The Scandalous Mothers of the Messiah

19 Dec

It’s Christmas time (just about) so for your delectation, ladies and gentlemen, here is a little essay I composed about Jesus’ genealogy. (No yawning at the back!) It was inspired by something in Companions on the Bethlehem Road, a book of meditations and poetry that I read every Advent. The author, Rachel Boulding, mentioned that all of the women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy were gentiles, which is quite striking, but when you look into it further, their stories were more scandalous than striking.

I originally wrote this piece for the Dangerous Woman series, which had published my piece on Arsinoe (Cleopatra’s sister), but they decided against this one – possibly because I sent it much too close to Christmas. But when you’ve got your own blog, you don’t need any notice at all to get a post up in time for Christmas.

Given the frequency with which I post, I imagine this will be my last post for the year. So merry Christmas, and have a great 2018 when it comes!

Scandalous Mothers of the Messiah

Rahab and the Spies

The very first words of the New Testament are “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The verses that follow give a list of Jesus’ ancestors going back over a thousand years. You may have heard them recited if you have ever attended a traditional Christmas service – “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob” and so on, until it’s time for the next carol.

These days, genealogy is a hot topic, with celebrities and ordinary people keen to find out about the long-forgotten ancestors that made them who they are today. However, unless you’re a real fan, you could be forgiven for simply letting the names in Matthew chapter one wash over you as you wait for the ‘real’ story. But there is a story within the genealogy, and it has to do with the five women who are named alongside the 41 generations of men.

Women don’t usually appear in Jewish genealogies; they are lists of fathers and sons. (Have a look at Ezra chapter seven in the Old Testament, for example.) So who are Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth and Mary, and what are they doing in this patrilineal list? The answer reveals that bold women crop up in the most unexpected of places, even in candlelit carol services.

Let’s start with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her story is well known, and acted out by five-year-olds each year: a simple girl who graciously accepted her part in God’s plan to save the world. Young, humble and virginal, she seems like a threat to no one. And yet, her decision took enormous courage. Jewish law said that if a girl was engaged to be married but was found not to be a virgin (and most people would take pregnancy as proof of that), she should be stoned to death. If Joseph had not accepted her child as his own, Mary faced not only shame, but possibly death. Her decision was dangerous – and world-changing.

Then there is Ruth, a foreigner who loved her Hebrew mother-in-law so much that she followed her back to Israel after they were both widowed. Hard-working and faithful, she seems like the perfect moral exemplar to feature in a list of the Messiah’s ancestors – until you look a little more closely at the story of her second marriage.

Ruth put on perfume and her best clothes, and crept into a room full of men in the middle of the night to propose marriage to one of them, slipping away home before first light. There’s nothing strictly wrong with any of that but, as in the case of Mary, it certainly looks bad. Ruth was already an outsider because of her ethnic origin, but she risked her reputation in the town that had become her home in order to provide a future not only for herself, but for the mother-in-law she loved. Once again, if her husband-to-be had been less honourable, things could have ended badly.

But this list isn’t about honourable men protecting women who take risks. Bathsheba earns her place because of King David’s far-from-honourable behaviour. Her name isn’t given in the list. The text says, “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife”, but that brief account glosses over the fact that David and Bathsheba had already had a child together, conceived while Bathsheba still was Uriah’s wife.

It’s debatable how much choice Bathsheba had in the matter – if a woman is summoned by a libidinous king, and doesn’t want to have an affair, who can she appeal to? But however that meeting went, there’s no question that David committed adultery with Bathsheba (again, a capital offence) and then had Bathsheba’s husband killed to cover it up. None of this is mentioned in the genealogy, but Matthew’s original Jewish readers would have known all about it.

They would have known, too, about Rahab – or ‘Rahab the harlot’ as she is traditionally known. She also seems to have had a business producing cloth out of flax, but that’s not the profession she is remembered for. So much of ancient history is just hints and guesses, and we don’t know whether prostitution was acceptable in her society, or if she would have been an outcast, but of course it was not at all acceptable for women in Jewish culture.

She enters the story of Jesus’ genealogy because she took in the Hebrew men who came to spy on Jericho before attacking it; hers was a house where, naturally, strange men coming and going wouldn’t have raised suspicions. She then transferred her allegiance to the invaders, believing that God, and history, were on their side. She hid the two spies from the authorities, presumably at the risk of her own life, and bargained with them for the safety of her family. She then married a husband from the conquering Hebrew tribes (quite possibly one of the men she had protected) and became an ancestor of Jesus.

Tamar was also caught in prostitution, although the circumstances were very different. She had been married to two brothers, one after the other, but was still childless upon their deaths. Her father-in-law, Judah (the brother of Joseph, he of technicoloured dreamcoat fame) still had a third son. According to custom the remaining son should have married Tamar once he reached an appropriate age, but years went by and it was clear that Judah did not intend to give his final son to Tamar.

So Tamar took matters into her own hands. Disguising herself as a veiled prostitute, she waited on a road she knew her father-in-law would take, and he partook of her services. The ‘shrine prostitute’ kept Judah’s personal seal as a guarantee that he would send payment, but when he kept his promise, he was told there was no shrine prostitute in the area. Tamar fell pregnant and Judah, with breath-taking double standards, ordered her to be killed; but when she produced her sexual partner’s personal seal, he was forced to admit, “she is more righteous than I.” So Tamar was left to live in peace as a single mother.

What is the purpose of including these five names, attached to stories that range from the unseemly to the utterly scandalous, in a list of the ancestors of Jesus? Plenty of scholars have commented on the fact that all these women (with the exception of Mary) were gentiles – non-Jews. They emphasise the fact that the Messiah came for the sake of the whole world, since gentiles were even included in his lineage. But it’s more than that; other men on the list married foreign wives. These women are not merely included as foreigners, but also as women, and as individuals.

These are women who took risks. They are women who, by choice or by compulsion, found themselves outside the bounds of societal acceptance, but did not quail. Their place at the very start of the Christmas story challenges the sanitised, nativity-play version of the incarnation. Instead, these women point to a Messiah who would not turn away from the unacceptable, the foreign and flawed, the sinned-against and the most scandalous sinners; because these women are who he came from – but they are also who he came for.

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The Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840

20 Nov

or
Who Wrote the Gospels, and Why?

 

I was inspired to write this post by a brief exchange on Twitter. As a platform it can be very positive and funny, and it’s stuffed full of writers encouraging and commiserating with each other, but it’s not always like that. There are also people (or bots) who are angry, nasty or crazy. But enough about Donald Trump…

Apropos of the Greggs sausage roll controversy, there was a wee discussion of the historicity of Jesus, and someone commented that he isn’t mentioned in any Roman sources. That’s not true, of course, so, thinking I would simply be offering an interesting bit of factual knowledge, I pointed out a couple of Roman sources that do mention Jesus. The reply came back that these sources (one of them the major source for early imperial Rome) were obviously “fakes”.

There’s no point in trying to have a rational discussion about ancient history with someone who thinks ancient history is falsified, so I just let that one drop. But what surprises me is the number of non-conspiracy theorists who don’t believe that Jesus existed. We have four biographies (that’s the Gospels, to you) ostensibly written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony, lots of mentions in letters by Christians from the mid-first century onwards, plus a smattering of mentions in Roman sources.

Of course, you could argue that these are all fakes, that they were either written much later and presented as contemporary sources, or that extra bits were slipped into Roman sources by naughty medieval scribes. I’m not going to get into the historiographical arguments about whether the sources are reliable or contemporary, or this post would end up being the length of a book, and plenty of good books have already been written on the subject. (You could try The Case for Christ, for example. The author has a bit of an obsession with what his interview subjects are wearing, but otherwise it’s pretty good.)

No, what I want to rant (sorry, write) about is the logical side of things. During my degree in Ancient History I also studied a lot of Philosophy, which means that I tend to find myself questioning whether arguments are sound, and the argument that the Gospels were forged centuries later strikes me as very circular.

The theory goes that Christians forged these “eyewitness” documents in (let’s say) the third century AD. (You can’t really push it any later than that without running into far too many references to Christianity, including the Roman Emperor becoming a Christian.) Gullible people believed them, and a religion was born, despite the fact that Jesus may never have lived. The question is, why would someone make up not only hugely detailed stories about a shadowy figure they knew nothing about, and be prepared to be punished for following their new religion, but also claim that there were thousands of other followers of this brand spanking new religion all around the Mediterranean, where their forgeries would be read? What possible motive could they have to do something so rash?

The answer is “because they were Christians, of course”. But that doesn’t help. If Christians are people who believe that Jesus Christ is God, and died to save mankind from their sins, then these forgers are, by definition, not Christians. They are the opposite – people who know for a fact that the claims of Christianity are not true, because they made them up.

So why would they do it? For the fame? Hardly; if the Gospels weren’t written by the people whose names were on them, then we still don’t know who wrote them. For the money? Nope – these documents were spread around like the common cold, not sold to the highest bidder. For larks? Well only if your larks include living a strict moral life and potentially being thrown to the lions (or at least duping other people into doing those things).

Let’s make up an analogous fictional situation. In philosophy this is called a thought experiment. It’s less exciting than a scientific experiment, but it’s also cheaper, and there’s a lower risk of explosion.

Let’s say that I set out today to fake eyewitness accounts of the Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840. I’ve decided to fabricate eyewitness accounts of the time that 5,000 talking hippoptami invaded Birmingham and denuded the city’s ponds of all their carp. The king was summoned from London and managed to save the city by promising an offering of carp every week to the hippo overlords.* I’m going to say that thousands of people now observe the weekly carp-sacrificing ceremony. I’d probably have to get a couple of friends on board too, to write other “eyewitness” accounts, unless I was extremely skilled at mimicking different writing styles.

But I’m not going to do that, am I? Because that would be daft. I have no reason to invent the Great Hippo Invasion, and, once the RSPCA and Birmingham City Council get involved, plenty of reason not to. I don’t think I could persuade any of my friends to join in either – maybe if it was a fun hoax and there would be a big reveal, but not in order to get generations of people to devote their lives to appeasing talking river horses by killing ornamental fish. And no one would believe it. I mean, do you believe it?**

According to the theory about the faked Gospels, my motive would be that I and my friends are hippoptamists, these deluded fools who go around sacrificing carp. But there aren’t any hippopotamists. Have you ever met one? No, because I just made them up. But that’s presented as a real motive for why Christians would want to invent accounts of Jesus’ life.

Now, if you still wanted to stick to the line that the Gospels were faked, you could argue that the (let’s say) third century authors who wrote them were Christians, and were trying to provide (fake) written evidence for things they’d only heard orally, but believed. That makes more sense, but then you’re accepting that there was a surviving oral tradition about the life of Jesus passed down in an existing Christian community – which still constitutes historical evidence for Jesus. And then you’re back to the same basic problem – how do fake (oral) accounts about Jesus arise without a Jesus for them to be based on? – just pushed back a bit closer to the time, so it would be even harder for false stories to be believed, even if anyone had a motive to make them up, which they didn’t.

I’m not presenting Anselm’s Proof here, and I’m not even going to go into the question of the miracles and Jesus’ divinity (again, that would turn into a book). I’m just trying to show that dismissing the existence of a well-attested historical figure on the basis of the argument:

Christians invented Christianity because they were Christians

is silly. So please don’t.

***

*Yes, it was a queen and not a king on the throne in 1840. But why bother about historical accuracy when you’re inventing 5,000 talking hippos?

** If I set up a Wikipedia page about it I suppose a few people might believe it. But then, some people believe that Finland is a Japanese conspiracy, apparently.

Church ministers? Bunch of slackers! 

18 Oct

I’ve just done a blog post for Premier Christianity about why church ministers have the easiest job in the world. Before you start fuming, I should say that it’s not an entirely serious argument, to put it mildly.

It was commissioned because it’s Thank Your Vicar Week. So if you have a vicar (/pastor/minister) why don’t you give the article a read and then maybe send them a nice email? Although I can’t promise they will have time to read it.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, the Genius You’ve Never Heard Of

2 Oct

Normally I’m not too insistent about telling people they must read my stuff. I mention it, of course, and if I think an individual will particularly enjoy something I’ll direct them towards it, but I don’t like to be pushy. (I still expect my mum to read every word of mine that’s ever published, but that’s her job.)

With my latest article for Premier Christianity magazine, it’s different. This time, I’m telling all and sundry that they should read it – including you. It’s not because I think it’s an earth-shattering piece of literature; it’s because the subject of it is so shamefully forgotten. The article is on the Women of the Reformation.

This Hallowe’en marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses, which catalysed the Protestant Reformation, and naturally Christianity magazine is focussing on that. As part of that they asked me to write an article either on Reformers you’ve never heard of, or women of the Reformation. I thought the former would be easier – after all, there weren’t any women involved in the Reformation, were there, apart from Martin Luther’s wife? But I did a little research and was stunned to learn that there were loads – writers and theologians, patrons and publishers, incredible women whom I had never heard of.

The one who really blew me away was Olympia Fulvia Morata. She was a child prodigy from Ferrara in Italy. By the age of twelve she was fluent in Greek and Latin. She composed treatises on Homer, lectured on Cicero, wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, all while still in her teens. Here’s one of her early poems, about her love of learning:

I, a woman, have dropped the symbols of my sex,
Yarn, shuttle, basket, thread.
I love but the flowered Parnassus with the choirs of joy.
Other women seek after what they choose.
These only are my pride and delight.

When she grew up, Olympia (or Olimpia, if you prefer – it doesn’t really matter) organised the translation of major Protestant works into Italian; corresponded with major reformers such as Calvin and Luther, and even with royalty; taught Classics; and in her spare time translated the Psalms into Greek hexameters. And she died at 29. Feeling inadequate yet?

Naturally I would warm to Olympia, with my own background in Classics, but why haven’t I heard of her until now? Why has no one else heard of her? And it’s not just Olympia, there were other influential women that I should have heard of too, but hadn’t. My article covers Olympia Fulvia Morata, Katharina von Bora (Luther’s wife) and Katharina Schutz Zell, because I was limited to three, but there are others too. Leaving out Argula von Grumbach, for example, was a difficult decision.

These women weren’t ignored in their day; they were mentioned in Luther’s writings, sometimes in glowing terms, and they were an integral part of Reformation culture in Europe. Olympia’s works were in print throughout the sixteenth century. But at some point they were quietly forgotten. Now you don’t even find these women in the index of most books on the Reformation; they don’t even make it into the footnotes!

I consider myself a feminist, a word that I feel I should quickly qualify since it means vastly different things to different people. Some readers are probably now picturing me as a man-hating SJW waving a placard about abortion rights, but my understanding of feminism is simply that women are people too; being a woman is not a failure to be a man. This is a fairly uncontroversial claim (and one that’s eminently compatible with Christian faith) although sadly it’s still not universal. (I’m not going to mention any major figures in public life, but you probably don’t have to think too hard.) And it’s this belief that left me so scandalised about the forgotten women of the Reformation, and so uncharacteristically forthright about telling people to read my latest article.

Everyone has heard of Erasmus (or at least the Erasmus student exchange programme, named after him), an intellectual who fruitfully combined classical scholarship with theology. I think everyone should have heard of Olympia Fulvia Morata too, who did the same thing, only younger. She has entered the small pantheon of my personal heroes, and I hope she finds a soft spot in the hearts of some of my readers, too.

My article, ‘Unsung Heroes, is behind a paywall online, but if you’re not a subscriber you can order a free trial copy of the magazine, or get it in Christian bookshops.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, my new hero.

Cutting-Edge Technology from 3500BC

22 Sep

A guest post for the Dyslexia Scotland blog – featuring ancient history, natch 😉

A Life less ordinary

papyrus_featherYou probably don’t remember learning to speak. It happens too early. Most of us are chattering away before we’re out of nappies. But you may have painful memories of learning to read: the anxiety of spelling tests, word lists, and red pen.

That’s because speaking comes naturally to us, and reading doesn’t. Human beings have always talked. Our brains seem to be ‘hard-wired’ to pick up language. Put a normal baby in an environment where people talk to it, and within a couple of years it will have started to speak itself.

But put a normal person in an environment where there’s writing, and they’re unlikely to learn to read without being taught. That’s one reason why we spend such a large part of our childhood in school. Reading and writing isn’t usually something you just pick up.

Writing first developed in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. It started…

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Typewriter Society author interview 

14 Sep

I did ask author interview about publishing Leda for a website called Typewriter Society this summer. It’s just been released and you can read it here

Four things that are wrong with The Dark Tower film (and one thing that’s right)

9 Sep

This is one for the fans, as I’m afraid this post is going to be a bit of a moan about the new Dark Tower film. It’s not a bad film, as it happens, although it’s not good either, but the issue I take with it is that it is supposed to be “based on the Dark Tower series of novels by Stephen King”, and that is only very loosely true.

I am a big fan of that series, you see, and it is AMAZING. Epic in scope, exciting, moving, meaningful – one of those books/series that stays with you and becomes part of how you think about the world. I more or less had to see the film, since I’m such a fan of the books, even though I knew from the trailers that I wasn’t happy with the casting of two out of three of the main characters. And I was disappointed, as I expected to be. (But is it disappointment if you expected it? Hmm.) So after a bit of rumination, here are the things I objected to (and one thing I liked):

1.    It’s not about Roland

The main character in the Dark Tower books is Roland Deschain, a gunslinger (a bit like a knight of the Round Table, but with guns). Other people come and go through the stories, including a young boy called Jake, but it is essentially a story about Roland’s personal quest for the Tower.

In the film, the main character is Jake. The story is about how Jake is unhappy at home, how Jake dreams of the gunslinger and his world, and how he meets and eventually saves Roland. Maybe this was a marketing ploy, since dystopian sci-fi/fantasy is so big amongst young adults at the moment, but given that the most book readers are in their 30s or older (the books were published between 1982 and 2004), that was probably a mistake. Plus, an unhappy tween is just not as interesting as an ages-old questing knight steeped in ancient lore and with some incredible skills to boot.

2.    It’s not even about the Tower

Roland is defined by his single-minded pursuit of the Tower. It is his monomania, and he will let nothing and no one get on the way of that. That’s part of what makes Roland’s character interesting: he’s basically very decent, but that’s sometimes overridden by his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.

In the film, Roland doesn’t give a stuff about the Tower. The idea of reaching it doesn’t seem to have entered his mind, and even when the thing appears to stand in imminent danger of being destroyed, he’s not that bothered. He only cares about killing the Man in Black. (They make a big deal of this in the film, about how Roland is deserting his duty towards the Tower in order to instead kill the Man in Black, apparently unaware that there is no conflict between those objectives, since the Man in Black is the one threatening the Tower. That somewhat undermines the narrative tension.)

Now I realise that this is a reboot (I won’t go into the reasons for that here, though it makes sense in the context of the books) but there is no iteration of reality in which Roland is not in pursuit of the Tower, otherwise the ‘reboot’ thing couldn’t make sense. (I know that this point is very obscure if you haven’t read the books, but I refuse to spoil the ending for you!) If they make a sequel to this film it shouldn’t be called ‘The Dark Tower’, but ‘Jake and his Pal Roland Wander Aimlessly around Midworld’.

3.    There’s no emotional weight

The Dark Tower series is full of flawed, broken people in difficult circumstances, mostly (though not always) trying to do some version of the right thing. Roland’s relationships with his companions are hard-earned and deep. His relationship with Jake is particularly special, as he has no children of his own, which makes it all the more excruciating when his obsession with the Tower leads him to betray the boy. Nobody is safe in the books. You can lose fingers, toes, legs, or your life. Main characters die. One main character dies twice (in different worlds) within one book.

In the film, all the main characters are basically going to be okay. Other, hastily-drawn characters (especially parents) are in danger so that the heroes can suffer manfully, and obviously a few baddies and randoms have to die to prove it’s serious, but you know that for Jake and Roland, there will always be a handy portal or other deus ex machina when they need it. Roland receives injuries that are not only life-threatening but inescapably life-ending, but just gets up and dusts himself down. It’s cartoonish, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t matter.

4.    It’s actually a mash up of The Dark Tower, The Shining and Monsters Inc.

I very much like the Jake of the books, and I like the kid from The Shining too. However, if you combine the two and add on a couple of extra years so he’s a gawky tween, I do not like him much at all. If you’re coming to the film cold, you’ll assume Jake has psychic powers, since it’s a crucial part of the plot. I have no recollection of Jake having psychic powers. I’d have to re-read all the books to swear that he has none at all (and I’ve only re-read the first two so far) but it’s safe to say it’s not a major plot point.

In The Shining, it’s pretty much the whole plot, and the Dark Tower film makers must have liked this so much that they decided to incorporate it. Now it’s true that Stephen King’s literary worlds have lots of connections (and the Dark Tower stands at the centre, naturally, since it is supposed to be the lynchpin of reality) but a sneaky photo of the Overlook hotel doesn’t mean you can just switch characters around at random. Not without incurring my wrath, at any rate.

And then Monsters Inc. Oh dear. If any of you saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (and if you didn’t, don’t) you’ll know that the CGI battles are exceptionally silly, making serious scenes laughable. The Dark Tower is a bit that way, too, since the screams of children being converted into a CGI weapon to attack the Tower just made me think of Sully and co. from Monsters Inc collecting screams. And that’s not a good thing in a fantasy film that’s trying to take itself seriously. It’s also irritating, because efforts to destroy the Tower in the books are a good deal more subtle and insidious than shooting it with a big blue light.

5.    But it’s a good advert for the books

Here’s where I am prepared to admit that there was something good about the film (other than the casting of Matthew McConaughey, which I thought was perfect): it makes viewers want to read the books.

I watched a number of reviews when I was formulating my thoughts for this post, partly to see what people thought if they hadn’t read the books, and many of those people commented that it had made them want to read the books. There are things mentioned in the film that are never followed up, things that hint at a much larger mythology. Who on earth are the gunslingers, and why is Roland the last? Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the Tower? And why does Roland hate him so much? The reviewers supposed that these things must have been explained in the books, and they are, apart from the things in the film that are wrong – but let’s not get into geeky nitpicking when we’ve almost reached the end 😉

So I can’t recommend the film, not even as an hors d’oeuvre for the books, since so much of it is so far out of bounds that it will just confuse you. But I can’t recommend the books highly enough. So do yourself a favour and spend your ticket money on the first book, The Gunslingerinstead. It’s your passport to other worlds than these.

I’m happy to admit the poster’s cool, though.

The Painted Castle published on Channillo

1 Sep

My humorous short story “The Painted Castle” has just been published on Channillo as part of its 2016 competition finalists series. (My entry was joint third so I am officially a ‘winner’ 🙂

Channillo is a reading site where you subscribe to various series of fiction and non-fiction. Unfortunately it’s a membership-only site (apart from a few bits and pieces) so my story is behind a paywall, but subscriptions start from $4.99 per month (cancel anytime) so you may consider it’s worth it.

I’m quite fond of this wee story, actually. It makes me smile, partly because of the humour in it, partly because it reminds me of lovely family weekend in the place that has been fictionalised as ‘Anderswick’. I hope it makes you smile, too.

Life’s a Beach

14 Aug

I’m not long back from my latest excursion to Albania. I didn’t spend as long as usual this time, just the three weeks (I know, your heart bleeds), but I did find some time to get away to the beach while I was there, and thought I would give a quick impression of the differences between British beaches and Albanian ones (or Mediterranean ones more generally). If you’ve spent time at both and know all this already, feel free to skip, but if you’ve never experienced the sweaty hedonism of a Mediterranean beach, or the chilly exhilaration of a British beach, read on.

Seagulls

This was the thing that got me thinking about the differences to start with. I was lying on my lounger (of which more later) in Spille, reading This Must Be the Place, when I heard what I thought was a seagull crying. In Scotland, this sound is so ubiquitous at the coast, and even in cities, that you don’t register it, but when I heard it on that beach I suddenly realised it was the first one I’d heard. So I looked up to see – a man selling squeezy horns for kids to play with, along with other toys and games.

A seagull doing its thing

In Scotland, and the rest of the UK, seagulls hang above the seaside like stringless kites, ready to dive-bomb anyone who is too careless with their chips. At Spille, the avian background music was provided by peaceful wood pigeons, or duduftu (brilliant piece of onomatopoeia).*

Vendors

If you harbour dreams of being waited on hand and foot, or fondly imagine that you were Cleopatra in a former life, Albanian beaches might be for you. You can turn up with just your towel and your swimsuit, and people will come round selling you everything else you need, including on beaches where this is explicitly prohibited. Here are some of the items that will come to you, if you wait long enough:

  • Doughnuts
  • Playing cards
  • Novelty horns (see above)
  • Newspapers
  • Bananas
  • Cold(ish) drinks
  • Sets of dominoes
  • Candy floss
  • Inflatables
  • Buckets and spades
  • Corn on the cob

Some of the more touristy beaches even have massage and hair braiding. No one seems to sell novels though, so bring your beach read with you. In Britain for sale actually on the beach you will find:

  • Donkey rides

And that’s about it. That’s not to say you won’t find plenty to eat and drink and amuse yourself near the beach, but there’s pretty much nothing on it. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason that lies behind point 3:

Sun loungers

Shezllone in this picture is not the name of a place, it is the Albanian word for sun lounger, which they have clearly borrowed from the French. (Say it out loud and see if you can work it out.)**

Albanian beaches, and Mediterranean beaches in general, are covered with pairs of sun loungers arranged in neat rows, usually with an umbrella complete with mini table. There are obvious advantages to this system: you don’t get nearly as sandy, the sand doesn’t blow over you, you’ve got shade without having to hoik an umbrella around with you, you’ve got somewhere to put your drink and hang your clothes, etc.

The disadvantage is that these loungers belong to someone, usually to the adjoining beachfront hotel or café, and you have to pay to use them. If you don’t want to, you’ll struggle to find an unused bit of beach to lay your towel on. Being a bit lazy, especially when it comes to carrying things in hot climates, I like the shezllone system, but I understand why it wouldn’t work in Britain. Even if we did have enough hot weather to justify permanent beach furniture, there’s a very good reason why nothing is left on the beach overnight, which is…

Tides

On our second day in Spille, it was very windy (though still hot) and this meant that the sea was full of waves. My mother-in-law thought that made it very unsuitable for swimming and was a bit concerned when I went in, but for me it brought back memories of holidays as a kid, jumping over small waves and body-surfing the big ones (and ending up with lots of salt water in my nose). This is because the coast in Britain is full of waves all the time, whether it’s windy or not, because we have tides.

It’s one of those things that feels unrealistic, like the water running down the plughole in the opposite direction in Australia (allegedly; I’ve never been). When you’ve grown up with a sea that advances and withdraws by hundreds of yards twice a day, it just doesn’t feel safe to leave your sandals right next to the water, even though you know they’ll be just where you left them when you come out. I have a vivid memory of seeing my clothing float past me at Southport, even though we had all left our clothes way up the beach. It’s hard to get used to the calm, stationary Mediterranean, with its more-or-less stationary waterline.

It’s easy to get used to warmth, though. Sometimes even the Mediterranean seems too cold to me these days, and I grew up paddling in the Atlantic, and even went swimming in the North Sea at five in the morning. I have become nesh.

Kids

My final observation is really a reflection of wider Albanian culture, not just beach culture. Kids go everywhere, at every time of day. There were kids on the beach in the blazing heat of noonday. If they got crotchety (as you would expect) the solution was to put them down for a nap, tucked under a sheet – on a sun lounger in the blazing heat of noonday. This would not be recommended practice in Britain, to say the least.

But kids go everywhere and sleep anywhere in Albania – including music concerts. In the photo above you may be able to see small children and babes in arms at the Maratona e Këngës (Song Marathon), which started at nine in the evening. “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” does not ring true in Albania. In theory they should all be suffering terrible developmental problems due to the haphazard sleeping patterns, irregular meals, excessive exposure to TV etc. But in reality they seem to turn out fine, so maybe they’re doing something right.

Anyway, now it’s back to late summer in Scotland for me, which in practice means cold and rain. It’s been excessively hot on the Continent and, as is often the case when that happens, it’s been unusually cold and miserable here. So no one will see my beautiful tan because I’m wrapped up from head to toe all the time. But if you bump into me, do feel free to compliment me on my wonderfully bronzed hands 😉

 

*  Please don’t give me any of that rubbish about seagulls not being a real thing. They’re gulls. They live by the sea. They’re seagulls, alright?

** Chaises longues

In Darkest England 

7 Aug

The August edition of Premier Christianity magazine features my article on William and Catherine Booth. If you’re thinking “who?”, they were the couple who set up The Salvation Army, back when the English capital was a lot grimmer than it is now – “the London of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper” indeed. 

Pick up a copy in larger newsagents, or get a free copy online.