Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If you're wondering...

...why it's so quiet round these parts, there's a simple answer.

We're on holiday.

In the usual place.

Abnormal service will resume shortly.

À la semaine prochaine!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Viva la Revolution!

A Franconian exiled in Mexico reminds us via his blog that 2010 marks the centenary of the Mexican revolution.

Which allows me to post a possibly related song by way of joining in the celebrations:

Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty"

Pancho in the song might or might not be revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. Well, who cares. It sure is a great song when you're on the road.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

(Un)just desserts?

A front-page commentary from the current issue of Die Zeit refers to Joseph de Maistre's famous comment that 'every nation gets the government it deserves'.

This would be a rather cruel observation about Germany at the moment, where word has been making the rounds that the Conservative-Liberal coalition in power since late last year is doomed; however, the paper notes with some satisfaction, there is another side to this coin: 'every nation also has the national football team that it deserves'.

This, naturally, would go down rather better here, as -- despite having to settle for third place -- the German team played some surprisingly inspiring football.

Of course, this would be less pleasant, if true, for, say, England and France.

But I'm wondering whether this whole connection between national character and style of play actually holds up.

Just consider the top three teams -- Spain, the Netherlands and Germany -- who played, respectively, with almost inhuman efficiency, brutal thuggishness(*) and exuberant joie de vivre.

None of these, it seems to me, corresponds very well at all with their respective national stereotypes. (Certainly not with regard to Germany, where, say, a relaxed, graceful and easy-going Lebensfreude -- while not unheard of -- is not exactly overabundant. We have our virtues: this is not one of them.)

Which, to turn this back to Die Zeit's politics-football comparison, is, perhaps, comforting: maybe, after all, we don't deserve the government we have.

Nor, one might say at the moment, the trains we have.

But that is another issue altogether.

(*I'm referring here to the final: How does one sing 'everybody was kung-fu fighting' in Dutch?)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Land der unbegrenzten (Essens-)Möglichkeiten

America is certainly a land in which every conceivable want or need is met by the endlessly inventive efforts of the men and women of the private sector.

Who also manage to meet a few of the inconceivable wants and needs as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to you (via BoingBoing) the 'Candwich': the sandwich in a can!


Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Katie Price - Jordan - me mates and my beautiful face"

Inspired by an article in today's Guardian I've been spending some time researching the child beauty pageants revered by the white-boots-wearing segment of British and American society. This is all work-related, of course, as the beauty pageant is of course a perfect illustration of the standardisation processes of the "Kulturindustrie" described by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectics of Englightenment. Which I'm rereading as a part of reworking a lecture.

However, it being another tropical day, I'm currently more inclined to turn H&A's ardurously rendered ideas into a visceral emotion of cultural pessimism by recapping on topical BBC3 fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

So there is "dumb" (her word) Sasha Bennington from bluddy Burnley, who desperately wants to be Katie Price (according to herself, the most important person in her life):

(Dad is a right alpha male, too, isn't he?)

If you think that's a freakshow, go stateside, where you find the vicious American munchkin who "channels" (my favourite item of "cool" patois from the Snaily Grail) Eddie Izzard.

My favourite, however, is Moira, the born-again pageant mum - who simply channels ... Jesus:

Talk about the "obsessively mimetic relationship between consumer and cultural commodities" (Horkheimer and Adorno). Talk about "opium for the people."

Friday, July 09, 2010

Manliness-ness, the sequel

This is interesting:

What if your million copy-plus bestselling inspirational book calling on men to act more manly, aggressive, even violent became a key source of inspiration for a ruthless cultic Christian paramilitary fundamentalist crime syndicate that controls most of the Crystal Meth traffic in the US and is fond of tossing severed heads into Mexican discos ?
The awkward confrontation between a religious conservative's celebration of a more aggressive manliness and the actual horror of real aggressive manliness reminded me of something I wrote back in the early days of this humble blog, in which I concluded:

Those who do long for a return of the 'real man' should be careful what they wish for.
The rest.

As an addendum, those interested in the reality of more traditional male violence cultures in the US should check out Randolph Roth's recent book American Homicide (UK/US). I'm going to be commenting on the book at a panel at a conference in Chicago in November. It's thoroughly compelling.

(via Blood and Treasure)

Notes on notes

There is an essay by historian Sir Keith Thomas at the London Review of Books on the subject of note-taking, and -- as unlikely as this may sound, given the topic -- it is delightful.

Although, I'm aware that its appeal may be limited to those who spend their days keeping track of obscure bits of information in the hopes of turning them (someday, maybe, fate willing) into a coherent historical narrative.

In any case, Thomas (now 77) is definitely old-school when it comes to methodology:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

And then he has a passage that sounds, a bit painfully, familiar:

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused.

I myself struggle with keeping track of everything I run across and am constantly haunted by the fear of forgetting something and not having it to hand when I need it. Indeed, I've often had the experience of finding ideal pieces of evidence for a particular argument shortly after the relevant article has gone into print; more worryingly, I sometimes come across extensive notes on something that I have forgotten taking.

These problems have only become worse as my research interests have diversified, perhaps particularly so since I've begun to delve into the history of the press in the 1920s. Exploring a period's culture via newspapers is tremendously rewarding and interesting (as I hope my historical bycatch series shows); however, it's also a terribly bitty process, with short passages from here or there needing to be organised into ever-larger agglomerations to actually mean something. (This is not unlike other kinds of sources, but my own experience has been that focusing on newspapers -- at least if you're going to do it across several papers, which you should -- compounds the problem, especially as you have to take into account, say, each paper's target audience and editorial line.)  

My academic training stretches back far enough to a time when notecards and typewriters were still the standard tools of the trade; of course, the computer has been playing an ever-larger role in my work: accompanying the piles of paper that infest my shelves and a goodly portion of my office's floorspace, I have (like most younger historians I know) gigabytes of notes, articles as PDFs and digital photographs accumulated in the archives. The facility to word-search within documents has saved me from suicidal despondency on many occasions, as I've desperately tried to track down something that I know I have read (or even written) somewhere.

Despite our age difference, though, I'm relieved, somehow, to read that Thomas developed his historical methodology haphazardly, as I could say something similar (and, in a different context, have). It's even more encouraging, since he writes such excellent books.

But I recognise that there are some passages that I feel can only have been written by a historian of an earlier generation:
Christopher Hill believed in reading everything written during the period (provided it wasn’t in manuscript), and everything subsequently written about it. He used to buy every remotely relevant monograph when it came out, gut it and then sell it. 
So: read everything written during the period and everything subsequently written about it. The former maybe works for periods when less was written, though even here the expansion of social and cultural history has meant that ever more things can now be counted as 'sources'. And by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the potential source base for this style of broad-brush cultural history becomes incomprehensibly vast.

Moreover, the latter suggestion (reading 'everything written about' a period) is, I think, no longer really a serious option for a historian, unless you're going to limit yourself to a very narrow period and topic indeed. The expansion of the production of history is in large measure a good thing: but it's meant that things are very difficult to keep up with: I find it impossible to entirely keep up with what's being written in British crime and justice history, though the publication of some new (or re-issued) synthetic overviews certainly helps.

Nonetheless, Thomas's method ('soak[ing] myself in the writings of the time') and advocacy of G.M. Young's advice to 'go on reading until I can hear the people talking' remains a valid description of what cultural history, essentially, boils down to. As does this:

Even when all the necessary precautions have been taken, the result will still lack anything approaching scientific precision. For what my method yields is a broad-brush impression of beliefs and behaviour over long periods of time. I am a lumper, not a splitter. I admire those who write tightly focused micro-studies of episodes or individuals, and am impressed by the kind of quantitative history, usually on demographic or economic topics, which aspires to the purity of physics or mathematics. But I am content to be numbered among those many historians whose books remain literary constructions, shaped by their author’s moral values and intellectual assumptions. When writing history, there are rules to be followed and evidence to be respected. But no two histories will be the same, whereas the essence of scientific experiments is that they can be endlessly replicated.

Note (because it is all too easy in these post-modern times to be misunderstood) that the concluding line does not advocate methodological randomness or a denial of the reality of the past; indeed, if there is one thing that has -- fortunately -- kept history safe from the more extreme theoretical currents of recent decades it is its unavoidable dependence on evidence.

Which helps me, anyway, to think that Thomas's conclusion might not be too far off the mark:

That, I think, is a very kindly account of what I try to do: to immerse myself in the past until I know it well enough for my judgment of what is or is not representative to seem acceptable without undue epistemological debate. Historians are like reliable local guides. Ideally, they will know the terrain like the backs of their hands. They recognise all the inhabitants and have a sharp eye for strangers and impostors. They may not have much sense of world geography and probably can’t even draw a map. But if you want to know how to get somewhere, they are the ones to take you.
Well, at least some of them, and you could do far worse than asking historian (and humanist) Sir Keith to tell you the way.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Zum Weinen


Clearly, Spain was a better team.

Good enough to make German children cry.

So, I hope they're happy with themselves.

Still, we can take comfort in those areas where we're still ahead of Spain.

Like, maybe...well...our bond rating.

And we have one eerily psychic octopus.

Whose life, I fear, may now be in danger.

Bad luck, Jungs: well done in getting much further than expected, and thanks for so many fine moments.

Now: let's take third place! (When our Ringo Starr look-alike will again be on the pitch.)

Random associationism

Ringo Starr is 70 today. Happy birthday, Richard! Who'd have thought that you'd outlast (almost) them all?

But maybe it's the power of the doppelgänger? There is, first of all, our cultural materialist friend Terry Eagleton:

But closer to home, there is of course our own bomber Müller, who sadly misses today's match.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Just music

Opinions on the following song (heard as the Obscene Desserts collective was driving into town this morning) are divided:

Nouvelle Vague, "Blister in the Sun"

After watching this video I'm sort of tempted to kind of like it.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Waiting for Steve Jobs

There was something about passages from Charlie Brooker's current column -- on the iPhone, or what he calls the 'Jabscreen' -- that reminded me of something by Becket:

But once I had a Jabscreen of my own, I soon discovered the novelty lasts six months, tops. There's a limit to how many conversations you can have about it before you reach burnout. Have you seen the app which takes your photo and makes it look like you're really fat? Yes. And the game where you land all the planes on the runway? Yes, that too. Hey, how about this thing with the funny red monster that repeats everything you say? Please leave me. Please just leave me here to die.

Though there were other parts that reminded me more of something by Pasolini:

Best of all for Jabscreen 3 owners, however, is the news that the Jabscreen 4 also has a minor flaw. According to some reports, it can appear to lose reception under exceptional circumstances, such as a nuclear winter, or someone holding it. Apple zealots were quick to point out that you can get around the problem entirely by placing the device on a velvet cushion and gazing at it and breathing through your nose and masturbating instead of making any calls.

These are kinds of despair, I'm pleased to say, that we have avoided entirely.

Scenes from 'the war against legs', 1928.

Given the heatwave that seems to have struck parts of western Europe recently, it's entirely appropriate that I ran across the following article today, which I originally discovered while researching a debate about police powers in the late 1920s.

Critics Shocked by Scanty Dress of Bathing Girls

Protests from Seaside and River: New Job for the Police

Special to “Reynolds’s”

Women’s dress—or, rather, the lack of it—is again a subject of excited discussion.

“Leg-mania” has arrived with the heat wave. One cannot be quite sure all the time, whether it is the effect of the heat on those who show their legs, or on those who criticise them.

Here is the latest list of places whence rise woeful protests at the display of the “female form divine.”

Arizona (where the wild men are)

In each centre the war against legs is being carried on with different tactics. In Arizona, for instance, where they don’t trust these matters to Watch Committees, the youths of the town declare that it is a “fight to the finish.” But in Southend the police have been ordered to keep a watch on girl bathers.

Did somebody say that the policeman’s lot was not a happy one?

This problem of legs has been in the public eye for a long time—since skirts showed a tendency to end soon after they began—but its present acute form began a few days ago, when a Thames Conservancy official ordered a boating party to put on more clothing.

A high official then stated: “We are not censorious of proper university costumes, but there are people who like to be a little daring and go to the extreme.”

Some of those people have been boating around Hampton Wick evidently, for this is what happened when the Joint Committee of the Port of London Authority met.


Mr. G. Hammerton drew attention to what he called the “indecent clothing” worn by men and women on the river during the weekend.

“It was simply disgraceful, especially at Kingston Regatta, where parties were in the scantiest of bathing costumes making a disgraceful exhibition of themselves,” he declared.

Mr. W. Sanger attacked the modern two-piece bathing costume, and Mr. H. Hewitt, the Conservator, agreed that the scenes were very bad, particularly on Sunday.

Mr. Hammerton asked if the Thames Conservancy had any jurisdiction in the mater or was it one for the police.

The chairman, Mr. T. Ryan, said that no harm had been done by raising the matter, but he thought it sufficient if the Conservator informed the Conservancy that the matter had been discussed by that committee.


Mr. Sanger said that the members sitting round the table were all over a certain age, and therefore did not appreciate the mode of attire worn by those who frequented the river, especially in the hot weather. He wanted to know who the people were who complained about the dress.

Then up spake Mr. R. H. Berry. Like a chivalrous knight of old, he sprang to the defence of the fair ones in distress.

“I admire a well-shaped figure in a bathing costume,” he said.

Mr. Berry added that he was on the river during the week-end, and he saw a man, his wife, and children all in bathing costumes, and it was a very pretty sight.
Many will say, “Bravo, Mr. Berry!”


And now the scene moves to Southend. The following message was received from “Reynolds’s” correspondent last night—

The way in which girl bathers undress and dress themselves on the cliffs and on the beach at Southend-on-Sea, many of them without any attempt at secrecy, has offended the susceptibilities of some members of the Town Council.

Alderman Martin urged that steps ought to be taken without delay to put an end to the practice.

It is no uncommon thing, whilst walking along the beach by the pier, to encounter girls and young women donning or removing their bathing costumes with no tent or bathing wrap to conceal them from the public view.

Similarly, on the cliffs between the pier and Westcliff, they can be seen at week-ends divesting themselves of their ordinary attire on the grassy slopes and preparing themselves for the sea below.

In some cases, cars parked on the sea front serve the purpose of bathing huts.

The trouble is especially bad at weekends, when large numbers of trippers come down from London.

The police have been ordered to keep a watch for especially bad cases.

That the leg problem is as disturbing in America as it is here is revealed by the news that the men in the University of Arizona have decided to “shame” their girl colleagues into wearing more clothes. This is how a New York paper prints this exciting bit of news:

“Tuscon (Ariz.).—‘Steady there, young feller, jes’ keep your shirt on.’
The classic cry of the country constable echoes now on the University of Arizona campus. First, the girls took off their stockings and the lordly males took off their shirts in protest.

’Sfact! The sun-tanned, clear-eyed beauties of these windswept spaces recently took up the latest collegiate fad. Merrily pulling off their stockings, they came to class with bare brown limbs flying in the morning breeze.

The strong, silent men of the sun-baked plains regarded them with steady, level gaze and then muttered some collegiate equivalent of ‘That’s plum disgraceful, pardner.’

Wherefore, reprisals were started. When as and whenever a brown and fetching calf went flitting across the campus that soon were manly limbs exposed for all to see.

From assembly hall to dormitory went the call, ‘To arms!—and ribs and chests and backs—for modesty and for shame.’"

So that’s that. And now for Paris.


A late Reuter telegram from the French capital says that a strong pronouncement against modern fashions has been made by the Bishop of St. Brieuc (Brittany), who protests against what he describes as the growing immodesty of women and girls, and even children.

The Bishop forbids any woman with bare arms, legs, or shoulders, or with too short a skirt, and even boys with shirts open too low at the neck, to enter any church or presbytery in his diocese.

Perhaps, after all, it is time this heat wave ended.

Reynolds's Illustrated News, 22 July 1928, p. 18.

Keep cool, people.

(The historical bycatch series.)

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Philipp Lahm: centre of the Internet universe

Thanks to Geoff, I'm now aware of the statistics function that Blogger has integrated into all its blogs.

It's only been operating for the last few days, but it seems that the World Cup is having an impact on our traffic, humble as it is (click for a larger view):

What is it about Philipp Lahm that's setting the world on fire?

Is it the eyebrows?

Oh yeah: 4-0 against Argentina!

I had not expected that.

And I expect the people currently driving up and down our street with horns blazing and flags waving hadn't either.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Capture the flag, auf Deutsch

Overheard this morning while driving The Wife to the train station: a radio commentary on the World Cup by a German sociologist who could not (my translation) count himself among those fans who 'who sing the national anthem, bellow the German war cry or wave the black-red-gold flag'.

'I can't do that', he continued, 'after Auschwitz'.

I think my eyes nearly popped out of my head, but, fortunately, I somehow managed to maintain control of the car and to listen to the rest of the commentary, on how good it is that many players in the Nationalmannschaft have an 'immigration background' (Migrationshintergrund), i.e., who are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

The commentator's identification with the German team, thus, was only possible to the extent that it was not (in the traditional sense) 'German'.

Now, the German neurosis about patriotism is well known -- indeed, almost legendary -- and it is most acute in well-educated, left-liberal circles.

Those are circles to which I, actually, belong; however, I can't share in the over-the-top Angst about 'Nationalismus'. Admittedly, my own Migrationshintergrund was in a culture with a more, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward patriotism; of course, that could be said about every country in the world other than Germany.

I can't help thinking that some of us immigration-backgrounders might be a bit further along than the German intelligentsia in puncto national identity, as another World-Cup-related story made me think last week.

He will not stand for any ridicule. "I will defend the German flag," says Ibrahim Bassal resolutely, hitting the glass counter three times to make his point. Over the past few days he has been through a lot and what he has experienced has only strengthened his resolve. "I won't let anyone get at it," he adds.

Herr Bassal, you see, is proud of the German team's performance, and he has no hesitation about waving the black-red-gold banner:

"We have hung little German flags outside for years," Bassal explains. But this year, he and his cousins decided they would do something different. They placed a special order with a textile company, and soon a giant German flag worth €500 ($616) was hanging on the outside of the building where Bassal's store is located. Measuring 22 meters tall and 5 meters wide (72 feet by 16 feet), the over-sized banner covers five stories. For Bassal, a German with Lebanese roots, the flag is a symbol of cultural integration. "We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany," he explains.

"We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany." A better and more moving statement of successful integration, you might think, is hard to imagine.

But not everyone, you see, is happy.

Over the past few weeks, ever since the start of the football World Cup, the neighborhood has been the scene of what local media are calling the "Neukölln flag fight." Left-wing activists have called on sympathizers to destroy the German flags which can be seen everywhere, arguing that they are a symbol of German nationalism. There has been a rash of thefts of small flags attached to car windows. Some of those who decorated their vehicles with flags say they now only display the flags when they are actually driving their cars.

As for the giant flag, Bassal and his friends, who have all donated money to the cause, have already had to replace their flag twice. Since they adorned the building in black, red and gold, the colors of the German flag, they have become the target of attacks, presumably from members of the radical left-wing scene, and someone even tried to set fire to the flag.

Ah, the ironies of some ethnic Germans -- whether liberal Gutmenschen or left-wing Autonomen -- casting doubt upon (or even seeking to prevent) the same expressions of patriotism that immigrant ethnicities (often condemned by conservatives for insufficient identification with Germany) are engaging in enthusiastically.

Now, I've become German by choice rather than birth, and experience over my nine years in this country has taught me that I'm far more enthusiastic about Germany than most Germans, most of whom (right, left or centre) seem to think their country is in a state of terminal decline or, alternatively, poses a constant potential threat to the world.

Immigration and national identity are never going to be easy issues (they aren't anywhere and never have been), especially in Germany where remnants of the Blut und Boden tradition linger on; however, a less constipated relationship with patriotism might be a very good thing for this country, not least for its immigrants.

Tomorrow, I'll be joining Herr Bassal and his friends in waving the flag and backing our team, regardless of whether their surnames are Özil, Podolski, Gomez or, yes, even Müller.

(Photo source)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Putting up, one hopes, a good fight

Oh, no.

The news that Christopher Hitchens has cancer is...well, depressing. I've not always agreed with him (especially in recent years), but I've always been an admirer of his writing ('always' in my case means since the period I became more-or-less politically aware, i.e., the late 80s).

Even when I've disagreed with his point, he's made me confront and think more clearly about the reasons why. And there was a brief period in the late 90s when we got to be on a first-name basis, and a friend and I enjoyed a memorable evening of warm hospitality at his home in Washington, DC.

Ever since, I've looked askance at those personal attacks that have dismissed him as a washed-up drunk.

No doubt, there'll be more than a little Schadenfreude among the Hitch-haters out there.

But I wish him (and his family) well.