Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thinking only nice thoughts

To clear the palate of the last, rather negative post before moving on to more pleasant things, I can only recommend Geoff's collection of his best photographs from 2009.

Especially this one. (We had such a baby bird in our yard this year, but didn't manage to get a photo.)

Thanks Geoff!

Danger: Unreadable Flying Objects

We've had a rather nice, quiet time here in the OD household over the holidays so far (though it's been a bit too drearily rainy outside).

It's been good to withdraw from the world a bit, perhaps except for catching up on the latest terrorist panic: is it just me, or is it a particularly sad comment on the state of the world when one of ABC News's biggest recent scoops seems to be publicising pictures of 'a singed pair of underwear with a packet of powder sewn into the crotch'?

Our retreat into the domestic cave has been accompanied by trying to focus on some of the real-world writing we need to do, hence the relative hiatus in any light blogging recently.

Which may continue; we'll see.

But I felt the urge to break radio silence tonight while reading Steven Shapin's lengthy LRB article on Darwin Year 2009.

Not after reading the article, I stress, since I haven't finished it yet.

I may not ever, in fact.

An distant early warning blip sounded in my mind when visitors to the Galapagos were referred to as 'tourists making scientific haj'; a few more followed when Shapin recounts the majority of Darwin Year events in a tone of condescending mockery.

The alarms rang a bit more loudly when Shapin--apparently approvingly--offers another quote:

‘Every age moulds Charles Darwin to its own preoccupations, but the temptation is hard to resist,’ Philip Ball noted in the Observer. ‘In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.’

Beyond question, the first part is generally right, and, indeed, Darwinism has been misused in all kinds of ways.

Still, the sweeping reference to 'bleak' views of humanity and the 'selfish' imperatives of DNA caused me to nearly throw the paper across the room. I'm used to people making this reference who haven't managed to get past the title of Dawkins's 1976 book, but Shapin is a historian of science, so I'm assuming he has.

But one of the underlying aims of Shapin's article is to reveal the shocking true agenda of many of the Darwin enthusiasts over the last year--Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett prominent among them--i.e., to promote atheism.

Which Shapin apparently thinks is foolish, judging by his sarcasm:

The International Darwin Day Foundation, acting as publicist and clearing house for hundreds of the year’s global events, is administered by the American Humanist Association, a secularist pressure group which defends the civil liberties of the endangered species of the American godless, and hands out annual awards to its chosen ‘Humanist of the Year’ (past winners include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker). For the Darwin Day Foundation (whose advisory board includes Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson and Pinker), as for other sponsors, Darwin Day is less about a historical figure than an occasion for extending versions of scientific materialism and rationalism to ever new cultural domains, encouraging an appreciation of ‘science and the role of humans in developing the Scientific Method that permitted the acquisition of an enormous amount of verifiable scientific knowledge, that is now available to modern humans’.

One can almost hear the phrase 'militant atheist' echoing in the background.

Shapin raises the the hoary old straw-man 'panadaptationist' critique (originating with Stephen Jay Gould) of Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker which verges into his letting us know that he Disapproves Strongly of evolutionary psychology (EP); unfortunately, he demonstrates as much subtle knowledge of that as he does of The Selfish Gene, summed up by his quip that it basically means 'Nature beats up nurture all the time.'

I know that EP's not everybody's thing; it's a wide-ranging field, most of it quite interesting and sensible, some of it a bit batty.

But I happen to be reading a fair amount of EP and EP-related material at the moment while preparing for an article that The Wife and I are working on, and--as is all too often the case--it bears little resemblance to the caricatured intellectual Gleichschaltung Shapin (like others) depicts.

(I may be feeling a bit touchy on this point, as I found out only yesterday about the death a few months ago of Margo Wilson, who, with her husband Martin Daly, was a pioneer in EP perspectives, especially on homicide. Her work has been important and inspirational to me over the last decade or so, and it is careful, subtle and methodologically most of the serious academic work in EP that I've read, in fact.)

At about this point, Steven Pinker is referred to as 'EP Thought Leader'.

At about this point, I could not resist throwing the paper across the room.

I don't have the energy to deal with this at any further length. I'm used to reading (or rather avoiding) this kind of crap at Comment is Futile, but I hold the LRB (perhaps naively) to a higher standard.

I'm almost tempted to make a new year's resolution: only to read and comment on things in my personal life that make me happy.

Judging by recent experience this would, however, mean that I would mostly be writing about The Wife, horror films, heavy metal and handguns.

And I'm not sure how much of that you all could all stand.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Off with the DJ's head

Actually, I find the "inappropriate comment" for which comedian Tony Biggs got sacked by some obscure Midland radio station quite funny (but who am I? Just a poor old misanthrope with a penchant for violent slapstick):

"I then went into an old riff about how people say the royal family are good for tourism, but the French beheaded theirs and people still visit France. The next record was George Michael's Last Christmas, so I made some sort of comment about 'going from one Queen to another' as a parody of a cheesy DJ."
Yet another case of political correctness gone mad, though I reckon that for Biggs the whole experience will ultimately turn out to have been an excellent career move.

All this reminds me of the following:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let it snow, early 70s style

Given the wintry chaos that has struck in recent days, we thought it might be nice to remember a time when we could more wholeheartedly enjoy the white fluffy stuff.

Ahhh. Memories...

Be careful out there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A typically suggestive manor

And while we're wallowing in the world of British media stupidity...

There does seem to be something wrong (or, alternatively, exquisitely right) about the caption to this engrossing article about comedy force of nature Russell Brand:

It's only the fucking Mail, I know, but still...

A way with...words?

It might just be me, but I find it a rather sad statement that Katie Price has managed to reach number 59 on the list of the 100 bestselling authors of the last decade.

That's £21.8 million in books.

I.e., what people are willing to shell out to read what Ms. Price has to say.

And that puts her 14 places behind Shakespeare.

There are moments when (just for a moment or two) I think that climate collapse/a giant asteroid collision/space invasion can't come soon enough to wipe this sorry species from the planet.

Though I may, I realise, be exaggerating.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hello, Bomb? Are you with me?

Dan O'Bannon, the co-writer of Dark Star (from which the title dialogue comes) and Alien has died at the young age of 63.

The Alien series is one of my favourite collection of films.

Thanks, Dan, for all the memories.

Getting into the Christmas spirit

As usual, we've been largely unsuccessful in sending out Christmas cards this year. A few lucky souls will actually receive real-world, hand-written tokens of seasonal cheer; but most of our friends and family will have to be content with something more ephemerally digital.

Long live the internet, I say.

Still, despite being an admitted failure when it comes to writing and mailing Christmas cards, I have an appreciation for good ideas when it comes to those bits of cardstock that are meant to maintain friendships and encourage seasonal spirit.

Like the ones available from Dictator Goods, which contain inspiring messages like the following, attributed to Genghis Khan:

The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.
As good as that is (even better than the similar--and probably borrowed--version offered by Conan), it might be too wordy. In which case, you may prefer something more succinct, like this observation by Niccolo Machiavelli:

Before all else, be armed.
(Of course, one wishes to note--urged on by The Wife--that our Niccolo was hardly a 'dictator', but rather a very clear sighted and sensible man living in a dangerous world.)

No doubt your local gun shop has a Christmas special or two still available that might make a handsome companion to this card and could happify someone close to you this year.

There are, for example, the good people at JJ's Pawn Shop in Beaumont, Texas:

Merry Christmas, y'all!

(Dictator Goods reference via Andrew)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In the burning fuselage of my days

Somehow I missed the fact that, back in October, the Mountain Goats made an appearance on the Colbert Report. This was in connection with their new album The Life of the World to Come, which is excellent and more than a little unsettling.

This song is a pretty good sample of why, on both counts.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Mountain Goats - Psalms 40:2
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

The Mountain Goats, 'Psalms 40:2' (Which reads: 'He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.')

I can think of worse ways to mark the 1,000th post of this here humble blog.


(Via Decibel.)

[UPDATE] I see that Pitchfork has an interesting interview with John Darnielle about the new album.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A car is woman's servant...not her master

Things have been a bit auto-themed here in this household over the last few days (though not in a good way), so I suppose it's as auspicious a time as any to offer the following late 1920s adverts as handsome additions to my historical bycatch series.

As did some other ads in that period, this one might be slightly playing on women's recently equalised status as voters in Britain, and the related perceptions (whether positive or negative) of the 'modern woman' which became rather a media fixation at that time.

(Click for a larger image)
Sunday Express, 13 July 1930, p. 11.

The text, in case you don't want to squint:

Woman takes the wheel

These are the days when women really drive. A car is woman's servant...not her master. And it's Pratts 'High Test'--no other kind--for the modern woman-at-the-wheel. Pratts 'High Test'...because it gives bigger mileage without costing more. Because it puts life inot the engine...power...snap...speed...sparkle, and always starts up instantly.'

Um...sparkle? Must be a chick thing.

Anyway, the next one is a bit more mysterious, in so far as the concept of 'motoring chocolate' is a new one to me.

Daily Herald, 8 April 1927, p. 5.

The Best thing to go Motoring on

Rowntree's Motoring Chocolate is a delicious combination of the famous Plain York (or Milk) Chocolate with whole blanched almonds and raisins. It is made specially nourishing for all who enjoy motoring and the open air.

'Especially nourishing.'

Must be those raisins.

Happy motoring.


I love it when humble invertebrates confirm the precepts and propositions of contemporary "theory". Like these here Indonesian octopuses (yes, that's right, puses) who - with their sophisticated use of coconut halves as sleigh-like contraptions - seem to subscribe to Donna Haraway's wildest prosthetic fantasies:

Transhumanity affirmed by cephalopods! Cyborg theory lives!

Obviously, this news item calls for an appropriate soundtrack. It's so quiet in the blue deep:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do thou the substance of my matter see

While we're on the topic of The Pilgrim's Progress: A student in one of my seminars, in which we're reading - among other things - John Bunyan's Puritan allegory, has pointed me towards a recent film version of the book.

The trailer confirms my worst fears: the film is an abominable piece of evangelical literalism run riot.

Could it be that transatlantic crossings do terrible things to your higher interpretive skills - such as annihilate the ability to distinguish allegory from realism (a genetic mutation subsequently passed onto your offspring home, home on the range)?

Even the semi-educated tinsmith Bunyan, in 1678, was aware of this distinction, which he was careful to refer to several times in The Pilgrim's Progress. Hence in the book, he tells us, he uses "types, shadows and metaphors", "figures and similitudes", "fancies", "dreams" and "parables" to bring across his deeper message.

This method not only has a Biblical precedent, as Bunyan points out, it also has a didactic effect - making things more plain to see:

I find that Holy Writ in many places
Hath semblance with this method, where the cases
Doth call for one thing to set forth another:
Use it I may then, and yet nothing smother
Truth's golden beams, nay, by this method may
Make it cast forth its rays as light as day.

So when, at the beginning of Book I of The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan describes his protagonist Christian as a man "with a great burden upon his back", he emphatically does not mean that he has a grimy heap of sackcloth tied across his shoulders, as the makers of this film do. He is simply, really, truly distressed about the sinfulness of the world.

How can this statement be sausaged into total absurdity? Wasn't the original text read, I wonder, prior to writing the script? Didn't people bother to heed the words of old-world Bishop Bunyan, who warns of exactly this simplistic one-to-one?

Put by the curtains, look within my veil;
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail:
There if thou seekest them such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.

In utter despair of my fellow men, I leave the final word to John Bunyan's reputed descendant, Carnaby Street pop chick Vashti Bunyan (there is, I think, a family resemblance):

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Musical encounter of the third kind (Miley Cyrus edition)

Here's why I simply lurve my drive to work: it keeps me connected to what is going on in the real world. Thanks to my involuntary radio encounters (and isn't commercial radio a little like the voice of fate, sayeth Slavoj, telling you that this is the song chosen for you and that you will be listening to until the very end - whether or not you like it?), I'm exposed to experiences I would normally be unaware of or even avoid. The banal pseudo-heroics of Reamonn, for instance, or the bland boredom of Status Quo.

But also: poetic teen self-pity disguised as world-weary middle-aged ennui - all ironically arranged to an upbeat little tune.

The latter is what I heard today: A song by a female singer in her mid-thirties (judging by the sound of her voice), with (probably) several failed pregnancies and marriages under her belt and a meth-addicted American mastiff called Bronco in her trailer kitchen in Flagstaff, AZ (complete with leaking tap).

This is what she sang to me:

There's always gonna be another mountain.
I'm always gonna wanna make it move.
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose.
Ain't about how fast I get there.
Ain't about what's awaiting on the other side.
It's the climb.

"You go sister", I'm thinking in total sympathy, as the little French car is relentlessly transporting me along the Autobahn towards another day of tedious meetings and intellectual despair. "Don't I know the feeling? We should meet for coffee one of these days."

What I'm loving in particular - apart from the stubborn self-assurance in the singer's voice - is the quasi Buddhist cliché that the path is already the end and aim of all our endeavours on which her pained wailing peaked.

It's the climb that counts, man. The Climb!

"How philosophical", I'm thinking. "How symbolic". This song is, quite obviously, "The Waste Land" for the 'noughties - only with a mountain instead of a red rock.

Or The Pilgrim's Progress for the (old) MTV generation (that is, people like me and the middle-aged singer in her trailer in the desert with the bleary-eyed dog).

Well, Pustekuchen. Turns out the singer is none other than 17-year old Miley Cyrus, who is not only the daughter of a B-list country crooner (beloved by line dancers world wide), but also the godchild of one chesty old lady with candy floss hair. Miley Cyrus, the chipmunkey Disney star, who in 2007 was worth 18,2 Mio USD and who earns between 15 and 25 Mio USD per film role.

Miley Cyrus, whose annual fake bake allowance would easily pay for the bathroom renovation we've been saving up for for years.

The unfairness of the world hit me like a tsunami: how come that some people suffer just as much as others, for a fraction of the income?

And does Miley's manager seriously believe that with this kind of masquerade she will expand the average age of her fan base beyond eight?

And what the heck was Deutschlandradio Kultur doing advertising the EP that contains such a transparently imperialistic attempt at Lebensraumerweiterung market expansion?

After that instructive piece of popular ideology I was well-steeled for what was to come later in the day. So I guess I have to thank Miley Cyrus for reminding me - cheerfully, mind - that the world is a hypocritical hell hole where you are being ripped off at every corner.

But I'll be strong.

And carry on.



Whoa-oh yeah.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sunday shouldn't be like every day

Oh yes, I remember the days when I too wandered about town in an oversized coat and a scowl:

But today - aged beyond recognition and living a life when every day (including Sunday) is decidedly unlike Sunday - I have begun to appreciate the quiet days when towns are sleepy and shops are shut.

As they are still, mostly, on a Sunday in Germany (which Anglo-American friends and family have tended to find puzzling, if not a violation of one of their inalienable rights).

And so I was immensely pleased by the recent ruling by the German Federal Constitutional Court that the liberal pre-Christmas Sunday opening hours in Berlin are unconstitutional. Atheist or not, I think people deserve a rest from getting or spending, to be free to do ... nothing in particular. That is a pastime we should earnestly cultivate.

And on that note I'm off to ... do nothing in particular. Toodlepip.

'Four tuneful Teutons' (mit dem Kontrabass)*

Nineteenth-century mathematician Charles Babbage is rightly recognised for his pioneering work in what we would today understand as computer science.

But his efforts to purge the London streets of German street musicians have, to my knowledge, been hitherto under-appreciated.

The following comes from a lengthy article in The Times in 1860 which I found referenced in Panikos Panayi's German Immigrants in Britain during the Nineteenth-Century 1815-1914.

I have shortened it somewhat and added some paragraph breaks:

It would be a positive commercial advantage to all Londoners who live by the sweat of their brain to compromise with Mr. Gladstone for an extra penny of Income-Tax if he would undertake to put down the street musicians of London. Why should there not be a tax upon organs, and hurdy-gurdies, and German boys, and cornopeans and a double tax upon those hideous bagpipes which literally poison the air of London with their horrible screeching discord? [...]

What would not a hard-worked Londoner who is compelled to depend for the subsistence of his family upon the condition of his brain give for the blessed privilege of silence? No matter what your work may be—if it be of an intellectual kind, or if it tasks the nervous system—so long as the work must be done in London you are stopped by noise. We must have children, housemaids must carry coal-boxes up and down stairs, and horses must have water; but there is no reason why a parcel of foreign raggamuffins should be allowed to infest our streets, and make the fulfilment of obligations which already task the overwrought brain severely enough tenfold more burdensome and destructive to health and life.

Scarcely is your attention fixed upon your work when an abominable organ intrudes ‘The Power of Love,’ or some such dismal melody, upon your notice; or a parcel of Ethiopian serenaders assume that you are a Buffalo girl, and persist in the inquiry if you can’t ‘come out tonight?’

Go to the window and remonstrate, and see what you will take by your motion. The instant the fellow with the tambourine catches sight of your indignant face, he tosses his jingling instrument up in the air, or bumps it against his smutty face in the fullness of his satisfaction, while the fellow who works the ‘bones’ goes through a series of grotesque antics, which may be highly diverting to the little boys and the idlers, but the noise has spoiled the morning’s work, which is not at all diverting to a hard-working man. [...]

On Wednesday last, Mr. Charles Babbage, the mathematician, who resides in Dorset-street, Manchester-square, summoned four German brass band musicians before Mr. Secker, the police magistrate of Marylebone, upon a charge of annoying him with their noise, after they had been requested to depart from the neighbourhood of his house, and a reasonable cause had been assigned for the request. Mr. Babbage was engaged with his studies, when these fellows came before his door and opened fire with their instruments.

He went out and asked them to go away, but they recommenced playing and refused to move. Mr. Babbage went in search of a constable, and when he came back he found that they had moved to the front of a neighbouring house, but so close at hand that the noise was just the same disturbance as before. The owner of this house, as it appeared, liked their music, and desired them to play on. When the constable came up he ordered the musicians to move off, but this they refused to do, and consequently he removed them to the station-house. [...]

There is an idea prevalent among these people that they are not compellable to move on, unless they are informed that there is actual illness in a house; but it is to be hoped that Mr. Secker’s decision of Wednesday last will go some way towards dispelling this delusion. ‘No one,’ said the Magistrate, ‘has a right to play his noisy instruments within the hearing of persons who are pursuing grave occupations. The street is not to be infested with persons who disturb the inhabitants.’ [...]

The conclusion was that the four tuneful Teutons who had obstructed the thoroughfare—who had annoyed Mr. Babbage—and who had resisted the command of the constable to move on, were fined in the mitigated penalty of 5s. each; but with an intimation that if ever they made their appearance in Marylebone Police-court again the sterner fine of 2l. a head was hanging over them.

There was a subsequent and smaller case disposed of summarily by analogy, the gist of which was that Gatino—probably Gaetano—Circeoni, an Italian, was also fined 5s. for playing an instrument, also to the annoyance of Mr. Babbage, and, in default of payment, his instrument was detained. A musical fanatic who was present in court, being touched with sympathy for the misfortune of the wandering musician, paid the fine, and Circeoni was discharged to the further annoyance of the human race.

The perpetual stress upon the nervous system caused by the unceasing noises of London indeed is a prolific source and aggravation of cerebral disease. Go where you will, or arrange your matters how you will, it is almost impossible to find quiet. [...]

The Times, 2 July 1860, p. 8.

(*Title reference)

Monday, November 30, 2009

A matter of etiquette

A question, of some urgency, has occurred to me here in the 'Humanities 2' reading room at the British Library.

Clearly, were one of my neighbours to begin a loud and lengthy conversation with someone sitting next to her, I would be well within my rights--being in a library--to ask her to be quiet.

I mean: that's obvious.

But what if she's merely bothering me, with increasing urgency, as a result of what we might call her...'excessively intense'... 'aggressive'--I would even go so far to say 'abusive'--style of typing?

There's no real way of addressing this situation without looking like a bit of an ass, is there?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A warm thought for wintry days

One of the charming things about advertisements from the 1920s was the prevalence of hand-drawn artwork. Not all of them, of course, were winners; but when it worked, it worked.

At least for me.

Like this one, for Bovril.

Daily Herald, 31 December 1926.

I don't know much about the graphic artists of the time. Anyone recognise this signature?

"You have to live in Manchester, if you want to speak proper English."

Being a bit of a mongrel myself when it comes to English pronunciation, the following Daily Herald essay from 1926 caught my eye.

English as She Is Not Spoke

By R. B. Suthers

What language I speak I do not know. My cousin Lucy is a Lancashire lass, and, when she was staying with us, I said in her hearing that the heat was like a Turkish bath.

Turning to my wife, Lucy observed scornfully, “Why don’t you teach your ‘oosband to speak English? B-a-t-h spells bath, not barth. Eh, I shall be glad to get home, and hear a bit of proper talk. It’s like being in a foreign country. ‘Benk, benk, benk,’ and ‘Parss along there,’ and these ‘Broadcarsters,’ they give me the ‘oomp with their ‘Weather fawcarsst’ and their ‘glarss is falling in the Azores.’ They want boomping, all of them. Why, one of them called Lytham Lie-tham, the other night. He’s a bright lad, I don’t think! How do they get their jobs? I expect it’s influence. If I couldn’t pronounce better than that, I’d eat my ‘at.”

Hat, my dear,” I said, gently.

“Well, I said ‘at, didn’t I?” Lucy asked serenely. “What do you call ‘ats?’ You can’t play about with ‘at like you do with book and cook anyhow. B-double-O is boo, isn’t it? And a booking office is a booking office, not a bucking office. It’s done you no good coming to London. You have to live in Manchester, if you want to speak proper English.”

“Correct” English

Knowing from bitter experience that if I pursued the subject I should only succeed in evoking still more outspoken truths about my degeneration in this and many other respects, I changed it. For cousin Lucy, like most Manchester people, believes in calling a spade a spade. Nay, they are so determined to let you have the naked truth that they insist on calling dirt muck....

It was news to me that I pronounced bath barth. I’m sure I don’t say “parth” or “broadcarst,” but I plead guilty to “bucking-office” and “cuk”. This is the result of transmigration, and it refutes the notion held by some people that the dialect and accent you acquire as a child will stick to you through life. Indeed, I have known children, transplanted from London to Yorkshire, entirely lose the Cockney accent and method of pronunciation and vice versa. I suppose I am a mongrel in language. But what is correct English?

I read recently that, in these days, our mother tongue is subject to shocking mutilations. It is. I was roused the other morning by a loud voice beneath my bedroom window. A man laying a cable was talking to his mate. I ought to have heard every word, but most of his remarks were an unintelligible noise. I listened to children the other day, and they were little clearer. They clipped and slurred and disembowelled words in a ghastly way. Couldn’t was pronounced “cou’n’,” butter was transformed into “bu’er,” and mother into “m’er.”These mutilations are not the monopoly of the less educated. I have listened to some pretty bad samples from 2LO, and I expect we are all, more or less, guilty of these cruelties. How many of us drop G’s and aitches, say “fr’m,” “how ‘r you?” and “what’s th’ time?” and commit a hundred similar atrocities.

A Drastic Rule

Whether there is more mutilation now than there was a generation ago is a moot point. Who is to judge? I think, myself, that pronunciation—correct pronunciation—is more widespread Perhaps we are more sensitive to errors. The advent of Broadcasting has certainly aroused interest in the question, and incidentally, added to people’s opportunities of ticking each other off. For what is correct pronunciation?

Well, we have now got a Committee of Experts to tell us—through the B.B.C. The members include the Poet Laureate, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and George Bernard Shaw. The first work of this committee has been to lay down the pronunciation of idyll, gala, precedence, sonorous, Boulogne, Marseilles, Rheims, garage, Towcester, charabanc, and chauffeur.

I observe that gala is to be pronounced “gahla.” I have no objection, but I cannot imagine Cousin Lucy accepting this ruling. A gala for her is a “gayla,” and no poet or playwright, especially one who takes a “barth,” will ever persuade her to go to a “gahla.” I know a man, too, who was in France during the war, and insists that “chaffeer” is the correct pronunciation of chauffeur. There are other disputable rulings in these eleven words. Unless the committee obtain Parliamentary powers to imprison non-conformists, I fear their recommendations will receive scant attention in Lancashire and other places where they call a spade a blinkin’ shovel....

However, I salute them, and I will now go and practice pronouncing “sonorous.”

Daily Herald, 4 August 1926, p. 4.

By the same author: Free Trade Delusions and Common Objections to Socialism Answered.

(All items in this series.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can't believe I got so far with a head so empty

Knee-deep in work today and tired of typing.

But there's always time for a musical break.

Art Brut, 'Summer Job'

The Thermals, 'Returning to the Fold'

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, 'Corn Bread and Butterbeans'
(via HNN)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It was 150 years ago today

..that Darwin taught the band to play.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.


(Thanks for the reminder, Dale.)

Ian may

I've had a soft spot for Ian Hart ever since Backbeat - because without looking the least bit like John Lennon, he managed to pull off that role astoundingly well. Certainly better than the lad in the new Lennon biopic.

And, being an actress of sorts meself, I know the feeling of wanting to smack people in the auditorium who can't keep their bloody gobs shut.

Of course I don't. But Ian may.

Watching the watchmen

For various reasons, I ran across something I should have mentioned before.

My friend and colleague Chris Williams published a fascinating article on the early days of police surveillance in the journal Surveillance & Society earlier this year.

Not only is there good analysis to be had, but the primary source -- a surveillance film of street betters in Chesterfield in 1935 -- is remarkable.

There are times when I remember why I love my chosen profession.

Enjoy the rare glimpse into the past.

(And all praise to S&S for being freely available to the public.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adventures in didactic cooking: Grimsby edition

Today, the historical bycatch series takes a more literal turn.

Recently, I finally ran across something I'd wanted to post for a while but had misplaced. (Three words to describe the interior of our house: Stacks. Of. Paper.)

While scanning through the 1929 Daily Herald earlier this year, I had happened upon an ad promoting the consumption of fish.

Maybe not the most immediately exciting of topics; still, it has its charms.

Daily Herald, 9 June 1929, p. 3. (Click for larger image)

The advert is interesting for all kinds of reasons.

First, I like the way it puts its audience decisively in its place: 'Can you fry fish? Most people can't. If you feel you've got anything to learn, read on.'

What follows is actually quite informative. It tells you something useful about how to fry fish. I mean, I'm guessing here, not being that accomplished with cooking fish myself; but it certainly sounds like practical, sound advice: 'If your fish is not properly dried it will be watery inside. If your fat is not properly hot instead of your fish frying to a golden crispness it will be soggy and greasy.'

And who, after all, wants their fish to be soggy and greasy, hm?

The ad was part of a promotional campaign, according to the small type, by the Grimsby-based British Trawlers' Federation.

And, as I searched further through that summer of 1929, I found that 'Can you fry fish?' was part of a series:

Daily Herald, 2 July 1929, p. 5.

Again, there's the rather hectoring tone, with all its 'musts', 'must nots' and 'oughts' to which the modern consumer is just not accustomed:

'You must drain your fish properly. Press every atom of water out.'

Somehow, I find myself afraid of disappointing the friendly-yet-somehow-intimidating woman in the white apron with her accusing stare and many handily available sharp implements.

In any case, the series reached a thrilling climax in its third and (as far as I could tell) final episode:

Daily Herald, 16 July 1929, p. 3

Maybe after all the challenges of frying and boiling, the Trawlers' Federation decided to take it easier on people: 'Steaming requires no attention and cannot fail to be successful.'

Certainly a relief.

And it seems they have expanded the availability of useful recipes, which can now be had for free from 'leading fishmongers.'

'Fishmonger' is an excellent word, one heard all too seldom these days.

I wonder how successful the ads were. I assume they appeared in other papers. The Herald at this time was owned by the TUC, and these ads seem tailored to appeal to working-class readers (more specifically working-class women).

Interestingly: not a word here about chips, the essential accompaniment to any fishy feast. Of course, from the trawlers' perspective, the potato farmers were on their own.

Happy cooking. I hope you've all learned something.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Standing on the shoulders of giants

It's wonderful, and humbling, to receive recommendations like this.

As it turns out, the other people on that list were crucial to my book being what it became.

This is as good a time as any to say thanks.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Is it safe?*

Three things I have learned today:

1) I never ever want to live in a society without anesthetics or antibiotics. You can keep any romantic images you may have of pre-modern society if you like: just don't confuse them with reality. Or try to convince me otherwise.

2) The gap that the removal of a molar leaves feels at least two times as large when felt by a tongue than it looks when viewed in the mirror. This may be partly a result of said removal being a surprise, and not planned, when I entered the dentist's office. But proving this would require a far larger sample.

3) A glass of whiskey or two does in fact ease the pain. This, I can offer as definitively established.

As they say, live and learn.

*Reference. But you're showing your...youth...if you didn't recognise it immediately. (And believe me: If I had known, I would have told too.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Till another stream be forded and we reach the great beyond

Reports are coming in that British actor Edward Woodward has died at the age of 79.

I've liked various bits of Woodward's quite diverse career over the years. Certainly, his role as a police officer in The Wicker Man (opposite such luminaries as Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland) remains a classic.

And there were few actors who could pull off the suit-and-uzi combination as suavely as he during his stint as The Equalizer

But it was his starring role in Bruce Beresford's 1980 film Breaker Morant that made the most powerful impression on me. I believe I discovered it while working at a video store in about 1988. I didn't know much about the Boer War at the time, but the film stands out as a remarkably effective meditation not only on the hypocrises of war and empire but also on the friendships among men in wartime.

It's difficult to find a best-of online right now, but this scene (in which Morant and two fellow soldiers are on trial for shooting Boer prisoners although they had been ordered to do so by their superiors) should suffice.

'Rule .303' -- a reference to the calibre of their Lee-Enfield rifles -- is a phrase that has stuck in my head ever since.

And, this one too, but you want to not watch it if you haven't seen the film yet, as it shows the ending.

But it's powerful stuff.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On healthy habits and responsible role models

In this week's Die Zeit, Susanne "Jeremiah" Gaschke bemoans the loss of reading skills in Germany. Even in middle-class families, she complains, reading seems to be a dying art, as more and more time is spent in the Internet and in front of TVs and PlayStations.

This is an important observation, which pulls the rug out from under the mantra - currently en vogue amongst theoretical educators (Theoretical educator - me? I'm at the chalk face!) - of the "bildungsferne Gesellschaftsschichten" ("social strata at a distance from education"). Maybe the idea that a lack of education is solely caused by a lack of money needs to be rethought. Wealth does not protect from ignorance - I mean, look at the Royal Family or Apricot Boomtown.

The culprits, according to Gaschke, are middle-class parents who - although still passively upholding old educational ideals - fail to practice what they preach:

Ein geübter Leser wird man nur durch … Üben. Und die Übung beginnt durch das Vorbild der Eltern, durch Vorlesen, Erzählen und Über-Geschichten-Sprechen.

[You only become a accomplished reader by ... practising. And practice begins with the parental model, with being read to, with telling and talking about stories].

Quite right. However, it seems that Gaschke is losing the argument when she elevates the cultural practice of reading to a moral act:

Warum aber ist Lesekompetenz heute überhaupt noch wichtig? Weil sich dem geübten Leser Fragen stellen, die auch im Leben wichtig sind: Worum geht es? Ist das, was ich lese, glaubwürdig? Ist Ironie im Spiel? Was empfinden die Figuren in einer Geschichte?

[But why is reading still important today? Because the accomplished reader is confronted with questions that are also relevant in real life: What is this about? Is the story I'm reading credible? Is it ironic? What do the characters feel?]

Her mission statement: "Only those who read are able to empathise with others".

Well, here we are back to the Arnoldian fallacy that literature is a quasi-religion! This clearly is too simplistic.

If that were the case, then I should be surrounded, in my professional life, by supremely empathetic creatures. If reading made us all better people, then university literature departments would be free from violent strife, petty squabbles and parochial vanities - they would be sanctuaries of shared concern, intellectual openness and mutual respect.

Reader, let me tell you: They are not!

Also, if Gaschke were right, then most of human history (and pre-history) would have been empathy-free: an illiterate world of ruthless murder and rapine without remorse and regret until the Frankfurt Book Fair came along (but then again Zeit arts editors rarely think in an evolutionary time frame and are notorious for taking themselves too seriously).

Actually, it is not reading that leads us to ask the questions that Gaschke lists in the quote above: literature is only able to raise them because Homo sapiens can ask such questions and make such assessments. Our brain was there first! Reading merely trains cognitive skills that evolved for very different reasons - it is a further development of the human imagination, not that which shapes it.

Needless to say that the kind of responses that Gaschke hails as fundamentally literary are of course also triggered by other narrative artefacts, from soap operas to pop ballads (if the listener bothers to listen to the lyrics*). To be empathetic, we don't need books.

In other words, to defend the practice of reading, we have to come up with other, better explanations for the value of literature.**

Nevertheless, Gaschke and Michelle Obama would have a field day on Sesame Street:

Actually, this is kinda cute and doesn't deserve the kind of vicious commentary that raging loony libertarians have left at YouTube.

A final observation on role models: Why is it that in this day and age when universities across Europe have taken up the cause of internalisation with a vengeance - which is often seconded by the mysterious emergence of an administrative hydrocephalus and new central buildings to house it - administrative staff in international offices, who are prone to calling their students ignorant or parochial, often do not speak foreign languages or seem consummately reticent to travel. Talk about pots calling kettles black.

* Have you noticed, too, that only few people actually care about the words of songs?
** Lying in bed all day Saturday surrounded by a pile of books, with a pot of coffee in reach, being one of those explanations. Escapism. Not having to be in/with the world. Not wanting to get out of bed and still feeling that you are living.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“The pleasure of the many cannot be made subservient to the prudery of the few”: or, “Wear as little as you can.”

Part of a series: a few things I ran across in Colindale yesterday.

Ban on Bare Legs?

Dancer Shocks Patrons of Royal Opera House


“Perfectly Proper,” Says Producer

The appearance of a bare-legged dancer in a song-scena at the Covent Garden Opera House, London, has so shocked the patrons of the Royal Opera House dances that the directors have decided that her costume must be “instantly modified,” or the production in which she appears will be banned.

In “While the Sahara Sleeps” there is a scene between the sheik and his Arabian dancing girl, who appears dressed in silver tinsel and with bare legs.

The protest against her dress was conveyed to the producers in a letter from Captain J. Russel Pickering, on behalf of the directors.

“We think the costume of the slave is distinctly indecorous,” says the letter, “and severe criticism has been levelled at us by our patrons. Bare legs on the ballroom floor do not, in our opinion, accord with the tradition of the Royal Opera House, and we must insist, unless the costume is instantly modified, on the banning of the scene altogether.”

“Frankly we are bewildered at the ultimatum,” said Mr. Lawrence Wright, the producer of the scena, to a Daily Herald representative yesterday. “The scena contains nothing that would not be considered perfectly proper at any vicarage tea party, and, besides, bare legs are the vogue at all the smartest fancy dress balls nowadays.”

Mr. Wright added that he was prepared to submit the matter to the theatre licensing authorities, and abide by their decision.

Daily Herald, 30 October 1926, p. 3

The story continued, and you'll be pleased to know it had a happy ending.


Objection that Came from Killjoys

The banning by the Covent Garden Opera House authorities of the bare leg slave girl costume in the song scena, “While the Sahara Sleeps,” has been lifted, and the scena will again be produced in the ballroom of the opera house this evening. It had been taken off in consequence of the ban.

Capt. J. Russell Pickering, general manager of the lessees of Covent Garden Opera House, confessed to the Daily Herald last night that he acted hastily in setting up the ban.

“The real objection to the costume,” he said, “I found came from killjoy sources with which it would not be desirable to be associated.”

“After all, in these days, the pleasure of the many cannot be made subservient to the prudery of the few, and the sheik scene in Mr. Laurence Wright’s scena is not obscene.”

It is understood that had the ban not been lifted, it was intended to produce the scena elsewhere.

Daily Herald, 5 November 1926, p. 9

And this, though not inspired directly by indecorous operatic dancing, seems not entirely unrelated. (There was something of a mania for swimming the Channel in that era, hence the reference in the first line.)


Short Skirts the Secret of Channel Swims


Discard Collars and Wear Knickerbockers

“That women have been so successful in swimming the Channel is partly due to the fact that they have trained themselves to stand the cold better than men.”

This was the dictum of Professor Leonard Hill in a lecture on dress to an audience of women at the Institute of Hygiene, London, yesterday. He said a useful little lot of advice was, “Wear as little as you can.”

“I have no objection,” he added “to the low necks and bare or silk stockinged legs which women have gone in for, so long as they are reasonable.”

“Pneumonia blouses are all nonsense. No girl has ever caught pneumonia through wearing a low blouse. It hardens her and helps her to resist such diseases.”

“Silk stockings and short skirts are good things, especially artificial silk stockings, which allow ultra-violet rays to penetrate to the skin. Artificial silk is better than natural silk, because you can get sunburnt through it.”


“Men were more coddled than women. It would be a great advantage if men got rid of their collars and took to open necks. Things were drifting that way. If men would go about in knickerbockers or running shorts it would be to their good.”

“With modern methods of education and constant exposure women seemed to be becoming the hardier sex. They were already coddling boys, and one day we might all be ruled by women.”

Daily Herald, 18 November 1926, p. 1.

Doctor Prof. Hill's call for men to adopt the collarless knickerbocker look fell, as far as I know, on deaf ears.

Which is, all in all, probably a good thing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brain garbage (nostalgia version reloaded)

I must share this here brief radio encounter from earlier today to relieve my poor brain of the unnecessary and overdone.

The original was by Hot Butter (1972) - not "like butter" - but here is the more choral Kraftwerk version:

Thought for the day

There’s such a lot of things. Such a lot of unusable things. Most things are unnecessary and overdone. Look around. We cannot send to the Third World all the garbage we don’t need any more. We have to go back to more simplicity, longevity.
Says German designer Dieter Rams - famous for simple and functional techno-commodities like the Braun SK 4 audio system (aka the "Schneewittchensarg) - in an interview with The Times.

The Braun SK 4

Too true, indeed - and not only as far as the world of things is concerned. There's so much garbage in my life, it makes me want to shout scream ....

Monday, November 09, 2009

The wall falls, live

For those who like their nostalgia with an extra portion of detail: Der Spiegel is presenting the news-wire reports from 9 November 1989 in, so to say, real time (German).

Here's the most recent, which reads like a message from another world:

+++ Krenz will kontrollierte Wahlen und marktorientierte Planwirtschaft +++

[10.15] Berlin (dpa) - Der DDR-Staats- und Parteichef Egon Krenz hat sich für eine demokratische Erneuerung des Sozialismus mit einer Entflechtung von Staat und Partei ausgesprochen und freie Wahlen angekündigt. In seiner mehrstündigen Rede am Mittwochabend vor dem Zentralkomitee der SED entwarf Krenz die Grundzüge eines Aktionsprogramms, das am Donnerstag vom ZK beraten wurde. Alle Reformen sollten der "revolutionären Erneuerung des Sozialismus" dienen. Zugleich wies Krenz alle Auffassungen zurück, die "auf eine Erosion oder gar den Umsturz der sozialistischen Staats- und Gesellschaftsordnung" hinausliefen.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bravery, by any other name

I'm with Francis on this (and with Terry):

I’m glad that British military and civilian forces are in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban – a barbaric enemy of humankind – and helping the Afghan people build their country. I’m proud of our men and women, in uniform or otherwise, and trust their judgement on whether the struggle is worth it.

As for the fallen, we will remember them.

Exchange 'British' for 'German' and I would still agree, though the ISAF mission is even more unpopular here (i.e. Germany) than there.

I'm in London at the moment, and it's Remembrance Sunday, so maybe I'm being overly sentimental about this, but I think it's worth pointing out with reference to the above that the Federal Republic of Germany, until recently, did not even have a medal recognising bravery in combat. The first ones were awarded in July this year, to four soldiers in Afghanistan:

On 20th October, 2008 in the northern Afghan region of Kunduz a suicide bomber blew himself up near a vehicle carrying Henry Lukacz, Jan Berges, Alexander Dietzen and Markus Geist. The explosion killed two German paratroopers as well as five Afghan children. At the risk of their lives the four soldiers, between 28-33 years of age, rescued a seriously wounded soldier and stood by another one trapped inside the burning vehicle.

It was only recently, in fact, that the German defense minister was willing to use the word 'war' (Krieg) to describe the operation.

I happened to use the word 'tapfer' (brave) in a phone conversation with The Wife earlier tonight (in a very different context): she said the term comes across (linguistically) as a bit old-fashioned.

Which is unfortunate.

As there is no better word to describe the acts of staff-sergeant Geist and master-sergeants Lukacz, Berges and Dietzen.

Which should not be forgotten.

Problem solved

Perhaps this is too optimistic. And maybe it's a bit simplistic too.

But looking back at the fears that were expressed in 1989 and 1990 about German reunification (many of them expressed by Germans themselves), there is something to it as well:
“The fear was that this thing in the center of Europe, if it were allowed to become unified, was going to be a cancer once again and lead to Act III of the great European tragedy,” said Robert E. Hunter, a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation and an ambassador to NATO under President Bill Clinton.

Instead, Mr. Hunter said, “the German problem, which emerged with the unifying of Germany beginning in the 1860s, is one of the few problems in modern history that has been solved.”
'Solved' is a step too far.

But the article suggests that after its tumultuous, violent, and sometimes horrifying past, Germany might have become a bit, well, normal and boring.

Boring is good. Boring is just fine.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Tearing down the wall

The New York Times has a nifty set of images of before-and-after photographs along the Berlin Wall.

To get the full impact, you really do have to play with the little slidey back-and-forth effect they offer.

Very cool.

Somehow deeply moving.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday historical hyperbole

A quick dispatch from the British Library, from a book on the popular press in the mid 20th century:

Churchill's first election broadcast, on June 4, was the crucial episode in the early part of the [1945] campaign, and the Express's enthusiasm now found an issue instead of just a mood. The essence of his argument was bannered next day on the front page: Gestapo in Britain if Socialists win, and expanded in the leader:
Voters of Britain! Will you go down to history as the men and women who smashed the inhuman tyranny in Europe but were too tired or too bewildered or too dazzled by your own glory to save yourselves from tyranny at home?

After ripping the Gestapo out of the still beating heart of Germany, will you stand for a Gestapo under another name at home?...

Were you shocked to learn from Mr. Churchill that State control leads to Fascism?

Think hard about it, and see how true it is.
A.C.H. Smith, Paper Voices: The Popular Press and Social Change 1935-1965 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975)

Heady stuff. (I mean...'ripping the Gestapo out of the still beating heart of Germany'...Strewth! What vivid prose.)

So this is what papers like the Express and Mail did before they had 'political correctness' to freak out about.

(And, of course, this was not all that long after at least one of them had expressed a certain fondness for the dreaded f-word.)

It is left only to admire the clear-eyed vision with which the Express editorial noted above accurately predicted the terrorised Gleichschaltung that followed Labour's victory in 1945.

Well done, chaps. Stay vigilant.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Thursday one-hit wonder

Does anyone out there remember this?

Thanks to Radio Rockland for bringing on the old prepubescent depression.

Actually, no: 1979 was my last good year before my long decline into teenage frustration - which only ended - oh, like - last autumn.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Serious business

One legacy of an earlier period of job seeking is a daily job-vacancies email I receive from I've never bothered to suspend it (partly out of laziness and partly out of the feeling that, who knows, maybe something worthwhile would come along), and I usually take a quick look through the offerings.

Today, among the usual openings for 'Lead Consultant SAP', 'Junior Berater für den Bereich Business Development' and 'Leiter, Abteilung IT-Entwicklung' was one that I've never seen before.


This is for German-speakers only it seems, (the full-time, permanent position is in Würzburg), judging by what is probably the most poetic job description I've ever seen.

But I note that along with a salary of €20-25k it offers not only a costume but also a tent ('Zelt').

What more could you want?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

'Spoken with the charm and purity of English vowel sounds.'

A few passages from one my current reads:

There is a continuing debate about how much blame the British motion picture industry must accept for the American domination of the inter-war market. At the peak of production British studios made only 30 per cent of what was on offer to British cinemas. But there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the American invasion met with only token resistance -- even though, initially, the natives were far from friendly. 'The public at first found the American accent bewildering and missed much of the dialogue.' Instinctive resistance was, naturally enough, strongest outside London. 'The English working class and the northern working class in particular exercised a strong suspicion, not to say hatred, of the American idiom.'

Some British producers attempted to capitalise on what they hoped was anti-American sentiment. British International Films advertised its productions as 'Spoken with the charm and purity of English vowel sounds'. Gradually the cultural chauvinists were won over. By 1935, when Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding, the working class had actually absorbed the idioms they heard at the cinema. Elsie, the South Riding housemaid, was 'like most of her generation and locality...trilingual. She talked BBC English to her employer, Cinema American to her companions and Yorkshire dialect to old milkmen like Eli Dickson'. She, no doubt, subscribed to the ideas advanced by a working man in the Bolton survey.

British films are tame. The actors are self-conscious and wooden, the setting easily recognised as the work of novices. The man in the street likes pictures which advertise an American cast. One often hears the remark, 'It's a British picture, let's go somewhere else.'

From Roy Hattersley, Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars (London: Abacus, 2007), pp. 310-11.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A message from the past (or: Richard Dawkins slandered by German bishop)

There's so much wrong in the attack that Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Bishop of Cologne, launched against godless Dawkins in his All Saint's Day sermon that even the attempt to unravel this jumble of flawed, stupid prejudice seems futile:

"Ähnlich wie einst die Nationalsozialisten im einzelnen Menschen primär nur den Träger des Erbgutes seiner Rasse sahen, definiert auch der Vorreiter der neuen Gottlosen, der Engländer Richard Dawkins, den Menschen als 'Verpackung der allein wichtigen Gene', deren Erhaltung der vorrangige Zweck unseres Daseins sei ...."
("Like the Nazis, who saw the individual primarily as a carrier of his race's genes, the pioneer of the new atheists, the Briton Richard Dawkins defines human beings as 'containers for genes', whose preservation he considers to be the ultimate rationale for our existence.")
Sigh. Sometimes life is like hitting your head against a concrete wall, repeatedly. And I've been having a headbanging hell of a time lately, even without this benighted nonsense.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sir Christopher, Master of the Darkness

Christopher Lee was knighted today. Which, though I don't hold much to these sorts of things, makes me strangely happy.

The Guardian photo series makes much of Lee's roles as Dracula in a series of Hammer horror films and, to a lesser extent, his role as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels.

I like Lee's Dracula plenty (I watched Dracula, Prince of Darkness just the other night), and he was one of the better things in the Star Wars prequels.

Still, I prefer to honour him for his roles as, say, Lord Summerisle in The Wickerman (this particular scene belongs more to Edward Woodward, but it seems to be all that YouTube offers), the Duc du Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out or Saruman in the Lord of the Rings.

In any case, congratulations, Sir Christopher.

Stay evil.

"I figured well, I guess I’ll get to come home after this."

Of all the various things I've read in the debate around Roman Polanski's (possible) pending extradition to the US, Jenny Diski's 'Diary' essay in the LRB (free access) was certainly the most worthwhile.

There is sentence that opens a paragraph about a quarter of the way through that slaps you awake, and what follows is an effective distillation of two truths that are perhaps too often seen as contradictions: 1) human beings (especially young ones) react to threatening situations in complex and ambiguous ways, and 2) some moral judgments are, really, not all that difficult.

Notes from the War on Terror, 1901

David Cole has an interesting review (subscription-only unfortunately) in the LRB of Moshik Temkin's recent book on the the Sacco-Vanzetti affair.

I was particularly intrigued, as, in the context of a research project on concerns about police powers and civil liberties in late 1920s Britain, I've been spending a lot of time reading the period's (British) newspapers.

The issues of the Daily Herald from 1927 were on my agenda in the last few weeks, so I ran across coverage of the remarkable attention--and anger--that the execution of the two men inspired, including large demonstrations in London. (Which, in their turn, raised complaints about heavy-handed policing.)

The degree of attention to the matter may have something to do with the source: the Herald was at this time owned by the Trades Union Congress and close to the Labour Party. It also, more-or-less consistently, expressed opposition to the death penalty.

(Another reference I ran across the other day was the Manchester Guardian's quotation of the Berliner Tageblatt dubbing the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti 'the spirit of the Cheka in a capitalist incarnation.')

In any case, I was struck by reading this paragraph in Cole's review of Temkin's book:

The trial took place after a co-ordinated series of bombings in 1919, attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, had sparked a nationwide round-up of ‘radical aliens’. Federal officials, directed by a young J. Edgar Hoover, arrested between five and ten thousand foreign nationals in what came to be known as the ‘Palmer raids’, denied them access to lawyers, coerced confessions from them and ordered them to be deported, frequently on the grounds that they associated with Communist or anarchist groups. (None of the detainees was found guilty of the bombings.) Then, shortly after Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest, another bomb went off in Wall Street, killing 39 and injuring hundreds more – also apparently the work of militant anarchists. Anarchists were seen as a real threat, committed to violence and able and willing to carry it out.

There's nothing new here, of course. I dimly recall learning about the 'Palmer raids' in high school as well as about the post-war 'red scare', which offered premonitions of the one that followed the next war. (My history and social studies teachers were hippie liberals, so they emphasised those kinds of things.)

Still, there is something remarkable in thinking about this context: I would imagine that many Americans (and others) might find it surprising that only a few generations ago, the main terrorist threat to the nation--including several urban bombings--was seen to originate among 'militant anarchists' and the ethnic group with whom that threat was most associated were Italian.

(And I see a new book is out that makes such connections more broadly: Beverly Gage's The Day Wall Street Exploded.)

As Cole points out in his review, the domestic reaction to terrorism was followed--and alternatively praised or (more often) criticised from abroad--in ways that sound quite contemporary. (Cole's review actually opens with world reaction to the imprisonment of 'enemy combatants' at Guantánamo Bay.)

He cites, for example, H. G. Wells's critical articles published in the New York Times condemning a distinct 'American mindset' that allowed the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Angry letters flooded into the Times, which refused to publish any further articles. Wells responded, asserting the right of those in one nation to criticise those in another:

The world becomes more and more one community, and the state of mind of each nation has practical reactions upon all the rest that were undreamt of half a century ago. The administration of justice in Massachusetts or Italy concerns me almost as much as . . . in London or Glasgow. Particularly when the lives of aliens are involved . . . The world becomes my village . . . part of me walks down Main Street and defies all America to expel it.

Cole points out that Wells himself--like some other international critics--had offered a blanket condemnation on the basis of the case (which had outraged many Americans); still, regardless of the merits of the case (or Wells's intervention), I'm struck, as ever by the distinctive mix of the familiar and the strange apparent in discussions from the early twentieth century.

On that note, the LRB review reminded me of an article I had found in the course of my project, published in the Scotsman in 1901 in the wake of the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at an exhibition in Buffalo, New York.

It's rather long, though I've edited out various bits to try to shorten it. (And I have added paragraph breaks.)

Still, I think it's worth posting, as it's fascinating on many counts, not least for the atmosphere it evokes of panic, vengeance, suspicion and confusion that followed McKinley's assassination.

(It is also the earliest use I've found in any British sources of the originally American phrase 'the third degree', in the sense of the use of violence or intimidation in police questioning. But if you happen to know of an earlier one, I'd be pleased to know.)


New York, September 14.

We are in a quandary. We do not know what to do about the dreaded Anarchists. As the Yankees say when things are at their worst, we are in a ‘state of mind.’ In the past week everybody of any consequence has spoken on the subject, but one can recognise only the confusion of tongues. The New York ‘Herald’ has interviewed nearly all the statesmen in the country, from Cabinet Ministers and Senators to Governors and Representatives, demanding an answer to the perplexing question, ‘What is to be done?’

The editors of many thousands of newspapers and the preachers in thousands of pulpits have set out their clashing opinions. Everybody has been ready to make a red-hot speech anywhere on the all-engrossing theme. ‘Crush the Anarchists,’ Drive them all out of the country,’ Shut them all up in the madhouse,’ ‘Put them into dungeons,’ ‘Torture them,’ ‘Lynch them as blacks are lynched’—such are among the innumerable frenzied outcries that have rent the air since Friday of last week.

The more rational people desire that law shall somehow be brought to bear against the Anarchists; the more irrational want to see them tortured or crucified in some one of the ways described by the Chinese Minister as customary in China. It may seem surprising that much of the cruelest language has been uttered by clergymen. Almost the only reasonable newspaper in this city has been the leading financial organ, the ‘Evening Post.’

The most terrorising revelation of the past week has been that made by the thousands of Government and police and private detectives engaged in ‘unearthing Anarchists.’ Every day these parties give the papers stories about the Anarchist hordes that lurk in all parts of the country; every day they tell of ‘plots, conspiracies and mysteries.’ Chicago has a ‘nest of Anarchists,’ and there are such ‘nests,’ not only in New York and other large cities, but in smaller places, such as Paterson, Buffalo, Cleveland, M’Keesport, Detroit, Indianapolis, Wheeling, Haverhill, and many others. The ‘sleuths,’ as secret service agents are called, have a great time now in ‘rounding up’ the Anarchists everywhere; the whole police force of this city are under orders to round up all they can see.

Most people had until this time supposed that there were very few characters of that kind in the country; the but the sleuths are earning money, and frightening the Italians and the Jews by discovering rampant battalions of them. It will be said that there were plenty of these sleuths ‘guarding’ the President at Buffalo, but it was not until after Mr McKinley had been shot that they began to display their talents. The truth is that they are mostly clumsy humbugs, who hardly ever ‘detect’ anything at the proper time, but who are sure to be wildly active after they have been discomfited. [...]

It is hard to say what can be done to prevent violence on the part of Anarchists here. The best and most practicable suggestion yet made is that the existing law be turned against those of them who violate it in any way. The enforcement of the law would surely be more effective than popular vengeance, more so even than lynching under the direction of those crazy clerics who have advocated it.

The New York ‘Herald’ of the day before yesterday told a hideous tale of the torturing of Czolgosz in his cell at Buffalo by police agents, who were determined to get from him such a confession as they desired; they were ordered to subject him to what is called the ‘third degree,’ but, according to the ‘Herald,’ they intensified it tenfold, without success. The insensate men who have been crying for the torture or execution of all Anarchists as a sure means of putting an end to Anarchism are ignorant of the nature of the thing to be dealt with. The Anarchist who shot the President foresaw his own doom, and was ready to give his life for the ‘cause.’ Ordinary murderers are subject to punishment or execution, but this does not put an end to murder. [...]

Within a day or two the frenzy in the community on the President’s account has abated, and everybody seems to be willing now that his assailant shall have a legal trial. It is well for the honour of the country and its good name. Reason is regaining its ascendancy; the newspapers are growing more calm; and even the preachers of lynching are curbing their tongues.

Nowadays, there are about as many detectives as speculators in the Wall Street quarter. The apprehension of danger among the financial magnates has been keen for a week past; they know of threats against them. There must be as many as fifty ‘sleuths’ guarding the life of Mr Morgan, watching his business offices, following him wherever he goes, and never losing sight of him until he sails off in his yacht. [...]

Possibly as many as a hundred terror-struck persons, the recipients of threatening letters are under special protection against assassination. It is feared that there are men, other than Anarchists, ready to imitate the example of Czolgosz, men whose reason is affected by the daily diatribes against plutocracy by the ‘yellow’ organs and orators.

Strangers in the Wall Street district have had unpleasant experiences this week; they speedily become conscious that they are under suspicion, and are watched by armed men, and had better not loiter near the offices of a number of leading financiers. A wandering Scot, fresh from Glasgow, who turned up there yesterday, looked so much like an Anarchist that two sleuths were ordered to keep their eyes on him; he got safely to his hotel. [...]

The loose use of the dreaded word ‘Anarchist’ in this country is a piece of folly. In the Presidential campaign of last year, for example, the McKinleyite speech-makers and newspapers constantly characterised and denounced millions of Bryanites as ‘Anarchists,’ and the word became so familiar in politics that it lost its proper meaning, while one could often hear peaceful citizens proclaim that they were ‘Bryan Anarchists.’ It seemed to me foolish to throw the word at the Democratic head till it ceased to be alarming.

There is no doubt that one of the things that has most seriously frightened the conservative interests of the country during the past week has been the prospect of Vice-President Roosevelt’s succession to the Presidency. Mr Roosevelt has done so many indiscreet things, has stultified himself so often, and has roared so loudly during the few years of his career as a politician, office-holder, ‘Rough Rider,’ cowboy, sportsman, and stump-speaker that he has but little reputation for sound sense and no reputation at all for statesmanship, or even political acumen. [...]

On account of his belligerent disposition there has seemed to be danger that he would fall foul of some other Government, or get this country into trouble of some kind. ... I know much about Mr Roosevelt, who likes to be compared with the wide-awake German Kaiser, and I feel it safe to say that as a ruler he would be no more disposed to belligerency than is William II. An American President is, after all has been said, pretty closely hedged in.

It is a curious fact that as soon as Mr McKinley had been shot, the question one heard on every side and in all quarters was—‘How will it affect Wall Street?’ or ‘Do you think it will break the market?’ or, ‘Has it knocked stocks down?’ or something of that kind. For a moment it seemed to paralyse the moneyed giants of the stock market; but, as all the world knows, they immediately joined hands and forces, making a combination of interests by which, with the help of the Government, a crash was prevented. At the hour of this writing there is news from Buffalo that is not invigorating, but the situation may be more satisfactory to-morrow. One Anarchist, or a hundred Anarchists, cannot upset this country.

The Scotsman, 23 September 1901, p. 7