Ibn Fadlān's text is a marvel. I remember first reading when I was a callow student it twenty five years ago - and laughing out loud at the descriptions of the people he met along the way (the text gets a good airing in my Silk Roads book, by the way).
Academic conferences can be hit or miss; but this was a real hit: we had Russian archaeologists updating us on the latest discoveries by the Aral Sea, as well as along the river systems linking the Baltic with the Caspian and Black Seas; Arabic scholars talking about tone and register of the language used in the text; Scandinavian professors talking about the best ways to understand the Norse literary material - and coin specialists talking numismatics. The best people in the world in their fields talking about how the Islamic world, Scandinavia, early Russia and the North Sea shaped each other. Beat that !
it put me in such a good mood that I've been listening to The Clash this afternoon. I started, of course, with Rock the Casbah, in which the band bemoan an intolerant ruler ('a sheikh', in fact) somewhere in the Islamic world, who has banned rock music - a bit like Footloose, in other words.
The ruler's advisor ('the sharif') 'don't like it', the band notes, promising therefore to 'Rock the Casbah' in defiance. Quite an aggressive intervention - one that leads to the escalation of violence, as military jets are brought in to bomb everything in sight. Ineffective western intervention that backfires rings a bell - so I thought the lads need to study a little more history.
It seems strangely contemporary - as did the next track on my playlist, London's Calling, which warns about climate change. The lads were onto something again. 'The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in', they warn; 'meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin'. Trouble lies ahead for all, they warned. there's no hope - even in London, which is drowning. The solution: do nothing. 'Forget it brother, you can go it alone', they said. Charming.
By this point, I was ready to listen to listen to the lyrics carefully, judging The Clash to have powers to foresee the future - but pick the wrong answer.
Sure enough, Should I Stay or Should I Go came on. I'd been warned about this already by Tim Farron's speech at the LibDem conference in York at the weekend. Sure enough, The Clash give their verdict on #Brexit and the Referendum on leaving the European Union. 'Should I stay or should I go now?', the lads ask repeatedly - echoing the turmoil across Britain at the moment.
'If I go there will be trouble / And if I stay it will be double'
Right question. But sorry boys; wrong answer again. The EU ain't perfect; but if we leave, it's the trouble that will be double.
Funnily enough, many of the leading lights in the pro-Brexit lobby share views on military intervention in Libya, Syria and (those who were MPs in 2003 - like Boris) on Iraq; they also have a poor record when it comes to voting in favour of measures to prevent climate change measures too. I'll bet they all listen to The Clash. Who'd have thought they'd be poster boys for Tory right-wingers ? I'm certainly not brave enough to tell them...