Analects II: From Coffeehouse Conversations to Game of Thrones Frustrations

Auctores Varii 11 May 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘Analects’ is a new TCS column consisting of short pieces about any topic of recent personal interest to the author. The series aims to encourage the readership to think broadly about a diverse range of topics, and encourage writers to condense their thoughts into a concise and engaging paragraph. 

 

Conversations Over Coffee

By the middle of the Enlightenment, London had diverged from the great cities of Europe by abandoning her famous Coffeehouses for the Gentlemen’s Club. The two institutions, the Coffeehouse and the Club, could not be more different. ‘Whether a man was dressed in a ragged coat and found himself seated between a belted earl and a gaitered bishop it made no difference; moreover, he was able to engage them in conversation and know that he would be answered civilly’; illuminating conversation with strangers, whispered revolutionary politics and academic advancement in the realms of the sciences and arts: that was the spirit of the coffeehouses. The middle classes (and even women) were happily admitted if they could contribute to intellectual life. Of the clubs this cannot be said. They were nothing if not exclusive, and operated, as some continue to do, as a family or brotherhood of men with an almost homogenous experience of life.

This is not to say that the spirit of the Club was not vital in preserving order in Britain whilst European chaos raged around her, but one cannot help but wonder what would have been the outcome had the Coffeehouse not lost its grip on London society. Even in Paris and Vienna, the coffeehouse has been out of fashion for many generations. But what if the young intellectuals of Britain today could go some way to recapturing the spirit of Voltaire’s, Rousseau’s or even Loos’ coffeehouses? Well, there may yet be some hope for European civilisation.

 


Philosophy and Physics

Some subjects seem unable to appeal to outsiders. Art, poetry, politics, and even some of the less technical aspects of biology and psychology seem to generate plenty of extra-academic interest, but my subject does not. The aim of this piece is to convince you that understanding more about physics is worth it. Perhaps the inherent reliance on maths is a reason for the rapid drop in engagement with the subject, but I see no reason that the beauty and magic of physics cannot fascinate more people.

Physics provides models to make predictions about the reality we are living in. What is truly fascinating about the subject is the implications that some of these models can have on the truths that seem to us most fundamental and obvious. Einstein’s theory of special relativity is a prime example of this, stating that the only thing that is constant is the speed of light. The implications of this should blow the mind of the casual reader: length and furthermore time itself change depending on the relative speed of each observer! To make this concept even clearer I’ll provide an example. Take a pair of twins. One of these twins leaves and then returns to earth after 10 years all whilst travelling at a speed close to the speed of light; the other stays on earth. When the space-traversing twin returns, he will only be ten years older but the twin that has stayed on earth would have been dead for millions of years. Not only is this the very theory that enables GPS systems to work, but the implications of this theory are of huge philosophical consequence. Why would you not want to engage with a subject that provides ideas of such practical importance, whilst posing questions that should stir even the most abstract of philosophers? These are the lessons brought back from the very edge of human understanding of the universe around us: if that does not make us think, nothing will.

 


A Frustrating Finale

The latest season of Game of Thrones has been little short of a travesty, especially its two most recent episodes (‘The Long Night’ and ‘The Last of the Starks’). My chief concern is that the writers appear to have entirely misconceived one of the show’s most central characteristics: its willingness to take risks and do the unexpected. “It’s…unexpected and that’s what this show does,” says Maisie Williams about her character, Arya Stark, killing the Night King in the most implausible and anticlimactic fashion. While, yes, some of the show’s most iconic moments – the execution of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding – have come about because the story is willing to take risks with its characters, the source material does not choose cheap twists for the sake of it, twists which divert expectations at the expense of compelling drama and the satisfying completion of a character arc. The latest series, however, has done just that. Take the execution of Missandei: certainly unexpected, but also a pointless death that made little sense and packed a shockingly weak emotional punch. Where the show would have benefitted from ditching a few characters, perhaps during the much anticipated and since maligned Battle for Winterfell, to make up the death quota, the showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss appeared curiously unwilling to take risks or do the unexpected.

There is much more that I could complain about – the dialogue this series has occasionally been so laughable it makes me yearn for the impossible return of the likes of Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell (wouldn’t that be a twist!)– but I have already exceeded my word limit. I will, admittedly, continue to watch the show until the bittersweet end, but largely because I enjoy complaining and it gives me something to do instead of revising.


At the Ends of the Earth

If money were no object, and I could pack it all in, I would go to Shimla. I would live on The Ridge and buy food from the market which trickles away down its southern side. I would breath the fresh, cold air, and walk, every day, to the Lodge.

The Lodge was built for the Viceroy 131 years ago. It’s in the Jacobethan style. It was built with care and built to last. It is, in its context, the most evocative structure I have ever laid eyes upon. After their independence the Indians did not tear it down. Why should they? It has always been their building too. The President used it for a while, then turned it into a valuable archive.

The Lodge sits amidst swathes of manicured lawn. There is also a rose garden at the back. A perfect patch of England in the Himalayas. The gardens are surrounded by a ring of aromatic firs. Peer through them and you see only blue. The land gives way to a horizon leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.

Few internationals visit. The road north leads nowhere. But the building, its gardens, and their enduing power, make it more than worth a visit. Wrapped the vastest of silences, a journey there allows your head to breath.

 

If you wish to share a thought on any topic you are interested in, please email in a short paragraph (~200 words) to psk32@cam.ac.uk. The only restriction is the word limit, and the only rule that your piece ought to get people thinking about the ideas you raise.