Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.

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So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.

Food In England by Dorothy Hartley

This is a magnificent book, written in 1953 by someone who learnt her cooking in English country kitchens in the days before widespread electricity and gas. It’s a combination of food history, recipes, general household advice, bits of personal memoir, opinion, and amusing or interesting quotes from old books.

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Apart from the obvious stuff — what sauces to serve with mutton*, regional ways to cook a ham, the difference between Welsh, Scottish and West Riding Oatcakes — there are chapters about beekeeping, brewing, butter churns, as well as the chapters about the history of English food: what they ate at medieval feasts, how they stored food for long sea voyages. It really does conjure up a whole lost world: not just because of the foods which have fallen out of favour, like mutton or parsnip wine, but because the recipes pre-date a whole raft of exotic ingredients like aubergine and yoghurt.

It is endlessly quotable, but here are a few random extracts:

Blending Plants For ‘Tea’

It was during the acute rationing period that all these ‘teas’ were used in England to adulterate the imported teas.

A serviceable English ‘tea’ may be made with blackthorn for bulk, and sage, lemon balm, woodruff (the plant), and black-currant leaves for flavour. Do not omit at least three out of the four flavouring herbs, but let some flavour predominate. Thus, if currant and sage predominate, the tea will somewhat favour Ceylon; if the lemon balm predominates, it will be a more China cup; if the ‘woodruff’, it will have the smoky aroma of Darjeeling.

Eggs And Apple Savoury Or ‘Marigold Eggs’ 

This is Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and probably very old.

Line a shallow dish with thin short crust, butter the bottom, and cover it with thinly sliced apples, and set it to bake until the apples are just cooked. Make a custard mixture of eggs beaten in milk, season strongly with pepper, salt and thyme, a very little chopped sage, and a lot of marigold petals (the common yellow marigold). Pour this savoury custard over the cooked apples and return it to the oven to bake until set. I was told it was served with roast pork, like Yorkshire pudding is served with roast beef (the sage and apple indicate this), but the marigold is more usually a cheese condiment.

Sheep’s Trotters With Oatmeal

Sheep’s trotters are the ceremonial part of the Bolton Wanderers football team dinners. Only the heavy types of mountain sheep, such as the Pennine Range sheep, can make this dish well. (I don’t think a sparrow could make a meal off a Welsh trotter, but in the larger breeds of sheep, the trotters are almost as meaty as a pig’s).

And I thought this was an appealing juxtaposition of headings:

Recipe Used for Whitewashing the White House at Washington

[…]

Whitewash as Made for an Anglesey Cottage

It’s a genuinely fascinating book both as history and gastronomy.

* Redcurrant jelly for valley breeds; barberry jelly for upland breeds; rowan jelly for Welsh and mountain mutton. ‘With the dull winter mutton of the garden lands, hot onion sauce is very comforting.’ Hot laver sauce (seaweed) and samphire with salt-marsh mutton. ‘Caper sauce is served with any of the sturdier types of garden mutton. In default of the imported caper, pickled nasturtium seeds are very good.’ 

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

GDR Tootsie

He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

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.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod

This is the novelised true story of Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman in C18th Suriname, when it was a Dutch colony built on slave labour. She became one of the richest landowners in the colony and fought a legal battle for the right to marry a white man, successfully arguing that Dutch law superseded the colonial law against it.

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The introduction explains that it is the result of twelve years of historical research, and I think that’s a strength and a weakness: the best thing about the book is the amount of interesting historical detail, but it does feel a bit like a novel written by a historian. It is solid but unremarkable as literature.

And perhaps because the personal stuff — the dialogue and the characters’ inner lives — is relatively weak compared to the background information which has obviously been so carefully grounded in research, I found myself always second-guessing her portrayal of Elisabeth’s opinions and motivations. Especially since there is a tendency for racial/social issues to be explored in a rather unsubtle way by being put in the mouths of the characters; they sometimes slip into talking in long paragraphs, as though they were newspaper editorials.

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There are of course plenty of issues to explore. So for example, Elisabeth is presented somewhat as a heroic figure, standing up against the racial attitudes of the time, but she also kept slaves herself. And her battle for the right to marry a white man, and establish herself finally as a fully respectable member of colonial society, hardly makes her a fighter for the rights of black people more generally. Cynthia Mc Leod generally presents her as right-thinking but constrained by her time; she was after all in a vulnerable position. But a less sympathetic interpretation might also be possible.

But history is messy that way; and she would still be a remarkable figure whatever she was like as a person.

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I found it engaging and enjoyable, although I was engaged more by the history than the fiction, so I wonder whether it might have been even better as straight biography. Maybe not.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod (trans. Brian Doyle) is my book from Suriname for the Read The World challenge.

» All three images are from the British Museum. The toucan and the caiman are from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705; the toucan is by Maria Sibylla Merian, the caiman is attributed to her daughter Dorothea Graff. The engraving ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave‘ was engraved by William Blake in 1793 for the first volume of J.G. Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted slaves of Surinam, after an illustration by Stedman.

The Republic of San Marino by Charles de Bruc

… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équestre de Saint Marin, Officier de l’Ordre des SS. Maurice et Lazare, etc.’ Although I guess even that’s not his full title, because it ends with ‘etc’. This book was translated in 1880 from the French*, which is presumably why his title isn’t given in the more obvious choices of either English or Italian.

184685773_5234117058_o

The fact that a Sammarinese diplomat should write a self-serving history of the country isn’t really a surprise;  it’s perhaps more surprising that an American writer should feel the need to translate it. I mean, it’s interesting that an independent republican city-state should survive, independent, all the way through the middle ages, the Renaissance and the unification of Italy into the modern age; but this book is not a particularly riveting account of how it happened. It doesn’t help that it tends to flatter itself; here’s an especially unsubtle example:

Their perseverance in good works, their energy in adversity, their manly love of liberty, the scrupulous loyalty with which they had kept their engagements, their immovable fidelity to their obligations, their tenacity, and their valor inspired the respect and esteem even of their enemies.

The whole book makes it sound like they managed to preserve their independence through the sheer force of their courage and virtue; presumably it was actually because they were inaccessible, strategically unimportant and just lucky.

Reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like potentially the most interesting period of their history occurred after this book was published. The country had a fascist government from 1923, and was a single-party state from 1926, but still chose to remain neutral during WWII; then from 1945-57 they had the first elected communist government in Europe, which in turn fell in a constitutional crisis/revolution. There must be some good stories to be told about that lot.

However, I can’t be too grumpy about this book, because it was never going to be easy to find a book from San Marino for the Read The World challenge, and this was available, short, and downloaded for free from these guys. Cheap at the price.

* Saint-Marin : Ses Institutions, Son Histoire. Comte Charles de Bruc blah blah blah, Paris, 1876. The translation is by William Warren Tucker.

» San Marino is © Trent Strohm and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Christian values: what are they?

Genuine question.

A little background: there has been a little storm in a teacup today over a particularly silly article in the Telegraph outing Richard Dawkins as having ancestors who were slave owners in Jamaica. If you’re really interested, you can read Dawkins’s comments about it here.

But what what got my attention was something from a different blog post on the subject:

when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill.

Which struck me as a good fact to bear in mind next time someone argues that Britain is a Christian country built on Christian values.

That in turn had me wondering how the Lords Spiritual voted on other important social issues over the centuries: Catholic emancipation, women’s suffrage, a free press, workers’ rights and so on. Because while it would obviously be unfair to use the upper echelons of the Church of England as a proxy for all Christianity, it would at least be a record of the ‘Christian values’ of the central Christian institution in British public life.

I’m not [just] trying to play Gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. History being what it is, I imagine they’d come out well on some issues and badly on others. But Google has failed me. Annoyingly. I’ll have another go later, but in the meantime, if anyone happens to know a source for detailed voting breakdowns from the House of Lords prior to 1997, let me know.

Belated France follow-up, French civic geekery edition

I know I’ve been back for a while now, but there was one thing I’ve been meaning to blog about. The place we were staying was only a village, really, but in the best French manner it had a town square with a handsome town hall, in front of which was an obelisk-shaped monument that looked like it might be a memorial to the dead of the Great War, or just an ornamental drinking fountain.

But when I wandered over to look at a face carved into the top of the obelisk, it turned out to be Galileo. Which seemed a bit odd. Surely the great man had no connection to this little village in Languedoc? And on the other side was a portrait of Isaac Newton. But it gets better:

Yup, as a nearby sign explained, this is a monument in honour of the metric system, erected by the mayor of St-Victor La-Coste in 1888 for the centenary of the French Revolution.

Admittedly, given that the French revolution was, among other things, a brutal, blood-drenched clash of social classes competing for the chance to wield power, it might be seen as whitewashing to memorialise it as a rationalist Enlightenment project typified by a sensible reform of the system of measurements. But the French are hardly alone in being selective about the bits of their history they choose to celebrate.

And you know what, the metric system is a pretty great idea. Hurrah for the C19th French provincial bourgeoisie and their civic pride in the ideals of the Enlightenment.

On the other three sides of the obelisk, there are a list of the mayor and local council members who erected it, and some further details about the town. But my favourite bit is this:

I love that boast: ‘The metre adopted in France in 1795; the rest of Europe in 1872’. I’m just surprised they resisted the temptation to add a line saying ‘England: still in the dark ages’.

Originally there were also a thermometer and a barometer attached to the monument, but they have sadly gone.

Incidentally, I just love the typography.

The numerals and the Q are particularly pleasing, but the whole effect is very good; it’s a pretty standard Roman-style inscription but it has a bit of character. Perhaps it’s just the extra personality that comes with being hand carved by a real craftsman; we are surrounded by too much bland computer-generated signage these days. I miss hand-painted shop signs.

Daily Life in Victorian London by Lee Jackson

This is an anthology for the Kindle compiled by Lee Jackson, proprietor of the website The Victorian Dictionary, which anyone who has some interest in either Victoriana or London will surely have stumbled on at some time or another.

If you have visited the website, you’ll know what a great resource it is, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Jackson has compiled an anthology full of curious and interesting snippets about such subjects as a ‘B’ meeting, a baby show, a balloon ride, bar-maids, bathing, bazaars, bed bugs, beggars, bicycle races, Billingsgate Market, black eyes, blackmail, the Blind-School, Bloomerism and burglars. And that’s just the Bs.

It’s a bargain at £1.84 or $2.99.

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 Miscegenation Hoax’

I was browsing around Project Gutenberg and stumbled on a book with this magnificent title: The Humbugs of the  World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in all Ages. And it’s by none other than P. T. Barnum.

So I thought, that could be interesting. And one of the things that caught my eye from the contents was ‘The Miscegenation Hoax‘. Barnum explains:

the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing of the negro, but desirable as a means of creating a more perfect race of men than any now existing. This pamphlet is a clever political quiz; and was written by three young gentlemen of the “World” newspaper, namely. D. G. Croly, George Wakeman, and E. C. Howell.

The design of “Miscegenation” was exceedingly ambitious, and the machinery employed was probably among the most ingenious and audacious ever put into operation to procure the indorsement of absurd theories, and give the subject the widest notoriety. The object was to so make use of the prevailing ideas of the extremists of the Anti-Slavery party, as to induce them accept doctrines which would be obnoxious to the great mass of the community, and which would, of course, be used in the political canvass which was to ensue. It was equally important that the “Democrats” should be made to believe that the pamphlet in question emanated from a “Republican” source.

This is in 1864, during the Civil War, so of course the Republicans are the abolitionist party. It carries on a bit later:

The first stumbling-block was the name “amalgamation,” by which this fraternizing of the races had been always known. It was evident that a book advocating amalgamation would fall still-born, and hence some new and novel word had to be discovered, with the same meaning, but not so objectionable. Such a word was coined by the combination of the Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race: from these, miscegenation—a mingling of the races. […] Next, it was necessary to give the book an erudite appearance, and arguments from ethnology must form no unimportant part of this matter. Neither of the authors being versed in this science, they were compelled to depend entirely on encyclopedias and books of reference. This obstacle to a New York editor or reporter was not so great as it might seem. The public are often favored in our journals with dissertations upon various abstruse matters by men who are entirely ignorant of what they are writing about. It was said of Cuvier that he could restore the skeleton of an extinct animal if he were only given one of its teeth, and so a competent editor or reporter of a city journal can get up an article of any length on any given subject, if he is only furnished one word or name to start with.

I won’t quote the whole thing, intriguing though it is, but I can’t resist this bit:

Although, of course, the mass of the Republican leaders entirely ignored the book, yet a considerable number of Anti-Slavery men, with more transcendental ideas, were decidedly “sold.” The machinery employed was exceedingly ingenious. Before the book was published, proof-copies were furnished to every prominent abolitionist in the country, and also to prominent spiritual mediums, to ladies known to wear Bloomers, and to all that portion of our population who are supposed to be a little “soft” on the subject of reform.

Apparently spiritual mediums and ladies known to wear bloomers were the 1860s equivalents of latte-drinking tree-hugging Volvo drivers.

Anyway, archive.org has the original pamphlet online: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It’s hard to recapture the sense of shock apparently provoked at the time, although I suppose even now it would be fairly radical to suggest that we should be actively working to eliminate black and white as distinct entities. In fact far from being shocking, a lot of it is frankly boring, especially all the C19th racial pseudoscience; but it has its moments, like this bit of mischief:

THE SECRET OF SOUTHERN SUCCESS

The North is wondering — the world is wondering — at the marvelous success of the Southern people in statesmanship and war. The discretion, endurance, energy, and heroism they have shown in sustaining for so long a time a rebellion supposed to be feeble and short-lived, have elicited the admiration even of their enemies […] The truth may as well be understood, that the superiority of the slaveholding classes of the South arises from their intimate communication, from birth to death, with the colored race. Like Anteus, sent to his mother earth, they have risen reinvigorated. […]

On this point we might quote many pro and anti-slavery authorities, but the extracts would scarcely be fit for general reading. It is a notorious fact, however, that, for three generations back, the wealthy, educated, governing class of the South have mingled their blood with the enslaved race. These illicit unions, though sanctioned neither by law nor conscience, and which, therefore, are degrading morally, have helped to strengthen the vitality and add to the mental force of the Southerner. The emotional power, fervid oratory and intensity which distinguishes all thoroughbred slaveholders, is due to their intimate association with the most charming and intelligent of their slave girls. The local history of New Orleans, since its occupation by the Union army, proves what has often been suspected, that unions between the slaveholders and their slaves have often had, in the eyes of the parties themselves, all the sanctities of marriage. These facts give us an inkling of some of the sources of Southern power.

If you can ignore, just for a moment, the high stakes of the political issue at hand, and the many decades of overwhelming human misery caused by the slavery and segregation which the pamphlet was surreptitiously supporting… well, you almost have to admire bits of it as an example of proper, old fashioned trolling. These guys would feel right at home on the internet.

AN OMEN.

The statue of Liberty which has just crowned the capitol at Washington, stands as a symbol of the future American of this continent. It was meet and proper that while slavery exercised its baneful sway at the seat of Government, that the great dome of the capitol should have been unfinished, and that the figure of Liberty should not have unveiled its awful form upon the topmost summit. The maker of that statue has “builded better than he knew.” In order to insure it against the storms and variable temperature of a Virginia atmosphere, it has been washed with an acid which has caused a slight oxidation, producing a rich and uniform bronze tint, which no rains can discolor and no sun bleach. When the traveler approaches the city of magnificent distances, the seat of what is destined to be the greatest and most beneficent power on earth, the first object that will strike his eye will be the figure of Liberty surmounting the capitol ; not white, symbolising but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole—the Miscegens of the Future.

Anyway, I just thought it was a fascinating little historical detour, not least the origin of the word ‘miscegenation’ as a faux-politically correct euphemism for ‘amalgamation’. It’s striking that ‘miscegenation’ is still a very loaded term, while ‘amalgamation’ has, as far as I know, lost any association with racial mixing at all. And also: isn’t it amazing how much stuff you can find on the internet these days.

Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

The Hooligan Nights by Clarence Rook

Interesting one, this. Lee Jackson of victorianlondon.org decided to use some of his archive of digitised Victoriana to raise a bit of money to help support the site and put this for sale as a Kindle book for the minimum price of 86p. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Rook was apparently a Victorian journalist and this book claims to be a true account of his conversations with a young Lambeth criminal called Alf — a ‘hooligan’ when that word was new. It is what you might expect from a journalist writing about a colourful lowlife for a popular audience; that sensationalism makes it a genuine page-turner, but it comes with the usual scepticism about writers who seem more interested in a good story than accuracy. It seems pretty safe to say that it’s not actually ‘true’; it’s harder to judge whether it’s a realistic portrayal of that way of life.

However, read as a novel, it’s entertaining stuff. Alf is a classic anti-hero, charismatic and largely amoral, displayed for the prurient pleasure of the reader. It must have been fairly racy stuff in 1899; sex is only really hinted at with references to the number of Alf’s romantic entanglements, but there’s a plentiful supply of violence, crime, colourful slang and a general lively seediness.

It’s also fun for me personally that it’s all south London: the action all takes place in Clapham, Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Peckham Rye. The centre of this particular universe is Lambeth Walk, which was then a street market and is presented as a place where all human life is present — his descriptions of it read like a tourist visiting a middle eastern souk. The road called Lambeth Walk is still there, but the market is gone, and judging by Google street view, what is left is a very quiet and undistinguished local street. You can still see the Victorian buildings along one side, but thanks to some combination of the Luftwaffe and Lambeth planning department, the other side of the road is all large housing developments and so the feel of the street is quite gone.

It’s odd to think about how some of these places have changed. I was surprised to learn once that earlier in the C19th the roughest, most dangerous ghetto in London, where the police would only go in groups, was… Seven Dials. Which is now part of the overflow of Covent Garden, mainly consisting of quirky little fashion outlets, cafes and the like.

Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling. So I will stop.

» The image, from the British Library, is only loosely relevant, but I chose it in honour of a greengrocer I used to see from the 37 bus somewhere between Brixton and Clapham. It had a nice, swirly hand-painted sign saying ‘Mr Cheap Potatoe’. It used to cheer me up every time I saw it; sadly it doesn’t exist any more.

The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II

Or, in Solomons Pijin, Bikfala Faet : olketa Solomon Aelanda rimembarem Wol Wo Tu. The first interesting thing about this book is the language. The entire text — i.e. the introduction and so on, not just the narratives themselves — is in Solomons Pijin first and then English translation. Which gives you a chance to compare the two languages. Pijin is of course a language derived from the use of English as a lingua franca in the region, so it is almost entirely based on English in vocabulary; but the grammar is quite different.

Here’s a bit of the Pijin; at first glance it looks completely impenetrable, but if you sound it out, you start to get a sense of how the pronunciation relates to English. It’s interesting to try to make sense of it, but I’ll put the translation in a footnote* so you can compare it.

Long 1939 wo hemi kam. Japan hemi bomem Pearl Harbour. Ating hemi 1941. An long time ia evri waetman stat fo toktok abaot wo. Toktok hemi stat fo go raon nao. So mi lusim Makira long taem ia an mi go long SDA mison long Bituna. Mi go primari skul tisa moa ia. Dea nao mi stap gogo wo hemi kam long Solomon Islands. Hemi kam long Rabaul an New Britain. So evriwan stat fo ranawe nao. Mi go baek long Munda an joenem Donald Kennedy, wea hemi Distrik Ofisa. Mi save long hem taem mi stap long Tulagi.

My knowledge of the Pacific theatre during WWII is very limited — the British tend to have a Europe-centred view of the war — so I didn’t actually realise when I ordered this book that the Solomon Islands were the site of some very serious fighting. In fact, although I didn’t know any details, even I had heard of Guadalcanal.

It’s really an extraordinary coming-together of cultures; the Solomon Islands was a genuine global backwater — they had apparently still been using stone tools when the British arrived at the end of the C19th, and some of their wartime heroics recounted in this book involve dug-out canoes — and then the full weight of the industrialised military power of Japan and America come and fight their way across the islands in a campaign involving tens of thousands of deaths, dozens of ships sunk and hundreds of aircraft destroyed.

Inevitably we tend to learn about these battles from the perspective of the major powers — and especially our own side. So it’s interesting to read accounts from people who just happened to be living in the path of the war. The people whose stories are in this book took a variety of roles: coastwatching; scouting with a slice of guerilla combat; fighting with the regular army; working in the Labour Corps. It’s interesting stuff with some real hairy action to it: paddling for miles around the islands under cover of darkness to return wounded US pilots to their base, going behind Japanese lines to mine a radar station. And the last story talks about the influence of the war on the political history of the Solomon Islands, and particularly the dissatisfaction created by the contrast between how well they were treated by the Americans and how badly they had been treated by the British under colonial rule.

Sigh. Not that I feel much personal responsibility for the way that my compatriots behaved in the Solomon Islands decades before I was born, but it is a bit shameful. They took their land, paid them a pathetically small amount of money for their labour, and beat them. Then during the war the Islanders were very impressed to see that the black American soldiers wore the same uniforms and the ate the same food as white soldiers, and that the Americans soldiers would share food with the natives, and invite them into their tents and let them sit on the bed and talk to them in a friendly way; pathetically small things, really, but it goes to show what they had been led to expect by the British. And then when the Americans gave them various supplies, the British confiscated them, piled them up and burnt them, because… well, because they were dicks, seems to be the main reason.

Still, if you’re from a former colonial power and you read post-colonial literature, you have to expect to be the bad guys most of the time.

The Big Death is my book from the Solomon Islands for the Read The World challenge.

* In 1939 the war came. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. I think it was in 1941. At that time all the whitemen started to talk about war. Rumours started to go around. So I left Makira at that time and went to the SDA Mission at Batuna. I went and became a primary school teacher there. It was there that I stayed until the war came to the Solomon Islands by way of Rabaul and New Britain. So everyone started to flee. I went back to Munda and joined Donald Kennedy, a District Officer I had known in Tulagi.

» The photograph of a Solomon Islander from the British Museum was taken by John Watt Beattie in 1906.  Munda Deep Corsair – Solomon Islands is © whl.travel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Seabees, 1945, was posted to Flickr by and is © TPB, Esq.

A permanent swing to the Lib Dems?

There’s a post over at FiveThirtyEight suggesting, basically, that since first past the post tends to lock us into a two-party system, the Lib Dems could take the pragmatic (i.e. deeply cynical) decision to quietly drop the issue of voting reform and instead concentrate on cementing a place as the major left wing party in a two party system. In other words, to do to the Labour party what the Labour party did to them ninety years ago.

Personally I think that, ethics aside, if the LDs actually had a real chance of getting proportional representation and turned it down, it would be a HUGE gamble; the current Lib Dem surge seems just as likely to be a temporary blip as a long-term shift in the political landscape.

It did remind me, though, of having the same line of thought myself as a schoolboy back in the 80s. The Labour party was in the political wilderness and seemed completely out of step with the zeitgeist. The Liberals, or the SDP-Liberal Alliance as they then were, seemed a party on the way up, gaining vote share and seats in parliament — though thanks to FPTP, not very many seats. And I was learning about the history of British electoral reform in history lessons: the 1832 and 1867 Reform Bills, and suffragettes and suffragists and so on. Which I was finding deeply boring.

But in those lessons I learnt about the origins of the Labour Party in the unions, the extension of the franchise to the working class, the Jarrow Crusade and the General Strike, about the campaigns for better working conditions, for state pensions, and education, and the start of the welfare state. And since by the 1980s those historical battles had generally been won — not that it was a workers’ paradise, but we did at least have health and safety laws and a welfare state — it seemed possible that we were at the start of another great shift in British politics, as the Labour party lost its relevance and the Liberals filled the void.

But of course it didn’t happen; the however shambolic the Labour party were, the Liberals never managed to convert their share of the vote into enough MPs to matter. The Tories just kept winning election after election on a minority share of the vote, and in the meantime, the Labour party reinvented itself, explicitly cutting the connection to their old socialist principles and becoming almost exactly the same kind of left-flavoured centrist party as the Liberals. And the Tories eventually became so disliked that Labour won by a massive landslide and even now they are struggling to win an election, after 13 years of Labour government that included an unpopular war and an economic collapse.

The thing is, I still think that my original schoolboy analysis was, largely by chance, quite plausible; traditional socialism was on its way down, free-market economics was going to be the orthodoxy for a couple of decades, and Britain was no longer the largely industrial economy that spawned the Labour movement. Surely it was the logical moment for the Labour party to collapse. Instead, here we are at a time when free-market economics has taken a battering, and really it’s only the accident of history that it is the Labour party that is getting punished. There is no grand historical logic that I can see to this being the Liberal moment.

I don’t say that as an argument that it can’t happen, although I do think it makes it less likely. One way or another it’s just a weird moment in UK politics.

The Church of the Long Now

The Clock of the Long Now is a very interesting book about the idea of building

a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

This is not just an interesting engineering project. The idea is that the clock could act as a symbol of the ‘long now’: that is, a way of looking at the world which sees us within the long context of history.

Because ‘now’ means different things is different contexts: ‘I’m hungry now’; ‘tartan skirts are fashionable now’; ‘The United States is now the world’s only superpower’; ‘India is now moving northward into Asia, forming the Himalayas’.

The Long Now Foundation is actually building this clock; it’s not just a thought experiment. The idea is to promote long-term thinking: the kind of long term planning and policy making that might help to prepare for the risk of a hurricane hitting New Orleans, or to mitigate the economic impacts of an ageing population. Or, of course, try to minimise global warming.

These kinds of problems do not lend themselves to the five-year cycles of democratic politics, let alone to the ever-shorter cycles of 24 hour news media.

I remember it as a thought-provoking book, although I think I left my copy in Japan*. I don’t know whether it is really possible to make people take very long term planning seriously, for psychological as well as pragmatic reasons. But it’s an interesting idea.

I’ve been thinking about the Long Now recently because of a particular current news story. If there is any human institution that lends itself to Long Now thinking, it is the Catholic church. Their holy book is 2000 years old, and they still refer back to theologians like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, from 700 and 1600 years ago respectively. I recently went round the V&A’s newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and they are a reminder that the church was a wealthy and powerful organisation before the Norman Conquest. It is nowhere near as wealthy or powerful now, in relative terms, as it was back in the middle ages; but it’s not doing badly.

Perhaps that’s why their PR in response to child abuse stories has seemed so woefully inept: when you operate over a timescale of centuries, a scathing article in the New York Times doesn’t seem like such a big deal. An organisation which has survived the Great Schism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, not to mention the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and a whole load of religious wars, is not going to throw around the word ‘crisis’ lightly.

And strategically speaking, they’re probably right: Benedict XVI is the 265th pope. Does anyone really think there won’t be a 266th? And by the time we get to 269 or 270, these scandals will be very old news indeed.

It’s not necessarily a morally bankrupt attitude; it’s not the same as ignoring the problem and waiting for it to go away. It might be nice to see them reaching out to the victims a little better and show a bit more public remorse, but the most important thing is to ensure that those kind of cover-ups don’t happen in future, and they say they have reformed the system to prevent it happening again.

I find it fascinating, looking at the world in this way. For example, I think it is an important principle of human rights and human dignity that women should be treated as full human beings with all the same rights and responsibilities as men. So if I was pope — an odd thought, admittedly — I would allow women to be priests. But from the long view of the Catholic church, with 20 centuries of institutional and theological tradition to draw on, the women’s rights movement could turn out to be a passing phase. Hell, there aren’t many countries where women have even had the vote for one century.†

And if I was pope, I’d allow gay marriage, contraception, and abortion. But I don’t expect the church to agree with me any time soon. And even though I disagree with everything they believe, from the existence of God downwards, there is something deeply intriguing about that kind of institutional continuity. You can see why some people find it seductive.

The Catholic church may be old-fashioned, but it has been old-fashioned for hundreds of years now; entire empires have risen and fallen while the church trundled on, being old-fashioned. It may be ludicrously archaic that important church documents are still issued in Latin, but the church was communicating in Latin before the English language even existed, and the church is still here. They are hardly going to be stung by the accusation that they’re not keeping up with the times.

* if only I’d had the long-term perspective to realise I would want to write a blog post about it several years later…

† In chronological order: The Pitcairn Islands, The Isle of Man, The Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Finland. According to Wikipedia.

» From top to bottom, the images are: the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a C9th-10th crucifix reliquary from the V&A, and Titian’s portrait of Poe Paul III.

for reverence of his Sabot day

I downloaded a reader app for my iPhone and, browsing around Project Gutenberg for something public domain to read, I came across A Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483, as transcribed and published by a couple of C19th antiquarians. There’s an awful lot of bureaucratic stuff about the mayor and sheriffs of London, and who’s in the Tower at the moment, which doesn’t have much interest for the casual reader. But there are enough little anecdotes like this one to hold the interest:

And in this yere, that is to seye the yere of our lord a mlcclviij, there fel a Jewe into a pryve at Teukesbury upon a Satirday, the whiche wolde nought suffre hym selfe to be drawe out of the preve that day for reverence of his Sabot day: and Sr. Richard of Clare, thanne erle of Gloucestre, herynge therof, wolde nought sufrre hym to be drawe out on the morwe after, that is to say the Soneday, for reverence of his holy day; and so the Jewe deyde in the preve.

This is in 1258, shortly after the death of Hugh of Lincoln and 30 years before England became the first country in Europe to expel its Jewish population.

The iPhone isn’t ideal for reading, but if you choose a fairly low-contrast combination of colours for the page and the text, it’s entirely manageable. I haven’t read anything very long yet, but if I was going on holiday I think I could do worse than take a dozen assorted books on my phone: a few Victorian novels, some poetry, who knows. Hell, if you’re willing to actually pay for the books, you can get ones which are still in copyright. The Chronicle actually works quite well because I can just dip into it from time to time and read a few pages without worrying about losing the thread.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, is a selection of letters between the various Mitford sisters, who were an extraordinary bunch. From oldest to youngest: Nancy was the novelist who wrote Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love; Pamela was least remarkable; Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity went off to Germany and became a personal friend of Hitler; Jessica ran away from home to join a cousin fighting on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and became a civil rights activist and writer in America; and Deborah, the only surviving sister, is now Duchess of Devonshire and spent most of her life working to make Chatsworth House into a profitable outfit.

Among the notable names that crop up: Hitler, Goebbels, Churchill, Harold Macmillan, General de Gaulle, JFK, John Betjemen, Evelyn Waugh, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Queen, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Noel Coward… so there’s lots of good material there. 

The main interest in the early part of the book is the Big History stuff: the Nazis and Hitler most of all. I read it trying to get some sense of what appealed to Unity and Diana about Fascism, but although there are lots of letters about Hitler, and going to rallies and so on, I never quite got a handle on it. I suspect that for Diana, it was as much because of her attraction to Oswald Mosley as any ideology, but it can’t have just been that. And Unity seems to have had an with Hitler before she met him in the way someone might have an obsession with Elvis or Princess Diana. She found out where he regularly went to eat and kept going there until she had the chance to wangle an introduction.

I suppose since half of Europe went Fascist in the thirties, there’s no need for a special explanation. The same thing appealed to them as to everyone else: whatever that was. It’s perhaps easier to look back and empathise with the appeal of communism, but still, with that too it would be interesting to know what triggered it: was there some particular conversation or book? What would be enough to make Jessica run off to Spain in pursuit of it?

As the book goes on and the sisters get older and less active, the focus narrows down from these Big Issues onto their family dynamics, which are often made rather tense by the growing interest in them and the various books and TV programmes made by themselves and others. It’s still fascinating, though. 

It helps that they all write well: their letters are chatty, funny, sometimes serious, and frequently quite bitchy. Nancy had the sharpest edge, but they all had their caustic moments. I probably ought to quote something, so here’s a fairly random bit that I thought showed a sharp eye. This is Diana writing to Deborah in 1960; Max is her son. He’s the Max Mosley currently in the news, as it happens.

Yesterday Max fetched me in the Austin Healey Sprite & drove me to Oxford where Jean had made a delicious middle day dinner. The flat is marvellous, not one ugly thing, & a view over playing fields to real country & a garden with an apple tree. ALL the wedding presents were being used — your car, Desmond’s china, Emma’s Derby ware, Viv’s pressure cooker, Muv’s pink blanket on the bed and (pièce de résistance) Wife’s coffee set — also of course Freddy Bailey’s canteen of silver.

Oh Debo, the pathos of the young. Don’t let’s think.

Charlotte Mosley, who edited the book, is daughter-in-law of Diana, so one wonders if she is, or could be, completely objective — it’s impossible to know whether she has quietly laundered anything out, and apparently, even at 800 pages, what appears in the book is a tiny percentage of the total — but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» the image, which has nothing to do with the Mitfords beyond the obvious, is POSTER – WOMEN OF NAZI GERMANY, posted to Flickr by Bristle’s Film Posters [ W1 ]. If it’s working, that is: Flickr seems a little flaky today.

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