Exhibition roundup: History is Now, Marlene Dumas, & Cotton to Gold

The South Bank Centre is marking 70 years since the end of WW2 with a collection of events entitled Changing Britain. The Hayward Gallery’s contribution is an exhibition History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain.

Filtering collective history through their individual perspectives, seven British artists of different generations and backgrounds – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – each curate distinct sections of the exhibition and provide their unique ‘take’ on recent British history.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. John Akomfrah has selected a whole range of films from the Arts Council Film Collection, which I pretty much skipped, because who has the patience to watch seventeen different pieces of video art in a row? I hope some people do, but not me. Roger Hiorns has put together a whole exhibition of material related to the BSE crisis, arranged chronologically, and I found it really interesting to go back and revisit that period but I’m not sure I was responding to it as art — whatever that means. The only reason it couldn’t have been an exhibition at the Science Museum is that contemporary art has a willingness to be more boring — or at least dense and text-heavy — than a traditional museum would dare.

evil-banalbig

The two I enjoyed most were Hannah Starkey and Richard Wentworth. Hannah Starkey selected 70s, 80s and 90s photography from the Arts Council Collection, which she juxtaposed with commercial photography in a somewhat heavy-handed but still effective way. So glossy ads for fashion and booze were contrasted with grimy, peeling 1980s unemployment offices and so on. I don’t know if that contrast was absolutely necessary — the photographs would have been effective on their own — but it was still good. Richard Wentworth’s was the most crowd-pleasing section. To quote the blurb: ‘Through his eclectic selection of objects, artworks and artefacts Wentworth takes us from post-war austerity to the optimism of the 1950s and into the gloom and paranoia of the Cold War.’ So there was some art by people like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, lots of press clippings, lots of old books which were thematically appropriate but also appealing for their mid-century graphic design, various objects like a 1950s TV, and most dramatically a decommissioned anti-aircraft rocket launcher out on the balcony.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern they have Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Marlene Dumas is a South African artist who paints rough, blobby paintings, nearly all of people. I enjoyed it much more than I expected because the Tate have done a terrible job of marketing it. Or at least a terrible job of marketing it to me. All the pictures I’d seen made her work look dismal and unattractive, and quite a lot of it is a bit like that: lacking immediate visual appeal (which is not the same as being bad, but doesn’t make me rush to go and see it). Particularly, there are paintings in black ink which are dark and grey and miserable looking. But actually her larger oils are much more likeable, and some of them are even quite colourful. I didn’t come out of the exhibition as her biggest fan, but I certainly liked it more than I thought I would.

And at Two Temple Place is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some people in Lancashire making a hell of a lot of money from cotton mills and other industry. And some of them put that money into collecting historical manuscripts, or old coins, or beetles, or Turner watercolours, or Japanese woodcuts… With the result that there are apparently some particularly notable regional museums up there. But for the moment a lot of those coins and beetles and whatnot have been lent to Two Temple Place.

It’s an enjoyable kind of exhibition to visit: the building is attractive, entry is free, and if one cabinet leaves you cold, well, the next one will have something completely different. Last year they had a similar exhibition of items from the various University of Cambridge collections; I think that one was better, with more varied and more remarkable exhibits, but Cotton to Gold is enjoyably eclectic in the same way.

» The painting is Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas, 1984. Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

Voting system geekery: London mayoral edition

I’ve just been along to vote in the elections for mayor of London.

It’s a kind of alternative vote system; you can pick a first and second choice (but not a third and so on), and after the first round of counting, if no candidate has 50% of the votes, they eliminate all but the top two candidates and reassign votes according to people’s second preferences.

I think that’s clearly an improvement on a straight first-past-the-post system [FPTP], but I can’t see that it makes sense to fix it at only two rounds of counting — rather than, to take the simplest alternative, eliminating the candidates with the least votes one at a time, reassigning the votes, and doing it as many times as you need to.

Electing a mayor is a somewhat different situation to a general election; some of the problems that general election reform would attempt to fix simply don’t apply.

So for example, there’s the question of proportionality: the number of MPs each party has in the  Commons is often wildly different to the percentage of votes they won nationwide. But there’s only one mayor, so that’s irrelevant to a mayoral election.

Also, since the whole of London is one big constituency, everyone’s votes count exactly the same; there are no safe seats where the voters can have little influence, or marginal constituencies that attract wildly disproportionate attention from politicians.

So some of the specific issues don’t apply. But the overall problem with FPTP is that it deals very badly with anything other than a two party system, and tends to entrench a two party system by default.

Having an alternative voting system solves part of the problem. It reduces the potential of spoiler candidates; what could be called the Ross Perot problem, of a minority candidate having a disproportionate impact because they attract just enough votes to swing the election. And it removes some of the bias against minor parties and new parties, since if you know you have a second choice, you can at least vote for a minor party without feeling that your vote is wasted. If you feel that the Green manifesto actually represents your opinions most accurately, but you’d rather have Labour than Conservative, you can vote Green without feeling that you are mainly helping the Conservatives.

However, cutting straight to two parties for the second round of voting still helps entrench the two party system. You can feel free to vote for a minor party for your first choice, but the tactical element just comes back in for the second choice, since there’s a strong incentive to try and guess which two parties are going to make the cut and vote for one of them, so that your vote counts for something. If ‘everyone says’ that Labour and Conservative are the two favourites, and your preference is, say:

Green > Lib Dem > Labour > Conservative > UKIP > BNP

then there’s a strong incentive to vote 1) Green 2) Labour.

That doesn’t seem ideal, but I don’t actually think it’s a major problem as long as there are two clear front runners. Being pragmatic with your second choice isn’t an outrageous compromise. But if the votes are reasonably closely split between three or more main candidates, then the whole thing breaks down again. Let’s say the minor parties have 10% of the vote between them, and Tory, Lib Dem and Labour are running in the polls at about 30% each: well, a tiny swing between any two of those will decide who gets through to the second round of voting, so we’re back to a tactical voting situation again.

Our hypothetical voter now has a strong incentive to vote 1) Lib Dem 2) Labour, and now they are compromising on their first choice.

And if there were four strong candidates, then the outcome would become even more random and the cut off of the top two for the second round of voting would be even more arbitrary.

It’s one of those things which is annoying because it’s so unnecessary. Why go straight down to two candidates? Why not have as many rounds of counting as it takes?

Londoners by Craig Taylor

To give it its full, ludicrously long title: Londoners: The Days and Nights of London as Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Long for It, Have Left It and Everything Inbetween.

This makes a good pair with Daily Life in Victorian London. It’s a compilation of interviews with Londoners of all sorts. Some of them are the obvious London clichés — black cab driver, yeoman warder, hedge fund manager , refugee — and some are more exotic: beekeeper, dominatrix, Wiccan priestess. And most are are just, well, ordinary: teacher, street cleaner, personal trainer, estate agent, student.

But of course the key to books like this is that ‘ordinary’ people often turn to be unexpectedly interesting when you scratch the surface. Either because they have led unexpectedly interesting lives, or because they are charming or funny or insightful in telling their own stories. And those who don’t have great back-stories and who aren’t great storytellers: even they are always good for a couple of paragraphs to help build up the mosaic.

There’s obviously no shortage of material in a place the size of London, so a book like this is entirely dependent on the skill of the person who conducts the interviews and then edits and curates them. Craig Taylor has done a cracking job and it’s well worth reading.

» the Big Issue seller’s licence is from the Museum of London collection.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

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.

Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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 London Film Festival

I went to the last of three films I had booked at the London Film Festival yesterday (notes on which at the end of the post). The LFF, for those who don’t know, is the antithesis of a festival like Cannes: instead of being a big jamboree for people in the film business and the media, it is aimed squarely at the public. Basically, it’s a lot of films being shown at a selection of London cinemas.

And it is a LOT of films; 197 features and 112 shorts this year, apparently. All kinds of films: new British films, world cinema, restored classics, documentaries, gala screenings of big forthcoming releases to provide a bit of glamour. Which is great, but what usually happens is that I think ooh, the film festival, I should book some tickets and then I forget to do it.

But this year, I remembered. My instinct was to look for the stuff which was unlikely to get a wide release, so I went to some fairly obscure films, and I found it interesting how full the cinemas were. You might think that showing nearly 200 different films in a fortnight would spread the audience a bit thin. After all, there are cinemas in London that show less commercial films all year round, and I reckon that normally on a Friday afternoon, a Kyrgyz movie would play to largely empty seats; but they had sold out a medium-sized cinema. I guess it’s similar to the way that in a big city, you often find a place where a whole load of, say, shoe shops are clustered together; the value of being somewhere where people go for shoes outweighs the disadvantage of the extra competition.

Anyway, the films; the first was The Light Thief. The ‘light thief’ is an electrician in a village in Kyrgyzstan who we start at the start if the film stealing electricity for villagers who can’t afford it. Without wanting to provide too many spoilers — what is the spoiler etiquette for a film I don’t actually think any of my readers are likely to see? — he gets caught up in village politics. And the film strongly implies that it is an allegory for the wider political situation in Kyrgyzstan, although that’s only an informed guess, given how little I know about the country.

The film looks beautiful; the dusty, windblown, mountainous central Asian landscape looks amazing in it. And there are some very nice embroidered felt hats and wall hangings and things. And it is funny and touching. So that’s a thumbs up.

Winter Vacation is a Chinese film about a group of youths killing time while waiting for their winter vacation to end in some battered, grimy, anonymous Chinese city. It’s well shot, and it has some genuinely funny dialogue, but it was a tiny bit soporific because it communicates the characters’ boredom and disaffection via the medium of long pauses:

Cut to shot of three people standing in the snow, looking at each other. Nobody speaks for a couple of seconds. Someone says something. Pause for another couple of seconds. Someone else replies. Pause again.

Which is quite effective, but it carries on like that for every scene in the whole movie, and it does wear a bit thin after a while. Slow is one thing, but actual stasis tests my patience. Still, there was a lot good about it, and it was listed in the ‘experimental/avant garde/artists’ films’ section, so I knew it might be hard work.

And finally I saw Draquila – Italy Trembles, which is a polemical documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009. I would strongly recommend you see this film if it comes to a cinema near you. It is funny and ferocious, and it paints a picture of a completely  acquiescent, neutered Italian media, largely owned by Berlusconi, of an increasingly authoritarian government abusing the law to run roughshod over normal legal processes and rights, and massive, widespread corruption linked to the mafia. It’s not just a damning portrait of Berlusconi and Italy; what I found scary is that it provides a real sense of how a modern democratic country like Italy could slide towards fascism.

I should be clear about that: I’m not saying that Berlusconi’s government is fascist, or is likely to become so. But it does provide a sense of the slippage of normality. Already there is the confluence of government with crony capitalism and (I guess I should say: allegedly) organised crime; there is the eroding of civil liberties, the declaration of states of emergency as a way of bypassing the law, the increasing militarisation of the response to normal events. It is scary stuff.

Links

  • 'The image is all to scale and shows just how enormous the near-complete International Space Station really is. A traditional Routemaster bus, at a little over 8 metres long is dwarfed by the ISS, which has a wingspan of 108 metres. Even the good ship HMS Nelson's Column, here seen coming in to dock, looks feeble by comparison.'
    (del.icio.us tags: London space )

Christmas food debrief, bitterns etc

I should note in advance: the bitterns are not part of the food debrief. I daresay they turned up on Henry VIII’s dining table, but not mine.

Food notes: the fruity stuffing was good, the pistachio one mainly tasted of parsley and garlic, which was pleasant enough but not very christmassy. The prunes in bacon were delish, a much better addition than sausages in bacon. Cooking a whole boned ham leads to Too Much Ham. I’m quite glad I did it this once, but I won’t again.

And actually I don’t think I’m going to do turkey next year; even with a (very expensive) free range organic slow-grown turkey, cooked beautifully, though I do say so myself, it’s just a big boring. The stuffing is much better than the actual bird. Maybe I’ll do a big joint of beef instead.

I had a great day birding today: I’d heard via the London Wetland Centre’s Twitter feed (@wwtlondon) that the cold weather had produced an unprecedented influx of bitterns. They aren’t sure whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or from the continent, but yesterday and today they’ve had 6 or 7 on site. Now bitterns are notoriously skulky and difficult to see, being streaky reed-coloured birds that live in reedbeds — and incidentally, I believe the American Bittern is rather easier to see than the European, for comparison — and last time I went bitterning at Barnes I saw diddly-squat, but I figured I’d never get a better chance.

And sure enough I had six sightings of bittern, each closer and clearer than the one before. The water was mainly frozen over, and they were presumably desperate enough for food that they were stalking along the ice just by the edge of the reeds, with their surprisingly large feet sliding with every step.

I also had great views of water rail, the bird you may remember me mentioning before which has, according to the book, ‘a discontented piglet-like squeal, soon dying away’. I saw four pairs, including telescope views of a pair preening each other about thirty feet away.

And my last special bird of the day was jack snipe, a smaller, less elegant and generally more self-effacing version of the normal snipe, but my second lifer of the day after the bitterns.

So some early contenders for the Bird Of The Year Award 2010. I do btw still intend to do BOTY 2009, but it can wait until my computer has been fixed. Using the iPhone for blogging works better than you might think but it’s no substitute when it comes to long posts with links and pictures.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 1: Red-breasted Goose

The first bird for the calendar is… Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis. Because I saw some in St. James’s Park today and they are just gorgeous little birds.

I’ve never seen them in the wild, sadly. How’s this for an obscure neurosis: whenever I’m somewhere with an ornamental wildfowl collection, there’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind that I might actually be seeing a genuine rarity, wandered all the way from, in this case, Siberia — and I’m justassuming it’s part of the collection. It’s enough to keep you up at night.

The wildfowl of St. James’s Park was in the news recently when one of the pelicans showed a fine disregard for its comic persona by eating a  whole live pigeon. Which happens fairly regularly, but amusingly, every time it makes the news they find an ‘expert’ to say how remarkable and unheard of it is.

» Red Breasted Goose is © Wayne Dumbleton and Siberian Red-breasted Geese is © Purple Kitten; both pictures are used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Lovely Richmond

I said in my last Thames Path post that, if you wanted to go a for a walk in that part of west London, you’d be better off going to Kew Gardens. Well, I can now add: you’d be better off going to Richmond Park, as well. I can’t quite believe I’ve never been there before.

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Not only is it green enough to feel like a bit of a break from the city, it actually feels significantly wilder than most of the actual countryside in the south-east of England. Having been enclosed as a royal deer park in the mid 17th century, it has just been grazed by deer for 350 years and has the distinctive feel of a really well-established ecosystem that hasn’t been messed around with too much. There are loads of mature trees — apparently including 1200 ancient trees, mainly gnarly pollard oaks — and some fenced-off areas to allow patches of woodland with more undergrowth, ponds, bits of gorse. On a sunny day it was absolutely lovely. And in the Isabella Plantation, which is an area of ornamental garden, the rhododendrons and azaleas were looking amazing, and the bluebells were just opening — they’re going to look spectacular in about a week — and it was a pleasure to be there.

azaleas

Plus whitethroat, blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, skylark, stock dove, jackdaw, kestrel and so on. And two Egyptian geese with goslings, so that’s another exotic species to go with the parakeets that are all over the place. Apparently they have reed buntings, which I didn’t see, and lesser-spotted woodpecker, which I haven’t seen for years, so that’s two more reasons to go back some time.

view

Oh, and slightly outside the park, the view from the top of Richmond Hill across the Thames is fabulous.

The Thames Path, Kew to Teddington

I know it has been nearly a year since I last did a section of the Thames Path, but I always intended to do at least one more bit, and I finally got round to it. Incidentally, here’s a trivia question for you: there are four World Heritage Sites in London, all visible from the Thames Path. What are they? Answers in a footnote.*

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The first notable thing to be seen on this part of the walk — apart from a boat with a Grace Jones figurehead — is an island called Brentford Ait. Apparently ‘ait’ or ‘eyot’ is a word used for an island in a river, particularly the Thames. No, I didn’t know that either.

Anyway, the reason it is interesting, to me, is that it has a large heronry on it. The only heronry I knew about it London was the one in Regent’s Park. They obviously fly quite a long way looking for food, because you see herons all over London wherever there’s a patch of water, including my garden pond, but they congregate in nesting colonies and build big nests in trees. Something you can’t see very well in this rubbish picture, because the nests were too far away; I’ve cropped the picture down significantly but you still can’t see much.

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There were some more herons nesting further upriver, as well, on some small islands at Richmond.

The path then goes around the back of Kew Gardens. The path is raised up with some kind of drainage ditch on the other side from the river, so it would be quite difficult to sneak over the fence, but you can see a little bit of the gardens from the path. Meanwhile on the north bank of the river is Syon Park. So it all feels quite rural, and the flowers were out and the birds were singing — lots of wrens, particularly, when I was there — and it’s all pleasant enough, although I’d say that if you’re in that part of London and want to go for a walk: pay the entrance fee and walk in Kew Gardens itself.

This is the back of Syon House, built in the mid-C16th by the Duke of Somerset:

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After Kew Gardens the path goes past the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club, and over the river there’s another tree-covered island, Isleworth Ait, to help keep up the rural feel. The drainage ditch, if that’s what it is, widens out here into a respectable looking stream which seems to be quite thoughtfully managed for wildlife. By which I mean that it has been allowed to get a bit untidy and overgrown, with willow trees growing in the water, but there are clear signs of maintenance, so it’s not just neglected. I heard blackcap and willow warbler and saw a sedge warbler singing in the undergrowth, so that was quite encouraging — although at this time of the year they may just be passing through on their way to somewhere else. There were also quite a lot of butterflies, particularly one of my favourites, the orange tip.

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The next stage really is Richmond, with more herons, lots of generally expensive looking people and some places to stop for lunch. And what might be a Canada Goose × Bar-headed Goose hybrid. It was with a group of Canada Geese and one Bar-headed Goose, so it’s I think it’s a reasonable guess. Neither species is native here, and they don’t occur wild together — the Bar-headed Goose is from Central Asia and the Canada Goose from North America — but waterfowl hybridise fairly freely.

EDIT: the nice people at the Flickr Hybrid birds group seem to think it might be Canada Goose × Greylag/domestic goose.

Anyway after Richmond, it’s more of the same — leafy towpath — until Teddington Lock where I crossed the footbridge and caught a train at Teddington. Pleasant enough but not very interesting. Although Teddington Lock was where the Monty Python fish-slapping dance was filmed, which is kind of mildly neat.

Incidentally, at Teddington I had a little lesson in why it might not be a good idea to rely too heavily on Google Maps. This is my iPhone’s advice on the best route to the station from where I was on the other side of the river:

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Which would seem pretty reasonable if I wasn’t standing right next to a footbridge at the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant having magical maps in your pocket the whole time; I’m just glad I consulted the A-Z before leaving the house.

» You can see more of my photos from this section of the walk on Flickr. You can even see them on a map although some of the locations are approximate.

* Those World Heritage Sites are, in the order you pass them walking upstream:

  1. Maritime Greenwich, i.e. the Queen’s House designed by Inigo Jones, the Royal Naval College designed by Christopher Wren, the Observatory designed by Wren and Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Alphege’s church, Greenwich Park and so on.
  2. The Tower of London. Pretty self-explanatory, I think. Notably, of course, the Tower is not just a historically important medieval castle; it’s unusually early, since a lot of it dates back to the C11th.
  3. Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster (i.e. the parliament buildings) and St Margaret’s Church. In some ways the Abbey and the houses of parliament could almost be two separate World Heritage Sites, being both very important in their own right and separated by several centuries chronologically, but the whole complex of buildings is interconnected so I guess it makes sense.
  4. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Which is why I got started on the subject now. Kew Gardens are important to the history of science and of landscape gardening. And indeed it’s still an important scientific institution.

All very fair choices, I think. The most obvious gap in the list would be St Paul’s Cathedral, I guess. Or since they don’t mind lumping a few buildings together to make one WHS, how about ‘St Paul’s Cathedral and the city churches’ to take in all those Wren and Hawksmoor churches built after the Great Fire. Buckingham Palace is an obvious possibility, perhaps, except that I don’t think anyone claims that it’s particularly architecturally interesting.

Barnes birding

Had a nice day’s birding at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust place at Barnes. Didn’t manage to see or hear the Lesser Whitethroat which was apparently there this morning, but I did see Little Ringed Plover, which scratches one more species off my ’embarrassing gaps’ list: i.e. birds I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen.

Other mildly notable sightings include Buzzard, which is common as muck over most of the country but not in the south east of England, loads of chirruping Sand Martins (i.e. what Americans call ‘Bank Swallows’), Lapwings making those extraordinary noises they make. And nice views of Reed Bunting:

bunting

Not a great photo, I know, but I’m just amazed I managed to get anything at all by holding the camera of my iPhone up to the telescope eyepiece.

Full bird list after the jump, (unless I’ve forgotten something; wasn’t taking notes).

Another iPhone application I would pay good money for

Time Out on my phone.

I could only find one iPhone app with UK cinema listings and it didn’t have my local cinema listed, so that’s one thing I’d pay for on its own. But if I could get something with the whole lot — cinema listings, exhibitions, restaurant reviews, TV schedules, comedy, poetry readings — all optimised for use on my phone and location-aware, well, that would be brilliant. Actually, it’s a good rule of thumb: any way I can replace something I might otherwise carry around with me, that’s a winner. That’s why buying the A-Z was a no-brainer, why I want field guides on my phone, and why I want Time Out. Anything under £10 would be a bargain, and I’d probably pay more. I might even be willing to pay an annual subscription.

from The Spectator

The original Addison and Steele version of The Spectator from 1711, that is, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg to read on my phone. I thought this was amusing: 

As I was walking [in] the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder; and as I was wondering with my self what Use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an Acquaintance, who had the same Curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his Shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying Sparrows for the Opera. Sparrows for the Opera, says his Friend, licking his lips, what are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage.

[ long passage snipped ]

But to return to the Sparrows; there have been so many Flights of them let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays, they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper Scenes, so as to be seen flying in a Lady’s Bed-Chamber, or perching upon a King’s Throne; besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am credibly informed, that there was once a Design of casting into an Opera the Story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great Quantity of Mice; but Mr. Rich, the Proprietor of the Play-House, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the Cat to kill them all, and that consequently the Princes of his Stage might be as much infested with Mice, as the Prince of the Island was before the Cat’s arrival upon it; for which Reason he would not permit it to be Acted in his House.

One passing observation: I knew they used capital letters a lot more in the C18th, but I don’t think I realised that they capitalised every single noun, however important or trivial. As German still does, I think.

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.

Links

Links

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