Monday, 4 October 2010

Devon, Cambridge, Persia

I'm back in Devon, looking at my beautiful view, and listening to the sound of the hunt. They're just a few fields away today, so there's lots of view hallooing and sometimes hounds baying. I don't know if they're hunting a real fox. Probably I ought to care, but I find that I really don't. We had harvest festival last night, with real bits of harvest in the church instead of tins, and we sang all the excellent harvest hymns: For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take his harvest home, etc. Afterwards they auctioned off the produce, and I bought a pumpkin which I am going to turn into soup of some kind. This is the time of year when everyone is utterly sick of courgettes and cooking apples, and a lot of houses have boxes of them outside with a sign saying help yourself. Mr Underhill, the farmer across the road, has also put out a box of conkers for the children. In short, it's pretty damn bucolic here.

The wierd thing about Cambridge is that I always have a great time catching up with excellent people and looking at lovely manuscripts, but I dislike the actual place itself. Every time I go I get a cold, or a psychosomatic part-cold, and at the same time I have a really good time. I can't imagine living there again.

At the moment the Fitzwilliam has a very good exhibition on the Persian Book of Kings, the epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. I found that my Kindle was able to provide me with a prose translation/version of the first half of the epic for only £1.71, so I read that. (I love my Kindle.) It reminded me very much of the Morte d'Arthur, perhaps just because the nineteenth-century translator/reteller was influenced by that style. But the men are always having children who are grown up a few paragraphs later, or who are remarkably strong and attractive even in their youth, and they go on odd quests for honour's sake, and will die for something they know is wrong because commanded to do so by a king they know is foolish. There are more monsters in the Shahnameh, though. The main hero is Rustem, with his valiant steed Rakush (or Rakhsh), who is constantly having to clean up messes made by stupid kings to whom he is nonetheless strictly obedient. One of the kings decides to fly by tying specially trained eagles to his throne, and putting legs of lamb on spikes above the throne's posts. But he hadn't thought about what would happen when the eagles got tired. Rustem rescues him and scolds him thoroughly for his stupidity. The Fitzwilliam exhibition is really worth seeing. There are lots of beautiful, very delicately drawn, really lovely pictures, quite likely to be appreciated by children too I'd have thought. There's the simurgh, and trials by fire, and lots of dragons and demons. Some of the adventures of Alexander the Great are quite cool too. There's a brilliant one where he's riding into the land of darkness to look for the fountain of everlasting life, and behind him the horses of two of his followers are exchanging aghast glances.  Also click here to see a picture of Alexander having his death predicted by a talking tree, and to hear a translation.  He found it quite upsetting.

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