The Death of Ahasuerus by Par Lagerkvist

This book is rather different from other books you’ll read.

It’s the third novel in a series that began with Barabbas and The Sibyl.

Ahasuerus is mentioned in certain Old Testament books such as Esther and numerous scholars have proposed theories as to who Ahasuerus represents – most identify him with Xerxes I. However the Ahasuerus of the title of this book is meant to represent the Wandering Jew, a mythical immortal man who in the original legend taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion. Ahasuerus was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.

In this novel the pilgrim Tobias, bound for Jerusalem / The Holy Land meets the mysterious title character in a pilgrim’s hostel where there’s also a former lover of Tobias’s called Diana. After some painful reminscing between Diana and Tobias and a night’s rest, the three set off on the remainder of their journey.

Diana saves Tobias’s life but is herself killed by an arrow. Ahasuerus and Tobias arrive at a port where the last ship of the year has just sailed for The Holy Land. Tobias uses the last of his money to pay his way on a yawl crewed by a bunch of villains which is sailing to The Holy Land. Ahasuerus remains behind and finds shelter in a monastery.

Winnipeg – Manitoba

An excerpt from a forthcoming book on Canadian cities.

I mentioned I was going to visit Winnipeg to several people and their replies contained either the words ‘Winterpeg’ or ‘Windypeg’. When I visited the city and arrived at the junction downtown of Portage and Main I finally understood what they meant. This intersection is supposedly the windiest place in Canada and I was pleased to be wearing four layers of clothing when on a sunny day I strolled through this important junction, the heart of the downtown. People around me, presumably locals, were wearing T-Shirts and shorts as though they were used to this piercing cold.  

Winnipeg is the capital of the Prairie province of Manitoba. Winnipeg is not on Lake Winnipeg but is on the Red River and the Assiniboine River, which merge at a place called The Forks

If you’re coming from the centre of the city, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) juts out towards you like the prow of a large pale ship. WAG’s permanent collection comprises over 24,000 works from Canadian and international artists. Approximately 70 percent of the permanent collection was gifted to the museum by private donors.

The collection is organized into areas: Canadian art, decorative arts, Inuit art, international art, photography, and works on paper..

The museum’s Canadian collection includes works from Canadian artists dating back to the 1820s as well as a sizable representation of Canadian works produced between 1910 and 1979 including works by artists of the Winnipeg Gallery and School of Art, Painters Eleven, the Regina Five, and the more famous Group of Seven – lots of different numbers.

The museum’s decorative art collection includes more than 4,000 works of ceramic, glass, metal, and textiles from the 17th century to the present including 1,500 ceramics from British artisans in the 18th and 19th centuries, nearly 1,000 Art Nouveau and Art Deco-styled glass objects from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, and 500 works of silver from British and Canadian silversmiths. 

The museum’s international collection includes the Gort Collection, which features 19 panel paintings, and 5 tapestries from Northern Renaissance artists in the 15th and 16th centuries including a portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder. There are works by Marc Chagall, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Henry Moore.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection also includes the world’s largest collection of Inuit art, numbering over 13,000 works. Inuit carvings make up nearly two-thirds of the museum’s collection including 7,500 antler, bone, ivory, and stone carvings, plus dozens of hand-sewn wall hangings. The museum’s first substantial acquisition of Inuit works came in 1960, when George Swinton donated 130 sculptures to the museum and these were added to in 1971, when the Jerry Twomey Collection, featuring 4,000 Inuit works, was donated to the museum. In 1989, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (later renamed Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) donated 1,400 prints and drawings from Inuit artists to the museum.

The Cube is in Old Market Square in the Exchange District. As the name suggests, this is a cube of metal with one metal side folded upwards to allow people to appear on a stage. The stage hosts concerts and performances as part of the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, Manitoba Electronic Festival, and the Fringe Festival during the summer months. The Cube is roughly 28 feet square.

Winnipeg’s most famous museum is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the first national museum to be located outside Ottawa, close to the spiky Provencher Bridge across the Red River, the Union Station, and The Forks Market. This is such as brilliant museum that I’ve placed my impressions in Appendix F at the end of this book.

If you like museums, then Winnipeg is a wonderful place to visit because the Manitoba Museum is another wonderfully educational place to tour around. It doesn’t look too promising from the outside, with a small dome and 1960s oblong façade, but never judge a museum by its façade. The Welcome Gallery allows the visitor to orientate themselves via a display case of iconic artifacts and specimens representing the Museum’s eight galleries. There’s also a panorama of a Métis hunter on horseback hunting a herd of frightened bison, which apparently introduces the philosophical theme of the Museum: the interrelationship of human beings and the natural environment. The most fascinating item in the gallery is an animated map detailing Manitoba’s landscapes, and showing the dramatic changes of the last 18,000 years. 

Yellowknife – North West Territories

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming travelogue about Canadian cities.

For me, Northwest Territories is where the scale and grandeur of Canada hits home. Northwest Territories is 1 million square kilometres bigger than Germany, whose population is over eighty million. The Acasta Gneiss, the world’s oldest rocks–at least those measured by the radiometric dating of zircon crystals–are in NWT to the east of the Great Bear Lake. The gneiss was metamorphosed 3.58 to 4.031 billion years ago (approximately). The Great Bear Lake is the largest lake entirely in Canada (Superior and Huron straddle the Canada–US border) and the eighth largest lake in the world (if you accept the Caspian Sea is the largest). The shoreline of the Great Bear Lake measures 2700 kilometres. This is a harsh part of the world as the Great Bear Lake can freeze from November to July, all 31,153 km² of it – that’s an area bigger than Belgium.

I visited Yellowknife, the capital of the NWT, which is about three hundred kilometres south of the Great Bear Lake. Flying to Yellowknife from Whitehorse convinced me that Canada has as many lakes as the rest of the world combined. Yellowknife is on the Great Slave Lake, the tenth largest lake in the world. It’s also worth mentioning that if you draw a line due north of Yellowknife to the Arctic Ocean in neighbouring Nunavut, the line doesn’t cross a single road. That’s a distance of 600 kilometres.

As with Whitehorse, from the airport it was a ten-minute ride into the centre of the city, where I saw four six- and seven-storey high-rise buildings. There is one major crossroads in the centre of the city from where you can get to all the places you want to go. There are no mountains or even hills to speak of, although the road down to the older part of the city by the Great Slave Lake is steep and misshapen.

Yellowknife and the surrounding areas are a suitable place to see the Aurora Borealis, especially  from November to February. There are tour companies that take visitors out into the surrounding forests to specially built chalets where Aurora spotting is better, as there’s zero light pollution. I checked the chances of spotting the Aurora at the tourist information. There are also small lighthouses dotted around town that provide a traffic-light code for the chances of the Aurora being seen on the upcoming night.

I didn’t see the Aurora during my stay though when I’d become half frozen standing by the Great Slave Lake for 45 minutes, a keen photographer showed me a time-lapse photo that had a small patch of green on the horizon, a very faint sign of the Aurora. For a detailed explanation of what causes the Aurora, please see Appendix D.

Franklin Avenue (50th Avenue) is the principal thoroughfare linking the more modern uptown with the Old Town dating from the 1930s. Some buses run along this road at various times of the day, but I enjoy walking and the air felt fresh and healthy as I headed towards the lake. The first sight I came to was the Cultural Crossroads. Here on a mound of rock are hundreds of colourful handprints, created by Metis, First Nations, Inuit, French-, and English-Canadian artists. Above the handprints is an image of a soaring eagle and on top of the mound a skeleton of a tepee. To the right were various docks and moorings for boats and seaplanes. Across the water by a small, wooded island were colourful floating homes in pastel shades. Canoeists skimmed over the waves.

Ahead were some people on a small hill and I followed the road around, almost doubling back on myself before finding steps up to the Bush Pilots Memorial, a small metal statue similar in size to a paper plane made from an A4 piece of paper. Trees and water stretched to the horizon in all directions. The bush pilots were true pioneers in the early days of aviation and as I’ve already described in Whitehorse, not all of them survived. These pilots were the ones who allowed the wilderness to become home to many people who relied on aerial services as roads weren’t and, in some cases, still aren’t an option. Nearby were the floatplanes of Air Tindi, who provide tours over Back Bay and Yellowknife Bay from their dock.

And Now the Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast is a much-loved part of the British cultural landscape with an avid following of listeners, most of whom aren’t affected by the news it provides.

This book describes how the forecast came about along with the science behind the gathering of the information and the inside track on the delivery of the radio programme. The author presented the Shipping Forecast for over 40 years and so knows what it’s like to read the daily bulletins.

Details are given on each of the 31 shipping areas all the way from Viking down to Trafalgar and back up to South East Iceland plus the significant events that happened in the area ranging from the Battle of Jutland to the Goodwin Sands and from Dover Castle to Rockall.

Isvik by Hammond Innes

This is a real page turner and gives some great insights into various places in the UK, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica.

An old wooden ship is trapped in the Antarctic ice. It set sail from Argentina to the Falkland Islands two years after the war between the UK and Argentina was over. Why was this, what was the plan, and how did it end up embedded in the ice in Antarctica?

The only problem I have with this book is that almost all of the people have serious character flaws. There are many antagonists and only one protagonist. I don’t like and can’t relate to any of the characters as likeable or normal human beings.

The main antagonist is called Iain Ward who speaks many languages, has pots of money, and has a claw instead of a hand. He’s the financier of the trip of the Isvik from Punta Arenas in Chile to the icy wastes of the Antarctic. We know nothing of this character’s background other than he tries to dominate every situation he finds himself in. He claims at various times to be a pools winer, road haulier, and an old Etonian, so you’re never quite sure what he is. There’s no explanation at the end of the book as he suddenly leaves the boat in the middle of the ocean via helicopter.

The narrator is Peter Kettil who is an expert on sails and wood preservation. Peter relates everyone else’s conversations really well but doesn’t say that much himself. Other characters are Australian married deckhands, a Norwegian engineer, plus three South Americans of unknown parentage who may or may not be brothers / sisters / cousins. One of these South Americans is the wife of a British glaciologist who saw the boat they’re searching for in the ice before his plane crashed and he was killed.

There’s a lot of unknowns floating around in the background of most of the story and this causes some distractions as I read, hence I can only give this book 4 stars.

An introduction to the complete Dead Sea Scrolls

When these scrolls were first found in 1947 in 11 caves at Qumran, the word ‘revolutionary’ was used to describe their significance. Nowadays, such an emotive word has been replaced by a more mature assessment.

The opinion at present is that the scrolls have mainly provided an insight into the history and beliefs of the Dead Sea Community of Essenes at Qumran. New fields of scolarship have been brought into being, the study of Hebrew manuscripts and orthography from the 3rd Century BCE to the 2nd century CE.

The scrolls have extended knowledge of the written Old Testament back by over a thousand years – a Book of Samuel manuscript from Cave 4 is said to date from 225BCE. The 11 caves have yielded something from every book of the Old Testament, varying from one small scrap to a complete scroll. The only exception is possibly Esther. 29 copies of Deuteronomy were found and 21 copies of Isaiah. The scrolls were also written in different languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic.

Many copies of the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish religious compositions written between 200 BCE and 100 CE that weren’t accepted into the canon of scripture, were also found such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, so extending this area of study and increasing the understanding of Jewish history and religion in the age prior to the formation of the New Testament.

No New Testament fragments were found at Qumran.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

The first James Bond book that Ian Fleming wrote and I recognised some of the details from the 2006 film of the same name.

Le Chiffre is a nearly bankrupt member of the secretive SMERSH organisation (SMERSH is a conjunction of two Russian words: ‘Smyert Shpionam’ meaning roughly ‘Death to Spies’.

Le Chiffre and Bond play an increasingly high stakes game of baccarat (all the rules are explained so the book is educational too) and put it this way, Le Chiffre doesn’t take losing the game too well. The game is played at the casino in Royale-les-Eaux in France (not in Montenegro). Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre but is rescued by an unlikely source. Bond gets a tattoo from his rescuer. His recuperation from having his manhood repeatedly squashed by a carpet beater takes a few weeks.

Bond is accompanied on his adventures by Vesper Lynd who is working for the French Deuxieme Bureau. After the baccarat game, she is kidnapped and Bond chases after her, but his car is ambushed and the torture begins. After his recuperation, Vesper and Bond go to the French coast for a few days, but Vesper has a secret…

Vesper is the name Bond gives to his drink of choice: A dry martini, three measures of Gordon’s, one measure of vodka (preferably made from grain), and a half measure of Kina Lillet. This should be shaken along with a large thin slice of lemon peel until it’s ice cold. Kina Lillet is a liqueur made with white wine mixed with fruit liqueurs and flavored with quinine. The “Kina” in its name is derived from quinine’s main ingredient: the bark of the kina-kina (or cinchona) tree. Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986.

We’re briefly introduced to ‘M’, Miss Moneypenny, and Felix Leiter in this book. Indeed, without Leiter Bond’s mission would have failed but I’ll let you find out why that is.

A Smile in the Mind’s Eye – Book Review

Lawrence Durrell had a lifelong interest in and sympathy for the philosophy of Taoism. Since he read the Tao Te Ching which contains a description of the great motor of the universe and its works, he felt that it was what he believed in.

The first half of this short book covers the visit of a Chinese scholar called Jolan Chang to Durrell’s home in the south of France. The two men discuss the Tao as well as cooking lots of meals and talking about Durrell’s lifestyle especially the amount of wine he drinks.

The second half is sort of connected to the first half in that Durrell describes a winter visit to a Tibetan monastery near Autun, north of Lyons, where he’s been invited to a Tibetan New Year celebration. The book also describes his visits to various places in Europe with a lady called Vega who’s researching a book about Nietzsche and his infatuation with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a remarkable woman who had close friendships with Rilke and Freud.

Finally, the book returns to Taoism and Lao Tsu’s refusal to accept the limited concepts of language, he shows his wariness against the limiting effect of defintion:

It is when we come to speak of Beauty as a thing apart that we at once define Ugliness. So when goodness is seen to be good, then we become aware of what is evil…For this reason the Sage only concerns himself with that which does not give rise to prejudice.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp – Book Review

Polish artist and soldier Jozef Czapski brought Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu to life for an audience of prison inmates in a series of lectures.

Czapski gave these lectures entirely from memory.

He and the inmates were in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.

They were the lucky ones as the Soviet authorities killed thousands of their fellow officers.

This is a remarkable book as it could almost be termed “A very, very short introduction” to a very, very long novel. The details are incredible as Czapski weaves elements from Proust’s life into his lectures on the novel.

Proust’s great meditation on memory allowed Czapski to remind his fellow officers that there was a world outside their prison camp and that there was a future in which to hope.

The Nativity by Geza Vermes


I’m seriously thinking about putting all my other books that I want to read in a massive pile somewhere and just reading this author’s work one after another until I’ve completed them all.

Geza Vermes places the story of The Nativity in its historical context and examines the Infancy Gospels to separate tidbits of fact from vast amounts of legendary additions.

Firstly, the nativity of Jesus is only mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Their accounts don’t derive from each other. Basic elements of the nativity in these gospels are the same: extraordinary pregnancy, Bethlehem as birthplace, and Nazareth as permanent residence after the nativity.

Other details are different. In Luke, Mary and Joseph had been living in Nazareth prior to the nativity but headed to Bethlehem to comply with Augustus’s order of a universal census. In Matthew, the residence prior to the nativity is not stated, though the assumption is it would have been Bethlehem.

In Luke, the newborn Jesus was welcomed in a stable by angels, shepherds, and local people whereas in Matthew he was worshipped in a house by the Magi. The flight to Egypt to avoid Herod’s soldiers only occurs in Matthew.

Vermes postulates that the nativity stories are later additions to the main Gospel account, added as a prologue to provide the newborn Jesus with an aura of marvel and enigma that provides a counterpart to the epilogue of the Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus. Vermes’s justifications for his ideas are fascinating.

The nativity story is not a natural introductory section to the life of Jesus as there’s no continuity between it and the rest of his life as there’s a gap of 30 years or so (apart from one incident in Luke when the 12-year-old Jesus is found by his parents in the Temple talking with teachers).

Vermes also writes about when Jesus was actually born and the actual date of The Nativity. He shows what the Infancy Gospels reveal about their prehistory and how valuable they are as historical references and their theological significance.


%d bloggers like this: