Books by Philip Matyszak

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2019-01-04
Looking forward to 1819
Attraction to the past is one of the things that makes one a historian. Yet it is not nostalgia that drives my recent excursions to an earlier age. It's practicality, and a weakness for the good things in life. Take coffee. Did you know that, once roasted, coffee beans degrade rapidly towards flat and flavourless? It's best to drink coffee within a few days of roasting – or not, since once you have tried fresh roast and ground coffee, it's hard to go back to commercial stuff that might have been sitting on the shelf for months. So we roast at home, as did most people a century ago – though they did not have a huge selection of green beans a click away on the internet.

Likewise Victorian-style cast iron cookware. After yet another pan developed a spherical bottom and lost its teflon – probably into the food I was frying – it was time to step into the past and come back with cast iron. Properly cured cast iron skillets are brilliantly non-stick, don't bend, and can be cleaned with steel wool, sandpaper, whatever it takes. (Just don't put 'em in the dishwasher). You buy cast-iron cookware once, use it daily and hand it to your grandkids decades later.

Or home-baking bread, pasta and cakes, and making your own chocolate. These are activities that people a century ago did without thinking. More recently large corporations have persuaded consumers that all these things need to be processed in large factories, and are only obtainable from supermarkets. That's just not so, and because supermarket stuff is made in the shortest time possible with the cheapest ingredients the customer will tolerate, it's often inferior – even before it is stuffed with preservatives to maintain shelf life.

Recently, and particularly with cookery, I look at 'progress' and wonder – 'progress in what direction'?
 
2018-12-04
The simple life
'Well, life was simpler then.'

I often hear this comment about earlier eras, and I keep wondering, 'Simpler? How exactly?' Let us not forget how much trouble it once took to do stuff that's effortless to modern folk in the west. For us today, water comes at the turn of a tap, light at the flick of a switch, and heating happens automatically.

It was certainly not simpler to keep an eye on the supply of water needed for cooking, cleaning and washing, and to schlep down to the fountain whenever reserves got low. Likewise lighting meant that the oil lamps had to be cleaned, the wicks prepared and a suitable amount of olive oil kept on hand. Heating was fires that had to be tended, and firewood stocks which had to be painstakingly built up over the summer. It all took work and arrangement – on top of the same work and social issues we have today. Our modern society and economy are certainly a lot more complex, but for people at the everyday level this means a lot more simplicity and convenience, not less.

Yet, despite the convenience, I do feel that we might have lost something along the way. Those items supplied by large companies are of the cheapest materials that the public will tolerate for the price, and they tend to lack a certain warmth. For example, I've just been sitting beside a birch-wood fire sipping fresh-ground coffee from an antique china cup. If I wanted ultra-modern convenience and simplicity, I could have had instant coffee from a styrofoam mug while looking at a radiator.
 
2018-11-04
The Production Line
When I get an idea for a book, I first research and check that its a viable project. Then I contact the editor of the publisher the book is best suited to, and make a pitch. If the editor's interested, I start serious research, and do a full work-up, often including sample chapters. Once we've agreed a contract, I hit the books in earnest. It rather annoys people on social occasions that I'd clearly prefer to get back to AD 210,(or whenever) but still …

Then, while it's all planned out and fresh in my mind, I sit down and bang out the text, aiming for at least a thousand words a day. And for this period the rest of the world ceases to exist. Then, after the book has been sent off and perused by the copy editor, there's rewrites, corrections, queries, picture captions and indexing.

Usually at any given time there's two or three pitches being prepared (they don't all get accepted), one serious research project under way, one book being written, and another going through the final edits. So ideally as one book is being printed, the contract for the book after the next book should be in the post. While discussing book proposals with an editor this week, I realized that this schedule is set up until 2021. Wow.

Fortunately, it's November and the days are short, cold and dark. I'm either in the kitchen baking something while I ponder ideas, or hammering away at the keyboard. If I get through several thou words per day now, I can spend Xmas happily doing research with some lovely new books I'm planning to order from Santa.
 
2018-10-04
It is your destiny young [insert name here]
A young man with no knowledge of his true origins tends plants at the edge of the desert. Then a chance incident makes him realise that his origins are more noble and more perilous than he realized. Eventually he must realize his destiny, challenge an evil ruler and change the fate of humanity.

Many people reading this will assume that the events described here happened to a certain Mr L. Skywalker, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. And they did in the 1977 movie “Star Wars”. They also happened to a certain Sargon of Akkadia some time around 2360 BC.

'My mother was a high priestess who kept her pregnancy secret. She kept my birth secret also and put me in a basket of rushes, and cast it into the river. The river carried me to Akki the drawer of water , who raised me as his son.'

So remarks Sargon in a neo-Assyrian text discovered in Mesopotamia. What happened next was described in detail on the next column – literally – but that column has not survived. However, as related above, we already know the story. That's because it exists not just in the Sargon legend, but also in the legend of Cyrus the Great, King Arthur, and Romulus and Remus. Those familiar with the Bible might also note certain similarities with the story of Moses.

As with all legends, there's an underlying truth. Being of noble birth in an unstable kingdom was risky, and being a royal heir was downright unhealthy. Young Mithridates of Pontus, for example actually fled the palace and spent years on the run before returning home as an adult to facehis scheming mother.

Of course, not all of us are set up for a life of madcap adventure, breath-taking risk and derring-do. I wonder how many people quietly decommissioned that droid, or (or whatever), slipped the sword back into the stone, and quietly tip-toed away.
 
2018-09-04
Not feeling very superior
Like water, human behaviour tends to follow the path of least resistance. That is, humans have enough to cope with in life without making it unnecessarily harder for themselves. Also over time, societies evolve customs which exchange short-term work for long-term gain. Last month, as forest fires backlit the mountains around my home, I had reason to ponder that in more detail.

You see, the native American peoples who lived hereabouts were pretty good at forest management. They knew that regular wildfires were a part of the natural cycle, and if scrub built up, it was better to burn it off than risk a later devastating fire. They also built forest clearings that acted as firebreaks and encouraged wildlife diversity for better hunting.

Then along came the Europeans with a zero-tolerance policy for fires, so that over a century the wilderness became one huge tinder-box. Now, a slightly wiser forest management allows fires, but it will take decades before we have put everything back as we found it. All because no-one listened to the people who had been managing the forest for millennia. Because they were savages, you see.

Those studying ancient culture tend to make the same mistake. Anything that the ancients did 'wrong' is assumed to be because they were backward types who knew no better. The truth is that there was probably a good reason for it, and we would do better working out the economic, spiritual or social reasons behind the practice. We might also profitably consider why – as with 'modern' forest management – our modern solutions might not work in an ancient environment. The people of the classical world were neither stupid or unsophisticated. If they did something, it was probably for a reason.
 

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