The Invention of Tradition

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, is a selection of essays by different historians. To quote the blurb: 

Many of the traditions which we think of as ancient in their origins were, in fact, invented comparatively recently. This book explores examples of this process of invention […]

There’s a great quote in the section on the British monarchy. This is Lord Robert Cecil in 1860, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament:

Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. […] This aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of a non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous… Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.

150 years later, the British have bigger, more pompous and more gilt-ridden ceremonies than almost anyone, and we see ourselves as especially good at pageantry: the opening of parliament, coronations, jubilees, royal weddings and funerals, and all of it presented as though it was ancient continuous tradition. And in fact much of the content, at least for the coronation, is ancient: it’s just that between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, the preparation was generally half-arsed and the results shambolic. Apart from anything else, the symbolism was awkward; Britain was a democracy of a sort, and as long as the monarch was a partisan political figure people were reluctant to surround them with all the trappings of divinely-provided power. It was only once the monarch was reduced to a figurehead that we could safely put them in the centre of these grand pantomimes.

The book also has an essay about the Scots (all that twaddle about clan tartans) and the Welsh (druids and the Eisteddfod), but those stories were broadly familiar, so in some ways the bits I found most interesting were about the British inventing traditions out in the Empire. For example, in India, where they had the problem of how best to assert Imperial authority over a ‘country’ which was in fact hundreds of small kingdoms held together by force, and how to project Queen Victoria as the focus of that authority while she was thousands of miles away. And although the British had been in India for a long time by then, this represented a new focus, since it was only in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny/India’s First War of Independence in 1857 that control of India was taken from the East India Company and taken over by the state.

So in 1876 they held the ‘Imperial Assemblage’ to mark Victoria’s accession to her imperial title as ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’ when Indian kings/princes/maharajas gathered with their entourages at a site near Delhi to take turns to approach a pavilion decorated in British heraldic imagery, and each was presented with a banner which had a coat of arms in the European heraldic tradition, designed for the occasion by a Bengal civil servant called Robert Taylor. It sounds like an extraordinary event: apart from the basic weirdness of it, the scale was immense; ‘at least eighty four thousand people’ attended in one role or another. Sadly I haven’t managed to find a picture of the event, but below is the banner presented to Rajabahadur Raghunath Savant Bhonsle, the ruler of Savantvadi.

banner presented to the ruler of Savantvadi

Thinking about all this reminded me of my own little moment of inventing tradition. When I was at university, there a couple of people at my halls of residence who wanted to start an all-male discussion club where the members would take turns to present a little speech on some interesting topic, and then everyone would drink sherry and discuss. A couple of friends and I took great delight in coming up with a ludicrously silly constitution for the club, which laid down arcane traditions and provided bizarre titles for the various officers. For example, every meeting was supposed to start with ‘the toasting of the Pope’: a different Pope each week, working through them in chronological order from St Peter onwards. There was no Catholic connection, pro or anti; I think it was just that the phrase ‘the toasting of the Pope’ was amusing. In the event there was one meeting and then the club fizzled out. And a good thing too, frankly.

Actually, though, the whole episode was rather fitting; after all, the University of Bristol itself is an institution whose landmark building is a vast Gothic edifice built not in the middle ages, or even at the height of the Gothic Revival in the mid C19th, but in 1915. Pretending to be older than it is — pretending to be Oxbridge, really — is what Bristol does.

Anyway, the book is interesting; some of the essays are better than others — Hobsbawm’s own contribution struck me as especially weak — but I’m glad I read it. A slight typographical gripe: irritatingly, quoted passages are marked only by the left margin being indented exactly as much as the first line of each paragraph is indented, which makes it extremely unobvious which paragraphs are quoted. I’m not suggesting that’s a reason to avoid the book; I was just irritated by it.

» img364, posted to flickr by Black and white archive, shows the 1953 Coronation celebrations in Edith Road, Smethwick. The banner is from the British Library.

1000 AD survival tips

Kottke pointed out this thread, a discussion starting from this question:

I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.

The discussion was picked up at and Metafilter.

All those threads are deeply fascinating for what they say about people’s attitudes to the past (and indeed their historical knowledge or lack of it). Most of the responses seem to fall into one of two types; the ludicrously over-confidant: “With my crazy future knowledge verily I will become as a God! I will invent the steam engine! And antibiotics!” and the opposite: “Aargh! By local standards I will be ignorant, stupid and freaky and so I will be burnt as a witch/raped/murdered/die of exposure/murdered again! I won’t last a week!”

I obviously have too high a faith in human nature, because it seems to me that clearly the right thing to do is find the nearest settlement (probably not very far: Europe wasn’t as densely populated then, but most places would be under cultivation), act in as non-threatening a manner as possible, look willing to help in any way possible, and do a Blanche DuBois: rely upon the kindness of strangers.

You’d be unlikely to end up as anything more successful than a serf, and if you happened to turn up at a time of famine or war you’d almost certainly be fucked, but I still think it’s your best chance of survival. The Middle Ages were pretty brutal, but that doesn’t mean that everyone then was either a bumbling idiot or a psychopath.

» The illustration is from the Lindisfarne Gospels and so about 300 years too early for the question, but hey-ho.

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

Full, slightly overblown title: Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory. This is a book about the relationship between England and Holland in the C17th. It’s an interesting period, of course: the C17th was Holland’s ‘Golden Age’, when the country was not only a wealthy global power but at the intellectual and especially artistic forefront of Europe. For me, the art is especially remarkable: there are three of the all-time greats in Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer, and a huge number of other important artists like Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and Aelbert Cuyp.

Indeed, not only were the Dutch producing lots of their own great artists: they exported them over the channel; most notably but not only Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Lely, who between them seem to have painted most of the society portraits in England at the time. And of course the other most notable Anglo-Dutch connection was that by the end of the century, England had acquired a Dutch king: William of Orange.

That acquisition is usually referred to by the British as ‘The Glorious Revolution’, a name which combines just the right amounts of grandeur and vagueness to discourage too much analysis. But as Jardine makes clear, seen from an outside perspective, and especially perhaps from a Dutch perspective, it looks an awful lot like the Dutch conquest of England. William sailed across the channel with a fleet of 500 ships and 40,000 men, including 20,000 armed troops, marched on London and took power. The only reason it can be remembered as anything Glorious, rather than a bloody conquest or yet another Anglo-Dutch war, is that James II didn’t put up a fight. He was unpopular with just about everyone, not least because he was Catholic, and not really getting on with his own army, and he decided to flee rather than press the issue. Who knows what would have happened if he’d been a little more forceful and decisive.

This was, in some ways, a family affair: William and his wife Mary were both grandchildren of Charles I.* In fact they probably would have been most likely to succeed James II anyway, except that James’s wife, after a long string of miscarriages, unexpectedly produced a male baby and screwed everything up for the Oranges.

The strength of William-and-Mary’s claim to the throne made it easier for the English to accept them as joint monarch; Lisa Jardine’s books sets out to demonstrate that the tangled relationship between the Stuarts and the House of Orange is actually typical of a very strong cultural link between England and Holland throughout the C17th; that much of what became typically English, and much of the groundwork that enabled England to became a great power in the C18th and C19th, came from Holland.

She certainly successfully demonstrates an enormous amount of interaction between the two countries: in art, music, gardening, science and indeed socially. One of the most striking examples was the testing of Christian Huygens’s clock design on a British ship; Huygens had been corresponding with members of the Royal Society in London, who arranged for his new clock to be tested as a possible solution to the longtitude problem by a captain in the Royal Navy. On the very mission where he was testing this Dutch clock design, the captain plundered all the Dutch trading posts along the coast of Ghana, triggering the Second Anglo-Dutch War in the process. You might think this would interfere with relations between London and the Hague, but no, the correspondence carried on as though nothing had happened.

I suppose the only question a sceptical reader might have is whether you would find similar levels of influence and connection if you studied, say, Anglo-French relations at the same time. Is there a specific and exceptional connection between England and Holland at this period, or just the normal amount for two neighbouring countries? She seems pretty convincing to me, but I’m not in a position to judge.

* I’ll try to explain, but the same names keep coming up attached to different people, so you’ll need to concentrate. Charles I’s daughter Mary married William II of Orange; her son William is the one who became king of England. He, William III of Orange, married another Mary, the daughter of James II and thus the granddaughter of Charles I (and his own first cousin). So when he invaded England, he was deposing his uncle and father-in-law.

» The pictures are all details from the wedding portrait of the fourteen-year-old William to the nine-year-old Mary, painted in London by Anthony Van Dyck and now in the Rijksmuseum. Both because that picture seems appropriate and because there’s a high-quality reproduction of it in the Wikimedia Commons.

Prokudin-Gorskii photographs

I’ve actually linked to these before, but a post over at i heart photograph reminded me about them and I was browsing through them again. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian photographer taking colour pictures in the years before the Great War. He took three black and white negatives of each subject using different coloured filters, then reassembled them using a projector and coloured light.

The Library of Congress have used a digital version of this process to recreate the images and have put them online. The one above is a harvest scene from 1909, but also check out i.e. Woman in Samarkand, dog, Siberian scenery, Georgian woman in national costume. [as Jean points out, those links don’t work: you’ll just have to browse the collection]

I find the particular aesthetic of the lurid coloured borders as appealing as the subjects, though those clearly have historical and ethnographic interest. 

Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney

Or to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (under 200 pages, including the index) overview of dating technologies for a general audience: radio isotope dating, dendrochronology, Antarctic ice cores and so on. And I enjoyed it; Turney writes well, and he whizzes through the material leaving me feeling a bit better-informed without it being too much like hard work. And I think that’s pretty good going for what is a very technical subject.

Interestingly he starts with what I don’t think of as a ‘scientific’ technique at all: his first example of dating is an attempt to fix a plausible date for King Arthur by looking at all the different manuscript evidence and trying to coordinate it. This carries all the usual problems of early medieval history: sparse evidence; second, third, fourth-hand accounts written many years after the event; confusions between different calendars and so on.

I was slightly surprised by this way of starting the book, but actually it’s quite a good way into the subject. Without any of the technical stuff about radioactive isotopes it illustrates the same kind of problems you might have dating a fossil or anything else: trying to reconcile various kinds of data, each of which carries its own particular problems and sources of error.

knitted ammonite and belemnite on Flickr

The choice of King Arthur, as opposed to any of the other myriad shadowy early medieval figures, is an indication of his popular instincts: he does like to use colourful examples. So we get the Turin Shroud, the Pyramids, Thera, Java Man. Which is fine by me.

So brief, colourful, and not too technical overview of what is really a vast and complex subject, but if that’s what you’re looking for (and on the whole I think it was), it does a good job of it.

» Pictures from Flickr. iggy6, the felt Iguanadon, is by feltfinland; the knitted ammonite and belemnite is by audreym.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

Deletionists, Inclusionists, and the joy of the trivial.

There is, I gather, an ongoing philosophical debate running behind the scenes of Wikipedia; one which will probably run forever. On the one side are the deletionists; on the other are the inclusionists. The question is how to deal with articles about less important subjects: one side generally favours deleting them, the other would prefer to include. The deletionists see Wikipedia as an attempt to create an online version of a traditional encyclopedia; only important subjects are worthy of an article. In the jargon, they have to be ‘notable’. The inclusionists would tend to allow articles on any subject, however obscure. They make a virtue of the fact that ‘wiki is not paper’: that there is no material constraint that prevents it growing indefinitely.

I’m on the inclusionist side. I just can’t see what harm it does if, for example, every primary school in Norfolk has its own article on Wikipedia. Or indeed every bakery or hairdresser’s in Norfolk. And I think that trivial information has its own value.

the West Sussex Dairy Company

I’m not trying to make a radically relativist case, that your local florist is just as important as Paradise Lost; of course Wikipedia should strive to have good coverage of the core encyclopedic subject matter. And I can completely see why some of the people who edit Wikipedia find it faintly embarrassing that the coverage of Doctor Who is so much more comprehensive than the coverage of Elizabethan drama (I haven’t actually checked whether that’s true; bet it is, though).

But I’d like to make the comparison with the Evanion Collection of Ephemera. Evanion was the professional name of the Victorian conjurer and ventriloquist Harry Evans. He collected trade cards, catalogues, advertisements, posters: all kinds of rubbish. It is, almost by definition, a collection of the sort of thing that deletionists at a Victorian Wikipedia would have rejected as non-notable. Now, proudly displayed on the British Library website, it is endlessly fascinating.

Steiner's Insect Powder

Or take a more recent example. If all has gone according to plan, just below this post should be a post with links to YouTube clips recorded from a Detroit TV station in the late 80s and early 90s. Some are from a dance show, with locals dressed up for a night out and dancing to Detroit techno; the others are recorded from ad breaks for the same show. They are only twenty years old, but already they have the same fascination as the Evanion material: a record of a very particular time and place through fashion, music, the adverts made by small local businesses; the ephemeral and trivial.

Wikipedia has only been running for seven years and is already an extraordinary success. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be going in a hundred years. There are two points I’d take from that. Firstly, taking the longer view, there is still loads of time to build up the serious encyclopedia stuff: Elizabethan drama, C16th Chinese porcelain, whatever. But also: who knows what people will find interesting, now or in twenty or a hundred years time. Just record it, let people sort it out for themselves.

» For more discussions about deletionism vs. inclusionism, check out this rather lovely article from the NYRB that I linked to before; or this blog post which I found via a post at Language Log. The ad for the West Suffolk Dairy Co. and E. Steiner’s Prime Dalmation Insect Powder are both from the Evanion collection at the British Library.

A London particular

And a peculiarly London sun – against which nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot – glorified all this by its stare. It hung at a moderate elevation above Hyde Park Corner with an air of punctual and benign vigilance. The very pavement under Mr Verloc’s feet had an old-gold tinge in that diffused light, in which neither wall, nor tree, nor beast, nor man cast a shadow. Mr Verloc was going westward through a town without shadows in an atmosphere of powdered old gold. There were red, coppery gleams on the roofs of houses, on the corners of walls, on the panels of carriages, on the very coats of the horses, and on the broad back of Mr Verloc’s overcoat, where they produced a dull effect of rustiness.

from The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Of all the things that have changed in London, that cut us off from our ancestors’ experience of the city, perhaps the most profound, more even than the sounds and the smells, is the fog. Not just the thick pea-soupers which brought visibility down to a few feet, but the continual smokey haze from millions of coal-burning fireplaces.

Just as people go on painting holidays to Cornwall or Tuscany, Monet and Whistler used to come to London for the special quality of the light. For Whistler

when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone.

Chimneys become campanili, warehouses become palaces, and familiar buildings become strange to us.

Houses of parliament in the fog by Monet

The whole way the city was built was affected by the fog.

Building News, in 1881, discussed the fact that ‘the smoky atmosphere has done its best to clothe our most costly buildings in thin drapery of soot … they soon become dark and sombre masses … all play of light and shade is lost.’ That is precisely why architects decided to clothe their buildings in bright red brick and shining terracotta so that they would remain visible; the features of nineteenth-century building, which may seem vulgar or gaudy, were attempts to stabilise the identity and legibility of the city.

from London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

But it didn’t just apply to buildings; the city’s archetypal tree, the London Plane, which lines the streets and squares of the city and provides roosting space for the starlings, was planted because with its thick leathery leaves and flaking bark, it could survive the smoke. The classic park planting scheme — geometrical beds of brightly coloured hardy annuals — surely resulted not from a lack of imagination among park-keepers, but a need to show up in the gloom, resist the air pollution for as long as possible, and be easily replaceable if the plants died.

The sun was shining and at the end of the street between the houses the sky was blue. Gauzily the distances faded to a soft, rich indistinctness; there were veils of golden muslin thickening down the length of every vista. On the trees in Hanover Square gardens the young leaves were still so green that they seemed to be alight, green fire, and the sooty trunks looked blacker and dirtier than ever. It would have been a pleasant and apposite thing if a cuckoo had started calling. But though the cuckoo was silent it was a happy day. A day, Gumbril reflected, as he strolled idly along, to be in love.

from Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

It’s easy to forget just how physically dirty the city used to be. There was a general griminess over the whole city; you get a sense of it looking at old photos, but you didn’t quite appreciate how dirty the buildings were until you saw them being cleaned. The process of cleaning away the smoke stains from central London has been pretty much finished now, but there was a time when you often found a newly cleaned building next to a filthy one, and the contrast was almost black and white. The Houses of Parliament used to be a gloomy, almost sinister-looking building; now it’s delicate and honey-coloured. It has shifted from vampire gothic towards fairy-princess gothic.

view of the Thames from the Savoy by Whistler

Searching for references to fog in the British Library collections, I found this, an account in the Penny Illustrated from 12th October 1861 of a display given by the great tightrope walker Blondin at Crystal Palace:

Blondin on the terrace rope, illuminating himself and the palace, was justly expected to outshine all former spectacles. Unhappily, the mist that had hung about all day and woven itself with the twilight into a veil that wrapped every every statue, tree, and tower in early darkness, thickened into fog soon after sunset. At half-past six, when Blondin started in his basket for the mast, he could be seen only a few yards off, until he lighted the pan of blue fire he carried in each hand. On reaching the mast he kindled the lights fixed there; but they did not suffice to show even the outline of his form. For the next half-hour or so he was completely invisible–at any rate, to our eye. Yet he must have traversed the rope right and left for a considerable distance; for he exploded the fireworks in his barrow, as announced, and made as brilliant an exhibition as the fog would permit. Here and there arose from the grounds an applauding recognition as he made his way back to the mast, and he was warmly greeted on his return to the palace.

The Chinese government will not doubt be praying that nothing similar happens in Beijing this summer.

» The photo is of Hyde Park corner, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn and found on the British Library website. Other foggy pictures from his 1909 book London: Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Kingsway, Paddington Canal, Kensington Gardens. The Monet painting of the Houses of Parliament in the fog is one of several on Wikipedia. The lithograph of the Thames seen from the Savoy is by Whistler and is from the Tate’s Turner Whistler Monet exhibition from a few years ago. And as a reward for reading the small-print: Animal from the Muppets Animal sings Gershwin.

The Thames path, Westminster to Putney

I talked about the juxtaposition of the C19th Gothic of Tower Bridge and the genuine medievalness of the Tower of London: not, in my opinion, one of the great planning decisions in the history of London. Well, at Westminster, you meet with a similar case. The Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament), started in 1840, sits over the road from Westminster Abbey, started six hundred years earlier in 1245, and does its best to insinuate that it’s been there all along.

The fact that this revival of a five-hundred-old style occurred in the throes of the Industrial Revolution is fascinating to me. And at a time when wealth was moving faster than ever from the hands of the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, and when reform was broadening democracy and extending the franchise, the symbolism of choosing a parliament building in a style associated with feudalism and religion could keep the semioticians busy for weeks.

Big Ben

But symbolism aside, the finished result is far more successful than the Bridge/Tower combination. It helps that there’s a historical logic to it; it was after all built to replace the original medieval Palace of Westminster that burnt down in the 1830s, and it incorporates the medieval Westminster Hall. A lot of Victorian Gothic looks very Victorian indeed, because of the materials used or because a few Gothic motifs have been sprinkled on an essentially C19th building. And that’s no bad thing: much more interesting to reinvent a style for a new age than produce slavish reproductions. But in this case, given the location, I think it’s quite fitting that it does manage to look kind of ‘authentically’ medieval. Compared, for example, to the Buxton Memorial fountain marking the abolition of the slave trade:

Buxton memorial fountain

And if it slightly overshadows Westminster Abbey: well, it’s an important building. Having Parliament in a vast, grandiose, sprawling palace while the Prime Minister’s residence is an anonymous terraced townhouse must be better than the other way round.

Heading off along the river, the next major landmark is what I still think of as ‘the Tate’ but is now ‘Tate Britain’, thanks to Nicholas Serota’s empire-building and his ruthless crackdown on definite articles. And on the opposite side of the river, the building a friend of mine used to refer to as Ming the Merciless’s palace.

MI6 building

It is in fact the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I don’t know whether the architects were specifically asked for something that squats on the riverbank like a gigantic stony-faced toad, or if it just seemed appropriate. I remember reading once that it was supposed to look from air like the portcullis which is the symbol for the Palace of Westminster; thanks to Google Maps you can now see that it sort of slightly does.

The impact of it is somewhat diluted now by the presence just over the bridge of St George Wharf, the ugliest building in London. I remember quite liking St George Wharf when it was first built; during my lifetime, London (and indeed the UK) hasn’t always felt like a forward-looking, self-confident kind of place, and a boom in constructing big shiny new buildings was quite exciting in and of itself. But it just looks uglier every time I see it. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it. And St George Wharf itself is soon going to be overlooked by a 49-storey tower built by the same company. Yay. Vauxhall wasn’t exactly a site of outstanding architectural beauty before the developers got there, mind you.

Anyway, I crossed over Vauxhall Bridge because I wanted to do the next bit of the walk on the south side of the river; mainly because I wanted to go past London’s favourite white elephant, Battersea Power Station. I guess BPS isn’t very well known outside London except to Pink Floyd fans, but it’s an old friend to Londoners, particularly those who regularly take the train into Victoria from south London. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Bankside Power Station which now houses Tate Modern. The building is protected because of its architectural importance, and since it stopped producing electricity in the 80s, a sequence of developers have supposedly been converting it to some other use (theme park, shopping centre, whatever). The cynical theory is that their plan is to let it deteriorate to the point where eventually the government lets them knock it down and stick up a load of apartment buildings.

Battersea Power Station

It was first built as a long narrow building with a chimney at each end (picture), and I actually think it was a more attractive building like that; elegant and cathedral like. But it was expanded in the 50s with a second turbine hall alongside the first, giving it its current upside-down table/dead dog look. Still, even if it messed up the proportions, it also made it much more striking and memorable. And if an impressive-but-ugly building sticks around for long enough, it eventually becomes much-loved. People even have nice things to say about the Albert Memorial.

As it turns out, you can’t see the Power Station especially well from the Thames Path anyway; the path cuts inland to go around the Power Station site and the site is surrounded by hoardings that largely obscure it. You’d probably get a better overall view from the other side of the river. Still, it was quite interesting; it goes past the market at Nine Elms, where the wholesale fruit and flower markets moved when Covent Garden was converted to a tourist trap; some nice houseboats, including one which, in what I thought was a particularly stylish touch, had a lawn on the deck; a recycling processing plant; and then Battersea Park, which was really very nice on a sunny day. The park has all sorts of different areas, but where the path goes it’s laid out in little elaborately shaped flower beds surrounded by iron fencing and looks, to my eyes, like a very classic Victorian city park; oddly enough it made me think of Paris. It’s also the site of the London Peace Pagoda, a distinctly random but quite attractive feature added in the 80s.

London Peace Pagoda

Then I went back over the river across the Albert Bridge. I think this might be the most attractive bridge in London. It’s nowhere near as striking as Tower Bridge, but it’s a lot prettier, with its decorative metalwork painted white and picked out in pale blue, pink and pistachio. It’s frothy and whimsical. The signs reading ‘All troops must break step when marching over this bridge’ only add to the sense of delicate lightness.

The walk then takes you through Chelsea, now of course one of the most expensive bits of London, but as recently as the late C19th it was louche and cheap enough to be where all the artists lived. The Hoxton of its time. Whistler did lots of paintings of Chelsea and Battersea, of course, and his is one of the many blue plaques that you pass on this section of the walk.

This is the last bit of the walk which takes you along the Thames Embankment. All the way from Blackfriars Bridge, in the City, to Battersea Bridge, there is a road that sweeps along the north bank of the Thames; it would give it a fine boulevardesque quality if it was a just a bit more pedestrian-friendly. In fact there’s too much traffic for it to really make a good place for a stroll; flâneurs should head for the South Bank or one of the parks. What’s not obvious is that it’s entirely built over a sewer; all the piss and shit of west London accumulates under there and is carried off downriver. It was one of the great civil engineering projects of C19th London, and put a stop not just to the regular cholera epidemics but the smell.

I can think of nothing interesting to say about Putney at all.

» These pictures and others can all be found in my Thames Path Flickr set. If you just want to see the ones from this section of the walk, they are tagged thamespath4. I’ve also posted some photos taken on the walk to my photoblog, Clouded Drab; they are tagged Thames Path.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a biography of Stalin, focussed on his domestic life and the tightly-knit group of people around him: his own family, and politicians, bodyguards, and their families.

As a piece of history, it’s very impressive. It’s clearly the result of a huge amount of research by Montefiore: he seems to have personally interviewed just about every living relative of the major figures, quite apart from the endless reading of archives and memoirs that must have been involved. As a casual reader I found it slightly hard going at times. I didn’t do it any favours by largely reading it in bed at night, but even allowing for that, I found it hard to keep track of all the people involved. I found I was having difficulty remembering which was which even of the most important figures, like Molotov, Mikoyan and Malenkov.

I don’t know if that’s an inevitable result of a book with quite so many people in it — it’s not a subject I’ve read about before, and all the unfamiliar Russian names didn’t help — or if it’s my fault for reading it while drowsy, or if there’s more Montefiore could have done to fix the various people in my mind. I didn’t find I got much sense of their various personalities that would have helped me keep them separate. Still, what I did get was a strong sense of Stalin himself, and his trajectory from a charming (though ruthless) young man living an almost campus lifestyle at the Kremlin, surrounded by the young families of his colleagues, to a sickly, garrulous old despot wandering nomadically from dacha to dacha and living in a vortex of terror and awe.

But even a sense of what Stalin was like to live and work with doesn’t get you much closer to understanding his motivations and the motivations of people around him. Was it just about power or did he believe to the end that he was acting in the interests of Russia and the party? The inner clique around Stalin clearly knew at some level that all the denunciations and show trials were arbitrary and could attach to anyone: they saw the process happen over and over again. And when colleagues they had known for years confessed to ludicrously unlikely accusations, they surely can’t have believed it. But the things they said and wrote suggest that at the same time they sort of did believe it, and remained theoretically committed to the ideology to the end. It made me inclined to reread 1984, because the concept of ‘doublethink’ is so startlingly apt.

In some ways the Stalinist purges are even more incomprehensible than the Holocaust. The Holocaust at least has a kind of simple central narrative: an attempt to exterminate the Jews. It fits into a thousand year history of European anti-Semitism as well as a broader human history of racism and genocide. The purges don’t offer any kind of similarly clear story: at different times they focussed on different things. It might be a whole social class, a profession, an ethnicity, or it might start with one or two individuals that Stalin was suspicious of and spread out through their colleagues and families to take in hundreds of people. Targets included kulaks, engineers, doctors, army officers, Poles, Jews, ethnic Germans, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Koreans: in fact any ethnic minority that could provide a possible focus for dissent. The total number of deaths, including not just those executed but those who died in slave labour camps or famine, is disputed; but 20 million is apparently a plausible ballpark figure.

At one stage Stalin was setting two quotas for the different regions: the number to be shot and the number to be arrested. These numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but the regions were soon writing back and requesting that their quotas be extended — out of ideological zeal? In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty? Or just because these things have a momentum of their own?

It’s a staggering story and despite the slight reservations I expressed earlier, this is a very impressive book.

» The photo, Posing for communisim, was posted to Flickr by famous boxer and is used under a by-nc-nd licence. It was taken at the 2006 May Day protest in London and shows members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The CPGB-ML website has a link to the Stalin Society, “formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” Which just goes to show… well, I don’t know what, really.

The Thames path, London Bridge to Westminster

A fairly short chunk of the path; I was intending to go a bit further, but the sun went in and I wasn’t really enjoying it much so I hopped on the tube at Westminster. Still, if you use one of the traditional definitions of a city—a town with a cathedral—this section includes the three medieval cities at the centre of London; it starts by Southwark Cathedral, goes past St Paul’s and ends at Westminster Abbey.

Just to explain that, because I guess not everyone knows the history of London: the royal court and the government was based at Westminster, separated by about a kilometere of fields from London, the mercantile and legal centre where all the law courts and guilds were based. The dynamic between the two is quite interesting, I think: London had a lot of legal autonomy (and indeed money) so even in the days of apparently absolute monarchs the balance of power was less clear cut than you might think. To this day when the Queen goes to St Paul’s for some kind of ceremonial function, her coach stops at the boundaries of the City of London and she asks permission to enter. As a South Londoner it pains me to say it, but Southwark wasn’t really much more than the overflow from London over London Bridge, although because of some kind of legal quirk that meant it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of London it became the centre for bear pits, whorehouses, theatres and similarly disreputable trades. Which is why The Globe was there.


That distinction between the mercantile City of London and Westminster as the seat of government has persisted, of course: we even still refer to ‘The City’ as shorthand for the banking and financial services sector and ‘Westminster’ as shorthand for parliament and government. I find these echoes of the longer history of London interesting because so little physically remains. The Great Fire of 1666 really did burn down nearly the entirety of medieval London. Much of it would no doubt have been knocked down anyway, whether by the Luftwaffe, town planners or commercial developers; but even things like the churches, which might normally offer that kind of continuity, were lost. And most of the Palace of Westminster burnt down in the C19th as well, so that was another major medieval building lost. There are still a few left: Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Guildhall. But there’s no part of London you can visit and feel you’re in contact with what the city was like. The oldest part of the city is a business district, so it’s all office buildings. All that’s left is the street names: Old Jewry, Cripplegate, Milk Street, London Wall, Blackfriars, Hosier Lane, Carmelite Street.

What’s amazing is that London and Westminster remained separate up until about the mid C18th. So it took about 700 years for London to spread the one kilometre westwards to reach Westminster; but in the next 150 years it spread something like 10 km in all directions.

St Paul's from the path

Anyway, you may be wondering why I’m wittering on about the history of London instead of talking about the actual walk. It’s because I didn’t find it very interesting. I decided to walk the north bank because I more often go along the southern side, because of Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre and so on. There quite a few theoretically interesting things to look at: war memorials, the Millennium Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle, a glimpse of St Paul’s and a couple of the Christopher Wren city churches, as well as views of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the Oxo tower. And just at the end, Big Ben and Portcullis House. But it’s all very familiar; and the path goes past the City and the West End without actually having much contact with them.

It doesn’t help that if you’re walking the north bank in winter, the light is coming from over the river all the time. So everything on the other side of the river was backlit and dificult to photograph; and I really need a wider-angle lens to take pictures of buildings near me.

» Once again I’ve added the pictures to my Thames Path set on Flickr; these ones are tagged with thamespath3.

George III and the Mad-Business by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter

I highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it’s about poor mad George III. And even Americans, brought up to think of George III as a tyrant, might have a little sympathy for him after reading this.

detail of Hogarth

It starts with a detailed account of his illness—or his illnesses, really, since he initially suffered from relatively brief bouts, separated by long periods of good health. Having offered a diagnosis of porphyria, which is a hereditary condition, Macalpine and Hunter examine the medical histories of George II’s relatives and demonstrate that porphyria can be identified, with varying degrees of confidence, in a startling number of them; most notably perhaps in James I, Mary Queen of Scots and Frederick the Great of Prussia.

detail of Hogarth

The book then moves on to a survey of C18th psychiatry, both in terms of its theoretical basis and treatment, and looks at the way it developed. Not surprisingly, George’s illness had a huge impact on the mad-business because of the publicity surrounding it. The idea of a king being forcibly confined in a strait-waistcoat focussed people’s minds on the treatment of the insane. The book traces developments in the treatment of patients and the law surrounding insanity, both in terms of treatment and things like criminal responsibility. Finally it looks at the way developments in psychiatry have affected historians’ portrayal of George III.

mad ‘king’ in Bedlam

It is, as I say, fascinating. The account of his illness is remarkable, not least because of the political chaos around it. It was just the moment when, although Britain was increasingly recognisable as a modern democracy and decision-making increasingly rested with the Prime Minister and parliament, the king was still an important enough figure that his incapacity led to a crisis. And since the question of whether or not to establish a Regency depended on it, and a Regency would mean a change of government, his treatment was incredibly politicised. His doctors issued regular bulletins about his status, which were pored over by all concerned; his doctors themselves became associated with different political factions and found it very difficult to agree on anything.

Meanwhile the king was kept from his loved ones, frequently confined to a strait-waistcoat, and was subjected to a variety of unpleasant and intrusive treatments—bleeding, cupping, blistering, emetics—none of which, we now know, did him any good at all. And at least one aspect of his treatment, a ‘lowering’ diet without any meat in it, will have been actively making him worse.

detail of Hogarth

Still, interesting though all that is, it was starting to get a bit repetitive—thoroughness is a great quality in a historian, but doesn’t always make for riveting reading—and I was glad to get past the details of George’s case and onto the broader stuff, which I found fascinating. For example, as psychiatry increasingly worked under the theory that mental illnesses are self-contained and separate from physical illnesses, the king was retrospectively diagnosed with ‘manic-depressive psychosis’ , and all of his various and violent physical symptoms—pain, fast pulse, colic, sweating, hoarseness, stupor—were interpreted as hysterical, or even as invented by the Court to disguise the truth of his condition.

detail of Hogarth

And because it was assumed that he must always have been manic-depressive, the diagnosis colours historians’ portrayals of his whole personality:

Watson, in the standard Oxford history of the reign, writes : ‘He lacked the pliability and easy virtue of less highly strung people. When his obstinacy encountered an immovable obstacle, all his resources were at an end and the black humour claimed him… Madness was but this mood in an extreme form.’

The book quotes a whole series of similar descriptions. But the king’s early biographers presented a completely different picture, and in fact, we now know that between bouts of illness, sufferers from porphyria can be very healthy. Macalpine and Hunter are pretty scathing about psychiatry generally; the book was written in 1969, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought there had been any progress in the meantime.

» the pictures are details from ‘The Interior of Bedlam’, the final scene in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. It predates the king’s first bout of madness, so the fact that one of the inmates thinks he is the king is not a jibe at George III. I got the picture from this site about the history of Missouri’s first state mental hospital.

Erasmus Darwin by Desmond King-Hele

This is a biography of Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He was a doctor by trade, and one of the most highly rated in the country, but was one of those classic Enlightenment figures whose interests included botany, meteorology, physics, chemistry, engineering, philosophy and just about anything else that came his way. And for a few years he was the most successful and critically acclaimed poet in England.

He seems to have been effortlessly brilliant at everything; the list of inventions and discoveries which can be attributed to him is startling. The inventions include: an improved steering system for carriages, a machine for writing in duplicate, a temperature-regulated system for opening and closing the windows of a greenhouse, a machine that reproduced human speech, an artificial bird, an improved seed-drill, the gas turbine, the rocket motor, cataract surgery and the canal lift. Scientific principles include: the ideal gas law, the chemical composition of water, the structure of the atmosphere, the formation of clouds, the artesian well, and of course evolution.


Even so, there’s a touch of defiance in the book’s full title: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. That’s because almost everything on that list comes with a caveat of one kind or another. For example, many of them are based on a few lines or a quick sketch appearing in his Commonplace Book or in one of his letters; and while it’s undoubtedly takes a remarkably inventive mind to come up with the principle for the gas turbine a hundred years ahead of its time, if it never gets beyond a quick scribble it’s a very limited achievement. Another example is his improved steering system, which worked by just angling the wheels left and right instead of turning the whole axle. This creates a much more stable carriage and is the principle used by all modern cars. Darwin built a carriage on this model, and used it successfully for decades going over thousands of miles of bumpy roads to visit his patients; but he never made a real effort to market the idea and it died with him.

Which isn’t to say he had nothing to show for his scientific brilliance. He submitted quite a few papers to the Royal Society on subjects like meteorology and geology; he did the first English translation of Linnaeus, and wrote a major book on medicine. But there is no one major achievement you can attach his name to. Partly that’s because he was a very hard-working doctor. Not only did it take up a lot of time; he was also very worried about his professional reputation. Much of his work was published anonymously because he didn’t want to detract from that reputation, and the biggest single factor that prevented him from achieving more as a scientist was probably that he always put his career first.

And when he did commit to major works he didn’t always make the best choices. His translation of Linnaeus’s botanical taxonomy was drudgery really, the scientific equivalent of translating a phonebook, even if it did add a few words to the English language, like bract, floret and leaflet. And his major work on medicine doesn’t hold up at all because, frankly, no-one at the time knew enough about the workings of the human body. No-one knew about germs, microscopes had been invented but weren’t really used, and they had very few treatments that did any good, so they just gave everyone lots of opium.

opium poppy

Comparisons between Erasmus and Charles are inevitable, and it’s tempting to put the difference between them down to personality: to suggest that Charles was less brilliant but made up for it with dogged single-mindedness. Personally I think the financial aspect is just as important. Erasmus and his son Robert were both highly successful doctors and Robert also had a very good eye for investments, with the result that Charles was a wealthy man. If Erasmus hadn’t had to work, who knows what he would have achieved. His medical practice certainly proves he was capable of hard work; his calculations suggest he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, which on C18th roads is a hell of a long way.

I find the poetry the most interesting thing, though. Science is not a subject that has often been successfully treated in poetry, so someone like Erasmus Darwin writing poems about science is really intriguing. If you have an interest in science and poetry, it’s always fun when the two overlap, as with the reference to Galileo in Paradise Lost. But it’s rare to have poetry written by someone right at the heart of the scientific culture. Darwin’s friends and correspondents include people like Joseph Priestley, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Richard Arkwright. He writes about science and technology as a complete insider. And for a few years he was very successful and critically acclaimed, before being left behind by a shift in fashion—he represents everything Coleridge and Wordsworth were reacting against—and in politics. As the French Revolution turned bad, his radical views became a public liability.

detail of Gillray cartoon, tree of liberty

So I find the idea of Darwin’s poetry fascinating. I’m undecided about the poetry itself. All the mythological trappings seem so unnecessary, and the ornate style can border on self-parody; one of his particular quirks is phrases like this:

Swords clash with swords, on horses horses rush,
Man tramples man, and nations nations crush

Still, I love the very fact that he’s applying this high style to such non-literary subject matter. In another poem, someone might only apply this kind of language to a subject like a tadpole to make a joke out of the incongruity. Darwin did have a sense of humour, and if not actually tongue-in-cheek, I think the poems are intended to have a fairly light touch; but he seems to be trying to communicate a real fascination and beauty he finds in nature, as in this passage where he is invoking tadpoles and mosquitos as a comparison with life emerging from the sea:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale
With balanc’d fins, and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
So from deep lakes the dread Musquito springs,
Drinks the soft breeze, and dries his tender wings,
In twinkling squadrons cuts his airy way,
Dips his red trunk in blood, and man his prey.

Is that good poetry? Maybe not. Maybe the style is just a distraction. On the other hand I think you can pick out passages which are more successful, like this:

“Yes! smiling Flora drives her armed car
Through the thick ranks of vegetable war;
Herb, shrub, and tree, with strong emotions rise
For light and air, and battle in the skies;
Whose roots diverging with opposing toil
Contend below for moisture and for soil;
Round the tall Elm the flattering Ivies bend,
And strangle, as they clasp, their struggling friend;
Envenom’d dews from Mancinella flow,
And scald with caustic touch the tribes below;
Dense shadowy leaves on stems aspiring borne
With blight and mildew thin the realms of corn;
And insect hordes with restless tooth devour
The unfolded bud, and pierce the ravell’d flower.

“In ocean’s pearly haunts, the waves beneath
Sits the grim monarch of insatiate Death;
The shark rapacious with descending blow
Darts on the scaly brood, that swims below;
The crawling crocodiles, beneath that move,
Arrest with rising jaw the tribes above;
With monstrous gape sepulchral whales devour
Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour.
— Air, earth, and ocean, to astonish’d day
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From Hunger’s arm the shafts of Death are hurl’d,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!

I find that to be a strong piece of writing and a striking vision of violent nature. It’s from Canto IV of The Temple of Nature, where Darwin comes within a whisker of stating the principle of natural selection. Here’s another bit from later in the same canto:

“HENCE when a Monarch or a mushroom dies,
Awhile extinct the organic matter lies;
But, as a few short hours or years revolve,
Alchemic powers the changing mass dissolve;
Born to new life unnumber’d insects pant,
New buds surround the microscopic plant;
Whose embryon senses, and unwearied frames,
Feel finer goads, and blush with purer flames;
Renascent joys from irritation spring,
Stretch the long root, or wave the aurelian wing.

“When thus a squadron or an army yields,
And festering carnage loads the waves or fields;
When few from famines or from plagues survive,
Or earthquakes swallow half a realm alive; —
While Nature sinks in Time’s destructive storms,
The wrecks of Death are but a change of forms;
Emerging matter from the grave returns,
Feels new desires, with new sensations burns;
With youth’s first bloom a finer sense acquires,
And Loves and Pleasures fan the rising fires. —
Thus sainted PAUL, “O Death!” exulting cries,
‘Where is thy sting? O Grave! thy victories?’

I love the cheeky jabs at both royalty and religion; firstly in lumping together a monarch and a mushroom as comparable lumps of organic matter, and then the way he implies that acting as compost for plants and food for insects is what St Paul had in mind with ‘Oh Death! Where is thy sting?’ But there is also a kind of slightly nutty grandeur to the poetry.

Some bits of his poems hold up better than others, both scientifically and aesthetically. But I think the best of it is good enough to be worth reading, particularly because the subject matter makes it so unique.

» passages from The Temple of Nature are taken from this site where you can read it in full. The picture of a rocket is by jurvetson on Flickr and is used under an attribution CC licence. The opium poppy is from a C19th German herbal and is used courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden at under a by-nc Creative Commons licence. The hat is a detail of a Gillray cartoon, the Tree of Liberty, from a page of cartoons from the period at the University of Lancaster.

Darwin waxing lyrical

Charles Darwin was in an unusually poetical mood 175 years ago today:

The night was pitch dark, with a fresh breeze. — The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful & most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, & in her wake was a milky train. — As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright; & from the reflected light, the sky just above the horizon was not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens. — It was impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted & consuming by heat, without being reminded of Milton’s description of the regions of Chaos & Anarchy.

More Darwiniana later today, possibly.

Family roots

I watched Who Do You Think You Are earlier, the BBC’s celebrity genealogy show. It’s a bit of a lottery. Carol Vorderman gets an ancestor who was the first person to identify a dietary cause for beri-beri and who probably would have won the Nobel prize if he lived a little longer, as well as finding that her father worked in the Dutch resistance during the war; poor old Griff Rhys-Jones discovers an ancestor he thought died in a railway accident was actually killed in a drunken pub brawl (which he seems to have started).

I find it interesting how much people care. Alistair McGowan, the impressionist, knew his father was born in India but was expecting his family history to rapidly trace back to Scotland. In fact, he discovered the existence of a whole family of McGowans in Allahabad, and it turned out he could trace back a whole line of Anglo-Indian McGowans (i.e. mixed European and Indian blood) which went back through six generations born in India. He’d had an inkling that he had Indian blood but had no idea how strong the connection was. But what I found interesting was this: after all these revelations, what seemed to shock him as much as anything was that the original John McGowan, a soldier in Madras in the 1770s, wasn’t from Scotland but Ireland.

We’re talking about his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, coming from the wrong side of the Irish Sea, but that seemed like it really mattered to him. He must have known that his emotional connection to Scotland was essentially artificial, since it was based purely on his name, but he had invested enough in it that he really seemed to feel it affected who he was.

It’s like those Americans you sometimes meet who describe themselves as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Italian’. Not ‘Italian-American’ but just ‘Italian’. As though they’d been born in Perugia. I can see that for black people it’s rather different, since their history was rudely interrupted and there’s still rather a lot of unresolved karma floating around the subject; and of course being visibly different means that identity politics is thrust upon you anyway. But if one of your great-granparents happened to leave you with a name from, say, Wales: why does it matter to people?

I’m not criticising; I just don’t get it. I can see it would be interesting to know who my ancestors were, I just don’t think it would tell me anything about who I am. I guess if I had any reason to believe that my own family history was at all interesting I might find it easier to empathise.

Samurai William by Giles Milton

William Adam was an English sailor working as a pilot on a Dutch expedition of five ships that set out in 1598 to make money in the Orient. In 1600, after a disastrous voyage during which just about everything went wrong, Adam was one of just 24 men surviving on one of the ships – the Liefde – when it reached Japan, the men too weak with starvation and disease to row ashore.

He rose to become the most influential westerner in Japan, with direct access to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the effective ruler, and was granted a court title normally given only to senior samurai. Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan is his story, and the story of the early English attempts to set up a trade with Japan. It’s by the same chap as Big Chief Elizabeth, a book about the English settlement at Jamestown.

A Dutch man and a French woman

As with that book, the emphasis is on telling a good story rather than exploring the finer ethical and semiotic nuances of colonisation. Which isn’t to say that he glosses over the frequently bad behaviour of everyone involved; just that the book is pitched as entertainment.

And the stories from that period of European exploration are really extraordinary; the men in their tiny little ships sailing off optimistically into unknown waters, and ending up either fabulously wealthy or dead. Or enslaved. Or marooned. It’s like Star Trek, if instead of peaceful, multi-cultural, non-interventionist scientists and diplomats, the Enterprise had been crewed by greedy, heavy-drinking, violent, unwashed men who were only really interested in local cultures if they could make money from them or have sex with them.

» The picture is from over 200 years after the period dealt with in Samurai William, but it seemed too good not to use. It’s a detail from a Japanese woodcut of a Dutch man with a French woman, from an exhibition about the Dutch in Nagasaki on the website of the International Institute of Social History, where you can see a larger version as well as lots of other great pictures.

Elizabeth by David Starkey

I’ve just been reading Elizabeth by David Starkey, a book about the early life of Elizabeth I. It covers the very start of her reign, but most of it is about her relationships with Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor.


It raises the question: when little girls want to be princesses, what kind of princess are they thinking of? The modern princess, who gets to live under relentless, unforgiving media scrutiny and has no possibility of publicly expressing any opinions? Or the medieval type, with a bunch of scheming old men arranging her a dynastic marriage to a corrupt, inbred foreign prince – if she’s not imprisoned or disposed of by the monarch as a potential threat to the succession.

The book was also a fine example of how toxic the mixture of politics and religion is. That period of English history would have been messy anyway, because of the lack of a clear line of succession, but the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant certainly didn’t make it any easier for anyone.

It’s a good book – Starkey knows how to tell a story – and an interesting period of English history. I’m just glad I didn’t live through it.

Notes from the war

Not the current debacle in Iraq, the ’39-’45 war. I’m reading the second volume of the Mass-Observation diaries (see my post about the first one here), and I thought I’d just pick out a couple of quotes. After the battle of Alamein:

The newspapers are in ecstasies. There are more maps than ever, showing arrows pointing in all directions, arrows inside arrows, arrows straight and arrows coiled and curving like snakes, and various other wonderful symbols. It is a military map-makers paradise. As Mr H said, ‘You’d think the war was over from the Daily Express headline.’

From a different diarist, this made me laugh:

A neighbour called and left us a Homeopathic tract, and a report on the analysis of some other neighbour’s urine. The latter was probably an oversight.

wartime tram in Glasgow

A wartime tram; picture from The Glasgow Story. You can see a bigger version on their site.

And here’s a woman who has just started work for the United States War Shipping Administration in Glasgow:

I don’t get told much in my new job. At first I thought my new boss Captain Macgowan did not intend to give away secrets till he knew me, but there are many indications that he trusts me – I have a key to the safe where all the private papers are put away. A reserved disposition is a big element, coupled, I think, with a belief that I should be upset if I knew ‘all about’ submarine attacks and the like.

The captains of American vessels have instructions to look us up on arriving and most of them like being in an American atmosphere so much that they come back again and again. They talk freely enough and I am getting to know heaps about life and sea and what seamen are like on shore.

It is a novel environment for me. A woman’s woman, an ardent feminist, a patron of cultural clubs with cups of tea and little cakes (not too plentiful nowadays) me, to be suddenly plunged into a super-masculine world. I must say that viewing them at close quarters, men are getting much better than I thought them before – by men meaning American captains.

I’ve got to the point where the worst of the war, from a British POV, is past, although the diarists don’t know that. The Russians and Americans are both now in the war on the Allied side, the threat of invasion has receded, the Germans have lost the battles of Alamein and Stalingrad. There’s a long way to go, but the Third Reich has peaked.

After the 7/7 bombings, the idea of the Blitz spirit was thrown around a lot, especially by Americans: the time when the British stood alone against the world and kept a stiff upper lip. i couldn’t help feeling, though, reading the diaries of the period, that if you were going to be anywhere in Europe during WWII, Britain was really quite a good choice. Admittedly, and it’s an important point, none of of the diarists are living in the East End of London—or Coventry, or Plymouth, or any of the hardest-hit areas—but still, there were no battles fought street-by-street across Birmingham or Ipswich, no occupation, no starvation, no concentration camps.

You still sometimes see a few left-over anti-tank fortifications if you go for country walks in Kent; if they’d ever been needed, if the Panzers had ever been rolling across Romney Marsh, the pluckiness of the British would have had a real test. The fact that some of those who name-checked the Blitz a couple of years ago were probably the same people who made cheese-eating surrender monkey jokes about the French in the build up to the Iraq war is particularly nauseating.

I guess everyone tends to see world history with themselves at the centre, though. I remember someone posting a poem at an online workshop once which referred to Ireland as having a ‘blood-soaked’ landscape. Well, I know that Ireland’s history has been pretty brutal at times, but blood-soaked compared to Russia? or France? China? Poland? Cambodia? My point being… I don’t know, really. Be wary of self-mythologising, I guess.

We Are At War by Simon Garfield

This is one of a trilogy of books using material from the Mass-Observation archives. To quote Wikipedia:

Mass-Observation was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937. Their work ended in the mid 1950s … Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires.

We Are At War is an account of the period from August 1939 to about the start of the Blitz, compiled from the diaries of five M-O participants. It’s a simple idea and it works brilliantly. The diaries combine the texture of everyday life—people write about the weather or what’s on the radio—with the backdrop of great events happening in Europe.

barrage balloon

[photo from the Museum of London picture library]

People’s moods—not just the diarists, but their workmates and family—are one of the most interesting things: swings between optimism and pessimism about the war, including, in the early stages, whether it was even going to happen; the stress of expecting air raids for months before they actually start happening; endless gossip about German spies supposedly having been arrested after committing some faux pas to reveal their identity; a distrust of official news and an uneasy fascination with listening to Lord Haw-Haw.

One thing that’s noticeable is a gradual hardening of attitudes towards the Germans; initially people try to maintain some kind of distinction between the Nazis and the German people, and express some kind of regret at news of German casualties, but they get increasingly ruthless as time goes on and British casualties rise.

I could quote almost any chunk of this book; but this will do, from February 1940 in Glasgow:

Recently Miss Crawford saw a notice in a fish shop: ‘Fish cheap today.’ On looking closer she found the stock consisted of a few pieces of sole at 3s 4d. Since the war broke out I have stopped looking at the fish shops for I know the prices would be too high. It transpires that practically everyone has ceased to eat fish, but the price is not the sole cause. Miss Carswell said she could not bear to eat fish because she remembered what perils the fisherman had been through to get it. Then she continued that she could not bear to eat fish in case they had been feeding on all the dead bodies. Her mother had offered her tinned salmon. ‘for that had been canned before the war began’.

(As usual, this review has also been posted to my recently read books section.)

‘amongst other things’

Today’s entry from Darwin’s Beagle diary:

29th May 1832
Rio de Janeiro
Cloudy greyish day, something like an Autumnal one in England; without however its soothing quietness. I wanted to send a note this morning into the city & had the greatest difficulty in procuring anybody to take it. All white men are above it, & every black about here is a slave. This, amongst other things, is one great inconvenience of a slave country.

Darwin was in fact strongly anti-slavery. As a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood he was probably brought up that way, but his experiences visiting Brazil reinforced it and stayed with him for the rest of his life. Still, it’s not the most felicitous bit of phrasing.

Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

Crete by Antony Beevor

The story of the German invasion of Crete during WW2 and, to a lesser extent, the resistance thereafter.

This is really a book of cockups all round; the Germans had already taken the Greek mainland and planned a completely airborne invasion of Crete using paratroops and gliders which was, as it turned out, wildly ambitious, not least because a man floating down on a parachute is an easy target for someone on the ground. Moreover, thanks to Bletchley Park, the Allied commander had access to information derived directly from German radio traffic.

Nonetheless, thanks to bad planning (for example, the Allies had been in the island for many months, but they still didn’t have a robust communications network in place), lack of initiative, and most crucially, the Allied CO’s misunderstanding of the intelligence he was being given, the Germans managed to take Crete, although with enormous losses, and the Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders had to make a scrambled retreat across the island. Helped by the terrifying ferocity of the Cretans, who had several centuries of experience fighting guerrilla wars against the Ottoman Empire, and since becoming part of Greece in 1918, had kept in practice with hunting and blood-feuds.

And of course with the Allies gone, the Germans then had a brutal crack-down on the Cretans. After the invasion the British helped set up a resistance network on the island, and eventually as the tide of the war turned, Crete was won back.

The overriding thing I was left with from the book was Crete once again getting caught up in the violent arguments of big countries that really had nothing to do with them.

The book feels a bit British-centric, but other than that it seemed to give a good account of what happened, and Beevor writes well.

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