The real prize

The Ashes

The Ashes are in Melbourne.

To say “The Ashes” I mean the small terracotta urn that allegedly holds the remains of a cricket bail, ceremoniously burned in 1883 after the first defeat of an English cricket team by an Australian one. The event is rather mythologised and alternate series of cricket matches between the countries are referred to as contests for “The Ashes.”

The actual urn rarely leaves Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Either England or Australia are said to “hold” the Ashes but the urn remains where it is, possession being symbolic. Only three times have the Ashes left England, the first time being during Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988.

The Ashes are currently at the State Library of Victoria and interestingly, this is the first time they’ve actually been in Australia while Australia has officially held them.

The cricketer Peter Siddle saw the Ashes there and despite having participated in several series, admitted he’d never actually seen the urn before.

The Ashes have sometimes been referred to as the most important prize in cricket, an absurd claim considering that only two countries compete for them. Both teams remain important in the game but their era of utter dominance has long passed. The current top ranked team in the world is India’s and is likely to remain so. And yet, the official prize for being the top ranked test team isn’t nearly as famous as the Ashes are.

But then I think of prizes for other sports and indeed, outside of sport. Every year Nobel Prizes are announced for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Economics and Peace. Every four years there are announced four winners of the Fields Medal.

There are cash prizes for some of these things and the top sports men and women may be very lucratively rewarded indeed. Roger Federer has won 20 grand slams and has received a winner’s cheque each time. The best cricketers make millions. The Nobel Prize is an actual medal and has a cash prize attached. I expect that the Fields Medal is an actual medal, too. I don’t know if it comes with money attached but there is certainly prestige.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what these prizes look like. Roger Federer probably has a lot of silverware. Michael Phelps, the swimmer, has a lot of gold medals. I could probably google to find a picture of a Fields Medal.

But it isn’t important because it’s not the actual possession of the artefact that matters. Rather, it’s the knowledge of the possession that is important.

The actual Ashes urn is small and appears to be made from terracotta. It is slightly wonky and there’s the suggestion that it might have once been a perfume bottle. Its actual value is negligible. The contents may or may not be the burned remains of a cricket bail. Heck, there might not even be anything inside.

But as with the Nobel Prize or any of the other awards I have named above, its importance lies in the fact that the rest of us know who has it. That’s the real prize.

The Melancholy Roman

The mystery of Anji Bridge

Anji Bridge, in a pictures from

I read in The Economist recently about the Anji Bridge in China. Some online research says it was built from 595-605. It’s the oldest arch bridge in the world. And it’s fascinating.

I should at this point state that I have never been to China, apart from Hong Kong. The bridge in question is in the province of Hebei, which apparently is in the north of the country. I’m taking all this information off other websites because I don’t know much about China but I know that the country is vast.

But here’s what I know about architecture in the Western world: the Egyptians and the Greeks built some impressive buildings and had other impressive cultural achievements, but their surviving above-ground monuments were constructed using basic stone-upon-stone. It wasn’t until the Romans that arches and domes were constructed. Even then, the Romans limited themselves to the classic semicircular arch.

Not that semicircular arches are anything to be sneezed at, as anyone who has seen the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain can attest. But the Romans don’t seem to have evolved to other arch-shapes.

I had long thought that the next big step in building design was the invention of the gothic arch, as used for example in various European cathedrals. However on a trip to Jordan several years ago I noted gothic-style arches in the foundations of Ajloun Castle, which was built in the 12th century and thus predates anything in Europe. I realised then that my knowledge of historic architecture was far from complete.

There are some impressive European single-span arch bridges from the 13th and 14th centuries, and years ago I saw a documentary that covered Grosvenor Bridge in Chester in England, which dates from the 19th century and has a span of about 60m. That was quite an engineering feat for the time.

Which gets me to the Anji Bridge in China. I’ll repeat the dates in which it was built: 595 to 605. The main arch spans 37 metres.

That’s pretty impressive but I’ll admit to profound scepticism. The issue is that the design looks remarkably modern and it just radically predates everything else built anywhere else. I am reminded of the Guinness Book of Record’s comment about the mental calculation feats of the Indian mathematician Shakuntala Devi: “Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to Mrs Devi on the grounds that her achievements are so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other investigated prodigy that the authentication must have been defective.” Amen to that. Mrs Devi’s remarkable accomplishment was not so much the absolutely incredible feat of multiplying two 13-digit numbers in her head, as the fact that she did so in only 28 seconds.

Which gets me to the Anji Bridge. How on earth was such a technically sophisticated bridge built in China, so long ago? Or more to the point, is it really as old as it is said to be? I have no idea.

The Melancholy Roman