Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

One of the most enjoyable moments for a historian is the serendipitous stumbling across of some odd fact or other which you weren't looking for. Indeed, I feel sometimes that much of my career, such as it is, has been built on these kinds of unplanned chance encounters with stray bits of historical detritus. There may be a broader point to made here about the power of contingency versus the forces of historical inevitability, but that's a discussion for another time.

The opportunities for practicing what we might call Felicitous Accidental Research vary, depending for instance on the period under study. During an extended period working at the Public Record Office in Kew (I know, it's now called the 'National Archives', but - having now reached a sufficient age at which to be stubbornly old-school about a thing or two - I've still not accepted the change) I got to know a guy working on a doctorate in medieval history. The amount of primary sources available to him for his topic - something on the meaning of lordship or vassalage as I recall - were fairly limited, largely written in Latin and consisted mainly of scrolls which had to be arduously and carefully unrolled, weighted down so that they would lie flat and then inspected with a magnifying glass.

I didn't envy him. He did, however, get to work with a very cool ultraviolet light thingy which made the faded parchment more readable. There was something about that particular combination of 800 year old documents and modern technology which had its own special cool-factor (one of the few available to medievalists, I suspect). But, as he admitted, the odds of running across some amusing little pop-cultural nugget among medieval manorial records was slim. Perhaps an obscene drawing or two among the margins. But that was about it.

We modernists, by contrast, are as often confronted not by the problem of scarcity but rather by an overabundance of ephemeral, largely meaningless cultural details. (Indeed, an entire field, 'Cultural Studies' has in the last couple of decades been built on this foundation.) Anyone who thinks that the 'information age' began in Steve Jobs's garage should think again and spend some time in the microfilm department of their local library. For instance, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, newspapers and magazines, were already a mass phenomenon.

They're the most enjoyable sources around; they are also among the least efficient.

Why? Because it is impossible to search through them without finding things which have nothing to do with the topic you're researching but which you can't resist reading.

Having spent most of my time researching the nineteenth century, I've turned more recently to the period 'between the wars', so in this case, the 20s and 30s. (I suppose, looking at human history, one could say that any period anywhere could be labelled as 'between the wars': our current predicament in Europe is not knowing exactly when that next one will be. Of course, this is a 'problem' which many people around the world would be glad to have.)

What I'm working on right now is a murder trial from 1928. It's certainly gripping enough itself, featuring as it does a fatal arsenic poisoning, a brutal history of domestic violence, plenty of family infighting, vicious gossip, evidence of sexual perversion and enough dramatic courtroom confrontations to fill a whole season of Law and Order.

The case was a massive media event and front page news in many of the national papers. This is great, as it has provided a mass of documentation and commentary for me to work on (though, I have to say that the very wealth of information means that there are times when I do perhaps envy the medievalists with their little bundles of manorial records...)

Again and again, though, I've been stopped by some story in an adjacent column, or some photos or screaming headlines with nothing to do with the trial. Some are simply amusing. Others I wish I had the opportunity and time to follow up further, hinting, as they do, at something possibly significant about British society in the late twenties. Some of them sound as if they could be from last week. Others are a reminder how much truth there is to the notion that the past is a foreign country.

There's really nothing I can do with them professionally. But it's a shame to leave them there in the archives. So, I decided I would start an occasional series (to appear...well, whenever I feel like it) in which I share some of the more interesting ones.

Today, there are two.

I offer, for your consideration, the following, from the Sunday Express, 22 July 1928:



A discussion in Esperanto on the price of ices at a dance led to the wedding at Brixton registry office yesterday of Miss Betty Barker and Mr. Leonard Noel Newell, editor of "International Language."
Mr. Newell and his bride are both employed by a London insurance company, and at one of the firm's dances they discovered that they both spoke Esperanto, the international language.
The acquaintance ripened, and Mr. Newell said to a "Sunday Express" representative yesterday that he put the greatest of international questions, "Will you marry me?" in the language which had begun their friendship.


They left London yesterday for a Continental honeymoon, during which they will attend the twentieth universal congress of Esperantists, at Antwerp next month.
Discussing the language as an aid to marriage a keen Esperantist at the wedding recalled the case of a Finn and German girl who met at one of the congresses, and, not understanding each other in the native tongue, conducted their courtship in Esperanto. Two young Esperantists who can speak only the international tongue have resulted from the marriage.
When Mr Jackson Coleman, a London barrister, was married to Frau Muzza Schonau, an Austrian, at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury, about two years ago, the service was conducted in Esperanto.

This mix of internationalist ideology and interwar geek romance is somehow irresistable. The globalisation of love? Nothing new.

The second story is from the Sunday Express from 1 July 1928. One of the relevant background issues which is not mentioned here, is that the summer of 1928 was one of the hottest on record (to that point: as we know, such records were made to be broken). There were a lot of sartorial-moral questions being asked that hot summer.



London girls can be turned off a tramcar if the conductor thinks that their skirts are too short.
This extraordinary state of affairs is revealed in the following letter from a reader--

To the editor of the "Sunday Express".
Sir, Can you tell me under what rules or regulations a tramcar conductor is entitled to tell a girl that her skirt is too short?
I am a married woman, and when in a tramcar bound for Victoria the other day my baby's foot accidentally caught in my dress and pulled my skirt about two inches above the knee.
Two minutes later the conductor asked me if I would mind pulling down my skirt.
When I apologised, he said airily "Oh, I don't mind, Miss, but other people on the tram might."
Victoria, S.W. S.K.


An official of the London County Council tramways department said to a "Sunday Express" representative yesterday that the conductor had acted according to section 11 of the bylaws and regulations made by the Ministry of Transport.
This bylaw states that --

"Persons whose dress or clothing might in the opinion of conductors soil or injure any part of the carriage or the dress of the other passengers, or who in the opinion of the conductor might for any other reason be offensive to passengers, shall not mount upon, enter, or remain in any carriage, and may be prevented from so doing, and if found in any carriage shall on request by the conductor leave the carriage upon the fare, if previously paid, being returned."

The official added:
"We seldom have any trouble with any of our conductors, and we have nearly four thousand. They are usually tactful, and use the powers entrusted to them with every care for the interests of the corporation and passengers as a whole."
An official of the London General Omnibus Company said: Our conductors are expected to act with discretion should the occasion arise.

My grandfather was a bus conductor. I wonder if he ever had cause to make use of 'Section 11'.

If so, I hope he was 'tactful'.

No comments: