Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bessemer Saloon and other experimental ships

Update, October 21 2008: Dave Greig extremely kindly sent us these excellent 1897 photos (click to enlarge) of the Bessemer Saloon in its retirement as a lecture room at the Swanley Horticultural College. Left: Dairy Class. Right: the other end of the Saloon. The images came from a Victorian photo album Dave found in an antique bookshop in Edinburgh. Photos in memory of Ethel and Grace, the otherwise unidentified album creators.

Main article: This is an update to the previous Laurence Oliphant ... Victorian with a difference (originally posted in Autumn 2007 at my personal blog, but it seems sufficiently interesting and book-related to move here).

The first chapter of William Gibson & Bruce Sterling's steampunk novel The Difference Engine mentions Oliphant crossing the Channel in the "swinging-saloon ship Bessemer", which has its main cabin automatically held level by a "backfeed engine" to guard against sea-sickness. Like many of the odder fixtures in TDE, the Bessemer Saloon Steam-Ship actually existed (see this Science and Society Picture Library image, Bessemer suspended saloon steamer, 1875).

Sir Henry Bessemer is best known for his innovations in steelmaking, but was a wide-ranging inventor. This invention, however, wasn't one of his successes. The real-world version of the ship, a four-paddle steamer designed by the naval architect EJ Reed and built by Earle's of Hull, didn't have automatic feedback but a man with two levers controlling hydraulics watching a spirit level. Bessemer set up a company to offer a cross-Channel passenger service - except that the ship didn't work properly. It was monstrously unstable and at slow speeds didn't answer to the helm; it made only two trips, neither with the swinging saloon working, and on its first outing it crashed into and seriously damaged the pier at Calais. (Short Works of Percy Hethrington Fitzgerald has an account of the incident). Naturally this rapidly lost the confidence of investors. You can read about Bessemer's side of the story in Chapter XX of Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S, An Autobiography.

Bessemer's company was liquidated in 1876, and the ship sat in dock at Dover until it was sold for scrap in 1879. The Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society bulletin for August 2004 (here) mentions the Saloon's history. According to the Manchester Guardian of 8/10/34, it

"was removed to a private house at Swanley, Kent. The house is now a women's Horticultural College and the saloon is used as a lecture hall. The old leather seats still remain in place round the walls, and there are some beautiful carved panels with the monogram B.S.S. Co. and twisted mahogany pillars supporting the roof".

By 2006 (here) they had a lead to Hextable Agricultural College.

A bit of cross-referencing finds they're the same place: the Hextable Horticultural College aka Swanley Horticultural College. The Record of Technical and Secondary Education, v.5 (1896), says that Hextable House, the central mansion of the college, was formerly the residence of Sir EJ Reed (the MD of Earle's) and that he installed the "curious and interesting" saloon there - which explains how it came to be on the premises of a horticultural college. Reed used it as a billiard room, according to the 1957 Boat Trains and Channel Packets: The English Short Sea Routes by Rixon Bucknall.

A letter in the Times, December 24, 1929, describes it further:

"its crudely painted classical frescoes have caused a good deal of amusement to generations of new students. It is never called anything else but 'the saloon'. The staterooms are used as study bedrooms; the smoking room is occupied as an office, and is entered by means of the original companion way".

The college was bombed in World War 2 - see Article ID: A7035013, WW2 People's War, BBC - and the house, too badly damaged to repair, was demolished afterward. The site is now occupied by Hextable Heritage Centre, based in the old college laboratory, which sits alone in the restored gardens.

As to the final fate of the Saloon, I've been intrigued for a long time by the possibility that it might still exist, ever since I read the late Professor JE Gordon's The New Science of Strong Materials, which said (in 1968) that the saloon "is still in existence ... as a conservatory, in a garden somewhere near Dover". An article in Metallurgia: The British Journal of Metals, v.49-50 1954, also sounded hopeful: "When the College was closed, the saloon-hall was offered for sale, but its present whereabouts are unknown to the author".

Disappointingly, it's gone as a structure. Bernard Dumpleton's 2002 The Story Of The Paddle Steamer states categorically that it was destroyed by a direct hit, and a dig into the National Archives finds a history of the Earle shipbuilding company (here) confirming "This swinging saloon ended its days as Swanley college's lecture theatre before being bombed during the second world war". Just to be sure, I contacted the Swanley Town Council, and the archive curator very kindly confirmed the details: "the lecture hall was destroyed, but pieces of the saloon were 'rescued' by local residents; there is a fragment of the panelling in the archive itself".

That leaves one loose end: JE Gordon's statement about the conservatory in a garden near Dover. Was he referring to the Saloon in situ at Hextable, a London green-belt village not especially "near Dover", and simply repeating a garbled out-of-date description; or was he referring to a rescued fragment? I don't know.

An interesting historical aside: both Bessemer's autobiography and Times correspondence at the time mention rivalry between the Bessemer and proponents of another experimental cross-Channel ship design, the Dicey catamaran. This design was as weird in its own way; propelled by centre-mounted paddles, it had to be double-ended because it was impossible to turn round in Calais harbour. A ship of this design, the PS Castalia, ran for nearly a decade, but was loss-making because of its slowness, and it ended up moored in the Thames as a hospital ship. A successor, the PS Calais-Douvres, was about as successful. If you're interested in this kind of thing, the Dutch maritime encyclopedia Vaartips Nederland features these and other experimental ships - see here - such as the Winans Cigar Ships, the Novgorod class Russian circular river battleships (designed to combine heavy armament with shallow draft); the Flettner Rotor-Ship; and the Connector, an articulated steamship. It's difficult to find much about the latter online, but Google Books searches on articulated connector ship and "jointed ship company" lead to plenty of print references. One full view gives a reasonably detailed description: see Jointed Ships in Journal of the Society of Arts, September 3rd 1858.

Google is always producing new facilities. Just trying Google Scholar finds a couple of full-text 20th century patents for articulated ships: Archer interconnected ocean barges and Articulated ship and coupling means therefor having means to establish structural integrity. These have to quote prior art, and mention the Connector as having been patented by Thomas MacSweeny in 1853, and having run as a North Sea collier for nine years with engineering success. The idea is not that bizarre; a ship organised into small sub-units like a train could disconnect and act as its own lighters for unloading. We're not told why it ultimately didn't catch on, or if it ever had to cope with severe seas.

A further piece of prior art quoted is that of Sir Samuel Bentham, an interesting character; an inventor and naval constructor, he was the brother of the better-known Jeremy Bentham, who still presides at UCL (see The 'Auto-Icon'of Jeremy Bentham at University College, London - PDF). Part of Samuel Bentham's career - see the UCL Bentham Project - involved working for Prince Potemkin and Catherine the Great. For the latter, he built the Imperial Vermicular, a shallow-draft segmented barge designed to navigate twisty Russian rivers. This must have been a fairly strange sight - a six-section barge, 252 feet long, driven by 120 oars. But it worked, and was used for Catherine's famous inspection tour to the Crimea in 1787.

Incidentally, Bessemer's swinging saloon wasn't strictly a new idea. I've found a few snippets referring to early experiments. Mr. Bessemer's Saloon Steamer for the Channel Passage (Nature 7, 41-42 (21 November 1872) leads with "The prevention of sea-sickness by means of a swinging cabin has nothing novel about it", and in The First Oceanic A Pioneer In Ship Design, Saloon Amidships, The Times, Wednesday, May 10, 1933; pg. 11, I find:
With the new White Star steamships an attempt was made to overcome motion due to the sea by the employment of oscillating state-rooms and berths, but this idea, like a greater experiment made afterward in the Bessemer, was abandoned, as it proved ineffectual
This refers to the White Star steamships of the late 1860s after Thomas Ismay (father of the Titanic Ismay), became manager owner.

Update, 24th March, 2015:
See Rocked in the cradle of the deep for more on the topic of oscillating berths in late 19th century steamships.
- Ray

Addendum: sketch, re discussion in comments, showing stability problem with a passive gimbals setup.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Recommended miscellany #1

Just plain recommendations today. At the greycat blog they just said extremely nice things about us, and I'd like to return the compliment by strongly recommending It's run by Dr Ralph Harrington, the author of one of the papers I mentioned in the recent Trains in literature, and showcases a varied set of research papers in what might classed as cultural history - topics at the crossover of technology, literature, architecture and sociology. I particularly like greycat's papers on the railways. The topic is rather tarred by its association with insightless Asperger-style focus on the technical detail; but these Victorian railway studies go deeper into what they meant culturally. Why were they described in biological metaphor? Why are engine-drivers so iconic? How did train travel shape the Victorian perception of time? How did the railways buy into the symbology of heraldry? What kind of aesthetics underly model railways? What was the cultural geography of the growing inter-war transport network? Just skimming the rest of the site, you find monster bulldozers, transport in LA, atomic advertising, MR James stories, the architecture of Dresden, 1930s kitchens, Anthony Burgess and Islam, English landscape gardening, the popular culture of Cold War submarines, and Alexander Pope. It's all fascinating; the only downside is that it contains so many interesting articles that now I'm going to have to annotate previous posts here.

A second recommendation: Aunt Violet's Book Museum (aka Violet Books). Run by co-curatrices Jessica Amanda Salmonson and Rhonda J Boothe, it's billed as "A Website About Collecting Antiquarian Supernatural, Fantasy & Mysterious Literatures, Vintage Westerns, Swashbucklers, & Juveniles. Just dipping into the essay list reveals a lovely range of eccentrically specific studies, many focused on Rider Haggard and many others on now-almost-unknown authors. Who has heard these days of Georgia Wood Pangborn, Frederick Stewart Greene or Emma-Lindsay Squier? Way way back I always enjoyed JAS's acerbic and dead sensible writing-related posts as "Paghat" on Usenet (what's Google Groups now), so check out also the sections On Writing & Editing and Essays on bookselling & booksellers, as they certainly tell it like it is...

- Ray

Friday, 25 July 2008

Monkey nuts

Re the previous Monkey! post, BBC Sport have revealed their Olympics animation: see Meet Monkey.

Monkeys, with their physical resemblance to humans and their behaviour that's easy to anthropomorphise as negative human traits, must have always been creatures of abiding curiosity, and it's no accident that they turn up in Eastern mythology and literature, Journey to the West's Sun Wukong being the classic exposition of monkey nature as a mirror on human nature (the intro to Alison Waley's Dear Monkey explicitly identifies Monkey with mankind).

In the West, where we don't generally find monkeys and apes, they didn't take off in fiction until Darwin's Origin of Species. Since then, the interface between human and ape nature has been a regular topic. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies makes a number of references to the contemporary debates on Darwinism, such as the parable of the Doasyoulikes, who through laziness devolve into apes. Darwinian nature vs nurture issues can also be viewed as the central thrust of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series, where I think Burroughs deserves credit for being far more sophisticated than the many movie makers in anticipating a reality of cognitive development: that Tarzan couldn't learn to speak as an adult if brought up by non-speaking apes. In the original story, then, he is raised by Kala, a female of a fictitious species of speaking ape, the Mangani.

The 1920s saw an especially peculiar theme. Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Creeping Man is well-known, a late-canon (some say substandard) Holmes story in which an elderly professor about to marry a younger woman takes an ape-based serum to obtain more vigour, with disastrous consequences. What's less known is that it was one of a number of works based on a treatment then in vogue, Serge Voronoff's monkey gland implants, which were claimed to have a rejuvenating effect. (Aside: John R Brinkley pioneered a similar treatment with goat glands; one of the segments of Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx tells of the fate of one such recipient).

Though arguably such experiments paved the way toward genuine applications of endocrinology (i.e. hormone replacement), Voronoff is considered a quack now, but at the time was notable enough to make it into Time magazine, May 12th 1924 (see Dr. Voronoff). While the concept now seems somewhat lacking comic in potential, it inspired at least one comic novel: Bertram Gayton's The Gland Stealers - see cover image - in which a bunch of elderly gentlemen go on safari to collect gorilla glands. In France, Voronoff inspired even stranger explorations, as told in the novels of the pulp author Félicien Champsaur. His 1923 Ouha, roi des singes (Ouha, King of the Monkeys) concerns a Voronoff-like doctor and its heroine's miscegenation with a King Kong like orangutan. His 1929 Nora, la guenon devenue femme (Nora the She-Monkey Becomes a Woman) features a monkey who receives human gland implants and evolves into an alluring dancer closely modelled on Josephine Baker. Brett Berliner attributes these themes to a complex mix of anxieties about race, sex and cultural change in Jazz Age France: see Berliner, Brett A., 1960- Mephistopheles and Monkeys: Rejuvenation, Race, and Sexuality in Popular Culture in Interwar France (Journal of the History of Sexuality - Volume 13, Number 3, July 2004, pp. 306-325).

Post-Voronoff, works have tended to be less lurid, but the theme of monkey/ape as mirror to human nature continues. Examples include, of course, the Planet of The Apes series, with their strong edge of satire of racism; Keith Laumer's The Other Side of Time (not strictly involving apes, but a wonderfully convoluted parallel-reality story where the hero meets a multicultural society of hominids); and Will Self's Great Apes (NY Times review here) whose hero finds himself in a chimpanzee's body in a chimpanzee world. The book Aspects of Metamorphosis: Fictional Representations of the Becoming Human, David Barry, Desmond Asker, Rodopi, 2001, ISBN:9042012250) has a whole chapter discussing modern fiction that similarly questions human nature through being, or interacting with, apes. There's John Collier's satirical His Monkey Wife; Or Married to a Chimp (that Fuchsoid kindly mentioned in the comments); Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (a post-apocalyptic creation fable - see NY Times review); and Peter Hoeg's The Woman and the Ape (see the Penguin Reading Guide).

Self's take on the subject I find particularly telling, in that the bullying hierarchical culture is the same whether its characters are human or apes. I think that humans, singly and collectively, do far too little introspection into the "chimpy" side of their nature, which has some benefits (curiosity, adaptability and ability to work in groups toward a task) but with a downside of very chimp-like hierarchies (e.g. the urge to follow 'alpha' leader figures even when it's patently against our best interests, as well as the pressure on such leaders to appear alpha). I'm thinking of displays such as the Bush/Blair Power Walk, and the phenomenon of concealing leaders' illnesses that could affect their judgement - see Transparency with Respect to the Health of Political Leaders, Avinoam Reches, IMAJ 2006;8:751–753).

Anyhow, enough of philosophical griping. For general interest: A sampler of monkey/ape stories, in different moods, from the Web: Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Creeping Man; Saki's The Remoulding of Groby Lington (in which the title character acquires the nature of whatever pet he keeps); and Pat Murphy's Rachel in Love (a touching story about a chimp whose perceptions are partly human due to having the transplanted personality of a scientist's dead daughter).

- Ray

Addendum: see comments for further monkey business.  Also, another one I missed: Kafka's A Report for An Academy.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Landscapes in mind

I'm genuinely pleased to see we have at least one regular reader, Felix Grant at The Growlery (a friend and colleague from way back, who is also a proper photographer). A couple of The Growlery posts, They say I'm a dreamer... and Well, maybe I am... concerns trains and reactions to a striking photograph - here - that Felix showed at a recent exhibition in Bristol.

The thrust of the discussion concerned the feelings evoked by the photo - a child on a vista of a railway track vanishing into the distance - which led Felix to mentioning Prospect-Refuge Theory. This is the idea, coined by Jay Appleton, that human aesthetic experience of landscape is based on perceptions that are evolved for survival (e.g. places to hide, escape routes, places with a clear view). Appleton's 1975 The Experience of Landscape, revised in a 1996 edition (John Wiley, ISBN 0471962333) is a key exposition; his Symbolism of Habitat focuses particularly on the concept's application to the arts.

If you like this idea, I recommend also John Barrow's The Artful Universe. Prospect-refuge theory is one of its threads (applied to our liking savannah-like landscapes in gardening and art) but Barrow goes further in arguing that all aesthetics - such as the colours and sounds we like, why we enjoy seeing the moon and stars, and so on - come from evolved reactions to the physical world we live in (Barrow's interest in the interface between cosmology and spirituality won him the Templeton Prize 2006). Dennis Dutton explores similar ideas in Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology (The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

To be fair, as this nice summary says, the prospect-refuge theory is difficult to prove, and it comes into the contentious field of evolutionary psychology, which is often criticised as being glorified Just So Stories. Since we have no direct way of knowing how our hominid ancestors viewed the world, a lot of it is untestable. Possible objections are well summarised in Chris Fitter's Poetry, Space, Landscape: Toward a New Theory (CUP, 2005, ISBN 0521673496) - see Google Books. For instance, when was this landscape aesthetic formed, and why are scenes that don't fit the theory - such as the Garden of Livia fresco, Prima Porta, which has no prospect - still appealing?

Nevertheless, I like it as a potentially useful and unifying way of looking at the world (for instance, as a tool for making photographic compositions that people like). And its assumptions do seem to work: there have been some acclaimed landscape/architectural designs, such as the Bloedel Reserve by Richard Haag, designed using this theory (see Richard Haag: Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, ISBN 1568981171).

I'm not entirely sure what to make of its use in litcrit, such as Prospect and Refuge in the Landscape of Jane Austen (Barbara Britton Wenner, Ashgate Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0754651789) and Bennett's Five Towns: A Prospect-Refuge Analysis (Brian J Hudson, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 33, No. 1, January 1993). But it doesn't seem entirely implausible that if we have an inbuilt reaction to landscapes, that reaction could be evoked when identifying with a character in a fictional landscape. The Hudson paper mentions as an example the opening of Bennett's Clayhanger - here - a scene of two friends on a path crossing a bridge over a canal with narrowboats, relating it to Appleton's "hazard" and "locomotion" symbolism and "the satisfaction commonly experienced when gazing from a bridge at railway lines receding into the distance" ... which brings us full circle.
- Ray

Addendum. An out-take from writing the above: Some landscapes, a weblog with a consistently interesting miscellany of posts concerning "landscapes evoked or depicted in the arts: painting, literature, music, film etc". The topic of landscape and its relation to art and literature is vast, and I may well return to it later.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Trains in literature

I was just reading It's time to take a look at alcoholic literature (Victor Sonkin, Moscow Times, December 17, 2004), an article mainly about Venedikt Yerofeyev's Moskva-Petushki, a novella-length prose poem originally produced as samizdat literature in Brezhnev-era Russia. Variously translated as Moscow to the End of the Line (Google Books preview here), Moscow Stations, and Moscow Circles, it's a darkly witty indictment of Soviet life seen via the train journey of an alcoholic cable-fitter, Venichka, travelling from Moscow to see his lover and child in a nearby town.

The alcohol details are ghastly, apparently from first-hand experience (it's not much surprise that Yerofeyev died of throat cancer in 1990), but Moskva-Petushki caught my interest when I ran into it from a rather geeky direction - Googling "trains in literature". This led to a litcrit paper, Where Did Venička Live? Some Observations on the World of V. Erofeev's Poėma Moskva — Petuški (Joost van Baak, Russian literature, Volume 54, Issues 1-3, 1 July 2003-1 October 2003, Pages 43-65) whose author has some interesting observations on the role of trains in literature.

Although the train as a mobile setting and conflict space can generate certain traditional mobile plot features (which it has in common with coaches, and the like), it is, no doubt, a modem literary setting, technically, and in the perspective of literary history.
As a plot-generating device and conflict space the train primarily motivates movement, and the accidental meeting between people.
Trains can also act as instruments of fate, and the first example from Russian literature that comes to mind is, of course, Tolstoj’s Anna Karenina, in which fatal train accidents ... literally frame the doomed heroine’s plot.
Trains and stations can function as “improper” houses, as partial (and defective) substitutes for the domestic qualities of the house in the proper sense. Often this function of the train is connected with the disruptions and peregrinations that come with war, as in Babel’s Konarmija, or in Pastemak’s Doctor Zhivago.

It's not difficult to think of other classic examples of novels and stories that feature trains centrally: Nesbit's The Railway Children, Dickens' The Signalman, Émile Zola's La Bête Humaine, a psychological murder thriller set again the backdrop of the Paris-Le Havre railway, and Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

Certainly in early-mid Victorian England, the railway was cutting-edge technology driving, and driven by, major social change, and so it's unsurprising that it turns up a lot in fiction of that period. The Victorian Web's Victorian Railways and their Predecessors page links to a number of essays, led by this introduction, on the role of railways in Victorian literature, finding apart from plot devices, three chief themes: "their destructive effects on the city, particularly on housing for the poor, their cutting up the English landscape, and their involvement with greed, swindling, stock fraud and the Railroad Mania". Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, for instance, is set against the social upheaval caused by the impending arrival of the railway in a small Cheshire town.

There was an added edge for the Victorians: the overall mix of jolting travel, risk of accident, and social anxieties came together in the syndrome of "railway spine". Marked by chronic back pain, anxiety and other symptoms in passengers, whether public or rail workers, who had been involved in rail accidents, it usually appeared weeks or months after the accident, and was the subject of hot debate. Was it physical, as first thought, a delayed reaction to 'concussion to the spine'? A type of 'neurasthenia'? A con to get compensation? None of these: in hindsight, it can be viewed as a Victorian equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The railway accident: trains, trauma and technological crisis in nineteenth-century Britain by Dr Ralph Harrington, and The Derailment of Railway Spine by Milton L Cohen and John L Quintner go into the details. Harrington's paper is largely about the historical context for Railway Spine: a culture gripped by fears of train accidents and social change; Cohen and Quintner's explores the changing medical view in relation to similar modern syndromes such as post-traumatic fibromyalgia. Nicholas Daly, in Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860-2000: 1860 - 2000 (CUP, 2004, ISBN:0521833922) - see Sensation fiction and the modernization of the senses - argues that the general Victorian fixation on the shock of railway accidents was one of the driving factors behind literature with a growing focus on surprise and sensation.

'The lost idea of a train': Looking for Britain's railway novel (Journal of Transport History, The, Sep 2000 by Carter, Ian) takes a broader view of the theme, with an exhaustive discussion of other examples of works featuring trains such as Dombey and Son and Howard's End, examining railway historians' claim that Britain has no major railway-based novels of the stature of the Tolstoy and Zola examples. One should, by the way, distinguish novels about railways from the genre called "railway novels"; cheap pocket-sized book editions - also called yellowbacks - sold at railway station stalls and designed for reading on a train (the "airport novels" of their day).

In the 20th century, the railway no longer being new technology, the thrust of its fictional role moved more into the plot mechanism / fateful journey slot described by van Baak, and this continued into the cinematic genre. Again, examples are easy to think of: Buster Keaton's The General; Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and its Hitchcock adaptation; the classic The Train (whose progress can be seen as allegory for the waning power of Nazi Germany at the end of WW2); Dr Terror's House of Horrors (mismatched characters carried towards their doom); Northwest Frontier, whose train passengers are a microcosm of the conflicts of India in the final days of the Raj; The Cassandra Crossing; Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ Express, a fairly strange erotic-psychological-experimental story set aboard a train; Horror Express; Runaway train; Death Train; Sliding Doors (where catching vs. failing to catch a train is the fateful dividing point for two timelines); and The Last Train (where a train is the vehicle that takes a mismatched group into a post-apocalyptic future). See Wikipedia's Rail transport in fiction list for other examples.

Even now, railways make rich settings for fiction. As shown by recent examples such as Andrew Martin's murder mystery The Necropolis Railway (see here for background), Michel Thaler's Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere), written with no verbs, and the first-mentioned Moskva-Petushki, the genre shows no signs of running out of steam. Maybe the Great British Railway Novel is yet to be written.

For further reading, check out the National Railway Museum's Moving Stories site, "a global snapshot of the railways' impact on all of our lives, collecting stories about rail travel and journeys through the ages: fiction, non-fiction, anecdotes and poems from around the world".
- Ray

Addendum: I've focused on English literature, but obviously this is just a slice of the genre. Googling, I find Trains and Train Travel in Modern Yiddish Literature (Leah Garrett, Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 67-88) which analyses a particular historical sub-genre written in Russian during the last days of the shtetl era, when "The third-class train car was the place where Jews from the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe would, typically, meet, conduct business, speak Yiddish, and talk about their families". This led to works such as the 1890 Shem un Yefes in a vogn (Shem and Japheth on a Train) by Sholem Abramovitsh, the 1911 Ayznban-geshikhtes (Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem (whose Tevye and his Daughters was the source text for Fiddler on the Roof) and the 1909 Arum vokzal (At the Depot) by David Bergelson. In this context, Garrett shows the train was portrayed "as a vessel that brings the tides of change into and out of the shtetl" and a negative force of change and modernisation.

Addendum #2: further reading. I've just been exploring greycat, the website of the abovementioned Dr Ralph Harrington, and there's a great deal of interesting material on the topic of railways in literature and general culture. See, particularly, Miniature railways and cultural microsms - railway modelling in Britain, c.1900-c.1950, Victorian railway studies and Ghosts, trains and trams - the technologies of transport in the ghost stories of M. R. James.

Addendum #3, December 2008. Some interesting train-related stuff cropped up this week. One: the Guardian Books blog had a nice feature by Billy Mills - Poster poems: railway lines - about train-related poetry. Two: BBC2 had a good TV programme about trains in literature in film and the appeal of trains, Between the Lines (at the link you can catch it on BBC iPlayer for the next week). Particularly enlightening was the drift from authors seeing trains as scary (fiction fuelled by serious accident rates in early Victorian times) to trains as an efficient means of getting from place to place, with timings often crucial to plots. It was presented by Andrew Martin, who has written a number of detective novels in Edwardian railway settings, as well as some Comment is Free pieces arguing for better marketing for the train, which he thinks could be done by stressing its green credentials and even returning to steam now that current technology could improve the thermodynamic efficiency.
- Ray

Friday, 18 July 2008

Watchmen: the movie

Now that the official trailer is out (see above) I'm full of cautious hope about the quality of Zach Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen. As 'Watchmen' Trailer to Comic Comparison at shows, the colouring has a darker, metallic, Gotham City flavour compared to the book, but many of the scenes in the trailer have been storyboarded closely on the original, and it looks overall highly atmospheric. (The trailer leads with the nuclear accident that changes Jonathan Osterman into Doc Manhattan, the blue CGI character shown later).

The Hugo-winning Watchmen is, deservedly, a classic of graphic novels, that both celebrates and subverts the superhero genre. At one level, it's a whodunnit: a government operative is murdered by defenestration, and suspicion falls on his past associates, a disbanded alliance of generally dysfunctional costumed crimefighters. The scenario, however, is complex; it's set in an alternate 1985, in a world whose 1950s saw the beginning of two generations of costumed crimefighters using the usual mix of athleticism, martial arts and technology. This status quo has been shaken up by the 1960s creation of a genuinely superhuman hero, Doc Manhattan, whose godlike powers over matter and energy have enabled Nixon to win the Vietnam War and caused many subtle differences from our world such as a decline of petroleum economy (as he can synthesise unlimited lithium for batteries).

The storytelling is also complex. The main narrative is intercut in some places with that of a pirate comicbook, a form that dominates in this alternate world. It's interspersed with pastiche memoirs, case notes, monographs and features (for instance, on Max Shea, a leading comicbook artist who has gone missing). And in part it's told in a non-sequential stream-of-consciousness form from the viewpoint of Doc Manhattan, who sees all time segments simultaneously and whose increasing psychological estrangement from humanity becomes a major factor in the story. Furthermore, Watchmen is rich in verbal and visual cultural allusions (right from its titular reference to Juvenal's Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes) and is an extended exploration of the conflict between characters who apply radically different moral stances - such as uncompromising Biblical-style retribution, utilitarianism, and cynical nihilism - to the same aim of "doing good". Many of the characters are thinly-disguised heroes from Charlton Comics (a low-budget publisher that folded in 1986 after selling its characters to DC), and Watchmen can be read as an allegory of how superhero comics reflect the era of their creation, from naive two-fisted Golden Age heroes through more complex and flawed Silver Age reimaginings to postmodern angst.

All in all, it's a tour de force of the comicbook form that lives up to Alan Moore's intention to create "a superhero Moby Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density". I'm certain that some of this complexity will necessarily be removed from the film. Nevertheless, the basic storyline appears to be faithfully followed. There's more on the whole movie project at, which has further photos. If you've read Watchmen, or don't mind spoilers, The Annotated Watchmen provides a concordance to its many allusions.
- Ray

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Book Rant

Ooh ... another bookshop-based weblog! Check out The Book Rant .... Comments from a Bookshop Dog, coming from "a medium sized antiquarian bookshop in a cathedral town in the south of England". As it focuses, in Bookworm Droppings style, on the vagaries of customers, it's understandably anonymous. But I feel their pain, as many of the scenarios are not unfamiliar.
- Ray

Further beyond the woodshed

Further to Beyond the woodshed, a colleague just sent me a link to a fascinating paper, unfortunately in a controlled-access journal: Cold Comfort Farm, D. H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars (Faye Hammill, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 831-854).

It's generally known that Stella Gibbons parodied various "loam and lovechild" novels for the 1932 Cold Comfort Farm, but as many of the source novels are little-read nowadays, the sheer extent and explicitness of that parody goes unnoticed. Faye Hammill's paper fills in that background, showing it to be "an extremely sophisticated and intricate parody whose meaning is produced through its relationship with the literary culture of its day" ... many of them books Gibbons reviewed for the Evening Standard ... "and with the work of such canonical authors as D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Brontë".

Apart from such generalised connections, which also include George Eliot and the Powys brothers, Hammill identifies particularly explicit influences in the works of Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. For instance, the scenario of the doom-laden farm and family comes straight out of Webb's 1920 The House in Dormer Forest, and the farming-obsessed Reuben Starkadder is clearly modelled on Reuben Backfield in Kaye-Smith's Sussex Gorse. Likewise, Gibbons' village sect, the Quivering Brethren, is very similar to the Colgate Brethren in Kaye-Smith's Susan Spray. The names Micah, Amos, and Agony appear to come from Harold Alfred Manhood's completely forgotten 1931 Gay Agony (I can't find this online, but Dashiell Hammett described it as "monstrously overwritten", Arnold Bennett said of it, "I await the next phase of Mr Manhood's talent with anxiety", and the Google Books keywords ...

Tobulus, Silla, Linah, Mistress Rue, Tampion, meadowsweet, splin, Seahouses, Goldcrest, cider, Coze, rhines, ramekins, taproom, Twas, pigeon's milk, Micah felt, costmary, marriage, Micah thought

... show clearly that it's in the kind of overblown faux-rustic idiom that Gibbons satirised. Another link is to Hugh Walpole's family saga set in the Lake District, the "Herries" chronicles, written in the early 1930s. Although the novels themselves have no close resemblance, Gibbons' spoof dedication to "Anthony Pookworthy", whose The Fulfilment of Martin Hoare she praises for its 100-page masterly analysis of a bilious attack, has a strong resemblance to Walpole's pompous dedication to JB Priestley at the beginning of Judith Paris.

The Hammill paper also analyses a number of reasons why Cold Comfort Farm, despite its popularity, had a relatively low status on the academic literary circuit. One, Hammill argues, is the until-recent general downgrading of female authors in appreciations of fiction in the inter-War years. Others are its tension with the genres of its time: its hostility toward the literary establishment (as in its dig at the Bloomsbury-style Mr Mybug - thanks to Beyond the Pale); its proto-feminism (in its heroine's rejection of Mybug's DH Lawrence view of women in primarily sexual and reproductive roles); and in its embracing of modernity. Rural-themed works of the period, such as Vita Sackville-West's poem The Land and Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, characteristically accepted rural England as a timeless fixture or lamented its passing (a stereotype that still persists - see Views of the countryside) whereas Gibbons' Flora improves the Starkadders' lives by bringing them into the modern world of motor-vans, boutiques, contraception, psychoanalysis, and cleaning dishes with a mop instead of a thorn twig.

If you have academic access, the paper is here. Otherwise, you may have to be content with Reggie Oliver's biography Out of the Woodshed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0747539952), which has a good discussion of the book's inspirations; many of his identifications appear in the Faye Hammill paper.
- Ray

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Children's books and other controversy

The Independent just reported Rowling joins revolt over age banding for children's books" a big-name author seriously raising the profile of an ongoing protest at a publishers' scheme to categorise children's books by age. The No to Age Banding site hosted by Philip Pullman lists signatories and explains the problems: for instance, how such categorisation would affect marketing and packaging, perhaps deterring a child from reading books of merit. The issue, in any case, is a broader one of label, as discussed by Felix Grant at The Growlery (Juvenilia, feminism, love, and other labels); there is great merit in the view that "children's fiction" is itself a stultifying categorisation. Many nominally juvenile books, such as Louis Sachar's Holes, are good reading by any standard - see the previous post Holes and other non-juvenilia.

Via MetaFilter, The New Yorker recently had an interesting article on a controversy in the same territory. The Lion and the Mouse by Jill Lepore tells of the career of Anne Carroll Moore, a pioneering New York librarian who came to exert massive influence over US children's books, then largely published in New York. In some ways it was a positive influence: in the early 1920s she introduced multicultural books, along with open shelves and many of the now-standard formats that make libraries friendly to children, and instituted the reviewing of children's books in mainstream publications. The downside was that she imposed her own taste: as Jill Lepore puts it, "Anne Carroll Moore did not like fangs. She loved what was precious, innocent, and sentimental". This eventually put her in head-on collision with the author EB White (who viewed her preferences as "mawkish, prudish, and daffy") leading to a showdown when she tried, unsuccessfully, to block his book Stuart Little. (Her stance seems daft in hindsight, but it needs to be remembered that the original book was not the same as the film - bizarrely, Mrs Little actually gives birth to Stuart the mouse).

The Lion and the Mouse touches on the age-banding issue, pointing out how many books now viewed as children's classics "Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Gulliver’s Travels or Huck Finn —were born as biting political satire, for adults" and argues that early 20th century writers and editors invented "children's literature" as a genre. I'm not sure how true that is overall; The Victorian Web's Children's Literature as a Victorian genre has plenty of links relating to the essentially didactic/moralistic genre fiction that targeted children in that period. The point of the non-childish nature of some such fiction is well-made, though; for example, Kingsley's The Water Babies is almost invariably abridged in modern imprints and adaptations, because the original is an intensely wacky Christian allegorical fantasy full of literary, cultural and scientific allusions way above heads of children. (More on this later maybe).

As to White, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, he wrote two other children's classics, Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. He was also one half of the Strunk & White, whose The Elements of Style has probably been the single most influential style guide for American writers in the 20th century. Like other century-old prescriptive guides, such as the relatively enlightened Fowler's Modern English Usage, Strunk & White is coming under increasing criticism nowadays, I think rightly, for advice that doesn't reflect real usage and, in some areas, doesn't seem particularly good stylistic advice and even disobeys its own rules. Language Log has regular snipes at it, where academic linguists have variously described it as a "stupid little book", a "horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices" and "a self-help book for social climbers".

- Ray

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Someone that doesn't write anything?

The newspapers are currently full of the story of how, allegedly, Markers award students for writing obscenities on GCSE papers. The main point has been well thrashed out (it seems to gone unnoticed by those so outraged that even being awarded marks, the result for the student who only wrote "f*** off!" was still a resounding Fail). But I was particularly interested in one of the linguistic points mentioned by Arnold Zwicky at Language Log (Test obscenity, taboo avoidance, and prescriptivism): the subsequent criticism of chief examiner Peter Buckroyd for commenting "It’s better than someone that doesn’t write anything at all" (as opposed to "someone who").

The idea that using "that" for persons is an error is a common language peeve, and Zwicky goes into its role as a piece of usage mythology. He notes that it's a usage that MWDEU demonstrates to be standard" ... see the citations under That 2 on page 895, which show the objection to be, typically for this sort of thing, a concoction by 18th century grammarians ... "and which even Paul Brians, in Common Errors in English Usage, classifies as 'non-errors'". In case of objections that these are US sources, a quick skim of English literature finds examples going way back.

*"the man that handleth the scorpion" (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)
* "a woman that feareth the Lord" (Proverbs 31:30, King James Bible)
* "Then I saw the Man that sat upon the cloud" (John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress)
* "The man that hath no music in himself" (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)
* "While I stood thus amusing the Lady that was with me" (Daniel Defoe, Roxana)
*"The Lass that Made the Bed to Me" (Robert Burns)
* "He, the most excellent Man that can be imagined" (Jane Austen, Plan of a Novel)
* "I am the girl that dragged little Oliver back to old Fagin's" (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist)
* "The lady that was here last night" (Charles Dickens, Bleak House)
*"The Woman that Lives without Eating" (Rev. AD Milne)
* "The Man that was Used Up" (Edgar Allan Poe)
* The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (Mark Twain)
*"HMS Pinafore; or, The Lass that Loved a Sailor" (Gilbert & Sullivan)
* "The man I want to meet is the man that Candida married" (George Bernard Shaw, Candida)
* "The Girl That I Marry" (Irving Berlin)
*"she was also someone that millions of girls living hum-drum lives loved to identify with" (Betty Grable obituary, The Times, Wednesday, Jul 04, 1973).

With so many examples in prestigious sources, "that" for persons can hardly be called wrong. It may be a minority usage, but that can be tested. It's one of the many neat features of Google that nowadays corpus analysis is within anyone's grasp. There's bound to be some degree of bias: online sources naturally under-represent recent in-copyright books, and it may be impossible to separate out hits that don't cover the context required (in this situation, "that" as a relativizer). But as a rough-and-ready test, it's easy to get a broad idea of the frequency of usages: for instance

Global: "someone that" 18.2m / "someone who" 97.7m / 1:5.36
UK: "someone that" 0.647m / "someone who" 5.53m / 1:8.55

"That" as a relativizer for people, then, appears rather less common in the UK than globally, but descriptively speaking, it's still well within normal variation.
- Ray

Friday, 11 July 2008

Immortality through song

I was just browsing The Complete Newgate Calendar at the Tarlton Law Library's online Law in Popular Culture collection, a 1926 reprint of the venerable Newgate Calendar, a periodical/book series dating from around 1760 that was designed to edify the reader by reporting the lives and downfall of notorious criminals.

Volume I contains the account of Patrick Flemming, an Irish highwayman hanged in 1650 (his history of murder and mutilation hardly makes him a romantic figure). However, he became the subject of a contemporary "goodnight ballad" (a broadsheet format taking the form of a last confession, or sometimes statement of bravado) called Patrick Fleming and beginning "Patrick Flemming was a Vallient Soldier". A number of the lines - see the lyrics here at the Folklore Home Page, California State University, Fresno - give a clue...

As I was going over Ruberry mountain,
Gold and silver there was counting
He thought it little I thought it better,
I took the Gold from Colonel Pepper.

... that this is a precursor to the popular folksong, Whiskey in the Jar, an identity that crystallises in a mid-1800s version called The Sporting Hero (see the Bodleian library catalogue - Firth c.17(314), Bentley, J. (Bradford) - and scan).

From that point, the song flourished, its anti-establishment flavour giving similar appeal in the USA where there's a Vermont variant about "Lovel the Robber" and a Massachusetts one about an Irish-American robber "McCollister" hanged by the British. Over a century later it was freshened by the classic early 1970s rock version by Thin Lizzy, which in turn was covered as a Metallica version. Quite apart from the many other mainstream English pop and folk versions, it has since gone into Danish (thx for correction!) as the Lars Lilholt Band's Gi' mig whiskey in the jar, the Norwegian Svikefulle Mari popularised by Lillebjørn Nilsen - and even got into the Finnish humppa genre, a semi-comic ultra-fast foxtrot style based on German oompa bands, as Eläkeläiset's Humppamaratooni (which I confess I find has a bizarre Pogues-like charm). Further afield, you can find Roast Pork, a Japanese punk band playing it for St Patrick's Day in Nagoya.

It's a nice example of how a successful meme can propagate through history, and I'm sure the lineage will continue.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Newman & Byrne: alternate histories

In Beyond the Woodshed, I mentioned the generally unexplored point that Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm is set in what has now become an alternate history, a 1950s with videophones, routine use of aeroplanes for personal transport, and past "Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46". I like the alternate-history genre a lot, and tidying the office, I found a book I'd forgotten, Back in the USSA by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman (Mark V. Ziesing, 1997, ISBN 0929480848).

Back in the USSA is a paste-up of a cycle of stories taking as its premise the idea that the 1917 Communist revolution took place not in Russia, but in the USA, led by activists such as Eugene V Debs. The scene is set by In the air placing Buddy Holly in the 1989 Soviet America, followed by a series of vignettes, Ten Days that Shook the World, telling the course of the revolution 1921-1917. Other stories include Teddy Bears' Picnic, a dig at the tropes of the US Vietnam War mythos by showing English comic characters conscripted to a British Indochina war; in this reality, Apocalypse Now becomes a very English It Aint' Half Hot, Mum ("I love the smell of burning flesh in the morning; it reminds me of cooked breakfast!"). Citizen Ed (1945-1984) tells the story of Ed Gein, who is allowed to continue his activities because, as in the real-world Soviet Union, serial killers officially don't exist. Abdication Street (1972) is a Tsarist retelling of the Charles-Diana wedding, and On the Road (1998) is a Kerouac-style journey through a post-Communist America satirizing the tycoon Robert Maxwell.

The tone is mixed, from outright comic to serious; but it's hard to take 100% seriously a work that cheerfully mixes real-world characters such as L Ron Hubbard, McCarthy, Capone and Lindbergh with fictional ones such as The Waltons, Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, the Likely Lads, Nigel Molesworth and Pavel Chekhov. It's further lightened by many in-jokes and cameos, such as Kenneth Halliwell as a successful agent with Joe Orton as his wannabe-playwright assistant, and a Hitchcock film called Nutter, set in Skegness, starring Margaret Rutherford and a Lithuanian unknown called Larushka Skikne (Hitchcock's career suffers because he is never forgiven for the scene in which Sylvia Sims is murdered in a bathing-machine). The overall flavour, then, is satire in which the reversal holds up a mirror to real-world history.

If you like this kind of alternative-history-meets-pastiche, the journalist and novelist Kim Newman excels at it. I also recommend his series of Dracula novels, starting with Anno Dracula, which plays out Victorian and post-Victorian history along a timeline where Count Dracula, not Prince Albert, became the Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. See The Official Kim Newman Web Site for background. Newman and Byrne also maintain an Alternate History Pages site, where they keep notes and material relating to a projected series, The Matter of Britain, set in a Nazi-dominated Britain. It's not a new premise (compare Brownlow & Mollo's film It Happened Here, Len Deighton's SS-GB, Keith Roberts' short story Weihnachtsabend, Robert Harris' Fatherland, and many many others - see The World Hitler Never Made). However, their take ought to be worth reading if Byrne's The Glimmer Man is anything to go by (a story about Nazi-occupied Britain from the viewpoint of Bristol inhabitants, commmissioned for Bristol's bid for European Capital of Culture 2008).

A good many Kim Newman stories are online elsewhere: see the links at Wikipedia for stories set in a variety of alternate histories (some possibly offensive): Coppola's Hearts of Darkness with vampires; the McCarthy witch-hunts actually hunting witches; a Hollywood history as it might have developed - with well-known classics as grossly sexual explicit versions compared to the ones we know - if there had been no Arbuckle scandal leading to the Hays Code; and so on.

- Ray

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Knots ... or not?

Living in a town with a maritime history, I notice a lot of nautical memorabilia about. One that baffles me, however, is a wall display of knot examples I've seen in various places that looks like the one here. It's kind of interesting, but even more so when you look closely at the captions. The knots are called "Ships Knot, Grapnel Knot, Sapajou Knot, Timber Knot, Deck Knot, Carrick-Bend Knot, Simple Knot, Fist Knot, Flat Knot, Double-Timer Knot, Eight-Ring Knot, Chasis Knot, and Piscalory Knot".

The strange thing is that almost none of them appear to be the correct names. The creators have got the Carrick bend correct, but they call the figure-of-eight knot a "timber knot", the bowline a "chasis knot", the reef knot a "flat knot", the overhand knot (aka thumb knot) a "simple knot", the fisherman's knot a "piscalory knot" (which looks like a stab at "piscatory" = pertaining to fishing), and something similar to a capuchin knot (aka blood knot or multiple overhand knot) a "sapajou knot". The last is actually explicable; a sapajou is a monkey of the genus Cebus, also called capuchin monkey, although the capuchin knot - see Dunc's shed - is named for its use on the cord of a monk's robe.

I've no idea where these display boxes originate; I assume overseas, as one supplier mentions they're Fair Trade items. But I'd love to know exactly how these misnomers were cooked up. Machine translation? Complete invention? It's slightly odd that anyone with enough knowledge of English to invent plausible - even erudite in some cases - false names couldn't go to the trivial effort of finding the real ones.

Addendum: in a lovely example of the kind of ultra-specialised study that the Internet allows sharing, check out Noeud de Franciscain and Noeud de Capucin, in which Charles Hamel (aka Nautile), explores the confusion between two very similar knots, the Capuchin and Franciscan, with examples as depicted in paintings and statues. The same knot, used presumably for its property of creating a node in a cord while keeping it straight, was the basis of the Incan quipu (aka khipu), a data storage medium using knotted string, used for bureaucratic recording and communication: more on this at the Harvard University Khipu Database Project.

- Ray


Duncan commented:
I wonder if they knot boards are cheap chinese products with the usual shocking translations? It seems funny that a knot as common as the Bowline could be so badly misnamed!

Thanks for the blog link!

And  Andrew commented:
The blood knot is not a synonym for the capucin knot. It's a bend with two ropes involved, and neither rope passes back through its coils in the way the capucin knot does. I was curious about your reference on this, but the linked page seems not to be working.

While mis-naming of knots is common, as often as not, knots have multiple names from different uses and historical contexts.

The flat knot is pretty much the same thing as the reef knot. It's a name used widely in macrame, a nautical tradition from much the same time and ships as the reef knot. The flat knot is usually continued on with half knots (like overhand knots, except for the usage) alternating as the sinnet is formed.

It's much the same thing as the distinction between the overhand knot and the marline hitch, where the latter name makes no sense if there's nothing being hitched to. Also compare the carrick bend and the double coin knot, which is almost exactly the same kind of distinction as with the flat knot and reef knot.

Lots of knots have the same forms but different uses. Different names make sense, saying more than you could without them. The carrick bend and the double coin knot have the exact same form in terms of where the ropes go, but confusing the two could cost lives. Much the same is true of the reef knot and the granny knot, except that the reef knot should not be used where lives are at stake.

Disclaimer: I know enough to spot some of your errors, but probably not enough to be entirely error free myself.

Friday, 4 July 2008

July 4th and invented traditions

As may have been evident from the previous posts Unsung scientists and Views of the countryside, I very much enjoy iconoclastic analysis of history. A particular rich lode arises from July 4th and its annual (understandably) adulatory focus on the iconic events of the founding and formative years of the USA (for instance, The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence).

As an interesting antidote, check out the website of James W Loewen, a sociologist who has written a number of books on how American history is distorted in various media such as monuments and textbooks. I have a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me, whose target is US school textbooks. They won't tell students that Helen Keller was a Communist. They often omit a major war, King Philip's War. They won't show that the term of office of Woodrow Wilson, remembered as an enlightened and moderate president, involved more invasions of other countries than any other period of US history. Loewen's website has an on-line quiz, with surprising answers.

The book covers American history from ancient to modern: the now well-known history of Pre-Columbian colonisation; the mythology surrounding the first Thanksgiving; the Indian Wars; the invisibility in textbooks of America's racist past; the similar invisibility of anti-racist movements; and modern history such as poverty in the 20th century and the acts of Federal government, particularly destabilisation of elected foreign regimes. Throughout, Loewen argues, textbooks either omit facts or present them in a pro-mainstream light; students will never be told that mainstream America, in its historical past, did anything that was less than perfect, or even morally wrong. Meanwhile, they miss out on real history that is, if anything, more remarkable than the official version, such as Squanto, whose travels "make Ulysses look like a homeboy".

Loewen's second book also looks interesting: Lies Across America, examples of how monuments celebrate non-existent history - rather as Jebediah Springfield in The Simpsons is commemorated as killing a bear, although "modern historians recently uncovered evidence that the bear, in fact, probably killed him" (see The Telltale Head transcript). Loewen's Top Ten Silliest Historical Sites has examples such as the Indian massacre that never happened and the log cabin birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, built 30 years after his death.

The work of historian Ray Raphael is in the same vein. Without denying the remarkable history behind the origins of the USA, his book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past shows how those origins have been mythologised through iconic representations. For instance, John Trumbull's 1818 painting The Declaration of Independence 4 July 1776 shows a presentation that never took place (see The Art of War: an illustrated '1776'), and Leutze's painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware shows a flag that didn't exist at the time of the 1776 event depicted. Other examples include Paul Revere's Ride (whose reality has become buried in the fictional Longfellow version), Patrick Henry’s "liberty or death" speech, the "shot heard round the world" at Lexington and Concord, Sam Adams and Molly Pitcher, of which none appear to have been viewed as of contemporary significance. Raphael argues that such myths, while culturally understandable, are actually destructive, in encouraging people to think of history as shaped by a handful of superhuman figures rather than collective action of the people, the ideal on which the USA was founded. The book's introduction is online, and there's a July 4th 2007 interview, American Mythbuster, at

Incidentally, this is not an anti-American post. This kind of invented tradition is common to all history that relates to cultural identity, and July 4th merely highlights it for the case of the USA. Examples in the UK would be the reinvention of the British Royal Family as the House of Windsor since 1917, and the cultural fixtures stereotypical to Scotland - kilts, bagpipes, and family-specific tartans (see The Highland myth as an invented tradition of 18th and 19th century and its significance for the image of Scotland). Nevertheless, the USA, with its strong patriotism and tightly-focused founding period based on memorable revolutionary events, seems especially prone to such mythologising.

- Ray

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Encyclopaedic thoughts

I very much like old encyclopedias of the 1800s to early 1900s. At home we have The Popular Educator, John Cassell's dour but massively influential 1850s instructional encyclopedia (the full text is online at Google Books); Cassell's Book of Knowledge; and Arthur's Mee's eclectic and rambling Children's Encyclopedia. At best, these make excellent reading for their broad and clear presentations of the knowledge of a particular period. However, as Imagination in Education points out, their considerable artistic and instructional flair often comes with a certain amount of dated moralising and even propaganda, as in this extract.

Before the German Empire was shorn by the Paris Peace Conference - east, north, and east - the map of Germany was not unlike the picture of a stupid helmeted giant, sprawling on all-fours, with a pygmy master on top. Prussia made up the body and head, with Berlin at the heart, and its ore and grain-bearing province of Silesia, stolen long ago from Austria, as creeping arms and hands. Schleswig, filched in 1864 from Denmark, pictured the Hohenzollern masters; while the South German States and Alsace-Lorraine formed an undefined but important lower part

This excruciatingly hostile description leads the Germany and its people article in Cassell's Book of Knowledge, an encyclopaedia for children, ed. Harold FB Wheeler, The Waverley Book Company, London (early 1920s).

The problem of bias and accuracy in encyclopedias is an ongoing issue. I was reminded of the above passage on reading this opinion piece, The Wisdom of Crowds, by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. He is, unsurprisingly, highly optimistic about its possibilities. This view has been challenged on various fronts. For instance, Wiki wars talks about the problems of vandalism. Or there was the fallout from the notorious "Seigenthaler incident" where an entry libelled John Seigenthaler Sr by falsely associating him with the Kennedy assassination (see his own account, A false Wikipedia 'biography'). The accuracy issue was, furthermore, highlighted in 2006 when, as described in A thirst for knowledge, Nature conducted a study comparing selected articles from Wikipedia with those on the same topics in Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Wikipedia itself has an extensive selection of quotes on its reliability).

My two cents on the matter (everyone has them so why not?): I'm not sure any of these tackles one of the more besetting problems with Wikipedia: active contributor bias. I very much doubt any regular good-faith contributor can have failed to run into articles that are either a permanent battleground, or completely gridlocked, because of "SPAs" (single-purpose accounts) - editors whose sole purpose on Wikipedia is to spin an article to their preferred view of the world, and argue at length with all comers in favour of that spin. It can happen anywhere, but it's particularly common in articles relating to controversial topics in religion, politics, medicine, science, biography, and so on. It's often associated with behaviours such as "wikilawyering" (nitpicking at length about the rules) and other obfuscation tactics. This, not general vandalism, I would say is the most serious and time-consuming irritation in editing Wikipedia, and probably the one most responsible for driving away good editors (in large part because Wikipedia's mechanisms for restricting or removing tendentious editors are slow and cumbersome). If there were one improvement I could make by waving a magic wand, it would be to install rapid procedures for banning troublemakers.

Part of the problem is Wikipedia's success. Nowadays, Google for a term - say "cat" - and Wikipedia will be one of the top hits. This privileged search placement means that it is a major vehicle for shaping worldwide what is known about a topic. Not unnaturally, this makes it inevitably a battleground, and Wikiscanner shows what's probably the tip of the iceberg.

If you enjoy "Wikidrama", the Wikipedia:Conflict of interest/Noticeboard makes for compelling reading; there's a steady stream of quite well-known people caught out in completely crass attempts to game the system. If you see people elsewhere on the Web whining about being ill-treated by Wikipedia, it's always worth checking out the Talk pages of relevant Wikipedia articles. Maybe they were wronged like John Seigenthaler Sr; or maybe they were rightly slapped down for self-promotion and for behaving disruptively on being found out.

Despite such issues, other encyclopedias are moving toward their own modifications of the Wikipedia format, primarily by introducing some form of editorial oversight. Even mainstream encyclopedias look likely to move into the territory: Wired recently reported Encyclopaedia Britannica To Follow Modified Wikipedia Model. However, Citizendium was probably the first, founded by Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's co-founder, who in 2007 described Wikipedia's organisational model as "broken beyond repair". Citizendium's differences from Wikipedia include a two-tier contributor system where "authors" are overseen by "editors", and all are required to identify themselves. Personally I like the idea; though Clay Shirky, in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, argues that Sanger's view of expertise is mistaken; also it's a matter of observation that the effort to spin is by no means removed by revelation of identity. It doesn't take much work to find articles where Wikipedia refugees - ones who left or were ejected because they couldn't/wouldn't work under its neutrality policies - are now editing Citizendium.

As to Wikipedia, I do find it useful (some articles are excellent) but I have some sympathy with the school librarian who put up a "Just Say No to Wikipedia" sign. It's good for a quick overview of a topic and getting an idea of what the basics are and where to look. But it also requires a strongly critical (paranoid even) attitude to the origins of an article, where you need to take a hard look at the article history, discussion page and even contributor histories to see if there are ongoing editorial disputes or contributors with known/likely bias.