Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hotel art #9

Part of an occasional series.

John Dodgson House (a UCL residence hall), King's Cross, London (July 2014)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Switch it off

Although I'm someone who once had (cautiously) high hopes for the Internet becoming a force for creating a better informed, better connected and more tolerant global public sphere, I have been becoming increasingly aware--like a lot of us--that it's about as likely to be a tool for pervasive surveillance, tendentious propaganda and unhinged misinformation.

And although I participate in various forms of social media (because--at least so far--its benefits seem to outweigh its costs for me personally), I've found it, over the last five years or so, to be increasingly a source of frustration and even despair.

Peter Pomerantsev's excellent "Diary" at the London Review of Books crystallises a lot of what I've been thinking along these lines with reference to recent events in Ukraine.

As the conflict over Ukraine intensified my social media feeds became more and more unsettling. Acquaintances from Moscow, the ‘creatives’ who make up the semi-mythical Russian middle class – that normally apolitical but vaguely anti-Putin iPhone crowd who’d joined the protests in 2011 and 2012 – were suddenly frothing with patriotic passion. I imagined myself in some downmarket horror movie where you wake to find your neighbours are vampires, with little ultra-patriotic bite marks on their necks.
I was talking to a work colleague just today about a very similar trend that she had noticed among Russian and Ukrainian friends on Facebook.

More generally, this is good to remember:

A common myth about social media is that it’s a priori a tool of liberation, taking publishing out of the hands of power. But Facebook and Twitter are a perfect vehicle for postmodern authoritarian regimes that focus on opposition narratives instead of simply suppressing them. You can switch off the TV, but you can’t stop a political technologist getting inside social media and generating memes from within.
This is also true for radical Islamism.

For myself, I've certainly been aghast (though not surprised) by Russian propaganda; what has disturbed me more has been the number of Western journalists willing to echo it.

Pomerantsev is eloquent here on this "strange complicity with the Kremlin's cause":

When she wasn’t repeating news from Brighton Beach my New Jersey cousin was sending me links to the Guardian. Comment is Free has become well known for its references to the Ukrainian fascist takeover. My Kiev friends began to message me, looking for an explanation: ‘Is Seumas Milne in the pay of the Kremlin?’ they would ask. Probably not, I said. ‘It all fits into a larger pattern of English racism towards Eastern Europeans,’ Oksana Forostyna, executive editor of the Ukrainian cultural magazine Krytyka, told me. She too spoke of the Ukrainians as ‘the new Untermenschen who get called whores and fascists. All those English jokes and novels about Ukrainian sluts; the weird fixation you had during Euro 2012 that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazi hooligans – there was even a BBC documentary warning football fans not to come – when in truth there are fewer racist attacks in Ukraine than in Britain … Now Putin can play on those prejudices.’

(Germany, has a very similar problem.)

Finally, I can't say that I disagree with this entirely:

‘The only thing to do if you want to stay sane in this war is quit social media,’ Alexey said when I Skyped him.


On related points, I would recommend that people read Evgeny Morozov's insightful book The Net Delusion.

See you online.

Friday, June 06, 2014

La liberté vint de la mer

The Normandy American War Cemetery and Memorial,  Coleville-sur-Mer (2006)
On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I have to think of two members of my family who were, to varying extents, involved.

In going through some of my parents' war-time correspondence not that long ago, I ran across the following in a letter from my uncle George--who was serving on a US Navy warship--to my father, who was in the army.

In October 1944, George was filling his brother in on what he'd been up to that year. He got to talking about Normandy:

"Then 6 weeks of Normandy--from D Day until days later when the sea lanes were cleared--we had all the excitement I could possibly want. Our ship got several commendations and quite a bit of publicity for our part in the operation. The miraculous fact that we weren't even hit still amazes me. Bombs hit the water so close to us that spray showered our decks, seven torpedoes were thrown at us all missing from 200 yards to 25 feet, 88mm shells narrowly missed us a dozen times but [our] luck held out. Our salvoes knocked out many a shore battery that was holding up the army's advance on the beach and it was a swell feeling to know that we were saving some of those soldiers. Those Nazis were pretty tough in Normandy." 

By the time the letter arrived, my father's unit--the 316th Army Station Hospital--had been relocated to Glasgow, but from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944, he was near the Devonshire coast. On 6 June 1944 he was, therefore, not all that far away, geographically speaking, from where his brother was having what sounds like a pretty harrowing day.  (Though he wouldn't have been aware of this fact at the time.)

(My mother's main memory of that day was wondering where all the Yanks had suddenly disappeared to.) 

I recently ran across a fairly detailed unit history online (it seems to take a while to load, but the link should work), and the section for D-Day is interesting.

Having heard SHAEF’s official communiqué about the Invasion, the Hospital was now ready to fulfil its particular mission in the grand-scale assault on “Fortress Europe”. It was not however until the first casualties from the D-Day landings arrived on 11 June 1944, that the unit was confronted with “real” war! They were 23 German Prisoners of War, accompanied by armed MPs! The unit was now temporarily acting as a Transit Hospital. Five days later, it was 7 July 1944, the first Hospital Train filled with American battle casualties arrived at the nearby Heathfield Station of the Great Western Railway, and the Hospital settled down in earnest to its real war job. The top number of patients occupying the installation was reached on 30 July, when the Registrar had 819 patients listed. 

We're fairly often in Normandy--though in a different part than where the landings took place--but a few reminders of the war are still very visible.

It's not, really, all that long ago.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Values for money

Something I've just run across in the course of research: a brief passage from a critique of the English [sic*] educational system by Geoffrey Vickers:

"Although education costs money and although it shows in the long run an economic return, there is an insuperable antipathy between education and commercialism. We [in England] start with this handicap. Something vital in the character of a nation lies in the answer to the question – which of its public services is a model to the world? Our plutocracy is world famous for its – police."
Geoffrey Vickers, "Education, War, Change" (18 December 1939), Institute of Education (London), Fred Clarke archive, MOO /13, p 5.
[UPDATE]

Something else just run across, from about the same time and on a similar theme: a comment from a paper by Harold Dent, at the time editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

"Our present systems of education...are highly undemocratic. They are socially stratified to a degree, and they present the very essence of inequality of opportunity. They offer adequate training only to the few, and their basic philosophy is that not of a democratic, but of an acquisitive and competitive society, in which the prizes are privilege, power, and the well-filled purse."
H. C. Dent, "Reform in Education" (16 May 1942), Institute of Education (London), Fred Clarke archive, MOO /81, p 1.


*"We are worse off in this respect [i.e., having ‘enough education of the right kind’] than most of the smaller and poorer democracies. [...] Scotland is the poorer half of the United Kingdom – and the better educated." (Vickers, p 5).

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pasquinades, plethoras and proles

From the conclusion to Will Smith's Guardian review of Rod Liddle's new book:

Liddle is a typical petit bourgeois, afraid of either being absorbed into the proletariat he champions, or destroyed by the capitalist bogeyman he excoriates but depends on for his wonga. The cultural cringing of the squeezed intellectual middle is creased into every line of this baggy diatribe, in the form of scores of French loan words, pasquinades poorly aimed at intellectuals he regards as pretentious, and of course that plethora of fucks.
That would be a negative review, then, I take it

It's safe to say Liddle's book isn't going to be on my reading list anyway. But it's nice to have that confirmed.

(This blog has in its distant past, it should perhaps be noted, featured critical remarks on writing by Messrs. Liddle and Self, the latter being himself not averse to a few "French loan words".) 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Irony, historical



So, Germany is getting ready for its festival summer, and the educated and not so educated elites with too much time on their hands flock to green and pleasant places to indulge, al fresco and with a glass (or two) of Winzersekt in hand, in a bit of cultcha. Among the smaller venues is the charming town of Röttingen in the gentle vale of the river Tauber (if you think "festival" in Germany means Glastonbury, you're wrong). 

Among Holocaust scholars Röttingen is known as the place where the first of a whole spate of massacres of Jews which swept the south of Germany in the 13th-century took place, sparked by the divinely inspired accusation by one Herr Rindfleisch (who either was a butcher or merely a crazy provincial aristocrat with a fanciful name) that the Röttingen Jews had (what else?) desecrated a host.   

Of course, no mention is made of that exceptional claim to fame on the town’s official website  (which, like those of untold other communities in Germany, is also in blatant denial about the period between 1914 and 1945. Simply didn't happen.).  

And so it strikes me as a bit of a historical irony that the organisers of this year’s Frankenfestspiele (merrily advertised all over the national press) have decided to put on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Now I'm not trying to prohibit performances of this particular play, or performances that do not aim at challenging the play's ascription to the genre of "comedy". But in this case a very particular idiocy seems to be at work: The kind of idiocy that probably comes from a total historical cluelessness, exacerbated by a half-baked, vaguely apologetic awareness of 20th-century German history (anything beyond that is terra incognita). Of course, the festival's website reassures us, this is not an anti-Semitic play – indeed, Shakespeare couldn't even have had anti-Semitic intentions. After all, there were no Jews in England at this time, for they had been "banished by law" ("Shakespeare wollte mit dieser Komödie sicher keinerlei antijüdische Stimmung machen, da es zu dieser Zeit in England offiziell keine Juden gab. Sie waren per Gesetz verbannt").

No Jews, no anti-Semitism. Somehow that formula sounds familiar. That doesn't make it any less stupid, however (or less embarrassing in a place with a history like Röttingen).

Monday, May 12, 2014

"A precipice before which democracy stands"

Something I ran across today during project-relevant research that--given recent events--seemed somehow relevant:

“We must be determined to adapt the genuine principles of democracy to mass society, instead of regarding certain democratic devices as sacrosanct in themselves. If we consider the plebiscitary element in democracy, we are justified in saying, after the experiences of the last epoch, that of all democratic institutions, it has made the largest contribution to the destruction of the system. The plebiscitary principle drives people towards what we have described as crowd psychology.

This crowd psychology is one of the chief evils to be feared, a precipice before which democracy stands. The mobilization of the entire populace to hold a plebiscite in circumstances which are more characteristic of a farce than of a turning-point in the national destiny, is one of these democratic customs which are apt to become meaningless, once the social background and the social techniques have changed.
The referendum was only reasonable when it applied to the citizens of a small community. Now since it appears in the guise first given it by Napoleon III, that of a managed display of mass emotion, it no longer has an honest part to play in democratic society.  …

The purpose of democracy is not to play on the emotions of the masses, but to prevent the vacillating reactions of popular feeling from frustrating the rational and considered opinions of the nation. … It will then be obvious that the function of the plebiscite in the context of a mass society has been completely reversed. For it no longer interprets the general will as the expression of the considered intentions of the citizens, but is rather the result of skilful agitation and a powerful propaganda machine.” 

Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (London, 1940), pp. 356-57 (paragraph breaks added).

Friday, May 09, 2014

Positive reviews of The Most Remarkable Woman in England

Academic reviews, by nature, take a little while to start appearing.

I've already noted a few reviews from history journals of my last book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace which appeared at the end of last year. I've just noted that two others have appeared.

Happily, they both say very nice things about the book, though they focus on different things.

In Women's History Review, a review by Caitriona Clear is currently appearing as 'advance access' online (meaning that it hasn't yet appeared in the print version).

Clear focuses on, and largely summarises, the dramatic story aspects of the Pace case. She calls the book a 'page-turner' and observes:

In telling this story, [Wood] references all the main authorities and rehearses all the arguments of gender history and British social history in the inter-war period. He does this so skilfully that there is no sense of being dragged away from the scene of the crime to listen to teacher. Nor does he shy away from speculating about what really happened to Harry Pace. 

Clear, however, finds my suggestion that Harry Pace may have killed himself via arsenic poisoning to be 'baffling'.

My actual argument about Harry's death is a bit different than she describes; however, this is one of those things where I would definitely encourage people to read the book and make up their own minds.

In the current issue of Crime, Media, Culture, Lucy Williams (who is herself a specialist on the history of women and crime) writes:

John Carter Wood's The Most Remarkable Woman in England  may at first seem little more than historical coverage of a real-life whodunit mystery, but this impressive scholarly work quickly shows the trial of Beatrice Pace to be a landmark court case--socially, culturally, and legally. ...

In a fascinating display of meticulously collected evidence, Wood at first draws the reader in to ask 'who killed Harry Pace?', but the real triumph of this book is the seamless way in which the author unravels the social and cultural impact of the case as the evidence and hearsay surrounding the murder mounted.

Quickly, The Most Remarkable Woman in England becomes not about the guilt or innocence of Beatrice Pace in the death of her husband, but a series of more complex questions for the reader to consider. These relate both to situating the case as a product of its time and in thus reading its significance, and also in evaluating the role which the media played in constructing well-defined personae for both harry and Beatrice Pace, as well as the extent to which this influenced public reaction to the trial. ...

In analysing the Pace case, John Carter Wood offers an in-depth exploration of attitudes towards inter-war crime, gender, media sensation and criminal justice, and at the same time delivers a comprehensive overview of a murder mystery that captivated the nation. 

Many thanks to both reviewers for the careful readings and positive verdicts.

Those of you interested in learning more about The Most Remarkable Woman in England can do so at the book-related blog

A complete list of reviews can be found here

Ye shall know them by their "outstandingly good social and moral fruits"

My current research project deals with some British Christian responses to the European crises of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the confrontation with 'totalitarianism'. The interactions between faith and 'secularism' was one of the central issues in the group on which I'm concentrating, and, here, 'science' was a recurring topic.

To make a long story short, the particular Christians I'm looking at tended to be quite enthusiastic about science (and sociology), and criticised their fellow believers for ignoring the value of the knowledge thereby produced. The position they reached is complicated, but it resembles what Stephen Jay Gould much later referred to as 'non-overlapping magisteria': i.e., the view that science and religion concern themselves with different (and separate) realms of experience, and within those respective realms each approach is appropriate and generates legitimate knowledge. (Like some people, I'm sceptical about how well this actually works, but that's another topic for another day.)

More specifically, within my group the tendency was to ascribe to science a justified predominance with regard to understanding natural phenomena while reserving for religion authority over things like ethics and morality.

But looking through the pages of the predominantly Anglican journal Theology from the period of the Second World War, I ran across this interesting statement from W. G. Symons in an article titled 'A Forgotten Frontier', which takes the religious praise of science much further than it usually went, even giving it a positive moral value.

(Symons was a Methodist and active in the British Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Student Christian Movement and other Christian organisations.)

After noting what he saw as the increasing engagement of scientists in social and moral issues of the day (often, he pointed out, from a Marxist perspective, citing figures such as Bernal and Haldane), he observed:
The outlook on the theological side is not encouraging. A great many of our Christian writers and thinkers seem almost unaware of what is going on in the world around. The vital schools of theology (and I mean by that the orthodox schools, Catholic and Reformed, rather than the Liberals) are just not interested in scientific affairs, and maintain an attitude of cultured and dogmatic aloofness. Those who do refer to science to so without adequate equipment....

...

Finally, can we have an examination of the positive contribution of science to our moral and social thinking? Science may form an inadequate basis for a complete morality, and it is patently obvious to-day that it does not provide a solvent for all our social ills; yet it is a simple historical fact that the scientific outlook has yielded outstandingly good social and moral fruits well outside the limits of the applied sciences.

Professor Whitehead has written: “The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demand of human nature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing.” Science has not merely told us how to relieve suffering (by improved knowledge of medicine, hygiene and so on); intertwined with it has been an attitude of mind which has recognized cruelty and oppression and social shams, and has exerted a disinfectant influence in our whole social life.

The Church, in some periods of its history, has woefully lacked such disinfectant. Yet in Church circles there are frequent attempts to belittle the moral fruits of science, to dismiss it as “mere technicality.” Such an attitude betrays invincible ignorance, or still worse, the mortal sin of “calling good evil” in the unconscious interest of ecclesiastical self-conceit. (Surely, Matt. xii, 24-31 is relevant here.)

(W. G. Symons, 'A Forgotten Frontier', Theology, XLV, No. 269, November 1942, 225. Paragraph breaks added.) 
The biblical verses Symons cites are (as ever) open to interpretation, but involve Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees and contains the well known verse 'Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.'

The rest, though, seems clear enough.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Recent publications: violent drunks and overzealous cops

In recent(ish) months a couple of my essays have seen the light of academic day in a pair of fascinating collections.

The first actually came out at the beginning of the year: a chapter in a wide-ranging collection on Drink in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Perspectives in Economic and Social History, edited by Susanne Schmid and Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp (Pickering and Chatto 2014).

My contribution is a re-focused and updated version of some of my older work on violence and crime in nineteenth-century England, titled 'Drinking, Fighting and Working-Class Sociability in Nineteenth-Century Britain' (the link will take you to the final draft of the essay at my academia.edu page).

A brief excerpt:

A few nineteenth-century London trials suggest a similar pattern. At the skittle ground at ‘The Bell’ public house, Abraham Pomroy had been drinking with Richard Dukes and others for about three hours in June 1830. As a witness put it, ‘they were a little fresh, but they knew what they were doing’. At some point, ‘Pomroy took up a pot of beer, and stood before the skittle-ground to prevent their playing’. He then ‘threw the pot of beer across the ground, and bent the pot nearly double’. The dispute escalated: ‘Dukes said, “Don't throw that beer away, you did not pay for it”—Pomroy then said he had paid for as much as [Dukes]; Pomroy then gave [Dukes] a shove—they had a scuffle together, and they both fell.’  Pomroy died of internal bleeding caused by a fractured skull.

In October 1850, a fight broke out in ‘The Ship’ in Limehouse between James Northeast and William Arnold.  ‘A few words passed’ between Arnold and Northeast, who were both drunk. ‘The prisoner was rather in liquor’, said a witness, and ‘the deceased was intoxicated’. Arnold had provoked Northeast: ‘As soon as Arnold came in he began blackguarding, singing, and dancing, and making use of very bad language.’ (A witness described Arnold as ‘a very drunken dissipated little fellow’.) Northeast dragged Arnold into the street, striking him fatally. A surgeon testified that Arnold’s ‘concussion of the brain’ may have been ‘caused by a fall.’ ‘Drunken persons’, he added, ‘have a good many falls.’

The second essay, 'Public Opinion and the Rhetoric of Police Powers in 1920s Britain', deals with another aspect of the space-crime continuum and arises out of my research into a significant series of police scandals in 1920s Britain.

It appears in the collection Justice et Espaces Publics en Occident du Moyen Âge à Nos Jours: Pouvoirs, Publicité et Citoyenneté, edited by Pascal Bastien, Donald Fyson, Jean-Philippe Garneau and Thierry Nootens (Quebec: Presses de l'Université de Québec, 2014).

One of the thing I looked at in that research is the reaction of various kinds of newspapers to what was perceived (by some) as the excessive and intrusive policing of public morals in London's public parks.

The more conservative or populist press expressed itself similarly. The World’s Pictorial News referred to Hyde Park as “Spied Park” and observed, “the public might have a very British objection to Nosey Parker business”: “The spy, the sneak, the preventive agent, however successful from a crude detective point of view are abhorred by the people. Their methods can be summed up in the most expressive phrase as un-English period.”  The Times thought “something—it may be called the system or the atmosphere or the tradition of the War years—is ripe for revision”. The Sunday Pictorial viewed the plainclothes surveillance methods in Hyde Park cases as “repugnant to British instincts” and condemned the “officiousness and mild fanaticism” behind such policing . ...

Negative comparisons were often drawn with other countries. Labour MP Tom Johnston—while recounting Savidge’s charges in Parliament—said his party must “offer resolute and determined opposition to anything in the nature of the ‘Cheka’, a Turkish system, Star Chamber methods, or what was known in the United States of America as the Third Degree”. The United States was in fact the key counter-example for British policing in the early twentieth century. ...  Likewise, during the late 1920s police debates the Manchester Guardian stated, “there is nothing in the United States that corresponds to the old British attitude towards a person merely suspected of a crime”: in America, “the police seem to be regarded as possible oppressors of the public quite as often as they are saluted as its protectors. That is not our way in England”.

As usual, you'll find (reasonably) up-to-date publication lists and/or downloadable documents here and here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Deine Zauber binden wieder...

I am usually allergic to anything with the phrase 'flash mob' in the title.

But this is magnificent.


"Saturday, March 22, 2014, 10:29 am. Odessa Fish Market ('Privoz'). Members of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra and Odessa Opera Chorus, Hobart Earle, conductor, perform music from Beethoven's 9th symphony."

I admit it: I'm a sucker for this kind of thing. This brought tears to my eyes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The view from (not-so) afar

Some incisive trans-cultural political commentary from a pro-Russian demonstrator in Donetsk (via Luke Harding's reporting in today's Observer):

"There's no democracy in Europe," he told the Observer. "I've been to Germany. They give porno lessons in schools. It's homosexual fascism. They impose their values on others." 

It's amazing that I've been able to get by here in Germany for 15 years without becoming aware that I was living under 'homosexual fascism'.

So it's good to get an outsider's view.

Certainly, one never finds values being imposed in Russia. Never. Ever.

Glad we could clear that up.

Friday, December 06, 2013

"A prickling at the back of my neck"

Someone gave my new book a very nice review today.

Details at the blog for the book.

A nice way to start out the Twelve Reviews of Christmas.

Please do go take a look.