- The Knowledge
- “I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why”: life in Roman Britain
“I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why”: life in Roman Britain
😋 Caviar eyeball | 🐈⬛ Yakuza tricks | 😇 Kemi time?
Channing Tatum leads troops into Roman Britain in The Eagle (2011)
“I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why”: life in Roman Britain
Life for a Roman legionary on Hadrian’s Wall was “bloody miserable”, says Harry Mount in The Spectator. For one thing, “the Romans hated the English weather”. In a letter found at the Vindolanda Fort in Northumberland – on display in a new exhibition at the British Museum – a family assures their brave, freezing boy on the front line that he will soon be receiving two pairs of “prized woollen underpants”. Lucky chap. Another artefact found at the stronghold was a “handy louse comb”. Of the 40,000 troops Claudius brought to Britannia in 43AD, only half survived to retirement.
Some Romans did find time to pamper themselves. The exhibition includes one nifty device that combines “tweezers, an ear scoop and nail-cleaners”. And they built “pretty grand” baths for themselves – the one at Chesters Fort even had lockers. Also discovered at Vindolanda was a pair of clogs, which would have protected the legionaries from scalding their feet on the baths’ underfloor heating. And their medical care was pretty decent – the doctors they brought with them could even treat disembowelling, “as long as the intestines were intact”. (Gladiators didn’t have it quite so good: among the 80 skeletons buried in York’s gladiator cemetery, one had a large bite mark courtesy of a bear, tiger or lion, and many had been decapitated.) And the legionaries certainly ate a healthier diet than many of us do today: barley and wheat (“possibly for pasta”), beans, figs, hazelnuts, raspberries, brambles, strawberries, dill, coriander, celery and radishes. They brought over their own fine wines, too. The Romans apparently did not develop a taste for the local Pictish food: venison, beer and pork scratchings. “Nothing changes.”
🥶 ☔️ It sounds like WH Auden got it right when he wrote his poem Roman Wall Blues, which begins:
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
THE STORYBOOK HOUSE Formerly the home of children’s illustrator Quentin Blake, this higgledy-piggledy medieval townhouse has been beautifully restored. The Grade-II listed property has five bedrooms set across three storeys, and includes a striped facade, angled ceilings, exposed brick walls and vibrant paintwork. Hastings station is a 10-minute drive, with trains to London in an hour-and-a-half. £950,000.
Kemi Badenoch… on the right, but not too far right. Leon Neal/Getty
Is this the next Tory leader?
Rishi Sunak may be “nominally in charge”, says Rachel Cunliffe in The New Statesman, but a “shadow Tory leadership contest” is well under way. And the bookies’ favourite to replace Sunak is Kemi Badenoch. On New Year’s Eve, the trade secretary topped a poll asking party members to pick their preferred next leader, with 38% backing her, compared with 23% for “sword-carrying Penny Mordaunt” and just 15% for the loopy former home secretary Suella Braverman. As one Westminster insider remarked: “Tory MPs are resigned to spending this year sucking up to Kemi.”
Badenoch’s major selling point is her ability to appeal to the warring tribes of the right – she is a “vocal Brexiteer and ‘anti-woke’ warrior” – without freaking out the moderates. To preserve her reputation as a “sensible right-winger”, and to serve in Sunak’s cabinet without being tainted by his unpopularity, she has been careful to keep her head down. On the Rwanda plan, for example, unlike Braverman and former Sunak chum Robert Jenrick, “she kept any misgivings to herself”. But on the quiet, “work is already under way” to convince the various factions that she is the consensus candidate. It’s not all plain sailing. She has a reputation for being unnecessarily combative – “some say abrasive, even rude”. But where critics accuse her of being “brittle”, “arrogant”, and only interested in the glitzy parts of the job, colleagues repeatedly describe something else: an engineering graduate who, unlike so many of her PPE-educated colleagues, can handle detail and doesn’t like bullshit. As one MP puts it: “If I were Labour, I’d be worried.”
Enjoying The Knowledge? Click below to share
Yakuza members show off their tattoos at a festival in Tokyo. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
An inside view of Japan’s murky underworld
When American journalist Jake Adelstein was investigating criminal gangs in Japan, he sensibly hired a retired “yakuza” – the term for a gangster – as a bodyguard, says Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. Makoto Saigo agreed, on one condition: that Adelstein write his biography. The result is a “gruesome and blackly comic” tale of life in Japan’s murky underworld. Born around 1960, Saigo was barely out of his teens when he joined the Inagawa-kai, the third-most powerful of Japan’s notorious yakuza groups. He rose through the ranks to lead a subset of 150 men, overseeing some “ingenious” moneymaking schemes. When he wanted to convince a bank manager to give him a collateral-free loan, for example, he ordered his men to take cats to the branch and tease them until the feline whines drove all the customers away.
In Saigo’s day, the yakuza saw themselves as “part of the community”. They had a strict code forbidding them from harming civilians, and never indulged in the “vulgar American gangster habit of carrying guns”. When Saigo was attacked, he would fight back with “whatever came to hand” – a “For Sale” sign, in one instance. The gangs also depended heavily on “rituals and hierarchies”, traditionally taking a blood oath of allegiance and having elaborate body tattoos. Once, Saigo had to cut off his own little finger to satisfy a debt owed by one of his men – after haplessly “hacking at his pinkie”, he went to the creditor and threw the “mangled lump of gristle” into his coffee. But in recent decades the yakuza have become “greedier, more reckless, more trigger-happy”. Adelstein leaves you feeling nostalgic for a time “when criminals had standards of decency”.
The Last Yakuza by Jake Adelstein is available to buy here.
Some of the dishes at Alchemist. Søren Gammelmark
The world’s weirdest restaurant
It’s easy to see why Alchemist in Copenhagen has been dubbed “the weirdest restaurant in the world”, says Charlotte Lytton in The Times. Visits can last up to seven hours and include 50 courses – or “impressions”, as they’re called. It’s not so much a meal, says chef Rasmus Munk, as a challenge to guests, and an attempt to “create a new understanding of the world order”. Dishes include a “freeze-dried butterfly” and a lamb’s brain served in an ultra-realistic mock human head with real eyebrows. Each dish seems to have been conceived to “push a particular button”, and is accompanied by a statement. “Lifeline”, a “surprisingly tasty” ice cream made of pig’s blood, comes with a QR code to sign up as a blood donor; a plaice dish is shrouded in edible plastic to highlight the detritus in our seas.
Most of the meal is served under a planetarium-style dome, on to which films are projected. A dish called “1984” is modelled on the chef’s own eyeball, made from caviar-topped lobster tartare, and eaten under projections of CCTV cameras; a caged chicken claw is served with cooped up hens overhead, to “raise awareness of battery farming”. Whether this commentary ends up being thought-provoking or pretentious depends on the diner. One dish has a thin slice of rabbit meat draped over a silver ribcage. It’s something to do with world hunger – a questionable move when the food here costs about £560 per head. As a grand finale, guests are taken to a small room full of soft white balls and told to dive in while George Michael’s Freedom plays. For many, Alchemist is “the kind of experience you’d pay not to be put through” – there have been multiple walkouts and tears. But with 40,000 people on the waiting list, plenty are willing to give it a try.
“We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”
Poet Cecil Day-Lewis