Monday, September 30, 2013

Hotel Art #5

Part of an occasional series.

A renovated farmhouse somewhere in the vicinity of Bruges, Belgium (September 2013). 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A 'rich and textured archaeology' of a murder trial

At the blog for my (still new, I'd say) book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, I have noted a few recent reviews from the academic journals.

Academics are often a finicky bunch, but I've picked out some of the nicer things they've said about the book.

Among the words to be found there: 'engaging', 'impressive', 'thoughtful' and 'readable'.

What, you haven't yet gotten around to buying a copy? Why wait?! If you act fast, you'll have time to read it yourself and then give it to someone as a Christmas gift, all in the thrifty spirit of our austerity-ridden times!

(A comprehensive reviews page can be found here.) 

A few recent publications

Last week, I received a pre-press proof of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago. It has had a relatively long gestation process as a result of what sounds like some challenging financial issues faced by the editor, which appear now to have been solved. In any case, the surprise was a pleasant one, and I'm happy that the not insignificant amount of work I invested in it will at least result in a publication (which will not only be the first publication related to my new research project but also my first German-language entry on my publication list).

It then occurred to me that, since a few other things of mine have recently seen the light of day, I might note them briefly here, in case you're interested in this sort of thing.

1. First, I contributed a chapter to the new collection Moral Panics, Social Fears and the Media: Historical Perspectives, edited by Sian Nicholas and Tom O'Malley (Routledge, 2013).

The chapter is titled 'Watching the Detectives (and the Constables): Fearing the Police in 1920s Britain', and it is one of the last of a series of publications to emerge out of a research project I was involved in a few years ago that focused on a series of British policing scandals in the late 1920s and how they were discussed in the press . (I first stumbled upon these scandals in the context of my research on the Pace murder trial, which became my second book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England.)

A final draft version of the chapter is available for reading or download at my pages at or ResearchGate, and here is  a brief excerpt:

There were specific worries about the reliability of police evidence, the rough handling of demonstrators, the over-zealous policing of ‘indecency’ and the possible use of intimidation during questioning. The press gave significant attention to allegations of wrongful arrest and poor treatment, especially when they involved socially prominent or even simply ‘respectable’ people.

An Evening Standard cartoon inspired by the police scandals.
Anxieties peaked in 1928 with two sensational scandals, the Pace and Savidge cases, described in more detail below. These events were given exhaustive press coverage and provoked commentary regarding an apparent crisis in police-public relations. A 1928 Daily Mirror editorial observed, ‘the impression has long been prevalent that, once a man or a woman falls foul of the police, there is no possibility of struggling out of the net that evidently catches the innocent as well as the guilty’.

An essay by A. P. Herbert entitled ‘Stopping People from Doing Things’ [Sunday Express, 27 May 1928, 2] captures the tone of such criticism well, seeing police misconduct as a symptom of wider problems: ‘The habit of the governing mind at the present day is one of continual interference in things that do not matter to the neglect, very often, of the things that do, a habit of meticulous insistence on petty rules and prohibitions; and, naturally, the police have caught the fever from their masters’. Herbert argued:

‘The petty tyrannies of policemen are only the natural and logical consequences of the large policy of social tyranny for which our rulers are responsible. We fondly thought that we fought the Great War for Liberty, but conquered Berlin is a free city, and London is as free as a kindergarten school.’

2. Secondly, the contribution I wrote to a collection on the reception of the ideas of Oswald Spengler (he of Decline of the West fame) that I had previewed earlier this year came out a couple of months ago. The collection, Oswald Spengler als europäisches Phänomen: Der Transfer der Kultur- und Geschichtsmorphologie im Europa der Zwischenkriegszeit 1919-1939 was ably edited by Zaur Gasimov and Carl Antonius Lemke Duque, and it considers Spengler reception in several countries. I was responsible for Britain, and in '"German foolishness" and the "Prophet of Doom": Oswald Spengler and the Inter-war British Press' (one of three English-language contributions to the collection), I focus, as the title suggests, on how Spengler's ideas were discussed in a range of major newspapers and magazines.

A brief excerpt: 

Oswald Spengler, looking jaunty as usual.
Although Spengler's work was highly controversial in his homeland, British commentators tended to depict it representing something typically German. On this basis, in a radio broadcast titled »Spengler–A Philosopher of World History« (reprinted in the Listener in 1929), popular philosopher C.E.M. Joad sought to explain national differences related to Spengler's reception: »The Germans have an appetite for ideas which rivals, if it does not exceed, the English appetite for emotions«*. Referring to then-popular authors of romance novels and histories, he observed: »While the Englishman is enjoying a feast of passion at the luscious boards of Miss Dell or Miss Hull, the German refreshes himself with draughts of pure thought from the fountain-head of some abstruse philosopher«**. Spengler's sentences, he continued, »seem to be the necessary accompaniments of German philosophy in the grand manner: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, all wrote them and worse; they sound the authentic German note«. [166-67]
* Listener, 27 February 1929, p. 250.
** »Spengler, the most abstruse German now writing, is also the most popular. He belongs, it is clear, to the grand tradition of German philosophy«. Ibid. Ethel M. Dell was a romance novelist and Eleanor Hull wrote Irish history. See also: »[F]or whereas the success of the Anglo-Saxon best-seller depends upon a facile acceptance of emotions, the Teutonic best-seller demands of the reader an equally facile acceptance of ideas«. New Statesman, 3 July 1926, p. 332.  

3. Finally, a couple of my reviews have also come out this year.

  • One at the open-access journal Law, Crime and History on Shame, Blame and Culpability: Crime and Violence in the Modern State, edited by Judith Rowbotham, Marianna Muravyeva and David Nash. (Issue here, direct link to review [pdf] here.)
  • Another at Reviews in History on Haia Shpayer-Makov's excellent new police history: The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England. (Link to review.)

I have, incidentally, uploaded most of the reviews I've written over the last ten years or so to both and ResearchGate.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Somewhat belated late summer reading list

There were several things that contributed to the relaxation and enjoyment we shared during our recent holidays on the French and Belgian coasts. One of them was the complete absence of any internet connection and, in our second week, of any media source whatsoever.

Another key thing was doing a lot of reading, but, importantly, for the most part reading that had little or nothing to do with 'work'. Given the absence of any forms of multimedia distraction and the presence of either a quiet beach or an even quieter semi-remote farmhouse, it was a relief to rediscover that now all-too-rare commodity of deep focus. 

My reading list for those two weeks ended up being shorter than I had hoped, but I might have been a bit ambitious:
  • Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (I had started this one before we left: given that it's a bit of a slog -- an interesting slog, yes, but still pretty heavy going -- I was happy to have plenty of time to race through the last few hundred pages) 
  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget
  • Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide through the American Status System
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (first time, I must admit)
  • James Salter, Light Years
  • James Salter, All That Is
  • and, more or less intermixed among them all, Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.
As usual with holiday reading, I tend to mix in things I know and like quite well (Light Years, Class) with new things that are long-time entries on my meaning-to-read list (Brideshead) combined with a few random choices that more or less occur to me in the weeks before we leave (everything else).

I thought everything was worthwhile and absorbing, but the main reading joys of this journey were Judt and Snyder's collection of interviews on twentieth-century intellectual history and the novels by Salter.(And, I'd give an honourable mention, Paul Fussell's Class, which I've now read three times at different points in my life: while a bit dated in terms of some of its specifics -- it is, after all, now 30 years old -- it gets a vast amount fundamentally right. It's an unsettling experience, though, to have so many of your own family's class signifiers described in such unrelentingly perfect detail by a complete stranger.)

For an overview of several streams of twentieth-century thought (especially those having to do with Marxism, which, however you feel about it, is an essential part of understanding the twentieth century), I would highly recommend the Judt and Snyder book. It is, however, partly biographical and loosely structured around different phases in the life of Tony Judt, who -- very sadly -- died a few years ago at a far too young age. This mix might put some people off (especially if you're not familiar with Judt's other work). He had an interesting life, however, and as the book is about the intellectual development of various thinkers and interpreters of society, culture and history, the two streams in it tend to mix quite smoothly, I thought.

That is, if you're interested in two historians talking about intellectuals. I happen to like that kind of thing. (Further commentary on the book in this brief piece at the New Yorker.)

The Salter novels are in a very different key. I had read Light Years a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. But reading these three novels was much more of a serious plunge into Salter's very unique style.

I can do no better than to point you to James Meek's recent LRB essay on Salter, which is actually what inspired me to re-read Light Years and to try out the other two.

This is the section that focuses on Light Years:

In Light Years, Salter’s mastery of time, his themes of nobility, ruthlessness and failure in the quest for love and glory, his interest in the erotic and the aesthetics of pleasure, achieve their richest realisation. To the portrayal of moments, seasons and years is added the portrayal of entire adult lives, Viri’s and Nedra’s, in a long marriage and its aftermath. [...]

But the story, what the book is ‘about’, matters less than what the book is: an extraordinary replication not of the experience of a marriage but of the memory of the experience of a marriage. For while we remember stories, memory is not a story. Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains. Over these surviving fragments of the past, where the distinction between the unique and the repeated is blurred, Salter sets the characters’ reflections hovering, in the way our present thoughts will flutter back to burnish and brood over, and find connections between, the same small set of memories we get to keep....
(I think it was this rather melancholic, fragmented sense of memory that made me think, while reading all three books, of the films of Terrence Malick, which I like very much and about which there was also recently a strikingly good LRB essay by Gilberto Perez.)

I think that Light Years remains my favourite of the three.   

We've actually been back for a few weeks, and the reading material has since been much more work-related.

Which is also interesting, though in a different way: one that I hope to get around to talking about here at some point.

But reader, I tell you: being offline for a few weeks was good for my soul.

There might be more periods like that in the future.

Hotel Art #4

Part of an occasional series.

Ibis Budget hotel, Liège, Belgium (August 2013).