Monday, December 31, 2012

A most remarkable year

One of the nicest things for me last year was to see the positive (and almost immediate) response my book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace, received.

It takes a while for reviews to appear (especially the academic ones), so there will be some more in 2013, and the odds are that they won't all be upbeat.

Still, considering it's only been out for four months, I'm quite pleased with the crop of comments and reviews this book has attracted. (See below.)

For more information and updates, see the book-related blog, 'like' the book on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

And, by all means of course, do buy the book.

OK, on with the (2012) comments...

'A fascinating analysis of one woman's domestic disaster, the power of the press and public opinion. Loved it!' -- Jenni Murray, host of BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour" (for my interview on 'Woman's Hour' see here.)

'Sometimes life is better than fiction. Is there any novelist who could have got this extraordinary story so perfectly right, inventing it: the violence at the heart of it, the suspense, the succession of revelations, the passions so raw and inchoate that they have a mythic force? And then there's the grand sweep of the narrative, beginning in the bleak poverty of an obscure cottage in the Forest of Dean, acted out finally on the national stage. [...] John Carter Wood's book about the Pace trial works because of his sober and scrupulous assembly of the evidence, quoting the words that were spoken and written at the time so we can feel the textures of the material for ourselves – the found poetry of precise reportage.' -- Tessa Hadley, in The Guardian (26 October 2012)

'A fascinating  real-life murder story.' -- Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, on Twitter.

'Just for once, my crime book of the year isn’t a novel, but a factual account. In 1928, a quarryman called Harry Pace died of arsenic poisoning and his wife, Beatrice, was tried for his murder. John Carter Wood’s account of the case and trial has it all: suspense; surprise; and a searing account of one woman’s life, marriage, and journey from poverty and obscurity to celebrity and notoriety. Wood is brave enough to allow much of an incredible story to tell itself through newspaper accounts, letters and Beatrice’s private papers, and the book is all the richer for it. And because it’s a true story, he has no choice but to include some of the more incredible plot elements that a novelist might lose courage with! A fascinating snapshot of interwar England, brilliantly brought to life.' -- Nicola Upson, Faber website

'This book will be an invaluable aid to those interested in the history of criminal justice and British society in the 1920s.' -- June Purvis, in the Times Higher Education (22 November 2012)

A 'splendid piece of historical detective work...immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling'. -- Dominic Sandbrook, Literary Review (Dec 2012-Jan 2013)

'John Carter Wood writes with verve and elegance, weaving insights into the broader social ramifications of this trial without losing the thread courtroom drama that makes the book such a compelling read. He has also done much original research, clearing up questions that previous accounts left unanswered and providing dozens of illustrations, some of which have come from previously-inaccessible private archives. The result is a vivid portrayal not just of one woman's fate, but of a society in transition. Highly recommended!' -- Andrew Hammel, review

'This is history as murder-mystery. John Carter Wood tells a spellbinding story of murder, using the trials of the accused (Beatrice Pace) to reflect the nature of celebrity culture, the legal system, and gender relations in 1920s Britain. The fundamental question remains: did Beatrice Pace kill her husband? You will have to read the book to find out!' -- Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, Birkbeck College [book jacket blurb]

'The trial of Beatrice Pace was one of the most sensational news stories in inter-war Britain. In this thoroughly researched and clearly-argued study, John Carter Wood is not solely concerned with the usual question of whether or not Mrs Pace was guilty. Rather he also focuses on the period's celebrity culture, the role of the press, the development of public interest and the police. In so doing, he has produced a model for modern social and cultural historians.' -- Clive Emsley, Professor Emeritus, Open University [book jacket blurb]

"Bienen und Böller, leuchtende Propeller"

New year greetings from one of our house bands, Erdmöbel, with 'Erster Erster' (i.e., 1.1., also known as January 1st):

And, while we're at it, 'frohes neues Jahr' from both of us as well.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bruce Sterling on 'prepper graveyards', death and a 'poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain'

At the Well, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky engage in this year's version of their now-traditional 'State of the World conversation/rantfest'.

It's a lengthy conversation (to which more than the two named hosts contribute), but, as in previous years, I find it one of the more readable contributions to the inevitable round of year-end musings.

Sterling, for example, cites a few of the groups that he sees as having had -- all in all -- a good year. You might be surprised (given other verdicts) to find that he includes the Tea Party among these.

I'm not sure that he's right, but I find his reasoning worth considering:

It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard.

Sterling, who lives in Belgrade, also raises some thoughtful points about what he sees as the differences between 'civil society' and 'social capital':

The Balkans has always been pretty low on "civil society," because most political decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by angry drunk guys. But in terms of "social capital" they're quite keen on looking after one another. The populace is very polite and considerate, by American standards. Hold-ups, muggings, drive-bys, gang rapes, maniacal outbursts by guys with automatic weapons, they're all practically unheard-of.

The feeling on the streets of Belgrade is vastly calmer and cozier than, say, Los Angeles. By the standards of Belgrade, you'd think that LA was a para-militarized civil war zone, even though LA has got "civil society" like nobody's business.

He also makes some interesting points about death:

I lost a favorite uncle this holiday season. He was elderly and frail, and he had a good life -- a remarkably jolly character, really, the life of many a party -- so it's not a tragic loss, but I find that the grief touches everything I see.

Grief is a worldview all its own. Grief gives reality a lunar glow. It's healthy to be placed in touch with the tragic side of life, the losses that make life's value so clear. It's like winter daylight.

My uncle wouldn't want me to be all upset about his passing, and to tell the truth I'm not "upset," but I am diminished. Changes in the state of the world are marked by absences as well as by novelties. The year 2013 will be the first year of my life that does not contain my uncle.

It'll be different.

Finally, in the course of the discussion, someone brings up the idea of art as a (socially) transformative activity; Sterling admits admiring the 'very bohemian approach' and 'cool notion' of the artist as this 'the mental-liberationist Greek trickster figure who steals most of his material', but he sees it nevertheless as limiting, which inspires some thoughts on Montenegrin literature:

That's why I enjoy art such as Petar Njegos' epic of early Montenegrin literature, "The Mountain Wreath."

Here we've got this very intelligent and determined hillbilly aristocrat, a poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain, out of a half-forgotten province of the Ottoman Empire. His people are pre-literate; he's one of the first to read and write his own language.

This poem, the "Mountain Wreath," is mostly about tribal patriarchs flying into a righteous rage and cutting each other's heads off. It's very like the Iliad in that way; it's full of noble perorations that are mostly along the line of, "Rascal, you've done something unbearable for years now, and I was constrained to get involved in this awful mess you've created; but this time it's personal. So, prepare yourself: I'm taking your head, your pistols, your horses and all your women, and I may even burn your farm." In the context of this artwork, it's certainly the right thing to do. It's the definitive thing to do; it's how you know you're alive.

Then you compare that artwork -- written by an aristocrat, an authority figure in deadly moral earnest -- to this kind of ontological-trickster writing, this kind of "What is Reality, Mr Njegos," postmodern gendankenexperiment, of which me and my sci-fi colleagues are so enduringly fond... Well, keen as I am to write that stuff, it can seem like pretty thin soup.'


Brian Aldiss once told me that science fiction was full of guys who would write about Martians without ever visiting Indonesia. But visiting Indonesia is one thing -- if you actually *hang out* within Indonesia, you *become* Indonesian. You don't visit it, or steal it, you are it.

You have to get past the stark fact that Njegos is an Ottoman Christian-sect hillbilly on horseback who knocks people down with spiked clubs and cuts their heads off as trophies. He is, but he's also a great poet. Njegos even has a wry sense of humor; it's just not what Americans would consider "wry" or even "humor." When you understand his jokes, when you know they're genuinely funny, that's a bigger mental yoga-stretch than we're supposed to allow ourselves within the USA; it makes a "galaxy far far away" look like a Hollywood backlot in Southern California. Which is what it is, pretty much.

Friday, December 21, 2012


So I read via Esquire that today's Republican Party is not in good shape, as is apparent by the position of John Boehner, House leader:

Last night, he couldn't get the votes to pass a truly horrid plutocrat's wet dream. He couldn't get the votes to gut Obamacare or Wall Street reform. He couldn't get the votes to throw children off food stamps and he couldn't get the votes to throw the elderly off meals-on-wheels. He couldn't get the votes for a simple, vicious stunt.  He couldn't  get the votes because he couldn't budge enough Republicans to support a tax increase in the upper .01 percent of taxpayers. He couldn't do it because he had nothing with which to threaten people who look on governing the country as though they are running an evening-drive talk-radio program in Bugtussle. He couldn't do it because he is a Republican pretending to be a fanatic who went hat in hand to a bunch of fanatics pretending to be Republicans.

Which sounds accurate enough to me, but then I'm partial to hearing gloom and doom predictions for the American right wing, so I tend to doubt my own satisfaction on this score.

But then I hear something similar (if less...expressive) from a member of said right wing:

Persuading a majority of Republicans to cast a politically treacherous vote to allow higher taxes could have enhanced his leverage with Obama in future talks to rein in the national debt, Republicans said. But failure could imperil his hold on power, said Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant who wrote a biography of former president Ronald Reagan.

“If this was a parliamentary system, tonight’s dissent on Plan B would be seen as a vote of no confidence in Boehner,” Shirley said. “The national GOP is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions.”

Well I have to say that the prospect of that particular Somalia-on-the-Potomac sounds like fun.

Though I can't see that shooting the fiscal Niagara is going to be that pleasant, either for the US or the rest of us.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Merry, merry

With Christmas not too far away, I hope that yours proves much happier than one that occurred in a cottage in Fetter Hill, Gloucestershire eighty-four years ago.

It featured moments like this one: 

After a pause, he took a straight razor from the cupboard and told his family to ‘clear out’ or else he would kill them.  

Yes. Not exactly festive.

Still: it might make an interesting gift for the fan of historical mysteries in your life.

And remember: in German, 'Gift' means 'poison'....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Speaking the unspeakable

'Unspeakable violence' is a well worn phrase, and, clearly, there is an extent to which certain violent acts prove to be difficult, if not impossible, to entirely put into words.

However, while never capable of complete expression, there are some moments when violence becomes, if you will, 'speakable': when words allow certain aspects of it to be driven home with a particular emotional intensity.

I found, today, in looking through various kinds of press coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that the two comments that made the horror of this particular incident of horrendous violence most speakable were not those deliberately aiming at the highest degree of pathos but rather those that seemed most matter of fact or spontaneous.

Both were in the same article, at the Washington Post.

First, the comments from the state medical examiner, H. Wayne Carver II:

Carver described the children’s injuries, which he said ranged from at least two to 11 bullet wounds apiece.

He had performed seven of the autopsies himself. A reporter asked what the children had been wearing.

“They’re wearing cute kid stuff,” Carver said. “I mean, they’re first-graders.”

Second, though more significantly in some ways, I was struck by the comment of Rabbi Shaul Praver, whose congregation included one of the first grade victims:

“His little body could not endure so many bullets like that.”

Reconsider that, just a bit longer: 'His little body could not endure so many bullets like that.'

I wish, in some way, that I could un-read those words, as they have been echoing in my brain all day.

But, to my mind, there is something in Rabbi Praver's words that prove that the unspeakable can indeed be spoken.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Some kind words in the Literary Review

For those of you interested in such things, there is a very nice review of my new book in the current Literary Review (Dec-Jan).

It is described, for example, as an 'immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling book'.


There's more where that came from at this post on the review at the book blog for The Most Remarkable Woman in England.

And I have also created a summary of comments so far on the book.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Charlie Brooker on bleached gargoyles, Anders Breivik and rectangular fireflies

I'm not a parent, but I did spend a lot of time squinting at what by today's standards are tiny television screens from a distance imposed by my mother to ensure that I didn't 'ruin' my eyes.

Hence, there is a lot to enjoy about Charlie Brooker's column today:

Call me a paranoid parent, but I stopped leaving the TV on the rolling news channel by default round about then because I didn't like the way Savile stared at my baby son, as though he was going to lean through the screen and eat him. The boy himself wasn't bothered, but then he doesn't fear the same things as you or me. A few weeks ago, he saw Anders Breivik on the screen and found the sight of him hilarious. A convicted mass murderer is literally the funniest thing my son has ever seen.

And, man, is Balok ever scary.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Perilous Albion

Christopher Walken reveals a number of fears in this Guardian interview.

One of them, rather surprisingly, is Britain:

"I don't like flying at the best of times," he says. "And as I get older, I like it less and less. I don't much like driving either. I prefer to be driven. And, when I'm in London, I don't even like walking on the street. I can never get used to looking the right way when I cross the street. When we're over there, I always say to my wife, 'Stay in the hotel. Don't go out there. It's too dangerous.'"
The rest of the interview is worthwhile.

I didn't realise, for example, that Walken's father was a German baker.

And I'm thankful for the reminder of his great moves in the 'Weapon of Choice' video. The man has grace.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

From the thrilling days of anti-bluebell bolshevism

If for no other reason, I am thankful Facebook exists because I may not otherwise have been made aware (by my friend Chris) of this wonderful quote from the diaries of the late Queen Mother (recently published, edited by William Shawcross), apparently from 1924, when she would have been in her early 20s:

“I am extremely anti-Labour. They are so far apart from fairies and owls and bluebells & Americans & all the things I like. If they agree with me, I know they are pretending – in fact I believe everything is a pretence to them.”

This seems a tad extreme: given her extensive list of likes and dislikes -- many of them quite sensible --  I'm sure that there would have been at least some common ground to be found with Labour, even with its radical anti-bluebell faction:

“I like so many things”, the Duchess of York enthused in an early letter to [D'Arcy] Osborne, “fairy stories, fat butlers, porters, the smell of tangerines, suave Orientals, a good tune, lovely colours, French accents, puppies, bath salts, & a million more”. She disliked fewer things, but heartily. “Tactlessness annoys me – also rudeness . . . crass stupidity, & people who are pleased with themselves. Also spiders, caterpillars, slugs, frogs, toads, loud voices & nasty coughs”. 

I mean, who doesn't like puppies, suave Orientals and French accents?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Radio interview on my new book

For those of you interested in such things, I'll be interviewed about my new book -- The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace -- tomorrow (Wed), ca. 4pm GMT on Ireland's Newstalk 106-108 FM. 

[UPDATE]: for those who might have missed it, you can hear the interview here (from 6:40).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reviewed in higher places

There is a quite positive review of my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, in today's Times Higher Education.

You'll find the link and a couple of signal quotes at the book-related blog.

A full list of comments and reviews is available here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The psephological calculus

The US presidential election now seems like ages ago, but this Guardian interview is a good reminder of why analysts like Nate Silver are important.

Political commentary could use a lot more cool-headed analysis and less tendentious windbaggery.

Or, as Silver puts it:

"Numbers aren't perfect, but for me, it's numbers with all their imperfections versus bullshit. You had people saying, 'You can't quantify people's feelings through numbers!' But what's the alternative? Me sitting at my Georgetown cocktail party saying that I know how people in Toledo, Ohio, are going to vote better than the actual people of Toledo, Ohio, who answered a survey? It's incredibly presumptuous. And truth is an absolute defence. So if they got it right it would be one thing, but they didn't. They're consistently quite wrong."

Quite remarkably, reading this interview makes me want to take a statistics class.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On building a vehicle from the defeated pieces of the thing you survived

A new video has appeared for the first song released from the new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth.

What the song -- and, I suppose, the video -- is about was explained by John Darnielle at the Mountain Goats website in a post back in July:

This here album track, anyway, is called "Cry for Judas," it is about survival but that's kind of an oversimplification, it's also about building a vehicle from the defeated pieces of the thing you survived and piloting that vehicle through the cosmos, it's kind of complicated but people who know what I'm talking about will kind of intuitively get the idea and the rest of you will I hope be able to get a sense of it through the song.

I think I get it.

The Mountain Goats, "Cry for Judas"

(Lyrics and chords)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sticking with our apocalyptic theme for the evening

While pondering the scientific wonder that is the ability to watch internet video from the International Space Station as it passes over hurricane Sandy, I was struck by the advert that popped up.

Well, I suppose you find your comfort where you can.

And if you're down their under those clouds, perhaps some handy tips on ark-building might come in handy right about now.

Anyone remember offhand how long a cubit is?

(The space station video, by the way, is quite interesting.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mrs Pace and "the found poetry of precise reportage"

There's a very positive review by Tessa Hadley of my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace, in today's Guardian.

I'm not only pleased that she liked it but also that her very thoughtful review highlights a few specific things that were in fact very important to me while I was writing the book, such as capturing as far as I could the language of the time (or, rather, as she notes the various languages reflecting the specificities of class, region and profession).

Trying to imagine the past, it's the language we don't get right. Translating experiences out of the idiom of another era into contemporary expression is as fraught with loss as any translation between languages. John Carter Wood's book about the Pace trial works because of his sober and scrupulous assembly of the evidence, quoting the words that were spoken and written at the time so we can feel the textures of the material for ourselves – the found poetry of precise reportage.

She also emphasises the dramatic qualities of the (true) story, which is not only gratifying in itself -- that was, after all, what drove me to write the book in the first place -- but also particularly pleasing because, in the fairly arduous trek to finding a publisher, I heard doubts expressed on that very issue, along with the the opinion that nobody would be interested in the case as they didn't know about it already.

Yes, you hear a lot of odd things when you're trying to publish a book.

In any case, that helps to explain why this passage at the beginning of Hadley's review is such a joy for me to read:

Sometimes life is better than fiction. Is there any novelist who could have got this extraordinary story so perfectly right, inventing it: the violence at the heart of it, the suspense, the succession of revelations, the passions so raw and inchoate that they have a mythic force? And then there's the grand sweep of the narrative, beginning in the bleak poverty of an obscure cottage in the Forest of Dean, acted out finally on the national stage.

I don't expect all the reviews will be this positive (you can't, after all, please everyone), but after investing so much of myself in researching and telling this fascinating story, this is certainly a good start.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Obscene Desserts on the radio

For those of you interested in such things: I will be appearing tomorrow (Wednesday, 17 October) on BBC Radio 4's programme 'Woman's Hour' to talk about my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England.

The programme will be available live ('Woman's Hour' is broadcast between 10 and 10.45am GMT) online via the BBC website. If you can't make time to listen live, however, it will be available on the iPlayer soon after broadcast.

Whether that's something that pleases me or I regret depends, I suppose, on how things go....

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The universal truth of punk: "Everybody feels beleaguered at some point"

Speaking of punk...

Here are the Mountain Goats talking about and then covering Jawbreaker's "Boxcar".

"My enemies are all too familiar."

Sounds familiar.


Remembering life in the stone age, circa 1977

Comments from a Wired interview with William Gibson, who reflects on how new music styles (in this case punk) spread in a pre-Internet age.

I suspect — and I don’t think this is nostalgia — but it may have been able to become kind of a richer sauce, initially. It wasn’t able to instantly go from London to Toronto at the speed of light. Somebody had to carry it back to Toronto or wherever, in their backpack and show it, physically show it to another human. Which is what happened. And compared to the way that news of something new spreads today, it was totally stone age. Totally stone age! There’s something remarkable about it that’s probably not going to be that evident to people looking at it in the future. That the 1977 experience was qualitatively different, in a way, than the 2007 experience, say.
Whether it was a 'richer' or otherwise better way of discovering what was new, I can't say.

But it was certainly different.

Still, like Gibson, I'm certainly glad to have discovered Gangnam style, which in 1977 I no doubt would have missed...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Turn me around so I can be everything I was meant to be

We heard this on the way to work this morning. And wanted to listen to it all day long.

 Michael Kiwanuka, "Tell Me a Tale"

Monday, October 01, 2012

History, nonsense and atheists (interesting and boring)

Not least because I'm someone whose new historical project focuses on an aspect of religious history, there were several parts of this interview with historian Quentin Skinner where I found myself nodding.

Art of Theory: Under the influence of your methodology, a number of scholars including some of your former students have sought to put religion back in the picture as a crucial part of the intellectual context in which texts must be understood. You yourself have emphasized the importance of theology in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Yet you’ve been criticized in your later work for downplaying the importance of religious considerations. What do you make of these criticisms?

Skinner: Yes, a very interesting point to me because I think I’ve been insensitive to it. One of the most extraordinary things to anyone of my age is the re-sacrilizing of the world. If you were brought up on Weberian—to say nothing of Marxist—social philosophy, then the secularization image of modernity was absolutely central to our self-image. And that has gone into reverse in a way that completely mystifies me.

It’s true that in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought book there’s a great deal of theology and a great deal of discussion of religious principles in relation to political change. There are chapters which are entirely about Lutheran, Calvinist, and Scholastic theology, and I try to tell a story in which they are intimately meshed with politics. I can remember, when I was writing that book that my wife, Sue [James], said she began to worry that I was going to become a convert! So I certainly don’t feel that I underplayed the role of religion in that text, although so important has religion become to people’s sensibilities again in our time that that is something that is widely said about it.

As to my more recent work, I am conscious and even self-conscious about the fact that I do try to focus my historical attention on issues in respect of which my feelings about religion and theology don’t have to obtrude.

I am not a religious person. Of course, that doesn’t mean I am not a spiritual person. I really resent the assumption that you are not a spiritual person unless you are a religious person. But I have no religious beliefs and much worse than that, I’m a kind of boring atheist.

I think there are two kinds of interesting atheists. There are those who think like Feuerbach, that religion is the deformation of very deep human feelings and aspirations. Or else, there are those who think that although religion may be false, it may be very useful as a binding force in society, in the way that someone like Hobbes thinks. I just think that, as far as I can see, there is no good reason to espouse any of the tenets of the religious hypothesis in any of the forms that I know of it. For me, it’s nothing but nonsense.

That’s what I mean by being a boring atheist, and in consequence I’m not very interested in the history of religion. It’s difficult to be interested in the history of something that you think is nonsense.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"In old movies people scream, choking on their fists when they see shadows like these."

There's a new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, coming out very soon. This is on it. I like it.


The Mountain Goats, "In Memory of Satan"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dollar Makes me Holler: Honey Boo Boo's Critique of Post-Capitalist America

As I said in my previous post, I've just been to a cultural studies conference. In one of the papers, the speaker condemned HBO for producing slickly unambigous fodder for the educated bourgeoisie, thus shamelessly affirming the debilitating forces of post-Capitalism (in the US and elsewhere).

So. There. All I can say is that I won't ever be a fan of Game of Thrones anyways. But I'm glad to have discovered that subversive alternatives abound, especially on the more discerning educational TV channels:

Proposed thesis: "The subaltern cannot only speak, it can also let rip!"

Or: "A spectre is haunting capitalism: The spectre of Honey Boo Boo"

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Post-conference trauma (again)

Have just returned from a conference. One of those conferences where my humble and harmless ideas are greeted with baffled silence, theatrical eyerolling and straight-out spite. It is astounding how reliably the mere suggestion that some (a few) human attitudes and behaviours might be universal leads to the spontaneous collective performance of shaming rituals like avoiding eye-contact or denying verbal communication. An evolutionary psychologist would interpret all this as evidence of the old cheater-detection mechanism. Stupid, just-so story-telling evolutionary psychologist!

That is not so good. But on the positive side: I'm far less palpitatious in these situations than I used to be. What is more, these days I even manage to come up with halfway sensible ripostes (even when feeling under the weather!). In fact, I think that this time I managed to make points that are not dissimilar to those made by Terry Eagleton in a recent review of an academic study of John Cleland (of Fanny Hill fame) - only maybe not quite so eloquently.

So this is what I kind of said today:

In postmodern eyes, sexuality is at its best when deviant, since the normal and conventional are thought to be on the side of power. This is the reason words like 'normal' and 'natural' are nowadays swathed in scare quotes, as they are in this study. Yet crooked bankers and serial killers are deviant, while sunlight, death, panic and arthritis are natural. Whatever else they may be, human beings are natural material objects. Normality and convention can be on the side of enlightenment; if being allowed to go on strike isn't normal, it ought to be; convention dictates that you shouldn't kick vagrants who ask you for money. Postmodernists celebrate the marginal, while failing to note that neo-Nazis fall into that category. They also take the side of minorities, a group which includes tax evaders. In any case, those who prize the deviant should also cherish the normative, since there would be no deviancy without it.

Thank you Terry. I only wish I'd read your review before the conference.

The poetry of the police log

At the end of the written record (published today in the Telegraph) of a series of events that happened at the main gates of 10 Downing St. not too long ago -- which involved some colourful language from the Tory Chief Whip Andrew "Thrasher" Mitchell directed at the police officers guarding the gate -- one finds these delightfully deadpan words:

"I write this for your information as Mr Mitchell's last comments would appear to indicate that he is unhappy with my actions."

Indeed, Officer Pleb, he's probably, in retrospect, most unhappy about your action of writing it all down.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book launching

At the blog for my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, I have posted a few photos from the recent launch event for it and two other criminal justice histories that was held at the third British Crime Historians Symposium a couple of weeks ago.

A very good time was had by all, as I think is apparent.

The book, as a reminder, is now available in the UK and Europe and will be released on 2 October in North America.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Down the Property Ladder

Even people who enjoy a reputation of bohemian quirkiness can have a bad day on the home purchasing front.

This "mediterranean" atrocity reminded me of Fred MacMurray's comment, in Double Indemnity, as he is about to enter the Dietrichson pile where lurks the fatal Phyllis D.:

"It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks - that is, if he ever finished paying for it."

To buy that house - now that would be hip and neatly self-referential in a Baudriallian sort of way!

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Now available

My new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace is now available in the UK (North American release: 2 October).

More information here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Introducing the "most remarkable woman in England"

To mark the one-week-to-go stage before the UK release of my book on the sensational Pace poisoning case of 1928, Manchester University Press has posted a brief introduction to the book and its themes.

If you can't wait for the release, by all means check out the book-related blog I've been writing (and plan to continue updating after the book is released).

There should be plenty there to keep you busy.

Rock 'n' roll excess ain't what it used to be

In the Guardian, Justin Hawkins, of the Darkness, explains his band's video for 'Everybody have a Good Time', from their new album, 'Hot Cakes'.

It was going to be a monkey, but animatronic monkey faces were too terrifying. So we came up with the bear. Unfortunately, the record company said it would be too expensive to have an animatronic one, so it had to be a guy in a bear costume. With a bra on.

In an age of austerity, I suppose, such corners must be cut.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

From "a dash of the Rhine and the Oder" to the "age of passports"

I have, on and off over recent months, been reading J. B. Priestley's 1934 travelogue English Journey.

It's the kind of episodic book that lends itself to returning to bit by bit. Priestley was a somewhat prickly character (I rather doubt that I'd have liked to join him on his travels) and a few of his opinions are pretty offensive (especially with regard to the Irish; I might get round to discussing that at some point).

However, the book is worth reading if only for the glimpses it gives of a 1930s England in the process of transformation; or, to put it more precisely (since all modern societies are always changing to one extent or another) in a particularly interesting historical moment of transformation.

In Priestley's personal perspective, one finds a mixture of ambiguity about the emergent, 'modern', 'Americanised' England (a combination of curiosity, wonder and fear) and a somewhat nostalgic look backward at an England in the process of disappearing.

There's an interesting passage that combines these perspectives, starting with a reflection on Priestley's own youth in Bradford and then using changes in that city to comment on the wider world situation in the 1930s. (I noted a citation of a sentence or two from this passage a few years ago, but it's more interesting in its complete form.)

It's rather long, but I think worth reading.

Bradford was, as Priestley puts it, 'always a city of travellers' affiliated with the worsted industries:

Some of its citizens went regularly to the other side of the globe to buy wool. Others went abroad, from Belgium to China, selling yarn and pieces. They returned to Market Street, the same sturdy Bradfordians, from the ends of the earth. You used to meet men who did not look as if they had ever been further than York or Morecambe, but who actually knew every continental express. They would go away from months, keeping to the most complicated time-tables. When they returned they did not give themselves cosmopolitan airs; it was very dangerous in Bradford to give yourself any airs, except those by tradition associated with solid wool men.

And then there was this curious leaven of intelligent aliens, chiefly German-Jews and mostly affluent. They were so much a part of the place when I was a boy that it never occurred to me to ask why they were there. I saw their outlandish names on office doors, knew that they lived in certain pleasant suburbs, and obscurely felt that they had always been with us and would always remain. That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer, two renowned painters and a well-known poet. [...]

I can remember when one of the best-known clubs in Bradford was the Schillerverein. And in those days a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German. There was, then, this odd mixture in pre-war Bradford. A dash of the Rhine and the Oder found its way into our grim runnel—"t'mucky beck." Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfort and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked.

But the war changed all that. There is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion. Some of the merchanting houses changed their names and personnel; others went out of business. I liked the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now. I am not suggesting that these German-Jews were better men than we are. The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers. They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow.

These exchanges are good for everybody. Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out. Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself—for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin—history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of its citizens, for racial, religious or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their [in]tolerance.

It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as were the Czar's Russia or the Sultan's Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this admirable leavening process to continue.

Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago. But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism. Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.

J.B. Priestley, English Journey (London: William Heinemann in association with Victor Gollancz, 1937 [1934]), pp. 160-61.

You find a few nice turns of phrase in this passage that suggest why, apart from the social observations, Priestley is still worth reading.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"A kind and loving God won't let my small ship run aground"

Though I'm not religious at all personally, this rather passed to my day today (in a good way) professionally.

And, you know, most importantly: it rocks.

The Mountain Goats, 'Romans 10:9'

Friday, July 06, 2012

"It was obvious from the first that this woman’s tragic story had deeply impressed the crowd."

On this day (6 July) in 1928, the trial of Beatrice Pace for the arsenic murder of her husband came to a sudden end with her acquittal.

It's this episode that opens my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace, released next month (20 August) by Manchester University Press.

This week, I've been providing some glimpses of the trial coverage in the Daily Mirror at the blog I've created related to the book.

One of today's posts, for instance, shows the front-page coverage of the acquittal and a commentary from the paper on the meaning of the case.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

First we take Clarence Bridge, then it's on to Whitehall

George Orwell, commenting on the generally frustrating organisation of things during wartime, with specific reference to the Home Guard, 21 June 1942: 

Details of organisation, battle positions etc. have been changed so frequently that hardly anyone knows at any given moment what the current arrangements are supposed to be. To give just one example, for well over a year our company has been trying to dig a system of trenches in Regents Park, in case airborne troops land there. Though dug over and over again these trenches have never once been in a completed state, because when they are half done there is always a change of plan and fresh orders. Ditto with everything. Whatever one undertakes, one starts with the knowledge that presently there will come a sudden change of orders, and then another change, and so on indefinitely. Nothing ever happens except continuous dithering, resulting in progressive disillusionment all round. The best one can hope is that it is much the same on the other side.

That reference to Regent's Park caught my eye. When we stay in London, we tend to go jogging there regularly.

I'll not be able to run through the place any more without wondering where it was that Orwell and his Dad's Army chums were digging their 'system of trenches'.

Which got me wondering: if you were going to launch an airborne attack on London, surely St. James's or Hyde Park would be better tactical options? I mean, if your aim was to take out the government?

Not encouraging this, mind, just idly speculating.

While we're at it: anyone know whether there were any genuine Nazi plans to air drop troops into London's parks?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The song of the film of the book

Before my next book is even out, I'm already planning the soundtrack for the film that should be based on it.

It's either a sign of efficient forward thinking or boundless hubris.

I'm not sure myself.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

'A photograph of a summer's day, a little boy's lifetime away'

I see that it's Father's Day back in the US (and in other parts of the world, though not here in Germany), and, without wanting to be a downer or anything, it occurred to me that this year will mark 25 years since my own father died.

Can it really be that many years?

Which led me to taking a long look at this photo, taken probably in 1971, of us together in the driveway of one of those various places I still think of as 'home'.

Which led me to this song.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the garden of your mind

This remix of Mr. Rogers is simultaneously strange, gentle and more than a bit psychedelic.

 It's also wonderful.

(Via io9)

This was the first time I'd heard of the 'Symphony of Science' series by John D. Boswell. They're all good. I especially like 'The Greatest Show on Earth', not least since it makes Richard Dawkins sound like a member of the Pet Shop Boys.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Bobbies, good and bad

I was pleased today to receive the print version of my latest article on the history of inter-war policing in Britain: 'Press, Politics and the "Police and Public" Debates in Late 1920s Britain', Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History and Societies, vol. 16, no. 1 (2012): pp. 75-98.

Since its closely related to the topic of my forthcoming book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, I go on about it a little at the other blog

Which you should check out anyway, if you haven't already.

And tell your friends.

And so on.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Interesting stuff elsewhere

There have been a variety of new and interesting things at my blog for my forthcoming book recently, from comments on the state of British justice to excerpts from the prison letters of the woman in question.

Please do go and check it out (and pass on the link to any friends you have who might be interested in such things)...

Cricket and the nation

A couple of somehow related comments that I noted during my last research trip in the 'This England' section of the New Statesman and Nation, in which excerpts were offered from other papers and magazines:

'The conservatism of cricketers is one of the greatest bulwarks against Socialism in this country. I fear that consequently a much-needed change in this direction will be deferred until the claims of dog-racing and other such pastimes have made a serious inroad on the interest in our greatest national sport.'
—From letter on Cricket Reform by Lord Midleton in The Times.

(New Statesman and Nation, 21 July 1934, p. 82)

'No-one in England will be peevish at the passing of the Ashes. We have been beaten by a much better team. Oddly enough, and to the permanent bewilderment of foreigners, that is an experience in which Englishmen still find a keen enjoyment.'
—Leader in the Evening News.

(New Statesman and Nation, 1 September 1934, p. 259 )

Make my (jubilee) day

Should any republican demonstrations get out of hand today, it seems Her Majesty should be able to handle things.

So let's be careful out there, my friends.

(Image via The Shirk Report)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Leaders of men

Run across during research....

I'm not a betting man, but I would think that a reasonably good wager might be made that this was the only ever article in which Leon Trotsky was compared with the leader of the Salvation Army: 

‘In England, where in spite of our troubles we still retain the sanity of free speech, Mr. Trotsky’s views on our affairs (Where is Britain Going? George Allen and Unwin, 4s. 6d.) will no doubt command a certain amount of interest.

General Booth, with his jaunty hat
Mr. Trotsky has been a leader of men. So also was the founder of the Salvation Army, and so also is his son, General Bramwell Booth, whose reminiscences we consider this week. Here the similarities end.

General Booth and General Trotsky are zealots and organizers. But one has humour and insight, the other stammers out platitudes in the voice of a phonograph with a scratched record. With every wish to be fair to Mr. Trotsky, we began his latest work with the idea that he would have something interesting to say. He has not.

Appealing frankly to violence, he attempts to show, in the teeth of history and with comical ignorance of conditions here, that England has thrived on revolutions—other people’s revolutions in Europe.

General Trotsky, with his not-so-jaunty hat
And now “the masses must be revolutionarily educated and tempered. Of this the first condition is an implacable struggle with the contaminating spirit of MacDonaldism.”

Fleet Street, thinks Mr. Trotsky, “still awaits the proletarian hand” that shall educate the public away from the frivolities of Cup-ties and racing, to the industrial world of the Bolshevist.

A course of reading in this miniature Marx should be prescribed for every girl or boy who is sickening with Communist theories.’

The Spectator, 13 February 1926, p. 277 (paragraph breaks added)
And, as a help to the younger folk among you, 'MacDonaldism' refers to this chap not this chap, though both have, in their time, been described as agents of capitalism, so any confusion is forgiveable.

(And Fleet Street is, of course, still awaiting the "proletarian hand"...)

(Image sources: Booth, Trotsky)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Isolated and shot down

We (as in 'vee Chermans') have had better days, or so the current main page at the Guardian would suggest.

A message, as it were, from the belly of the beast.

Otherwise known as London.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Unnecessarily charming

Something I ran across in the British Library:

Crime and War

Gangster films get more like war films every day. Scarface (at the Empire) certainly is more like All Quiet on the Western Front than any other film I have seen. The moment the “South Side” introduced machine guns there was nothing for the police to do but to introduce gas-bombs. For the moment Scarface was caught napping and came to a truly terrible end. His successor by now is doubtless provided with heavy air bombers, and it will be interesting to see whether the police will be able to ripost [sic] successfully with supertanks. In fact every American town seems to be conducting, in little, a fine European armaments race. Scarface is certainly one of the most disgusting, and hence one of the most effective, gangsters I have seen. It was, however, criminally immoral to make Scarface himself so unnecessarily charming. I found the guns rather agitating, particularly perhaps as the afternoon was so hot. Scarface is emphatically evening entertainment, and very good entertainment too.

The New Statesman and Nation, 2 July 1932, p. 13

As Rick says to Heinrich: "Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Friday, April 20, 2012

On 'La Dietrich', 'unreal abnegation' and 'too much talky talk'

A film review found while trawling through The New Statesman and Nation:

Shanghai Express, with La Dietrich and Clive Brook, is the last word in Paramount commercial competence. The pure camera work is as slap-up as anything possibly could be. True, the story is foolish; the psychology grotesque; and there is too much talky-talk, and that talk is singularly inept, though uttered in a uniform tone of pregnant emotion.

The Blue Express was far from a first-class picture but succeeded in two minutes in suggesting the reality of a Chinese train, an achievement which eludes Paramount through a good hour of apoplectic effort. You could see nothing for the local colour, as in a bad story by Théophile Gauthier [sic].

But it is merely priggish to take seriously a film that has no purpose save to put La Dietrich through her paces. And you will admire Shanghai Express according to how much you admire Dietrich. "Did you ever see such close-ups?" a couple of sentimental adolescents next to me kept whispering in notes of subdued rapture. And they were quite right. The close-ups were marvellous. Her astonishing bony face was photographed in every conceivable chiaroscuro, registering every variety of complicated pain, and surrendering to every unreal abnegation.

Dietrich is a physical genius, who does well to spend her time on an international train. She has the sleek and sensual efficiency of a really expensive new leather dressing case.

 The New Statesman and Nation, 26 March 1932, p. 393

I have to admit that that comparison in the last line caught me a bit by surprise.

It's not what I was expecting. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Julia, She-Wolf of the Anti-Sex League

While browsing through Boing Boing I was struck by this image, a cover from some Signet edition of 1984, which makes Orwell's classic novel of political totalitarianism look more like a 1970s sexploitation film...

Double-plus extraordinary.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Notes from a fairy tale of commerce

One of the things I'm reading at the moment is J. B. Priestley's English Journey. It's curiously out of print (curious, as it's quite a well-known book) but I managed to find a cheap used copy from 1937 which has held up remarkably well.

In any case, I wish I had read this one earlier, as the book is full of excellent writing and quite amusing anecdotes.

I liked, for instance, this, during the opening excursion to Southampton:

The town was making money. At first I felt like a man who had walked into a fairy tale of commerce. The people who jostled me did not looked as if they had just stepped out of an earthly paradise; there was no Utopian bloom upon them; but nevertheless they all seemed well-fed, decently clothed, cheerful, almost gay. The sun beamed upon them, and so did I. Their long street was very pleasant. I noticed that it shared the taste of Fleet Street and the Strand for wine bars. I went into one of these; and it had a surprising succession of Ye Olde panelled rooms, in one of which I drank a shilling glass of moderate sherry and listening  to four citizens talking earnestly about German nudist papers, their supply having recently been cut off by Hitler. Their interest in these papers was genuine but not of a kind to commend itself to the leaders of the nudist movement. (English Journey, London, 1937, p. 13)

One of the other things I'm reading is Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me, excerpts from which will also, I believe, be featuring here in the near future.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Reality beats epistemology

In trying to hone my academic cross-disciplinary smack-down powers, I think I might learn a lot from Jerry Coyne:

When Lynch asserts that “debates over epistemic principles sound abstract, but they have enormous practical repercussions,” he’s simply wrong, and merely defending his turf. These debates have no practical repercussions, because a) scientists ignore them, and rightly so, and b) the public won’t pay attention to them, either. They’re important only to philosophers.

One bite-sized chunk of a long but worthwhile post at Coyne's blog.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Fighting them on the (cultural) beachheads

This is a very nice article about how cool German culture has become (even being 'embraced' in the UK...who'd have guessed?); however, did they really need to use the word 'invasion'?

And, to me, the combination of text and image suggests that Germany's 'big shift' has involved making half-naked people stand in very, very uncomfortable positions.

I'm struggling to find this complimentary.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The British Bob Dylan and the Fountainhead of Genius

There's a lot of nice Robyn Hitchcock available online. Though Robyn Hitchcock playing Syd Barrett is something special.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Well, at least it feels like a brush with fame

It's nice when my Facebook feed brings together things I love (for those not in the know, the voice of Anglophone Cultures Uni Mainz has a special relationship to yours truly):

We've now found the one context in which neither of us minds saying: 'I'm a believer.'

Glad to know that Billy is with us on this.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The decline of the western hemline

Here's something I just unexpectedly ran across while looking through inter-war newspaper articles for references to Oswald Spengler: a recounting of a lecture at the Edinburgh City Business Club by Mr. R. H. Munro on the topic of fashion.

Mr Munro was dealing principally with the ever-changing fashions in women's wear. Married men profess to deplore these changes, but no man likes to see his wife fall behind in the parade. It is true that a woman who remains old-fashioned long enough may find herself again in the fashion, for as Beaumont and Fletcher observed in the Elizabethan age, "We know that what was worn some twenty years ago comes into grace again." In somewhat less that twenty years we have witnessed our womenfolk abandoning their crowning glory only to grow it again, and shortening their skirts only to lengthen them again. Yet history never repeats itself in exact detail. Women's infinite variety is never staled by custom, for custom never gets a chance.
"The Dictates of Fashion," The Scotsman, 8 May 1935, p. 12.

The Spengler reference (in case you're interested in these kinds of things) derives from his concept of "Dionysian Man", which Mr Munro uses as a description of a feature particular -- in his view -- to Western civilisation: the type of person "in a state of continual movement from one idea to another", who is "constantly on the quest for visions to guide him along untravelled roads".

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The dark, howling apex of infinity"

Not least for the H. P. Lovecraft reference, I pretty much adore this passage from Charlie Brooker's latest column (which is actually about the Sun):

It's hard to cheer when a newspaper closes. Even one you're slightly scared of, like the Daily Mail. Even though the Mail isn't technically a newspaper, more a serialised Necronomicon. In fact it's not even printed, but scorched on to parchment by a whispering cacodemon. The Mail can never close. It can only choose to vacate our realm and return to the dominion in which it was forged; a place somewhere between shadow and dusk, beyond time and space, at the dark, howling apex of infinity.

It's just a newspaper. It's just a newspaper. (Repeat 100 times a day.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

See no evil?

The German President, Christian Wulff announced today that he would resign, in the wake of accusations that he has, over the years, gotten just a little bit too much help from his friends.

This is not a surprise.

I'm wondering, though, whether this was really the best picture the Guardian could find to accompany its story:

Perhaps it was a wry commentary on the blindness of the powerful?


Anyway, it would all be very exciting...if the scandal itself were not so boring: even the name for the alleged wrong, 'Vorteilsannahme im Amt' sort of puts you to sleep.

I bet Silvio Berlusconi is laughing his ass off...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Toys are not citizens. I hope that's clear now.

This is...surreal:

There hadn't been many – indeed any – rallies like it before in Russia. Last month saw dozens of toys, from teddy bears to Lego figurines, standing out in the snow of a Siberian city with banners complaining about corruption and electoral malpractice.
At the time, Russian authorities in Barnaul declared the protest "an unsanctioned public event".
Now a petition to hold another protest featuring 100 Kinder Surprise toys, 100 Lego people, 20 model soldiers, 15 soft toys and 10 toy cars has been rejected because the toys have been deemed not to be "citizens of Russia".

Well, it's hard to disagree with that logic.

I guess.

I sure am glad that a significant portion of our energy supplies come from this country....

Hey, stop being so mean!

Just another example of that horrible, nasty, 'militant' secularism at work: the discussion of a poll commissioned by Richard Dawkins's Foundation to explore the social attitudes of British Christians.


[O]ur findings show that the majority of UK Christians share the secular, liberal, humane values that are the hallmark of a modern, decent society.

This won't come as a surprise to most Christians reading these results, I suspect, nor to those of us who count liberal Christians among our friends, families and colleagues.

Now, that is really over the line.

I mean, how divisive and insulting. 

Damned militant atheists. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I didn't expect the secular inquisition!

Baroness Warsi, government minister and co-chair of the UK's Conservative Party, is concerned about freedom.

My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. 

 Not only is this secularisation 'militant' it is even reminiscent of 'totalitarian regimes':

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities. That’s why in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion. 

So worried is our Baroness, in fact, that she will be conveying this message to the Pope today via the ministerial delegation she is leading to the Vatican, a place famous for centuries a bastion of reason, tolerance and the acceptance of 'multiple identities'. (Cough, cough...)

As Ophelia says elsewhere, 'oh vomit', and there is much purgative pleasure to be found in the Baroness's missive (if you're into that sort of thing), which is eagerly echoed by the usual suspects at the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

(And probably elsewhere. You know, for such a sadly marginalised social group, religious people seem to have no shortage of large-circulation platforms from which to bewail their marginality.)

I'm too weary of these kinds of comments to go through it line by line (say with regard to the typical canards that 'signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings', or that totalitarianism and 'religious identities' have somehow been mutually incompatible), though no doubt others will do me the favour.

However, a couple of things immediately jumped out.

Like this:

I will be arguing that to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages. 

At a time when (just to pick a few examples) a good third or more of young British Muslims believe apostates from their faith should be punished by death, when leading American presidential candidates have no problem placing the authority of the Bible over that of the constitution and when ultra-orthodox Jewish religious fanatics can use terror and violence to enforce a radical form of patriarchy, it would seem that there is no great shortage of people who feel pretty 'confident in their creeds'.

Methinks the Baroness might be missing something here.

(And is it just me or is there something a bit sinister about the good Baroness's reference to people 'not diluting their faiths', especially given some of her co-religionists' touchiness on precisely this issue.)

But, for me anyway, an immediate, sure-fire dead give-away of the problem popped up with the phrase 'militant secularism'.

Militant secularism.

I pointed this out before (five years ago! I've been at this too long), in a response to a complaint about 'militant atheism', one directed at authors such as Richard Dawkins.

I concluded:

Until the day that Richard Dawkins appears on television standing in front of a poster of Darwin while holding an AK-47 and screaming for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, can we find a different, perhaps more appropriate adjective to describe his approach?

It would seem to me that this still stands.

Our weapon is reason, reason and sarcasm. Our two weapons...

[UPDATE] The juxtaposition on the front page of the Telegraph is classic (and useful in case you need to identify one of those 'militant secularists'. No, wait...).  (Informed via Chris B, image via here)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"I don't want to die in a nuclear war"...

...well, who does?

Happy Darwin Day!

"A sort of wryness mixed with tentative enthusiasm"

Simon Winder's review of Philip Olterman's new book Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters is worth reading for at least two reasons.

First, it neatly encapsulates something about Germanness:
Everything that makes modern Germany so appealing – a sort of wryness mixed with tentative enthusiasm, a wish to be liked tempered by a genuine concern to engage with a terrible past – are all in this book.
Second, it notes Anglo-German connections that are somehow simultaneously unexpected and inevitable:
A long, excellent analysis of the Baader-Meinhof Gang is almost over before the reader realises that the only real Anglo-German element in the chapter is that Astrid Proll, hiding in London, once went to a concert by the Clash where the band were wearing Baader-Meinhof T-shirts. 
I have something new on my reading list.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dodging, artfully

Via the wonders of social networking I have been informed of an event that I would definitely be attending were I in London tonight: the first screening of the short film 'Fits and Starts of Restlessness' by Tim Shore and Gary Thomas, made in collaboration with our friend, Dr. Heather Shore of Leeds Metropolitan University.

It will be shown with other short films at the BFI (Tuesday, 7 February 2012, NFT 1, at BFI Southbank, seems to be starting at 18:20) as part of the celebrations around Dickens's 200th birthday...which is, in fact, today.

Details on the Birthday event are here.

A brief description:
The title is taken from Dickens’ essay Night Walks, and his description of London has having “expiring fits and starts of restlessness”. The film takes its own night ‘walk’ and traces the path of the lost Fleet River, through the night time streets of Saffron Hill – once the site of a notorious rookery – and where Dickens located Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist.

I haven't seen it yet, but the stills that are available are, I must say, very intriguing.

And since part of the research was related to Heather's excellent book Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London, I'm sure the style is matched with substance.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Poso-Graph: 'A great money maker'

A found advert for a photo booth, 1928.

Sunday News, 7 October 1928, p. 7.

Exercise, the weaker vessels and their 'monthly mortgage'

Here's something that I ran across today while working on another article related to police scandals in 1928.

It may be that our decision to go for an hour-long run this morning in the extreme cold we're experiencing encouraged my interest in this story.

Of course, it might be the London 2012 fever that I'm feeling as well.


Should a Woman Be an Athlete? 

Violent Exertion that Injures Brain and Body


By Sir W. Arbuthnot Lane

Now that the Olympic Games are in full swing the question has arisen as to whether these physical contests are harmful to women. The question as to whether they are harmful to men, too, also arises—though it is apt to be overlooked.

Both questions can be answered in a definite manner.

That excessively violent exercise and maintained effort, such as is exhibited in athletic contests in general and the Olympic Games in particular, is most detrimental to human health is a well-recognised fact in medicine.


But the general public, if they realise at all that over-exertion is damaging, certainly do not realise how remarkably injurious it can be.

For it is not inconceivable that a person who persistently overstrained his or her body over a certain period of time might eventually become not only a physical wreck, but also a mental defective.

Outside the circle of those with medical knowledge there are but few who have heard of the interesting experiments in this line conducted by that famous surgeon, Dr. George Crile, of Cleveland, Ohio.

These experiments have proved that excessive physical strain, like severe mental shock, results in a destruction of brain cells—the number of cells destroyed being in proportion to the violence of the exercise or shock.

Moreover, these cells once lost are not replaced. Dr. Crile experimented with all kinds of animals. He raced them into states of exhaustion and subsequently examined their brains. In each case he found that cells had been destroyed in enormous numbers.


... This [the destruction of brain cells] applies equally to men and women, but that women must suffer more is obvious when one considers her distinct physical disadvantages as compared with man. For much of her strength has to be sacrificed to meet her special requirements of reproduction for which she pays a monthly mortgage.

Apart from the fact that the fact that woman is ‘the weaker vessel,’ however, and consequently more easily exhausted than man, there is little reason why violent exercise should harm her any more than it does the stronger sex.

But it must not be forgotten that it does harm the stronger sex. ...


Exercise in moderation is beneficial even essential to the well-being of both sexes, but care must be taken not to overdo it. These international contests are, in the opinion of some medical men, pure folly when they are carried to such a pitch of exhaustion as would appear to be not infrequently the case.

Not only do they impose physical strain, but also mental strain, for nervousness is present in practically every competitor prior to a race and is so great in some cases that some, if they fail to obtain the success they hoped for, break down and become hysterical.

One woman competitor was so affected in the Olympic Games the other day.

It is common knowledge, too, that athletes depreciate physically earlier in life than persons leading a normal existence. ...


Just as excessive physical strain destroys brain cells so will mental shock and persistent mental worry lead to their destruction.

It is a fact that illness, and even death, often follows mental worry because a number of brain cells have been lost and the person affected is consequently not in a fit state to combat disease.

Similarly ‘shell shock’ is due to the destruction of brain cells. ....

If a man or woman will observe moderation in all things—exercise, feeding, etc.—then he or she will be on the path to really good health.

But lack of an essential is as bad as an excess of it. Thus people should not starve themselves, or refrain from taking any exercise, but should take sufficient to meet the requirements of their various occupations and habits. Too little is as bad as too much.

Sunday News, 5 August 1928, p. 8.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Something for the German speakers among you: an intriguing, if sobering, search for what ordinary French people think of Germany, by Olivier Guez in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The author himself notes that, despite suffering from a early Germanophobia, he also experienced some 'unsettling' Germanophile symptoms as a young man:

Daneben fanden sich bei mir auch früh schon beunruhigende Anzeichen von Germanophilie: meine Liebe zur rheinischen Küche meiner Großmutter Stein, geborene Glaser, 1917 im besetzten Lothringen, zu ihrem Rostbraten, ihren Kartoffelpfannkuchen und ihren Spätzle; meine maßlose und von kaum jemandem geteilte Liebe zum Krautrock und zur geometrischen Ästhetik der Autobahn; meine jugendliche Begeisterung für Aristide Briand und Gustav Stresemann, für den Geist von Weimar und dann für die Bücher von Sebastian Haffner, von Sebald, Remarque, Böll, von Thomas und Heinrich, Erika, Klaus und Golo Mann, für die gesamte mitteleuropäische Literatur, jüdisch zumeist, deutscher Sprache immer. 

(The short version auf Englisch: he discovered a love of Rhineland cooking, Krautrock, the Autobahn, the spirit of Weimar and German-language literature written--mostly--by Jews.)

The two world wars play, unsurprisingly if disappointingly, a predominant role.

The quality of German sewing machines is, however, highly praised.

Sleepless in Davos

I'm not familiar with the writings of Clyde Prestowitz, but I found at least three things to like about his recent comments at Foreign Policy on the World Economic Forum in Davos ('Clueless in Davos').

First: he uses the word 'glitteratus', and I've rather a soft spot for the underachiving singular forms of words that are almost always used in the plural (e.g. 'graffito').

Second: he makes reference to the 'gnomes of Zurich', a nickname for Swiss bankers that I first encountered as a teenager while playing Illuminati and which has since stuck in my mind, though I have the feeling it's been largely forgotten. What I never knew (and was inspired by this reference to discover) was that the phrase apparently originated via discussions among British Labour politicians in the 1960s.

Third: he has a rather jaundiced view of the Davos lifestyle, one that jibes well with our own personal experience of the town at the beginning of last month.

Yet, despite his anti-charisma, [WEF organiser Klaus] Schwab has managed to persuade a large number of the world's top CEOs, politicians, academics, media stars, and bureaucrats that they have to be in a cramped, second rate hotel in a cold Swiss village with mediocre skiing and food every year during the bridge weekend between January and February. 

Though I imagine that the kind of 'cramped, second rate hotel' being shared by most of these Davos men and women -- however cramped and second rate -- is in a different class than ours was. (Where the ambience was more 'sleepless in Davos' than 'clueless in Davos'.)

Though, as I noted, there are very nice things about the place.