Books by Philip Matyszak



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Getting away
Things are always pretty frantic at this time of year. For a start the new academic year is starting with students and colleagues back in the saddle and new projects kicking off. Then there's the Frankfurt book fair, and editors desperately pushing for captions and final tweaks to texts they hope to sell to foreign publishers. There's always a book with a December deadline that I need to get cracking on, and often articles and online lectures besides.

Add to that autumnal activities at home, where we are frantically bottling and canning any of the season's bounty we can't turn into jam. (I must have made a gallon of plum jam this last fortnight.) The garden needs winterizing, and the fences and roof need shoring up in places, because you can't do the job when they're under ten feet of snow. And of course, there's seven months of firewood to cut and store.

It was in pursuit of the latter objective that Friday found me in a stand of dead larch that we were logging somewhere around fifty miles from town - a town which is itself a speck of civilization in a vast boreal wilderness. It was somehow comforting to look at those miles and miles of human-free forest and mountains that, when Julius Caesar was a boy, probably looked just the same as they do now. Amid the general craziness of 2020 there are places on the planet where even the most urgent issues of today simply don't matter. I pray we can keep it like that.
Caius Julius Trump
As we roll into (yet another) US presidential election, I've had the first of what I expect to be several journalists asking me 'Is Donald Trump a modern Julius Caesar?' These journalists always seem somewhat disappointed when I assure them that he is not, but should Trump lead the Second Airborne Regiment over the Potomac to seize control of Washington I'll be prepared to reconsider - after he has written a book in brilliantly lucid prose explaining exactly how and why he did it.

Actually Trump has something more in common with a politician called Gaius Flaminius who rose to power in 232 BC while putting the noses of the political establishment severely out of joint by a series of popular policies which thereafter led to calls for his impeachment and the threat of legal action against his associates - including his father. Unlike Caesar, Flaminius was not a good soldier and he was handily defeated and killed by Hannibal.

However, it's worth asking whether Trump, like Caesar, rose to power because of a belief that the existing political system was/is not working for ordinary people. In that sense both Caesar and Trump are symptoms rather than the cause of a deeper malaise. Rather than trying to remove obnoxious politicians from power, perhaps any nation's power-brokers need to seriously consider what got such men elected in the first place.
The Lazy Days of Summer
If only. I don't know how it has been for you in this most unusual of years, but this is shaping up to be one of the most frantic summers I can remember. For a start, the (ice) hockey play-offs have begin in August, with temperatures outside the rink in the high thirties centigrade. This means that instead of work, much of each evening is spent sobbing into my beer as I watch my team's futile attempts to score.

The scorching heat also means that I spend a lot of time outside with a hosepipe trying to stop my garden going brown and crispy. Then because it's summer after all, I like to spend at least one morning of every week getting my tummy sunburned as I float on my back in the lake.

However, due to a lot of people unexpectedly spending time indoors this year, my editors are keen that I supply these people with books to read while there, so deadlines have become very tight. In June I also took on an advisory job for a media company (of which more anon) which is fun but time-consuming.

Yesterday was a good example of how the summer is going. I was helping my wife with upgrades to our patio when friends came around wanting us to join them picking huckleberries in the hills. My personal inclination was to finish an exposition on ancient lyres and do some work I'd promised for Cambridge, and I ended up doing that around midnight after picking berries in the afternoon and watching my team lose at hockey in the evening.

The huckleberries do make wonderful jam, though.
The Year of the Cuckoo
So we have reached the mid-way point of what has been a very odd year so far. If this time last year, someone had told me that we would be in the middle of a global pandemic during which protesters would be pulling down statues of Ulysses Grant as a symbol of racism, I would have suggested that this individual seriously consider recalibrating his medications. Yet here we are.

Oddly enough, social isolation has led to an increase in my social life rather than the other way around. This is because living half-way up a mountain in the middle of a boreal forest tends to limit one's contact with humanity in the first place. So this has always meant that I would be reliant on the internet for many of my social interactions. Thanks to lockdowns, suddenly many more of my friends and colleagues are spending time on Zoom, and now they have gotten the hang of it, many decide to give me a call.

During one of these conversations someone suggested that the world appears to have gone somewhat mad. On reflection though, we decided that the world has always been mad - it's just not mad in the way to which we have become accustomed. Consider, for example that a generation ago the United States and Soviet Union were seriously considering destroying the world over a dispute about which country had the better economic system. We've a long way to go before we're back at that level of insanity, though we seem to keep looking for new ways to get there.
Getting about
As followers of my Facebook page will know, when I'm not doing ancient history I like to spend my time in the great Canadian outdoors. For a start, there's an awful lot if it, and secondly, wandering about there is free, and free is important to a writer.

However, even outdoors I can't help thinking about ancient history, and yesterday while kayaking across a very scenic lake, my thoughts turned to transport. In winter, I like to snowshoe across mountainous terrain. It's fun, but certainly not easy or speedy. It does not help that one has to put a certain degree of forethought into not dying, and this takes physical form in packs containing torches, first-aid kits, blankets, fire-making materials, rope and about a dozen other things. Also, because getting across deep snow in very sub-zero temperatures needs specialized kit, while wandering around the wilderness is free, the snowshoes, snow suit, boots etc come to a very tidy sum.

Then there's summer kayaking, where my entire wardrobe from sandals to baseball cap costs less than one of my highly-specialized winter boots, and the kayak itself costs the same as one pair of snowshoes. (Ideally you need three pairs depending on the terrain and type of snow.) While we were gliding across the water all needed equipment was stashed about the kayak, and other equipment, such as a hammock can be towed behind in a smaller kayak - a huge improvement to humping the lot in backpacks.

In short, summer transport on water is more vastly efficient than land transport in winter, in terms of speed, carrying capacity, cost and comfort. No wonder then, that the Romans preferred to ship grain from Africa, even though the huge wheatfields of the Po valley lay just on the other side of the Apennines - geographically close, but in practical terms, almost out of reach.


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