I've been living with my partner this year. She comes from outside of the EU, meaning that in order to remain in the UK she needs a visa. In the last couple of years, the Conservative government (it's supposed to be a Conservative-Liberal coalition, but it clearly is not) has made it harder for non-EU migrants to acquire visas, and due to the financial requirements of the partner/spouse visa, I thought I'd be unable to apply for or begin a PhD this year. My partner now has a work visa for three years (hooray!), so I've been freely applying for PhD programmes with research on/in eastern Indonesia. We'll see if I'm successful, but either way it's taken a lot of effort to write more up-to-date proposals, speak to potential supervisors and other academics to critique the proposals, and do it all while cooking and working full-time. Hence my not having written anything for some time.
Anyway, 2013 has been an interesting year. It was my first full year of working full-time; I've had plenty of jobs in the past, but this is the first time I've spent an entire year working, so it's a big one. Work itself has been pretty good fun and the people have been brilliant. I just wish there were more hours in the day.
2013 was also the year I visited Turkey for the first time, and it was just incredible. Istanbul is an amazing city, the wedding we went to was lovely, and the company was great - no, the people were great. The only obnoxious people we met were on the budget flight back to London. Western Turkey wasn't high on my list of places to visit, but it was such an excellent country in so many ways that I will certainly go back.
I also became an Irish citizen in 2013, which I did mostly because of possible visa issues (it is, bizarrely, easier for non-British EU citizens to get visas for their non-EU spouses in Britain). But it's also nice to be a citizen of a republic in the midst of Britain's gradual shift to monarchy and the right.
By some miracle, I've managed to read a lot, and as I've mentioned before, Barry Kemp's The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People is simply the best book I've read this year. It's a detailed account of the archaeology of Amarna (ancient name: Akhetaten), a city created by Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun (birth name: Tutankhaten), as a sacred place for the worship of the Aten, Akhenaten's chosen solar deity. Amarna is one of the few places in Egypt where you can still see the houses of ordinary people in concentration, and Kemp focuses his book not only on Akhenaten's personality and character, or the beliefs he attempted to foster in his short reign, but also on the lives of ordinary people in the city and what moving to Akhetaten seems to have meant to them. It's evocative and beautifully written, and I can't imagine a better book of archaeology. It also, I think, shows that Akhenaten was not a maniac, even if he was a bit of a strange man and an absolute ruler (not usually a good combination).
Other good books that I read (most not published this year), in no particular order:
- Trevor Bryce's Life and Society in the Hittite World
- Peter Bellwood's latest book, First Migrants (although I still disagree profoundly with his stance on Indo-European)
- Flannery and Marcus, The Creation of Inequality, a mammoth book on inequality and the accumulation of power by elites, both in prehistory and more recently
- Jean Manco's Ancestral Journeys, about prehistoric migration in Europe
- Michael Coe's latest edition of Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs
- Roberta Tomber's Indo-Roman Trade
- Early Landscapes of Myanmar, by Elizabeth Moore
- Tom Holland's translation of Herodotus (I haven't read it all, but it's punchy stuff)
- Chris Stringer, The Origin of Our Species
- Subbarayalu's South India Under the Cholas, about the Chola dynasty (a collection of articles, but very interesting ones)
- Terrence D'Altroy's The Incas
The best piece of art I saw this year was Gravity, which was just an incredible film and one that I'll find hard to forget. I'll also find it hard to forget Les Miserables, which I was compelled to see by the love of my life, but which was so awful I felt like vomiting blood. Seriously: I have never seen an uglier movie. (Of course, I hate musical theatre, so my reaction was inevitable.) Elysium was very good. Oh, and I saw Rushmore, one of the early Wes Anderson movies. Worth watching.
I've had some great food this year, too. For my birthday, I had three meals in three days - one, of roast pheasant in a ginger sauce, with my parents; another, a piece of lamb shoulder on the bone with parsnips, at Brown's in Oxford with my partner; and a third in Cardiff, with friends. The missus doesn't really go in for massive amounts of beef, which is a pity because the American-style smoked meat I had in Cardiff was mind-blowingly good: a cow's rib with about 300 cubic centimetres of delicious tender beef hanging from it; a pot of soft, tender burnt ends (twice-smoked brisket) barely holding together; some pulled pork; standard smoked brisket with an intense shiny blackened edge; smoked chicken; pork ribs; and several kinds of BBQ sauce. It was heavenly. Until, of course, we went out to a club, and I was basically an immovable slagpile of beef cradling my innards.
I've spent a lot of my time reading, and that has meant that I've been living partly somewhere other than the contemporary world. My mind has been in Middle Kingdom Egypt and mid-Holocene Indonesia, and it's spent a long while surfing along historical chains of cause and effect. I've found myself thinking of most of the customs and attitudes of contemporary Britain as utterly bizarre. How can people discuss things so normally? It's kind of incredible to me that people can casually ignore the ultimate Egyptian origin of their writing and the Andean origin of so many of their foodstuffs. Or the fact that fish and chips and ice cream have pre-Islamic Persian sources. Or the way the English verb 'to be' combines Norse and Old English forms. I just find it too remarkable to disregard.
I don't understand why otherwise rational people wear ties to work (they are, after all, an unnecessary addition inspired by Croatian mercenaries' outfits) and eat chocolate bars sprinkled with tasteless, odourless gold and speak Latin prayers at formal dinners. I find chat shows inexpressibly exotic. I don't get why people are still so irrational in such small and petty ways, and why there are still people who want money and fame above all else, who are taken in by frauds and charlatans, who believe in the transparent idiocy of royalty, who swallow pathetic national myths whole, who think of skin pigmentation as a determiner, or at least indicator, of intelligence.
Reading about and otherwise experiencing the world has made it impossible to believe or indulge in those things. I tend to feel like an outsider looking at this society, and while I'm not too troubled by it and while I think of my viewpoint as basically superior, it is a little alienating. But if that's the effect of reading the things I read and of immersing myself in the lives of others, then so be it. I don't think I'll be stopping any time soon.