Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.

Birds in London by W. H. Hudson (1898)

I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg after reading Hudson’s novel Green Mansions. The novel — a rather peculiar romance about a wild girl found living in the Venezuelan jungle — has has not aged particularly well; personally I found Birds in London much more interesting, although non-London non-birders will inevitably find it less so.

Some of it is interesting as colourful period detail; some of it simply as evidence of long term trends in bird numbers. Here’s a bit of period colour before I get onto the geekier stuff:

My friends, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Melford, of Fulham, are probably responsible for the existence in London of a good number of wandering solitary jackdaws. They cherish a wonderful admiration and affection towards all the members of the crow family, and have had numberless daws, jays, and pies as pets, or rather as guests, since their birds are always free to fly about the house and go and come at pleasure. But their special favourite is the daw, which they regard as far more intelligent, interesting, and companionable than any other animal, not excepting the dog. On one occasion Mr. Melford saw an advertisement of a hundred daws to be sold for trap-shooting, and to save them from so miserable a fate he at once purchased the lot and took them home. They were in a miserable half-starved condition, and to give them a better chance of survival, before freeing them he placed them in an outhouse in his garden with a wire-netting across the doorway, and there he fed and tended them until they were well and strong, and then gave them their liberty. But they did not at once take advantage of it; grown used to the place and the kindly faces of their protectors, they remained and were like tame birds about the house; but later, a few at a time, at long intervals, they went away and back to their wild independent life.

My reaction after a couple of chapters was that Hudson would be delighted by the number of birds that have returned to central London, and horrified by the number that have been lost from the surrounding countryside. And of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s broadly true. So, writing about small birds in the central parks (Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park), Hudson says:

Even the old residents, the sedentary species once common in the central parks, find it hard to maintain their existence; they have died or are dying out. The missel-thrush, nuthatch, tree-creeper, oxeye [great tit], spotted woodpecker, and others vanished several years ago. The chaffinch was reduced to a single pair within the last few years; this pair lingered on for a year or a little over, then vanished. Last spring, 1897, a few chaffinches returned, and their welcome song was heard in Kensington Gardens until June. Not a greenfinch is to be seen, the commonest and most prolific garden bird in England, so abundant that scores, nay hundreds, may be bought any Sunday morning in the autumn at the bird-dealers’ shops in the slums of London, at about two pence per bird, or even less. The wrens a few years ago were reduced to a single pair, and had their nesting-place near the Albert Memorial; of the pair I believe one bird now remains. Two, perhaps three, pairs of hedge-sparrows inhabited Kensington Gardens during the summers of 1896 and 1897, but I do not think they succeeded in rearing any young. Nor did the one pair in St. James’s Park hatch any eggs. In 1897 a pair of spotted flycatchers bred in Kensington Gardens, and were the only representatives of the summer visitors of the passerine order in all the central parks.

The robin has been declining for several years; a decade ago its sudden little outburst of bright melody was a common autumn and winter sound in some parts of the park, and in nearly all parts of Kensington Gardens. This delightful sound became less and less each season, and unless something is done will before many years cease altogether. The blue and cole tits are also now a miserable remnant, and are restricted to the gardens, where they may be seen, four or five together, on the high elms or clinging to the pendent twigs of the birches. The blackbird and song-thrush have also fallen very low; I do not believe that there are more than two dozen of these common birds in all this area of seven hundred and fifty acres.

Nearly all of those species can now be found in those parks. Not necessarily in huge numbers, but they’re all there, even the ones which had completely disappeared at the end of the C19th.

The only exception is the spotted flycatcher, which is a species that has declined by over 70% since 1970. When I was a child, we had a pair breeding in the garden in south London; I haven’t seen one around here for many years. And that points towards the other big pattern: the loss of birds in the countryside. Obviously the book is about London, but it does cover the suburbs where London blends into the countryside; which in 1898 meant places like Hampstead, Dulwich, Clapham, and Kew.

And Hudson’s lists for those places are a depressing reminder of how much we have lost. Tree pipit, redstart, wood warbler, barn owl, red-backed shrike, wryneck, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale, grasshopper warbler, cuckoo, yellowhammer, hawfinch, marsh tit: it’s extraordinary to think that all these birds were breeding within five miles of the centre of London. Some can still be found in a few places within the M25 if you know where to look, but some, like red-backed shrike and wryneck, are effectively extinct in the UK. Others, like the turtle dove, are probably going to join them sooner rather than later.

So, against this background of general decline, why are there more birds in central London than a century ago? Hudson blames the lack of birds in Victorian London on three main things: persecution, insensitive management, and cats. One thing he doesn’t mention, incidentally, is pollution. The fact that the Thames was too dirty to support many fish must have been one reason there weren’t any herons in central London, and it seems likely that the very smoky air would cause similar problems for birds, either directly or through an impact on insect numbers. And sometimes it must be that birds adapt to a new way of life: when Hudson was writing, the woodpigeon had recently changed from being a rural species with a few pairs in the older parks to a common London species. Perhaps there was some subtle change in the habitat, but it seems more likely that there was a change in the birds’ behaviour.

Of Hudson’s three suggested causes: well, there are still lots of cats in London, although there may be fewer strays, thanks to neutering campaigns and organisations like the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. And habitat management has certainly improved; local councils and the Royal Parks now see it as part of their job to encourage wildlife. Even in the past ten or fifteen years there has been a change, I think, and it’s clear walking around London parks that the traditional urge towards tidiness has been replaced by a willingness to leave areas of grass uncut, to leave dead trees in place, to allow patches of brambles and ivy. And among the public as well, there is more interest in wildlife gardening and more people putting up nestboxes and feeding the birds.

But the biggest cultural shift has been to do with human persecution. Already the passages I’ve quoted make reference to jackdaws being sold for trap shooting and wild greenfinches being sold as cage birds; the book also refers to the popularity of bird’s-nesting (i.e. egg collecting). All those things are now illegal and, perhaps more importantly, socially unacceptable. And the credit for that has to go to people like W.H. Hudson, who was a founder member of the RSPB.

A lot of birds were also simply shot. Shooting some species of bird is still legal under some circumstances, either for food or ‘pest control’, but clearly both gun control laws and environmental protections are vastly stricter than they used to be.

The other story was of a skylark that made its appearance three summers ago in a vacant piece of ground adjoining Victoria Park. The bird had perhaps escaped from a cage, and was a fine singer, and all day long it could be heard as it flew high above the houses and the park pouring out a continuous torrent of song. It attracted a good deal of attention, and all the Hackney Marsh sportsmen who possessed guns were fired with the desire to shoot it. Every Sunday morning some of them would get into the field to watch their chance to fire at the bird as it rose or returned to the ground; and this shooting went on, and the ‘feathered frenzy,’ still untouched by a pellet, soared and sung, until cold weather came, when it disappeared.

The most obvious beneficiaries have been birds of prey and crows, whose populations are still recovering from the impact of persecution and pesticide use. There were no birds of prey in Hudson’s London; even when I started birding 25 years ago, kestrels were about the only species. Since then, peregrines, buzzards and ravens have all returned to the southeast of England, and there are peregrines nesting in the centre of town. The sparrowhawk has replaced the kestrel as London’s commonest bird of prey. And thanks to a reintroduction program in the Chilterns, there is the occasional wandering red kite, raising the possibility that a bird which used to feed on the rubbish heaps of Elizabethan London might return after an absence of 235 years.*

I knew that birds of prey and ravens were recovering from very low numbers; before reading this book I didn’t fully appreciate that the same story was true of the smaller crows. Hudson spends a whole chapter on the now-common carrion crow, ‘the grandest wild bird left to us in the metropolis’, which he thinks is in danger of being lost from London, thanks partially to persecution by park-keepers who want to protect ornamental wildfowl. But even more surprising to me was this passage about magpies, which are now a very common and visible London bird:

The magpie is all but lost; at the present time there are no more than four birds inhabiting inner London, doubtless escaped from captivity, and afraid to leave the parks in which they found refuge—those islands of verdure in the midst of a sea, or desert, of houses. One bird, the survivor of a pair, has his home in St. James’s Park, and is the most interesting figure in that haunt of birds; a spirited creature, a great hater and persecutor of the carrion crows when they come. The other three consort together in Regent’s Park; once or twice they have built a nest, but failed to hatch their eggs. Probably all three are females. When, some time ago, the ‘Son of the Marshes’ wrote that the magpie had been extirpated in his own county of Surrey, and that to see it he should have to visit the London parks, he made too much of these escaped birds, which may be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Yet we know that the pie was formerly—even in this century—quite common in London. Yarrell, in his ‘British Birds,’ relates that he once saw twenty-three together in Kensington Gardens. In these gardens they bred, probably for the last time, in 1856. Nor, so far as I know, do any magpies survive in the woods and thickets on the outskirts of the metropolis, except at two spots in the south-west district.

I did actually know that magpies have spread into London relatively recently, because I have a copy of Atlas of Breeding Birds of the London Area from 1977, and it shows few breeding pairs in inner London. But the fact it had been completely extirpated from Surrey is really startling.

And while on the subject of crows, here’s a nice passage on jackdaws:

I have often thought that it was due to the presence of the daw that I was ever able to get an adequate or satisfactory idea of the beauty and grandeur of some of our finest buildings. Watching the bird in his aërial evolutions, now suspended motionless, or rising and falling, then with half-closed wings precipitating himself downwards, as if demented, through vast distances, only to mount again with an exulting cry, to soar beyond the highest tower or pinnacle, and seem at that vast height no bigger than a swift in size—watching him thus, an image of the structure over and around which he disported himself so gloriously has been formed—its vastness, stability, and perfect proportions—and has remained thereafter a vivid picture in my mind. How much would be lost to the sculptured west front of Wells Cathedral, the soaring spire of Salisbury, the noble roof and towers of York Minster and of Canterbury, if the jackdaws were not there! I know that, compared with the images I retain of many daw-haunted cathedrals and castles in the provinces, those of the cathedrals and other great buildings in London have in my mind a somewhat dim and blurred appearance. It is a pity that, before consenting to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren did not make the perpetual maintenance of a colony of jackdaws a condition. And if he had bargained with posterity for a pair or two of peregrine falcons and kestrels, his glory at the present time would have been greater.

I couldn’t agree more. Sadly there are still no jackdaws on St Paul’s, but Hudson would be delighted to know that there are peregrines nesting on the Houses of Parliament. Which seems like a suitably upbeat point to end on; I could keep talking about this stuff for ages, but this post is quite long enough already. If you really still want more, you might as well read the book.

* to quote Hudson: “Brave and faithful starlings! we hardly deserve to have you back, since London has not been too kind to her feathered children. Quite lately she has driven out her rooks, who were faithful too; and long ago she got rid of her ravens; and to her soaring kites she meted out still worse treatment, pulling down their last nest in 1777 from the trees in Gray’s Inn Gardens, and cutting open the young birds to find out, in the interests of ornithological science, what they had eaten!”

» The three pictures were all taken by me in London.

Ring-necked parakeet is a species which had been breeding in the London area for decades but the numbers have absolutely exploded in the last ten years. There are various urban legends about them being descended from birds used in the filming of African Queen, or from birds owned by Jimi Hendrix, but really there’s no need for a special explanation for escaped cage birds; feral parakeet populations are also found in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Miami, Madrid, Amsterdam and so on.

Woodpigeon was a newly urban species when Hudson was writing at the end of the C19th and is still common.

Coot was not found in London in 1898 but is now present in very large numbers; every scrap of water seems to have a large untidy coot’s nest on it.

C19th email scams & adulterated booze

Some less political stuff from P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World. This is one of several mail scams:

The six letters all tell the same story. They are each the second letter; the first one having been sent to the same person, and having contained a lottery-ticket, as a gift of love or free charity. This second letter is the one which is expected to “fetch.” It says in substance: “Your ticket has drawn a prize of $200,”—the letters all name the same amount—“but you didn’t pay for it; and therefore are not entitled to it. Now send me $10 and I will cheat the lottery-man by altering the post-mark of your letter so that the money shall seem to have been sent before the lottery was drawn. This forgery will enable me to get the $200, which I will send you.”

And Barnum on booze:

It is a London proverb, that if you want genuine port-wine, you have got to go to Oporto and make your own wine, and then ride on the barrel all the way home. It is perhaps possible to get pure wine in France by buying it at the vineyard; but if any dealer has had it, give up the idea!

As for what is done this side of the water, now for it. I do not rely upon the old work of Mr. “Death-in-the-pot Accum,” printed some thirty years ago, in England. My statements come mostly from a New York book put forth within a few years by a New York man, whose name is now in the Directory, and whose business is said to consist to a great extent in furnishing one kind or another of the queer stuff he talks about, to brewers, or distillers, or wine and brandy merchants.

This gentleman, in a sweet alphabetical miscellany of drugs, herbs, minerals, and groceries commonly used in manufacturing our best Old Bourbon whisky, Swan gin, Madeira wine, pale ale, London brown stout, Heidsieck, Clicquot, Lafitte, and other nice drinks; names the chief of such ingredients as follows:

Aloes, alum, calamus (flag-root) capsicum, cocculus indicus, copperas, coriander-seed, gentian-root, ginger, grains-of-paradise, honey, liquorice, logwood, molasses, onions, opium, orange-peel, quassia, salt, stramonium-seed (deadly nightshade), sugar of lead, sulphite of soda, sulphuric acid, tobacco, turpentine, vitriol, yarrow. I have left strychnine out of the list, as some persons have doubts about this poison ever being used in adulterating liquors. A wholesale liquor-dealer in New York city, however, assures me that more than one-half the so-called whisky is poisoned with it.

Besides these twenty-seven kinds of rum, here come twenty-three more articles, used to put the right color to it when it is made; by making a soup of one or another, and stirring it in at the right time. I alphabet these, too: alkanet-root, annatto, barwood, blackberry, blue-vitriol, brazil-wood, burnt sugar, cochineal, elderberry, garancine (an extract of madder), indigo, Nicaragua-wood, orchil, pokeberry, potash, quercitron, red beet, red cabbage, red carrots, saffron, sanders-wood, turmeric, whortleberry.

In all, in both lists, just fifty. There are more, however. But that’s enough. Now then, my friend, what did you drink this morning? You called it Bourbon, or Cognac, or Old Otard, very likely, but what was it? The “glorious uncertainty” of drinking liquor under these circumstances is enough to make a man’s head swim without his getting drunk at all.

Actually the list is quite interesting, because although some of those are definitely scary things to have in your food, like sulphuric acid, lead, turpentine and tobacco, others are still used as food additives, like annatto, burnt sugar, and cochineal. Although there shouldn’t actually be any need to add extra colour to things like bourbon and stout. And some of the additives are normal ingredients in gin, like orange peel, coriander, liquorice, and grains of paradise.

» The beetle is a caricature of P.T. Barnum.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. I’m tempted to sum up the exhibition as ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their furniture’, given my recent post about how much I dislike the Pre-Raphaelites. But actually the exhibition is rather broader than than that. The Pre-Raphs do feature heavily, but it’s also the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonisme and so on; lots of Whistler, William Morris, a bit of Aubrey Beardsley, and designers like Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin.

And although most of this stuff is not to my taste, the V&A does this kind of exhibition superbly well. The quality of the exhibits is extremely high (I would expect nothing less), and it is always interesting to see fine art and decorative art from the same cultural moment displayed together; so often we see paintings hanging in plain, austere galleries, with no context but each other.

All the things that annoy me about the Pre-Raphaelites annoy me much less when it comes to furniture and ceramics and wallpaper. My problem with them, essentially, is that they are superficial: flashy, decorative, overly obvious. And the way that the paintings tend to pick other ancient or exotic cultures and reduce them to a stylistic quirk actually offers a clear parallel with the ‘Japanese’ furniture of the time. But it doesn’t bother me because after all, the decorative arts are, well, decorative. The moment you make a table which tries to do anything other than provide a stable flat surface, or a pot which does anything other than hold water, you are in the world of decoration and surface. Which isn’t intended to belittle those things: I’m fascinated by design, I love beautiful objects and I think that anyone who works to make sure that the objects around us give us pleasure is doing something very important.

But it says something about my different relationship with ‘fine art’ that I actually find Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost offensive. They irritate me in a way I can’t say I’ve often been irritated by a wardrobe or a candlestick, however ugly or ill-conceived I might think it is. I might be similarly annoyed by an object which doesn’t work properly because of bad design, but not usually by simple ugliness. What exactly that says about me… I’m not sure.

The figure who sits slightly oddly at the centre of this exhibition is Whistler. He seems stylistically apart the other artists; his paintings are exercises in understatement and control, and instead of scenes from myth and legend, he mainly paints people in houses. There’s a painting in the show (no doubt called something like Symphony in White) of a girl in a white dress. Apparently, when other people offered ingenious interpretations he insisted that, on the contrary, it was just what it looked like: a girl in a white dress standing in front of a white curtain.

So it’s tempting to see him as out of place in this exhibition, to think that really he should be over in some other gallery, maybe with the Impressionists. But clearly he is part of the same movement. There’s a room he designed for someone’s house (or at least a projection of it you can walk into) and it is full of the typical aesthetic motifs: peacocks, sunflowers, bamboo, blue and white porcelain. In his hands it’s rather lovely, I think; a lot of the interiors in the exhibition look like they would be claustrophobically busy — decorative knickknacks arranged on decorative furniture in front of elaborately patterned wallpapers and richly coloured patterned fabrics. Whistler uses the same motifs and while the result is still pretty full-on, with lots of strong colours and decoration everywhere, it is relatively cohesive and elegant. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile the richly decorative style with the simplicity of his paintings.

Although, having said all that, the exhibition did provide a good example of why the whole concept of ‘good taste’ should be treated with suspicion. In about the second or third room there was a group of paintings by Albert Joseph Moore. In some ways they are fairly typically Pre-Raphaelite: blank-eyed women with indistinguishable faces lounging around wearing ‘classical’ robes in a generically exotic interior. But the palette is all restrained pastels, and composition is carefully balanced and designed around a strict grid system. And I found myself thinking that’s a bit more like it, because they were more ‘tasteful’. But that seem like a pretty dismal way of thinking. To prefer the anaemic, milquetoast, decaffeinated version because it’s more restful: well, it’s not exactly going to produce art which is ambitious and interesting.

It is a fascinating conflict: I do think our lives would be hugely improved if more of the things around us showed evidence of good taste. Buildings, household appliances, packaging, signage, clothes, websites, books, posters, furniture… we are surrounded by things which are ugly or just mediocre. Which make our lives just slightly worse rather than better. But I also think that good taste is the great enemy of creativity and individuality, a stifling force that needs to be continually pushed back against. Especially since it is very difficult to separate an even somewhat objective idea of ‘good taste’ from simple social conformity.

» The vase is designed by Walter Crane, the sideboard by E.W. Godwin, the sconce by Thomas Jekyll, the wallpaper by William Morris, and the teapot by Christopher Dresser. The two paintings are Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Whistler, and Reading Aloud by Albert Joseph Moore.

Why I hate the Pre-Raphaelites*

When I was at university I overheard a conversation when someone said:

I just don’t understand how you can say you like both the Pre-Raphaelites and Vermeer.

It has stuck with me ever since. It’s just a perfect one-line bit of art criticism. It always seemed like it ought to make a great parlour game†: ‘I just don’t understand how you can say you like both x and y… fill in the blanks.’ But actually I’ve never been able to find a pair which seems as perfect as Vermeer and the Pre-Raphs.

Vermeer basically painted accurate pictures of his own time and place; carefully composed, tidied up and idealised, perhaps, but realistic, small scale, domestic. The Pre-Raphaelites‡ chose to retire to a silly fantasy world of knights and maidens which avoided the difficult complex reality of the nineteenth century — but avoided the difficult complex reality of the medieval world as well.

And Vermeer is sensual but austere; sensual in his representation of surfaces, textures, light and shadow, but stylistically austere in his classically perfect compositions and controlled, precise brushwork. While the Pre-Raphaelites are the opposite: stylistically they are lush and decorative, but the result is bloodless. Their paintings are full of decorative young men and women posturing and looking glamorous, but it’s all surface. There’s no flesh to it, not a whiff of filth.

In one of Aldous Huxley’s early novels, which are satirical portraits of London bohemia, there’s a character called Casimir Lypiatt who sees himself in the Renaissance tradition of painter-poet-thinkers, full of bombastic rhetoric about Art and Beauty and moral significance. Not everyone is as impressed with him as he is:

‘Number seventeen,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘is called “Woman on a Cosmic Background.”’  A female figure stood leaning against a pillar on a hilltop, and beyond was a blue night with stars.  ‘Underneath is written: “For one at least, she is more than the starry universe.”’  Mrs Viveash remembered that Lypiatt had once said very much that sort of thing to her.  ‘So many of Casimir’s things remind me,’ she said, ‘of those Italian vermouth advertisements.  You know – Cinzano, Bonomelli and all those.  I wish they didn’t.  This woman in white with her head in the Great Bear….’ She shook her head.  ‘Poor Casimir.’

Presumably Huxley, writing in 1923, was not thinking of the pre-Raphaelites. But that description is brutally spot on.

Vermeer took the small and mundane and made it something hypnotic; the Pre-Raphaelites took a grand mixture of ideas, ideals, myth and history, and made a lot of pretty posters.

* OK, maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong. But, you know, linkbait innit.

† Actually, thinking about it, a truly dreadful parlour game. A mildly interesting intellectual exercise, maybe.

‡ Yes, I know, I’m lumping them all together in a rather lazy way. But although the exact details varied from painter to painter, and some were better than others, I think the broad argument applies to all of them.

‘Points of View’ at the British Library

I just visited the slightly uninspiringly titled ‘Points of View’ exhibition at the British Library, which is an exhibition of nineteenth century photography. I’ve been very impressed with the BL’s temporary exhibitions since they moved to the new site; they obviously have an absolutely staggering amount of stuff in their collections and they do a good job of displaying it, with a thoughtful selection of material and lots of interesting information.

fisherman

Not all subjects are equally interesting, of course — I glazed over a bit going round their exhibition of modernist pamphlets — but C19th photography has a broader appeal. It starts with the early history, Fox Talbot and all that, and then the rest of the exhibition is arranged thematically: travel, portraits, science, industry and so on. I liked the way they manage to provide plenty of variety: some pictures chosen for artistic merit, others for historical, social or technical interest, and some a bit quirky, like spirit photographs taken by spiritualists. Or the staged picture taken by an Indian Army officer of an officer being woken by his manservant after a drunken night before.

mussucks

One thing that is striking is the explosive speed with which photography became popular: from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in the early 1840s, it was a major commercial enterprise within ten years, and being used in every conceivable way all across the world, from Brazil to the Himalayas, within twenty. Perhaps that isn’t surprising — the advantages are obvious — but when photographs were taken with fragile glass plates which had to be chemically prepared immediately before use in a portable darkroom, it is still remarkable.

The exhibition is kind of huge, but it’s also free, so you could always take a break halfway round and go for a cup of tea and a bun.

» ‘A Fisherman at Home‘ is from Peter Henry Emerson’s Pictures From Life In Field And Fen, a photographic record of life in East Anglia published in 1887.

The other picture is a section of ‘Mussucks for crossing the Beas River, Kulu‘, taken in India by Samuel Bourne in 1865. The ‘mussucks’ are inflated bullock hides used to cross the water.

Links

Links

  • Great post at Metafilter: 'In 1857, hundreds of strange objects suddenly started appearing in London antique shops: coins and medals, vases and statues, all made out of soft metal with weird designs and cryptic lettering. They were the work of two illiterate London mudlarks, William Smith and Charles Eaton, who managed to fool some of the leading archaeologists of the day into accepting their forgeries as genuine medieval antiquities.'
    (del.icio.us tags: London C19th Thames antiquities forgeries )

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

The final chapter of The Origin of Species — Darwin’s ‘Recapitulation and Conclusion’ — states the case for evolution as well as any short account I have ever read. It’s tightly written, it argues a case, it summarises all the different kinds of evidence and shows clearly why they are important. It’s pithy, confident: great stuff. 

Which left me feeling look, Darwin, if you can write like that, why have the previous 400 pages been such hard work? Because he did produce some turgid paragraphs. He’s better when he’s talking about specifics — particular animals and experiments — but when he gets into generalities and abstract ideas, his prose often turns to mush. Here’s a sample sentence: 

The forms which possess in some considerable degree the character of species, but which are so closely similar to other forms, or are so closely linked to them by intermediate gradations, that naturalists do not like to rank them as distinct species, are in several respects the most important for us.

OK, that’s not particularly difficult to understand, but it doesn’t have a lot of oomph, either. Not much forward momentum to keep the reader going.

Large-flowered Bee Ophrys

That sentence is taken from the chapter ‘Variation under nature’, and part of the problem in that chapter and elsewhere is that Darwin is struggling against the limitations of his knowledge. Variation and heredity are absolutely central to the idea of natural selection, so of course he has to talk about them a lot; but without knowing about genetics, let alone DNA. And at times he seems to be floundering a bit. I’m very aware, reading it, of how much he doesn’t know; I’m curious how much he felt that lack of knowledge himself. He certainly had enough evidence of other kinds to argue convincingly that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, and that natural selection was a plausible explanation for how it happened; but without genetics there is certainly a jigsaw piece missing.

That’s not the only gap which is obvious with hindsight: for example, he talks about the distribution of species as evidence for common descent, but without continental drift, there are certain details he can’t quite explain. So if someone wanted to understand evolution, they should start with a more modern text. I suppose the question is: why read The Origin at all? Well, the immediate reason I re-read it is that we’re currently building up to Darwin Year. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Darwin/Wallace theory of natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society, and 2009 is both 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species and also Darwin’s 200th birthday.

earthworm

Also, it may be hard going by the standards of modern popular science writers, but for one of the key documents in the history of science, it’s incredibly (perhaps uniquely) accessible. I haven’t actually tried reading James Clerk Maxwell’s original papers on electromagnetism, or Einstein’s on relativity, but I don’t think it’s defeatist to say I wouldn’t understand them. Darwin is entirely manageable for a non-technical reader. He uses some technical terminology without defining it, so you might be checking the glossary a bit if you don’t know, for example, that ‘cirripedes’ are barnacles; but the book is mostly dealing with familiar concepts and entities: species and varieties, pigeons, bees, flowers. The only comparison that springs to mind is another book written at the early stages of a science, when scientists were still grappling with everyday concepts and the visible world: Galileo’s Dialogue Relating to Two New Sciences (which, by the way, is well worth reading).

And when Darwin hits his stride, when he gets stuck into the details, the book is still full of interesting material. For example, discussing the means by which plants are distributed between places:

I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds. I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case. I took, in February, three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond. This mud, when dry, weighed only 6¾ ounces. I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew. The plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.

That passage is a great demonstration of Darwin’s practical turn of mind. For someone who is known for having produced a famous theory, he was a great experimentalist. Faced with the argument that, for example, seeds couldn’t be distributed on ocean currents because salt water would kill them, he tried the experiment, leaving seeds in salt water for different periods of time to see if they would still germinate. He wanted to know more about the process of selective breeding in domestic animals, so he started breeding fancy pigeons. He wanted to know how inherited instinct could enable bees to make such elaborate and perfect honeycombs, so he provided a hive of bees with specially prepared blocks of wax to see what they would do with them.

goose barnacles

If anything the book is more convincing as an argument for the historical fact of evolution — common descent with gradual changes over time — than the theory of natural selection. He does make a good case for natural selection, mainly by analogy with selective breeding in domestic animals, but because he didn’t know about genetics or DNA, there’s an inherent fuzziness about the details right at the centre.

But his argument for evolution is I think particularly strong because he was consciously writing for an audience of educated people who believed in the immutability of species. So he points out that varieties (what we now usually call subspecies) blur indistinguishably into species, so that experts frequently disagree whether to classify them as full species or not. That different continents have basically different flora and fauna; so the animals in the Amazon are related to those of the Andes rather than those of the Congo, even though the Congo is a much more similar habitat. And oceanic islands normally have very limited fauna; that what they do have tends to be those animals that can fly (insects, birds and bats, but not other mammals) or can survive salt water (reptiles but not amphibians). And again, that the inhabitants of those islands are related to the inhabitants of the nearest continent, even when the island habitat is quite different. All these facts are easily explained by evolution; there is no reason why any of them would need to be true if species were created in place.

» To illustrate this post I thought I’d break away from the most obvious stuff (Galapagos finches etc) to pick some of the other things Darwin studied: orchids, earthworms and barnacles. The orchid photo is one I took in Crete; the earthworm is by Jonathan Spangler and is used under a CC by-sa licence; the goose barnacles are by pshab and used under a by-nc licence.

Links

  • 'The Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent prize for political writing, is publishing George Orwell’s diaries as a blog. From 9th August 2008, Orwell’s domestic and political diaries (from 9th August 1938 until October 1942) will be posted in real-time, exactly 70 years after the entries were written.'
    (del.icio.us tags: GeorgeOrwell diaries 1930s )
  • Good stuff from Darwin's Beagle diary today: 'Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of the famous tree, which the Indians reverence as a God itself, or as the altar of Walleechu… Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place were countless threads by which various offerings had been suspended.'
    (del.icio.us tags: CharlesDarwin C19th Argentina )

Millais at the Tate

I went to see the Millais at the Tate today. After my scathing comments about the Pre-Raphs last year, it may not surprise you that I was a bit half-hearted about visiting this. But I’ve got a Tate membership, so I didn’t have to pay, and the exhibition is about to close; so I thought I’d check it out.

Because it’s the last weekend the exhibition was absolutely heaving with people, which didn’t help, but I tried to give Millais a fair go and see if I could find things to like about his work. And… well, there were some nice paintings there, but he’s not suddenly my favourite painter. He left the Pre-Raphaelitism behind fairly quickly; his painting style loosened up a bit and his subject matter changed first to more contemporary subjects and then to less literal-minded story-telling—both shifts in the right direction—but he never seemed to quite lose the narrative instinct. He couldn’t just paint a picture of a woman in chair, it had to have some story implied: she’s holding a black-bordered envelope and she’s wearing mourning, or whatever.

portrait of Louise Jopling by Millais

So I rather liked the room of portraits, like this one of Louise Jopling, because if you just stopped him from trying to tell a story for five minutes he was a pretty good painter. I’m not quite sure whether there was actually anything wrong with his narrative paintings or if I’m just prejudiced against the whole genre, but I found them stiff and heavy-handed.

As ever, the Tate have put together a really comprehensive website for the exhibition with loads of pictures online, so judge for yourself.

Moby Dick

I thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven’t read for years. I’m not sure why I picked up Moby Dick in particular, but after a few pages I was thinking oh, man, I’d forgotten how funny this book is, and so brilliantly written. But after a couple of hundred pages I remembered why it has a reputation for being unreadable, or at least unfinishable.

whaling scene

The opening scenes, where he meets Queequeg, and goes to the whaling chapel, and joins the Pequod, and the crew are all introduced, are truly superb: grotesque and funny. But then after they get to sea, the book loses forward momentum. Partially because there’s not much plot going on, and it’s very episodic, but especially because of Melville’s (or, I suppose, Ishmael’s) long discourses on whales and whaling. Even those are interesting, and frequently well-written and entertaining. But there’s an awful lot of it, and it’s just rather pale and conventional compared to the weirdness of the narrative stuff. It’s as though Bram Stoker had decided that Dracula would be greatly improved by a few chapters about folk customs in Romania and the best techniques for garlic cultivation.

So the book is rather becalmed. But towards the end it picks up again and builds to a suitably grotesque crescendo when they finally track down Moby Dick.

In all seriousness, although I do think this is a great novel, I also think you could greatly improve it by judicious editing. You could cut it down to about the half and length and change it from a sprawling, discursive tome into something short, dark, strange and intense. Like Heart of Darkness with whales.

Since it’s out of copyright, I suppose I could do it myself. As a public service.

  • 1
  • 2
Close Menu