By the Bye

Some Weekend Reads

An article on the Ekathimerini website looks to the past in order to make sense of the present. If you would like to know about Alexander, fake news, and the end of ancient Athenian democracy then click here.

I have no comment to make about the current situation vis-a-vis North Macedonia, Greece, Russia et al but I will say that I did not like the description of Philip II as a ‘a Trump-level warlord’. Donald Trump is not a warlord, and you can be sure that if he was, he would not be one of the same level as Philip.

Philip II was as skilled a diplomat as he was a general. He deserves better than to be compared to Trump.

Also, I am still trying to work out how the writer can blame Alexander for an example of fake news that happened after he died and as a result of the actions of another person. Stratocles used Alexander to achieve his aim.

So Alexander is an eerie symbol in the name conflict. Hopefully, the Macedonian kings’ disdain for democracy will not prevail in the region.

As above, it’s Stratocles’ name that should appear here but it has to be said, Alexander did engage in fakery when it suited his interests – think of how he forged one of Darius’ letters to him.

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Alexander and Hephaestion make a list of National Geographic‘s Top 10, Red-Hot (no less), Power Couples here. Our lack of knowledge regarding what we know of their relationship means that you can take Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s inclusion in this list as seriously or not according to your preference. That aside, the caption provided with the image of the two contains a couple of interesting statements:

  1. ‘Many historians believe the two were lovers but ended the amorous side of their relationship when it was time to marry and start a family.’ I have never read a historian who believed that this was the case. If it is true, though, why did no one tell Bagoas?
  2. Hephaestion and Alexander ‘were said to look so much alike, that some couldn’t tell them apart.’ Some needed to open their eyes – just like Sisygambis did when she mistook Hephaestion for Alexander because he was the taller of the two and better looking.

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Read a very short history of the Vergina Star at Neos Kosmos here.

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Who is to blame for the conflict between North Macedonia (formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and Greece? Philip II and Alexander III, apparently:

The ultimate source of the problem – or at least the justification for the problem from the Greek perspective – has to be laid at the feet of Philip II of Macedon and, even more squarely, at those of his son Alexander the Great. If father and son hadn’t literally put Macedon on the map, modern day Greeks wouldn’t have been able to claim copyright over the place name. (my emphasis)

If I read this correctly, the writer is saying that Macedon did not exist before Philip and Alexander’s time, that they created it. Well, he said with a sigh, it’s an argument. At first glance, it also looks like a lunatic assertion but let’s not assume that the writer has lost his senses. What is he really saying? For me, the rest of the article does not shed any further light on the matter so it’ll have to remain an open question for now. If you would like to read the full article (at the History News Network website) you can do so here.

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Greek Reporter‘s list of the Top 10 archaeological finds in Greece over the last decade puts the Amphipolis tomb at Number One. You can read the complete list here. One quibble: Alexander died in Babylon, not Baghdad; the two are separate places.

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Hello to anyone visiting this blog from my Alexander Facebook page. If you have any comments regarding the North Macedonia links, please leave them here, not on Fb. Because the Greece-North Macedonia dispute can inflame tempers and lead to unpleasant ‘discussions’, I delete any comments relating to it there.

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Some Weekend Reads

IFL Science reports on the find of 50 mummies on the west bank of the Nile. You can read the article here. They may come from the Ptolemaic era. Reading the article, I was taken by the fact that they were found thirty feet below ground. Does this mean Ptolemy I’s Alexandria is now that far below ground as well?

“In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world.” We don’t actually know for sure that he did but this article on the Bookriot website is a nice little run down of facts about the Great Library of Alexandria, which either he or Ptolemy I Soter – not Demetrius of Phaleron as the article states – founded.

A neat little biography of Alexander can be found here at the National Geographic website. It contains a couple of interesting statements that I wouldn’t mind exploring in the future – that Alexander was not ‘much of a diplomat’ and that the Macedonian army became ‘mutinous’ in India.

The Ten Best Generals of All Time – According to Ethan Arsht. You can read the short version at Business Insider‘s website here, or Mr Arsht’s article here. Warning: it involves maths! This warning is really for me as I am useless at numbers but I will try to read Mr. Arsht’s article even though – shock, horror – he does not put Alexander at No. 1.

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire by Paul J. Kosmin. This is a short review at the StrategyPage website of a book that will be of interest to anyone who is serious about the Seleucids.

Could you be the next Seleucus I Nikator? Antigonus Monophthalmus? Scipio Africanus? Gamasutra and the makers of the ‘grand strategy’ game Imperator: Rome look forward to its release in late April here.

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Some Weekend Reads

Happy February! If you would like to read about what Alexander got up to around this time of year, read this blog post.

CoinWeek has started a series based on coins of the Seleucid dynasty (c.305/304-64 BC). It’s well worth a read if you are interested in Hellenistic coinage or would like an overview of the Seleucid kings. The link will take you to part one in the series.

Who can be surprised at this? Inquisitor reports that a Graeco-Roman winery has been discovered on the banks of the Nile. It was probably founded by Ptolemy I for his Macedonian friends as they sailed up and down the river!

If you are looking for a short biography of Alexander, then Greek Reporter has your back. If you are already familiar with Alexander’s life, the article is still worth reading to see if the writer’s understanding of Alexander matches your own. For instance, do you think this statement correct: ‘What are now the modern-day countries of Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the entirety of the modern-day Arab world, became Greek in less than ten years’ time.’ (emphasis mine)?

This story has appeared all over the internet over the last few days: ‘Otago academic offers new explanation for Alexander the Great’s death‘. This headline comes from Voxy. It’s a creepy, painful and fascinating story. I’m very grateful to the person on my Alexander Facebook page who said that they had spoken to Dr. Hall who told them that she thought Alexander would have lost his higher functions by the time he was mummified; he wouldn’t have felt anything.

Are you in Liverpool (U.K.) at 6pm on 21st February this year? If you are, you could attend this adventurously titled lecture The Further Adventures of Alexander the Great – Boyfriend, Gay Warrior, Porn King. More details can be found on Liverpool University’s website here.

Your occasional reminder that (a) Afghanistan didn’t exist in Alexander the Great’s day and (b) he defeated its predecessor people – the Bactrians and Sogdians – during the course of his eastward march. His victory was not a lasting one but it was still a victory. Why am I mentioning this? Read this article at We Are The Mighty.

Finally, could the dispute between Greece and the Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) regarding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the latter finally be over? The BBC reports here that the Greek Parliament has approved FYROM’s name change to North Macedonia. I have to admit that I don’t understand how ‘North Macedonia’ can be a more satisfactory name than the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ so am very glad that this blog is focused on Alexander rather than modern Balkan politics.

BTW If you have come to this post from my Alexander Facebook page and would like to comment on the Greece/FYROM story, please do so on the blog; if you do so on the Fb page I will have to delete it. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from you, but the issue is so controversial that any mention of it will quickly lead to insults and barbs.

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The Carving of the World

The headline reads ‘Vandals paste ‘butcher’ sign on Alexander the Great statue’. You can read the full report here.

Was Alexander the Great a butcher? In answering this question we have to be careful that we don’t do so with a twenty-first century mindset.

The reason for this is simple. If we impose our morality on Alexander we learn nothing about him and only a little – that is not good – about ourselves. Alexander lived, after all, in the fourth century B.C. not the twenty-first A.D.

So what about in terms of fourth century B.C. morality? Was he a butcher? I don’t have a firm answer to this yet, but at the moment I am leaning towards yes. There was no international law that stated what was and wasn’t acceptable in combat back then but there were definitely times when Alexander and his men went too far (e.g. the destruction of Thebes and terrorising of the civilian population in India) in the prosecution of campaign war aims.

No one should be insulted by Alexander being called a butcher. He was a king and a general. That was always going to involve bloodshed. Always. And sometimes, he would go too far. If one wishes to know the real Alexander, one has to accept that this happened.

But also that more happened, or rather, didn’t happen because on other occasions Alexander reigned his men in; prevented blood from being spilt. For example, which was the last city to be sacked before Persepolis? Gaza. Between them, Alexander passed through Pelusium, Memphis, Babylon and Susa without allowing the cities or their citizens to be harmed. He could easily have put any or all of these cities to the sword. His men would have been delighted if he had.

And by-and-bye, though our focus is always naturally on Alexander the conqueror, it is also worthwhile remembering that his life involved more than fighting. We get a glimpse of it in the sources – for example, his love of medicine, of literature, and of philosophy. You may call Alexander a butcher if you like, and in a way, you would not be wrong, but if you do, or if you insist upon its primacy as a way of understanding him you run the very real risk of missing out on the other facets of his character instead revealing only your own prejudices.

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20th June 2018

This afternoon, I had lunch and a beer in the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in Bloomsbury. While I was eating I looked up and happened to see a framed picture of The London Illustrated News with a coin bearing Alexander’s image on it. What an unusual sight! And a very pleasant surprise. Here it is:

Apologies for the interruption of myself in the glass. You can tell the head is Alexander’s on account of its leonine hair but most especially the ram’s horns, which indicate Alexander’s connection (i.e. sonship) to the Egyptian god, Ammon.


The picture was a surprise for me but not the pub. On the way to the toilet I saw a portrait of some eighteenth century soldiers sighting… with light sabres. The owner clearly has a taste for mixing the old and new.

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This week, the World Cup continues apace in Russia. Obviously being English, I am supporting England; however, as I drew France in our office sweepstakes, the mercenary in me would like them to win so that I would be quids in. Are there any teams from Alexander’s world taking part? As a matter of fact, yes, there are, though only two: Egypt and Iran.

Unfortunately, Egypt have lost their first two games and so will make no further progress in the tournament. I saw some of their game against Russia last night and was entertained by the pharaonic head dress that some of the fans were wearing. It’s nice that they remember the past even if it is only for entertainment value. Who knows, though, perhaps they discussed the pharaonic dynasties afterwards?

As I write this blog post, Iran – Persia – is playing Spain and acquitting herself very well. The first half is coming to an end and the score is still 0-0.

Of the other countries playing, only Saudi Arabia comes close to having an Alexander connection: at the time of his death in June 323, of course, he was about to invade it. During the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander did actually launch a few sorties into Arabia.

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I am currently reading Ghost on the Throne by James Romm – his account of The Wars of the Successors. I have been reading this book on and off for months. I don’t know why it has taken me so long as it is a good book. Mea culpa: laziness on my part along with a great ability to be distracted by other books is most likely to blame. Anyway, I am coming towards the end now and overall my impression of the book is a very positive one – except, that is, for one thing: Romm’s tiresome habit of calling Antipater ‘old man Antipater’. Thank goodness we have passed 319 BC and Antipater has died but up till that point it was rather annoying me. Antipater was more than just his age; I don’t know why Romm had to alert us to it in a not very complimentary way very other time he mentioned him.

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A Caesarian Section

Ancient Rome has been much on my mind this week.

Last Monday, I watched Mary Beard’s overview of the life of Julius Caesar on the BBC iPlayer. At the time of writing, it is still there for another 24 days.

The programme is a one hour long one off special; Beard, so the blurb says, ‘is on a mission to uncover the real Caesar, and to challenge public perception’ of the Roman general.

As for ‘the real Caesar’, he turned out to be rather similar to the general that I already knew from past reading. I say ‘rather’ in the English sense of ‘very’, meaning, just the same.

As a result of this, my perception of him was not challenged. In terms of shedding new light on Caesar, the programme was at its best when Beard looked at his influence on world leaders since – with special reference to President Trump. Both present(ed) themselves as the champion of the people, both set themselves against the ruling elite (while in one way or another being part of it). Both make/made use of catchy slogans – Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) and Make America Great Again.

Personally, I feel Julius Caesar was a much smarter man than Donald Trump and may even have been more sincere in his efforts to improve the life of Romans but apart from Caesar’s Footprints by Bijan Omrani (a book that I can whole heartedly recommend) it has been a long time since I really engaged with ancient Rome so take my opinion with a pinch of salt.

Mary Beard is quite a mumsy figure, she has an impish smile and a lot of enthusiasm. She reminds me a lot of Michael Wood. She is now in her 60s and if I have her happy spirit when I reach her age I shall consider myself very fortunate.

The one criticism I have of the programme is that it was too short. One hour. One episode. For a life as rich as Caesar’s that’s no time at all. Therefore, if you are a student of ancient Rome and know about him already, Mary Beard’s documentary will not likely reveal anything new to you. If, however, your knowledge of him goes as far as the tourists she interviews at the start of the programme – they knew Caesar was assassinated and that was about it – then the programme will be an ideal introduction.

Now, on a blog about Alexander, why do I mention Julius Caesar? Well, there is a point of connection between the two:

… in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”
(Plutarch Julius Caesar 11)

Mary Beard not only mentions this anecdote but says that writers and artists have ever since used it to mark the turning point of Caesar’s life – the moment when he ceased to be Caesar the man and became Caesar the mighty figure of history that we know today.

There is also another reason why I mention him. After watching Beard’s documentary, it occurred to me that perhaps there is also a point of connection between what happened after Alexander’s and Julius Caesar’s deaths.

Caesar was assassinated. Alexander may have been, but either way, he died and his generals were left to pick up the pieces. If I remember correctly, in Rome, Brutus et al had no programme at all for what to do after Caesar’s murder; they simply expected things to go back to how they were before. Unfortunately, they reckoned without the guile of Octavian and cunning of Mark Antony. Alexander’s phalanx wanted the old (Argead) order to continue and a few of the generals tried to ensure that it did but after the latter had been eliminated, the past was finally over; now, it was a fight, either to the death or until a settled order could be achieved. Three hundred years later, the same thing happened. The old order, as represented by Brutus and Cassius died at Philippi, and with the removal of the irrelevant Lepidus it was a fight to the finish between Octavian and Mark Antony. But whereas Alexander’s generals eventually managed to come to an understanding with each other that allowed the ‘funeral games’ to end, Octavian and Mark Antony were two suns who, as Alexander knew, could not both exist. In both cases, the deaths of Alexander and Caesar, and the subsequent bloodshed, led to the creation of a new order – the Hellenistic Age and the Roman Empire.

In writing the above, I am mindful of the fact that – as I said earlier – it has been a long time since I read about Rome, especially the post-Caesar period, so forgive me if I have got anything wrong (and feel free to provide a correction in the comments).

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A Tigerish Lust

A few days ago I was reading the introduction to The First Poets by Michael Schmidt when I came to the following quotation from Homer’s Contest by Friedrich Nietzsche,

“… the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate – a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern “humanity”. When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, pierced, and ties him, alive, to his carriage, to drag him about while his soldiers mock, that is a revolting caricature of Achilles.
(p.xxxviii)

As this is a blog about Alexander the Great I am going to deliberately ignore what Nietzsche has to say about the Greeks in general.

So far as Alexander is concerned, the German philosopher is right in that he had a ‘trait of cruelty’. This should not surprise us as it is a trait nearly all of us share. What is extraordinary is that any of us, when we have the opportunity, do not give way to it.

I disagree with Nietzsche when he claims that Alexander had ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. Now, before I continue, I would like add this proviso: I haven’t read Homer’s Contest. It may be that Nietzsche develops his argument later on; I don’t know. This blog post, therefore, is simply an observation based on the above quotation.

So, to continue. Alexander did not have ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. His desire was to conquer. If it took fighting to to achieve that aim, then he would fight; if the aim could be achieved through diplomacy, then he would talk. If his enemy surrendered and he was able to accept their surrender, then that is what he would do. Alexander was not a simple destroyer. Yes, he destroyed, but he did not invade Thrace, Greece, the Persian Empire or India with that aim in mind. His purpose was to conquer and create – an empire.

Nietzche’s comment is the nineteenth century version of any made since 1945 that equates Alexander with Hitler. And both depend upon a deliberate suppression of contrary evidence for their validity. Michael Schmidt, in his introduction, joins in the game when he claims that ‘Alexander re-enacted, with deliberation and conceit, what Achilles after ten years’ deprivation and struggle, had done instinctively’ (ibid). This is not the whole truth.

According to Curtius (IV.6.7-29) the Siege of Gaza (which took two months) followed a fairly normal pattern: the Macedonians mined the city but for a time were forced to retreat due to the difficulty of protecting the soldiers engaged in the operation. This gave the Gazans the confidence to launch a sortie. In the end, Alexander won the siege by building a mound to create a path to the top of Gaza’s fortifications. This allowed the Macedonian siege towers to fire at those in the city. Meanwhile, Macedonian sappers succeeded in undermining Gaza’s walls. They fell, and Alexander’s men poured into the city, taking it after a fight.

So far, so ordinary. But two things happened to Alexander during the siege to give a fuller reason for his harsh treatment towards Batis. Firstly, he was injured twice. Once by an arrow to the shoulder. This injury was serious enough to make him faint and make Batis believe that his enemy had died. Then, by a rock to the leg. The injury does not appear to have broken it but it was enough to force Alexander to support himself on his spear during the fighting. Secondly, during a lull in the fighting, Alexander received a deserter who he allowed to join his own army. The deserter, however, was an assassin. Only Alexander’s quick reactions saved his life when the man, having paid homage to him, lunged at the king’s neck with his sword.

If Alexander really did execute Batis by dragging him around Gaza then this was a terribly cruel act. It was not, however, simply ‘a revolting caricature’ of what Achilles did, nor a ‘crude literary gesture’ (The First Poets p.xxxviii). If the event even happened (I believe not all scholars believe that it did?) it was an act informed by  the frustration, pain and betrayal that Alexander had faced during the siege rather than being simply a re-playing of Achilles’ action as recounted in The Iliad. Nietszche’s seeming failure to recognise this (allowing for the proviso mentioned above) devalues his comment.

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Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

alexander_coin
The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

alexander_lion_helmet
Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

alexander_sarcophagus
In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Credits
Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

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Pillai’s Imaginary Invader

Dr. Radhakrishnan Pillai may be an excellent ‘management guru’ but he is no historian. In this article from the Hindu Times he is quoted as saying that,

… the great Indian philosopher Chankaya united the country against the global invader Alexander the Great. “It is because of one man’s intelligence; Alexander showed his back without waging a war against India. This was possible because of the effective communication. He used his good offices and united the princely states to terrify the invader.”

  • Chankaya did not unite India against Alexander.
  • Alexander fought (and won) a number of battles against Indian tribes.
  • Alexander at no point displayed any fear of ‘the princely states’.

Chankaya is not mentioned in any capacity by any of the Greek sources. Are they suppressing his involvement in expelling Alexander from India? Why would they when they are perfectly content to talk about other people who tried to resist the Macedonian king during the course of his career?

All five of the major sources for Alexander’s life (i.e. Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin and Plutarch) mention the conqueror’s Indian campaign and the battles he led while there. The idea that Alexander ran scared from the sub-continent is simply risible.

Further to the above, I cannot think of any occasion when any of the sources say that Alexander was ‘terrified’ by the Indians. When Alexander decided to quit the country, he did so because his army – mentally exhausted after ten years of fighting – told him it could go no further.

By the way, India is where Alexander displayed one of his most conspicuous acts of courage; that is, when he jumped into the Mallian fortress alone to take on its defenders in a fight to the death (see Arrian VI.9-12). The fact that Peucestas, Leonnatus and Abreas followed him showed that though though the Macedonian army had weakened it had lost none of its bravery.

With all that said, Dr. Pillai makes one very good point. According to the Hindu Times,

The management guru said the most important ingredient of modern business was to understand the local culture and develop a local model. For this one had to imbibe multi-lingual skills and understand many cultures to sustain for many years.

Alexander would have been sympathetic to this advice. Although I doubt he would ever have followed it, he did try to create not just a Macedonian but a world empire by appointing Persians to key political positions, by taking on their customs and dress and through the Susa mass weddings. Sadly, the Macedonians at large never accepted even this, and we know of only one – Peucestas – who did indeed ‘imbibe multi-lingual skills’ by learning Persian. I am quite sure that he also sought to understand the culture of Persia where his satrapy was located.

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The Club of Lethal Trades

Last Saturday, 30th July, I took part in a 27 mile walk from Kensington to Beaconsfield in honour of G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton (1874-1936) was born in the former and is buried in the latter. He was baptised at St. GKCThomas’ C of E church at Campden Hill, where we started our walk, and prior to his death, lived at two homes in Beaconsfield – Overroads and Top Meadow. He was by trade (or profession?) a journalist but also engaged in Catholic apologetics, writing many books and taking part in debates with his friend Hilaire Belloc in one corner and George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the other. Belloc and Wells couldn’t stand each other but Chesterton could make friends with a brick wall.

Our walk took just over twelve hours – breaks included – and by the end although I was in good spirits I was very footsore. This got me to thinking about the Macedonian army.

Between 336 – 323 Alexander took his men on numerous forced marches. for example, from Thrace to Thebes (Arrian I.7), which he accomplished in a fortnight. On other occasions, the men – and women – had to walk for extended periods through very difficult territory on pain of death; I am thinking here particularly of the Gedrosian desert crossing (Arrian VI.24-27).

What must these walks have done to their feet? I had plasters to cover my blisters; cuts can be covered with ointment. How did the Macedonians dress their injuries? And how strong mentally they must have been to endure these long walks day-after-day: I was done for at the end of Day One!

Anyway, I wish I knew more about ancient Macedonian feet and how they cared for them. Walking on tender feet is horrible but they made a career out of it. As usual, I am in awe. Not so much of Alexander this time, but his very faithful soldiers and camp followers.

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In the photo below: this author on a pontoon bridge somewhere between Ealing and Uxbridge. As can be seen, this bridge doesn’t cross the canal but runs alongside the path while it is being resurfaced. Hephaestion and Perdiccas could not have done a better job.

IMG_1710

Photo Credits
Chesterton Way of Wonder
The picture of me S. McCullough

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: | 1 Comment

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