In 1973 archaeologists digging at Vindolanda– the former site of a Roman fort, about halfway along Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England– uncovered a store of letters and files on wooden tablets. Between about AD 85 and 122 the wall was being built to mark the farthest extent of the Roman empire. Boudicca and the Iceni had kicked off and destroyed several Roman cities only a few decades previously, and the tribal people of Britain were still far from pacified or assimilated, but Hadrian made the strategic decision to physically isolate the Picts who lived in what is now called Scotland because they were even more troublesome. Most of the tablets seem to date from roughly this frontier period. Ironically the documents may have been preserved because they were dumped out periodically with the rubbish, which led to them being buried instead of taken away or lost.
Remarkable as their survival is, what’s really amazing about them is the way they connect us so intimately to people who’ve been dead for about two thousand years. They weren’t concerned with Imperial policy except in a pragmatic way, and for the most part they weren’t philosophising about huge historical issues. They weren’t Ciceros or Caesars. They were exactly like us. Soldiers wrote racist assessments of the spear-chucking natives. They invited their sister for a birthday piss up. They complained. Their mums sent them underpants and socks to keep them warm in Britain’s horrible climate.
These translations and images are from Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, by Alan K. Bowman, published by the British Museum Press.
… the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.
(The writer calls the natives Brittunculi, which is a contemptuous diminutive form of the more proper Brittones.)
Memorandum on the Britons.
Via the always interesting and inspiring Letters of Note, a site that I can’t recommend enough: A 1970 letter from the Naked Lunch deviant to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s / In Cold Blood author. Burroughs had a long-running ambient feud with Capote for various petty and legitimate reasons, but Burroughs seems to have been particularly incensed by Capote endorsing the idea that the police should be able to get results by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.
You can (and should!) read the whole thing, but the part that particularly impressed me was Burroughs’ curse on Capote for– as Burroughs saw it, anyway– misusing and squandering his talent. I would tend to agree that this is a cardinal sin of the talented, one that’s disappointingly often committed by precisely those successful writers, artists, film makers, musicians (etc.) who have reached the stage where they probably could put their foot down and take a stand, or gone beyond that to the stage where they needn’t compromise at all, but do it anyway. Unfortunately many of them get greedy, or complacent, or they start operating as autopilot pastiches of themselves, or paradoxically their success actually cuts them off from the place their talent originally sprung from.
Anyway, here’s Uncle Bill: Continue Reading
James Joyce: Get your freak on, get your freak on, get your get your get your get your freak on.
Today, the 16th of June, is Bloomsday. Bloomsday is the annual celebration of James Joyce’s life and work inspired by his massive infuriating brilliant overrated underrated rambling scrambled inspiring behemoth of a novel that swirls around the thoughts and the person of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on the 16th of June 1904: Ulysses.
It’s probably a wee bit too late to start reading Ulysses if you want to be done by the end of today, but you can easily get through (and get off on, should you be so inclined) Joyce’s unfathomably dirty, somewhat terrifying and occasionally, unwittingly hilarious sex letters to his Mrs, the magnificently monikered Nora Barnacle.
Whatever else- or whoever else- you do on Bloomsday I hope you enjoy reading this vintage smut, my sweet naughty little fuckbirds. Hint / warning: the title of this post is not a typo.
SEXY BEAST: Just look at this fine ensemble. Like a louche waiter on a very stylish pirate ship. Filthy lapels. Dashing face topiary.
The letters below were originally presented on my main site as part of the background research material for a new episode in my performance lecture series; this one was to be called ‘One-Eyed Monster’ and explore the posthumous ownership and exposure of artists’ private lives, focusing on James Joyce. Although this project is on hold for the moment, the evident interest of both scholars and perverts in James Joyce’s smutty letters and the difficulty of obtaining access to them has persuaded me to maintain the material here.
‘One-Eyed Monster’ was inspired by the ongoing public fascination with the private lives of famous writers, artists, musicians and performers. I’m particularly interested in the ways that a person who achieves any significant measure of success or recognition in the arts can expect to have absolutely every aspect of their private life exposed and analysed upon their death or at some point after a “decent” period has elapsed. Rejected or unfinished works and prosaic notes about tedious domestic matters become valuable relics to be snapped up by collectors and hoarded; meanwhile everything else about the artist becomes in a sense public property. Continue Reading