’m delighted someone likes it enough to want to buy it, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. After all, we make artworks primarily to please ourselves (or am I being naive?), and I was pleased with this when I finished it.

But, it was in the shop to sell, so I can’t really complain. And I’m resigned to it going, now. Indeed, it’s already been dispatched and I hope it will give pleasure in its new home. The purchaser appears to be an Italian priest, and so it should be in an appropriate setting.

My sharp-eyed viewer will have noticed I’ve posted a few book reviews but almost nothing about my own writing recently. It’s still rather hit and miss, but I’ve been working on a number of poems over the last few months which have gone quite well. Or so I think. But I’ve not put any of them up here on the blog this time and in case you’re wondering why that is, I’ve decided it’s high time I tried submitting some poems to magazines and journals and they’re not usually interested in work that has been previously published on blogs or social media.

This does mean buying a few books and magazines to find out whether my style would fit in with what the publisher likes, but that’s no bad thing. It means I’ve got even more poetry books to read!

Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.

In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.

Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.

I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.

New Year’s Eve – Let’s Party Like It’s 1988!

My favourite New Year’s Eve party occurred on either the 13th or 14th April 1988, from which you may conclude this was not at home in England. I was in the Himalaya, walking the Annapurna Circuit. And my uncertainty about the date is due to the fact I didn’t keep a travel journal in those days. In fact, I’m not even sure exactly where we were staying that night, although I do know we were still heading up towards the high pass, the Thorung La, and that we were still well below the snowline. At the end of the day’s walking we camped, as usual, and while we were eating supper we were informed that we were invited to join in the New Year celebrations in the village close by.

It wasn’t the place in the picture above – it was smaller – but it was definitely what could be described as a little one horse place somewhere rather high up in the Himalaya. The celebrations involved drinking, singing, and dancing. Actually, the celebrations were drinking, singing, and dancing. The drink was chang, which is rice beer, a traditional Tibetan drink, which is drunk on any and all occasions, by everyone. It is cloudy, it doesn’t taste very strong, it’s not very strong, and it slips down easily.

And then there is rakshi, which is a distilled liquor and a whole new level of peril. We were warned about that.

Up where we were, the singing consisted largely – possibly entirely – of folk songs. We were already familiar with at least one of them; when we had been in Kathmandu, the hit of the season was apparently a song called paan ko paat which we heard on radios everywhere – you can find many versions of this on YouTube if you feel curious – and as the chang flowed, so the singing increased in intensity. So too did the dancing – there was what might very loosely be termed a band, consisting of a number of people playing traditional instruments – and we either tried to keep up or stood around drinking and talking with our most hospitable hosts.

I have no photographs of this, sadly, since it was dark and I had no flash on my camera. The only light came from oil lanterns. You’ll just have to imagine a host of Nepalis and half a dozen westerners crammed into a tea house and having a jolly good time.

And then we were informed it was our turn to sing.

They asked us to sing something traditional from whichever countries we came from. I think the others made a reasonable fist of it, although maybe that’s just me assuming that everyone else sings better than me. Which they do. And some of their interpretations of ‘traditional’ may have been rather elastic. And then came the words I had been dreading, the words that sent a frisson of horror through my entire being: ‘Your turn, Mick.’

I must have been drunk, because suddenly I knew that if I had just one more drink I could do it. And so I did. I do at least know quite a few folk songs although I couldn’t remember the words to more than a couple of verses of the one I chose, but no one seemed to mind. On reflection, I suppose no one even really listened.

The rest of the words came to me as I lay in my tent that night, listening to sporadic bursts of singing and shouting – but by then, there was little difference between the two…

Happy New Year, folks.

My Top Books of 2022

Well, my favourite twelve, anyway. One a month, if you like, although that wasn’t how I read them. Or perhaps the twelve book reviews of Christmas – oops, no. Missed that one. Anyway…these are some of the books I read in 2022, not books that were first published this year. But I seem to have read so many good books in 2022, it’s difficult to make a choice and this has ended up being a little arbitrary.

Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton. It has been a long time since I last read something new and immediately put it into my top ten reads, but this remarkable work is straight in there. A few weeks later I had to re-read it, captivated by its dream-like quality.

It is essentially a poetic narrative ranging between the present day and Palaeolithic Britain, told by humans both ancient and modern, and by non-human voices. Its essence is life and ritual, the connection between humans and animals, between humans and the land they occupy, and the elements surrounding them.

The remains of deer skulls complete with antlers, but with eye holes punched into the skull so they might be worn as masks, have been found at Star Carr in Yorkshire, dating to approximately eleven thousand years ago. It is presumed these masks would have been used in rituals…

Millstone Grit by Glyn Hughes. This very readable book was originally published in 1975, describing a fifty mile walk the author took through East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; an exploration of the moorlands and villages alongside the industrial towns, all of them suffering in their own ways from the effects of the loss of traditional industries in that area. It is about Hughes’ attachment to this area he came to live in, the clash between human and non-human landscapes, and about working class history in these places, but above all else about some most remarkable people he meets along the way.

I re-read The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper. This is a book about tracing a mystery in his family’s past, beginning with a woman preparing to throw herself off Beachy Head, a notorious spot for suicides, but also about the effects the landscape of the South Downs has had upon people.

This is a book I reviewed on this blog when I first read it three years ago – the link is here – and I’ll just put an extract of that review here: ‘He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.’

Another re-read, this time of a book I first read some forty years ago. The Spire by William Golding is a novel set in medieval England, in an unspecified city somewhere in the south. It is a story essentially about pride and hubris, about the Dean of a church determined to have built a great spire on his church, despite warnings that the foundations will not be able to support such a colossal structure. The ending seems predictable and yet that is not really where the story is going, being more concerned with the characters inhabiting that space.

The setting is the church and environs, and it evokes the feel of the ecclesiastic medieval as successfully as The Name of the Rose does. One test of how good a novel set in historical times is, is whether it transports the reader easily to that setting. I certainly found it did.

I bought Hemisphere by Pete Green at an event where poets read excerpts from their work. It is effectively a poetic journey around the northern hemisphere, beginning in Scotland, the journey approximating to the latitude of the arctic circle. The writing conveys a tremendous sense of place and feels very right for the cold edgelands described.

Holloway by Robert MacFarlane and Dan Richards, with illustrations by Stanley Donwood is a short book, describing a journey MacFarlane, Donwood, and Richards made in Dorset, essentially a revisit of a trip MacFarlane made previously with Roger Deakin for an earlier book, exploring holloways. Holloways, often known as sunken tracks or paths, are old – frequently very old – paths made over the centuries by the passage of feet, both human and animal, and perhaps by the wheels of wagons and carts. It is a short journey – perhaps ‘experience’ would be a better word – describing wild camps and walking, cycling and visiting old buildings; in some ways, perhaps it is really no more than a short camping trip, undertaken by a group of men acting out a boyhood adventure. The writing, though, by both MacFarlane and Richards is exquisitely poetic and Donwood’s illustrations never less than beautiful.

Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard.

‘Luke Kennard recasts Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series of anarchic prose poems set in the same joyless house party.

A physicist explains dark matter in the kitchen. A crying man is consoled by a Sigmund Freud action figure. An out-of-hours doctor sells phials of dark red liquid from a briefcase. Someone takes out a guitar.

Wry, insolent and self-eviscerating, Notes on the Sonnets riddles the Bard with the anxieties of the modern age, bringing Kennard’s affectionate critique to subjects as various as love, marriage, God, metaphysics and a sad horse.’

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but I finally got around to picking up a copy this year. On one level, this is a walking journey taken by the author along the Suffolk coast in the early 1990’s, describing both places and people he comes across, but really, it is much deeper than that and is a psychogeographical work par excellence. Throughout the journey, we are never quite certain whether events are happening to the author, or have happened in the past, or perhaps to someone else at some other time. He goes off in unexpected directions, literary, historical, and physical, exploring a wide and eclectic range of subjects yet throughout there is a cohesion to the narrative.

The Birthday Letters are a not-quite-series of poems Ted Hughes wrote to his wife the American poet Sylvia Plath after her death. Personally, I find them to be probably his most accessible poems and wonder whether that says something about me, although this isn’t the time to go into that. Theirs was a difficult relationship, and her suicide (as well as that of a later lover of his) frequently colours people’s opinions of Hughes. Inevitably, these are often extremely personal poems, so much so that at times I feel a slight discomfort reading them, as if I’d opened someone’s private correspondence by accident, but Hughes wrote them as an attempt to restore her to him, and published them almost for the public to read as his own account of her life and death.

Sadly, Roger Deakin only wrote three books, of which Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is compiled from diary entries he kept during the last six years of his life. In these notes, he recorded his day to day life on the farm, walks on nearby Mellis Common, the yearly cycle of the natural world all around him, and his thoughts on literature, the importance of nature, and musings on the past.

Our Place by Mark Cocker is an exploration of the history of environmental thought and politics in Great Britain and, especially, the way forward. It asks pertinent questions like who owns the land and why? And who benefits from green policies? Not afraid to be radical in its suggestions, it asks why there is such a disconnect between the British public’s sympathy for and championing of the countryside and the reality of its current condition.

Digging up Britain by Mike Pitts tells the story of Britain’s history and prehistory in ten astonishing excavations. As someone who has always had an interest in history and pre-history, I found this book a timely reminder of the huge strides taken forward in our understanding of the past over the last ten years or so, due to such important tools as DNA analysis as well as the painstaking work of those who excavate and interpret these sites. There are some remarkable tales in this book.

Happy Christmas and New Year

If you celebrate Christmas, in whatever form that takes, then I hope you have a marvellous, peaceful and happy one.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope that however you pass the time is productive and happy and that the world is kind to you.

ladakh 5 panorama

And thanking each and every one of you for the marvellous conversations and constructive and kind comments that I have enjoyed with you all over the past year, and all the other years I have been on here, and looking forward to more of the same in 2023.

And a Happy New Year, too!

Sickness and Diseases

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been researching my family tree, and a few days ago I was looking for details of one of my ancestors who lived in what was then a small village just outside Norwich. Looking on the parish records not only did I find the entry for his burial, but then noticed that the rector at that time had begun noting down what each person had died of. It was by no means complete, though, because he had added these notes for a year or so and then just stopped. Whether he’d got fed up with it or been told to stop for some reason, I obviously have no idea. But as I glanced through them, I became fascinated by them. I felt they left quite a lot of information about the place and time (rural England in the 1850’s) and thought a bit of it worth sharing.

My ancestor was on page 5 of these records, and the burials had all been conducted by the same rector from the first entry on page one. He added these notes from entry number two, through to twenty nine, then again for number thirty three, and then stopped. This is a summary of the relevant entries:

1   Male     5 weeks   Dec 1851

2   Male       44         Dec 1851      paralysis

3   Male       14         Jan 1852       consumption

4   Male       53         Jan 1852       consumption

5   Male         6         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

6   Male         3         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

7   Female    17         Feb 1852      typhus fever

8   Male        33         Feb 1852      consumption

9   Female    3¾        Jan 1852      scarlet fever

10 Male        53         Feb 1852      liver complaints. Publican.

11 Male        61         Mar 1852      paralysis, consumption

12 Male        19         Mar 1852      consumption 2½ years

13 Female    62         Apr 1852       cancer

14 Female    78         May 1852      old age

15 Male        33         Apr 1852      consumption

16 Male        55         May 1852     decline and heart disease

17 Female    69         Aug 1852      old age

18 Female      5         Aug 1852      inflammation of bowels

19 Female    13         Aug 1852      typhus fever

20 female     21         Aug 1852     consumption

21 Female    76         Aug 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died by visitation of God

22 Male        63        Sep 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died from injury in the head caused by fall

23 Female     71        Feb 1853      paralytic stroke and old age

24 Male         49        Apr 1853      labourer. Decline

25 Female     71        Feb 1853      coroner’s inquest. died by visitation of God, She dropped down dead when in perfect health

26 Male        85         Apr 1853      labourer. Paralysis

27 Male      infant      May 1853      jaundice

28 Female    64         Jun 1853      drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity

29 Female   infant     Jun 1853      thrush

After this there are no further comments from the rector, other than:

33 Male        72        Sep 1853      disease of heart

There is quite a lot that is of interest here, and just from a statistical point of view we can see that nine of the burials were children under sixteen – just under a third of the total. Of those six were five or under. Lots of children died in those days. Yet somewhat surprisingly, fourteen of them – roughly half – were over fifty, with four in their seventies and one of eighty five. A very good age for the time. There doesn’t seem much difference in the average ages males and females lived to, although this is a tiny sample, of course. All the rural poor had tough lives, both male and female, which brings us to the comments added by the rector.

Number twenty six really caught my eye. Male, aged 85, a labourer, died of what the rector calls paralysis. No old age pension for them, they worked until they dropped. Number twenty four is also described as a labourer. Obviously the rector felt it worth mentioning, although why just those two, who knows?

Then we have the common diseases we’ve pretty well consigned to the past, now. Scarlet fever. Typhoid. Consumption – properly called tuberculosis. They killed frequently, especially the young.

And when the cause of death couldn’t be determined, even by inquest? ‘Visitation of God’. Although why those ones weren’t just put down to old age I can’t imagine. Unless somebody saw something…

Two more comments I have to mention, though. Number ten, male, age 53, died of liver complaints. The rector had to mention he was a publican, of course.

And then there is number twenty eight. Female, aged 64, drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity. The rector belonged to the Church of England, and I’m sure he relished the suggestion that dissenters were mad. All the different denominations of the church seem to regularly go to war with the others, which, if you fancy a bit of a giggle, I satirised here some while ago.

If…

I’ve been feeling a bit flat recently, although that’s not uncommon at this time of the year.

I know I’m currently craving solitude and simplicity, wanting to spend some time somewhere a little remote. An area of moorland, such as Dartmoor or the Pennines, would do me very nicely. Even better if there were some woodlands nearby, too. Although there would be no people around (ideally), there would be wildlife to watch and hills and valleys and those woods to explore. Maybe some interesting ruins nearby…

Simplicity, that’s what I’d want. Somewhere with no wifi, no TV, no phone signal or even radio. A decent supply of food and a few beers because, as Jerome K Jerome said, thirst is a dangerous thing. A fire to sit beside in the evening. Somewhere small and basic with no luxuries.

I’d take some books. Several sorts, so I could pick one up or swap to another depending upon my mood. At least one book of poetry, perhaps Stranger in the Mask of a Deer which I read for the first time a few months ago, and then re-read recently because it was so damned good. Maybe a Seamus Heaney collection, including the ‘Station Island’ sequence of poems, or a collection by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for the marvellous long poem Zima Junction. Maybe I’d just take all of those.

I’d include some sort of detective novel for pure escapism, then one or two books by the likes of Robert Macfarlane – books that would inform me about the landscape I had decided to inhabit for a while.

I wouldn’t just be walking and exploring, or reading. I have a few poems I need to finish off, one about salmon and one about the Winter Solstice. In this environment I think I’d be inspired to finish them, hopefully write some more.

A week would probably do it.