Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cantankerous, prosy and full of mutual hatred

As a quick update from the British Library, I thought I'd share a couple of things that I've run across.

I'm spending part of this trip researching a project relating to ethnicity and the criminal justice system that I'm working on with a colleague. I've been scanning through a variety of books on immigration, identity and racism for the last few days. Some of them have been quite good, others rather dreary.

So, par for the course.

But there's a lot of interesting stuff that you skim over while more-or-less frantically trying to find what you need in the short time that you have available.

For examle, I found the following, from an essay by V. G. Kiernan, to be a remarkable opening sentence:

‘Wherever homo sapiens [sic] made his first and on the whole regrettable appearance, it was not in Britain; all our ancestral stocks came from somewhere else.'

-- ‘Britons Old and New’, in Colin Holmes, ed., Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978) p. 23

Stating the obvious well while also adding a dash of probably unnecessary misanthropy is a skill I admire.

The other quote, which I found in a book by Rosemary Ashton on German emigrants in London, comes from Alexander Herzen.

Herzen, a Russian writer and political thinker (whose mother was German), provides a less than kind description of the German emigrant community in London in the second half of the nineteenth century:

‘The German emigrants were distinguished from the others by their ponderous, prosy and cantankerous nature. There were no enthusiasts among them, as there were among the Italians, no hotheads nor sharp tongues, as among the French.

The other emigrants had little to do with them; the difference of manners, of habitus, kept them at a certain distance: French arrogance has nothing in common with German boorishness. The absence of a commonly accepted notion of good manners, the heavy scholastic doctrinairism, the excessive familiarity, the excessive naiveté of the Germans hampered their relationships with people who were not used to them. They did not make many advances themselves … considering, on the one hand, that they greatly excelled others in their scientific development and, on the other, feeling in the presence of others the awkwardness of a provincial in a salon at the capital and of a civil service clerk in a coterie of aristocrats.

Internally the German emigrants displayed the same friability as their country did. They had no common plan; their unity was supported by mutual hatred and malicious persecution of each other.'

--Rosemary Ashton, Little Germany: German Refugees in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 25

As Ashton notes, Herzen’s depiction is ‘probably exaggerated’.


canada said...

I always find an unnecessary dash of misanthropy refreshing -- particularly on these hot, sticky, North American nights.

Happy Birthday.

J. Carter Wood said...

Oh, it comes across well even on the rather cool and wet British evenings we are experiencing our way.

Thanks for the kind wishes, and have a nice weekend.