A Blind Spot for Feathers

I read somewhere that the US Government is trying to overturn the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, which would mean that corporations would no longer be penalised for harming wildlife. An exhibition to raise funds to mount a legal challenge opened in New York, and illustrates very clearly why the Act was passed in the first place. Many birds were pushed to the brink of extinction – and beyond – for their ornamental feathers, which were sought after by fashion houses and milliners. Steve Backshall made the same point when he wrote about the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea; their numbers still haven’t recovered.

I do wonder if people have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to feathers and their origins. I find feathers almost everywhere – in craft sets (my daughter loves them), in bedding, in winter coats and jackets, in jewellery, in costume (feather boas are the most obvious, but shoes as well) – frequently dyed garish colours or marketed as “down”. Most eider, duck or goose down comes from the feathers of birds slaughtered for meat, which I suppose is better than being wasteful, but it’s hardly cruelty free. Craft feathers (for example) I know very little about the origins of, but I doubt very much they are from the average pigeon. Marabou feathers – often found in boas or on shoes or slippers – are from a species of stork that is rapidly becoming endangered.

I have a substantial collection of found feathers – mainly from pigeons, but with the odd magpie and crow for a bit of variety – but I’m reluctant to wear them in any way in case I’m seen as promoting this appalling practice. It’s a real dilemma, because I really like my feathers and I’ve tried very hard not to hurt any birds in the process (although I can’t talk for next door’s cat). For now, my feathers are staying in the feather pot until I can decide what to do with them.


Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 2


One of the ladies with whom I work is obsessed with class. If someone annoys her, it’s all because of class and privilege. Like me, she is staunchly working class and to us it’s often obvious that the “higher classes” have a very different outlook on life. This story has a very strong class element but it’s the “just desserts” aspect that I found particularly pleasing, especially as it had an unpromising start.

The majority of the action takes place somewhere on the Riviera, at a beach resort where a Marquise is on holiday with her two children and their nanny. She’s wealthy, bored and attractive and although she doesn’t actively seek a lover, her husband is more focused on his business than his wife. The little photographer is club-footed (well, it didn’t do Byron any harm) and although he works as a semi-professional photographer, he also takes pictures in his spare time of the landscape, the sea and the local wildlife.

One thing leads to another and…

I’m not going to give the end away, because I have to admit I found it quite delicious. If you believe that all actions have consequences – no matter how remote – and that nobody is untouchable, you will love it. It reminded me a lot of The Talented Mr Ripley, despite not having any similarities of plot or location – it’s vintage, it’s glamorous, it’s exotic and very, very wicked.


I was amazed to discover that this short story had also been filmed, this time starring a young Leonard Nimoy – presumably before he gained immortality as Spock – in the lead role. The story itself is simple and takes place over one evening; a shy young mechanic, finding himself at a loose end in London, goes to the pictures and ends up on an impromptu date with one of the usherettes. Falling madly in love (at first sight), what he discovers the following day changes everything.

Which, if you’re a suspicious old bat like me, has probably given the game away – but there is very little in the story that actually does so until the last couple of pages. Unfortunately, like other stories in this collection, it hasn’t aged very well although I think the fact that it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War actually works in the story’s favour – I suspect that the filmed version moved it to contemporary (early 1960s?) times and changed the location.

I must admit to guessing the twist wrong, although I got the suspect right – well, that was always going to be obvious really. It does make me miss the ice creams and orange juice I used to get at the cinema when I was a kid. Unfortunately the days of two features, an intermission, ice creams and drinks for less than a pound are long gone – you need a second mortgage for the cinema these days. I wonder if my obscure TV channel that shows old movies will think about putting this one on in the future. I’d quite like to see what they’ve changed.


After reading six of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories one after the other, you would think I would have learned not to take things at face value. Clearly I haven’t, because the last paragraph of this wonderful short story completely took me by surprise. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is, essentially, the story of a family observed by a man who visits a riverbank regularly. The family live near the river, and he watches the couple as they bring up a family of four. He has given them names, but the son, in particular, is the focus of the story as his relationship with his family is much more dysfunctional. The story ends as tragedy strikes and the twist is revealed.

I really cannot say any more because that really will give the game away. It’s a beautifully dramatic little story, a perfect length and seductively told. Aside from The Birds, I think it is probably the best story of the lot. If you can, do try to pick it up and read this – and let me know if you worked out the twist before the end.

Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 1


This is another story in the collection of Daphne du Maurier stories that I’m reading, and (as far as I can tell) it’s not very well known. It tells the story of a mysterious sect in the mountains in Europe (presumably Italy, Switzerland or somewhere like that) whose members are supposed to be immortal and who are shunned by the local community. I’m not really doing it any justice at all with that description, which is fine because I really want people to read it themselves, so even the vaguest overview of the plot works for me.

It’s a strange, unsettling story because – particularly in its latter stages – it reminds me a lot of HG Wells, in particular his Land of the Blind story, which I have mentioned elsewhere and also old stories of Shangri-La (popular in the early 20th century), a paradise found in the mountains near Tibet. I understand that du Maurier was influenced by a health farm which preached natural living, which makes me wonder if this is supposed to be set in Switzerland – but the location, apart from the title mountain, is never named so this is pure speculation on my part.

However, one thing that du Maurier is careful to do is remind readers that such idyllic lifestyles come at a price – but I’m not going to give away the downside to this particular Eden, except to say that I’m not sure it’s one I would like to pay. She even has one of the characters state bluntly “Monte Veritas. The Mountain of Truth. It is not paradise. If it is paradise you want, you won’t find it here.” And that’s something worth thinking about in re-reading the story (it does benefit from more than one reading, I must say). What is it about this story which is so unnerving? I can’t put my finger on it, and the more familiar with the story I become, the less I think I want to.


Some of the later stories in this collection are quite a bit shorter than the first two – although this story straddles the two extremes – and seem to be much less subtle which in turn makes them less effective as a “creepy story”. This tale, about a man who is haunted by an apple tree in his garden after the death of his neglected wife, Already it’s reminiscent of a story by HP Lovecraft, about a young sculptor convinced that a tree next to his best friend’s tomb inhabits his spirit.

I find this story troublesome in a number of ways. It feels horribly dated, stuck in the 1950s like a fly in amber – complete with all the prejudices and assumptions of the time. The husband is vile, the wife initially unsympathetic – but then to modern sensibilities, one would wonder why she put up with him – and the other characters faceless ciphers, just there to provide voices. You can spot the ending coming and it feels disappointing. Even the prose is ordinary compared to the sense of siege in The Birds and the joyful wonder of Monte Veritas.

All of that said – and you can tell I didn’t really enjoy it – this is a thought-provoking story, but only if you look at it from the perspective of the psychology of grief. The action takes place very soon after the wife’s funeral and it could be argued – as one character does – that what the husband is experiencing is psychological, all “part of the grieving process”. Is it? Du Maurier is careful never to say either way, allowing us to view things from the husband’s point of view – the tree is haunted, out to get him, etc. – or as an objective bystander – poor soul, missing his wife terribly, can’t cope without her.

He’s still vile at the end though. At least the tree survived.

Du Maurier – The Birds

I’m working my way through some of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories at the moment and the volume that I have starts with one of her best known stories, The Birds. I was quite excited about this, as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film version (the one with the crows, not giving too much away); but I have to say that the film bears next to no relation to the story. This is by no means a bad thing – just don’t expect the two to be identical, because they’re not.

The first difference is the location; rural Cornwall has its own mystique and the idea of sea and land birds suddenly turning homicidal is rendered even more sinister by the bleakness of the landscape. Rugged coves and acres of farmland offer a desolation that one simply wouldn’t find in an urban setting, and du Maurier really uses that isolation to good effect, building a siege mentality as the Hocken family try to survive each avian onslaught.

The second – and for me, the main – difference is the birds themselves. My memory of Hitchcock’s classic (I haven’t seen it for a while) is that all the birds are crows or ravens; large black corvids, in any event. In du Maurier’s story, it is every species of bird which is involved. The attacks start small, with robins, wrens and tits attacking the Hocken children before the attacks – and birds – increase in size. Near the end, the birds of prey, raptors and gannets, attack the house, ripping at the wooden window frames and door panelling.

If you’ve come across the news reports of gulls attacking humans – either just territorial dive-bombing or to steal food from children – you will probably appreciate the horror of masses of gulls swarming in the sky in preparation for an attack. It’s very disconcerting without being graphically horrific and plays on every human’s wish to avoid being pecked in the eyes. I can understand why Hitchcock changed the story to suit his film, but – good as it is – it’s nowhere near as creepy as the original.

Dore – Lucifer In Hell

Gustav Dore was very well known in the late Victorian era as an illustrator, mainly for the Illustrated London News but also on his own account. His etchings illustrated the realities of living in London for many poorer people – which shocked a nation of middle class and tradespeople – and also a number of books. Some of his best known work illustrated a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and this illustration would have been found at the end of the Inferno, when Dante and Virgil reach the lowest circle of Hell.

The final canto of the Inferno, Canto XXXIV, describes Dante and Virgil’s perusal of Lucifer, who is so horrific as to defy human imagination. No matter what Dante says, it will never fully show Lucifer’s full terrifying glory – for want of a better word. He is encased in ice up to the torso, unable to move; he has three faces, each of which are gnawing at the torso of a noted sinner for all eternity (as the sinner will never die); beneath each of these faces is a pair of wings which beat constantly to create the winds which keep his circle frozen. The three sinners are Judas, Brutus and Cassius, all who betrayed their benefactors which Dante considers the most heinous crime of all.

Compared with more traditional depictions of Lucifer in Hell, Dante’s is almost unique in its depiction of Lucifer being punished as well as punishing – indeed, Milton views him as reigning over a chaotic kingdom of demons rather than suffering for his own sin of ambition against God. I think this point of view makes sense within the theology of the poem (and allowing for the fact that I am a committed pagan) as it shows that even Lucifer in sinning is not beyond punishment. Then again, he wasn’t making the political points Milton was, which may account for the differences.

I do like the detail in Dore’s illustration – he gives a good idea of the difference in scale of Lucifer’s world to the much smaller figures of Dante and Virgil – although I have to admit I can’t see all the faces and he’s omitted the eternally chewed sinners. Which is perhaps just as well, I don’t think many Victorian readers would have appreciated that. It’s a fittingly dramatic illustration of a dramatic climax to the first part of the epic poem, and I think it works very well indeed.

A Crooked House

Agatha Christie always said that her two favourites of her own novels were Ordeal by Innocence (which is one of my personal favourites too) and Crooked House; and it’s worth noting that neither of these novels features one of her well known detectives. Recent television adaptations have tinkered with this aspect – Ordeal by Innocence famously becoming a Miss Marple after the careful application of a crowbar and some WD40 – but I prefer the stories in their original form, as masterfully written psychological portraits. Yes, there are murders and a bit of necessary detective work in each, but it’s so nice to read stories without the Resident Clever-Clogs twiddling his moustache before declaring “It was YOU!”

In both Ordeal by Innocence and Crooked House, we have a wealthy yet completely dysfunctional family torn apart by a murder. In the former, the mother is found murdered and her son is hanged before an Antarctic explorer appears on the scene to suggest that actually he may have been innocent. In the latter, the wealthy patriarch is murdered with his own eye medicine and pretty much everyone has means, motive and opportunity. Each novel has a delicious twist at the end (which I won’t give away, because you are going to go away and read these novels now, aren’t you?) which raise important questions about the nature of justice, detection and what happens to those left behind when someone is murdered, especially if the killer is still at large.

This was something that was also explored in the first season of The Killing (still my favourite Nordic noir) but less so in the second, and not at all in the third. Crime writers still seem to think that the most important part of their novels has to be the killings and the detection, but almost forgetting that the victim may have had family and friends who feel powerless in the light of the tragedy. I think seeing things from the perspective of those left behind is just as fascinating as the forensic science and the cat and mouse chase. Crooked House is deceptively modern, despite being of similar age to my mum, and still an enjoyable read all these years later.

Arthur Evans’ Invention of the Minoan Civilisation

I went to Greece many years ago (and nearly never came back, but I’m not Shirley Valentine and that’s another story) and brought back a small concrete statue which I was told was Ariadne. Looking at it, though, it looks a little more like the Snake Goddesses which I always associate with Minoan culture – long, tightly curled hair, miniscule waist, stylized shapes. It would surprise me if it was, because I was on an entirely different island, but the similarities are there.

The thing that has startled me more than anything, though, is the fact that what we know about the Minoan culture may not actually be historically accurate. Discovered in the early 20th century by Arthur Evans in Knossos, such artefacts as exist are not only few and far between, but also not quite as stylized as modern reproductions make out. The problem is that Evans had a very distinct idea of what the Minoan civilisation SHOULD look like (rather than what it DID look like) and rebuilt the palace along those lines, using reinforced concrete which the Ancient Greeks certainly didn’t have access to. So those ruins in Crete that people traipse around are, actually, a modern representation of something that probably didn’t exist.

Given the standards of his time, Evans’ archaeology was actually quite thorough – he annotated everything and kept meticulous records. It’s just that he had a tendency to fit the facts to suit his theory. In Confronting the Classics, Mary Beard makes the point that many of the representations of the Minoans share more than a passing resemblance to Art Deco, which was starting to come into vogue at the time of his excavations. She also reminds her readers that Evelyn Waugh himself compared them to contemporaneous Vogue covers. They seem to be much more modern than they actually were.

Whether or not you think Evans was a fraud – and I’m not sure that he was, misguided though he may have been – one thing he did manage to do was get people interested in archaeology and Ancient Greek civilisation in a way that many of his contemporaries didn’t do. Even now, tourists go to see the temples and palaces at Knossos rather than the (unredeveloped) excavation at Mycenae. The imagery of Minoan culture perpetuated by Evans has stood the test of time and is instantly recognisable. It’s just a shame that it may not be entirely true.

The Catiline Conspiracy – An Early Example of Fake News

I am starting to come to the conclusion that one simply can’t trust a word Cicero says; like any politician, he was ambitious and wanted to progress as far as he could or, at the very least, retain his position. Because (I like to think) that politics in Rome were quite a bit different than they are today, Cicero thought nothing of embroidering the truth if he thought he would benefit of it – and the Catiline Conspiracy is the best case in point.

The only evidence we have of Catiline’s guilt is what Cicero tells us – that he was a revolutionary, planning to overthrow the state and Cicero has successfully foiled the Roman equivalent of a terrorist plot. It may be that this is entirely correct, but we simply don’t know because we have no evidence of Catiline’s defence. This is surprising because Cicero acted for the prosecution (as it were) and defence lawyers were considered the more “honourable” side. So where is the evidence to disprove Cicero’s assertion that Catiline is a master criminal?

Simply put, we don’t have it. Either it doesn’t exist (because nobody sought to defend Catiline), or it has been lost or destroyed over time. I cannot comment on the likelihood of either scenario but given what we do know about Cicero being self-serving, we have to be careful about taking his word as gospel. There is the possibility that Cicero’s speech against Catiline is a very early example of what we now know as fake news – Cicero’s career needed a boost and ejecting a slightly subversive senator on exaggerated charges would have done the trick nicely. We just can’t prove that this is what he did, as we only have his side of the story.

If you needed any evidence that Classics has a modern relevance, I suspect the Catiline conspiracy comes quite close to providing it.

Lost in Translation

Although I am interested in the Classical world – more Greece than Rome, I must admit – like many of my peers I went to a school where Latin and Greek were not taught and so if I wanted to learn them, I would have to teach myself. I have a little Latin and less Greek, certainly not enough to get through a Classics degree, so I went off to do something else instead and kept my interest as a hobby more than anything else.

A result of this is that I rely on translations of sources; I cannot read Homer and Herodotus in Greek and Virgil and Juvenal in Latin because my grasp of the languages simply isn’t up to it. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, as I’m not writing essays or building an entire historical theory around what I’m reading, but if you are – you really need to read them in the original, because sometimes the translations simply aren’t up to the job.

For example, any classicist worth their Homer would tell you that Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in the most convoluted Greek imaginable, to the point where none of the conventional translations really capture what it was he was trying to say. The best commentary on the History runs to five volumes and is a good twenty times the length of the original, such is the difficulty of the Greek. This means that any version I read – because I don’t speak Greek – is going to be flawed to a greater or lesser degree.

As I said, this isn’t really an issue for me as I only read for enjoyment. Perhaps it would be interesting to read different translations of Thucydides and see if it’s possible to read between the lines, as it were, and see if it’s possible to reconstruct his original text – but that’s a lifetime’s work and not one I have a taste for. However, if you are contemplating Classics for a degree, do make sure your Greek and Latin are as good as they can be – you’ll find them invaluable.

Boudicea and Harry Potter

I expect that most people at least recognise the name Boudicea and recall that she was the Queen of tie Iceni who defeated the Romans in battle before a rather ignominious death and magnificent burial. In fact, she has rather more in common with Harry Potter, in that everything we know about her comes from texts provided by other people. In Potter’s case, we can blame JK Rowling for his biography; in Boudicea’s case, we look to Tacitus and Dio.

Unfortunately for us, two thousand years after the event, it’s not only clear that Tacitus and Dio’s biographies of Boudicea disagree on virtually every aspect of the story – up to and including her name, location and tribe – but there is also very little in the way of concrete archaeological evidence about her. What there is plenty of is speculation; she may be buried under Platform 8 of King’s Cross Station, or under Stonehenge, or goodness knows where. The fact is, we simply don’t know for definite.

So this puts Boudicea in the same place as Harry Potter, in that everything we know comes from a story. The difference is that modern readers understand that Harry Potter is a fictional character; I am not aware that we have any evidence that Boudicea was not. For all I know, she is a symbol, much like Robin Hood, of people’s rebellion against the ruling classes. My fear is that in two thousand years’ time, people will seek the entrance to the Hogwarts Express by excavating platform 9 of King’s Cross Station in the hope of finding the magical passageway.

I don’t wish to detract from what evidence of that period that does exist. There is plenty of evidence that a huge rebellion took place about 61 AD, and that many people died. It’s just that there is nothing conclusive to say that any of this is Boudicea. It may be that, like Robin Hood, Boudicea didn’t actually exist; but if she did, I want her to look like a cross between Merida from Brave and Brienne of Tarth.