Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Onion with a layer of truth

Moving back to destructive natural events: Unreal Nature's Onion Science just featured a couple of nice science stories from recent issues of The Onion ("America's finest news source").

I especially enjoyed San Francisco Historians Condemn 1906 Earthquake Deniers since one of the recipes for good satire is edginess created by its closeness to the truth. In 2006, a Channel 4 documentary, The Great San Francisco Earthquake, commemorated the centenary of the event, exploring also the subsequent cover-up that (to protect business and real estate interests) massively understated the death toll and the cost of damage, and spun the reportage to portray the event as a plain fire - even to the extent of retouching photos to emphasise fire damage. See Earthquake! The ST shakes out startling new data by Giselle Bisson, and SFGate's Sunday Interview - Gladys Hansen (90 Years Later, Quake Victims Get Names) which both tell of the work of the archivist instrumental in revealing the true loss of lives (at least 3000, as compared to the original official figure of 478).

The Caltech Archives have a good virtual exhibit Documenting the 1906 Quake, which covers topics such as disaster literature and official post-quake spin, as when the Real Estate Board of San Francisco pledged its members to speak of "the great fire" rather than "the great earthquake". However, the sheer extent of the disaster is probably best conveyed by the kite-borne aerial photos by George Lawrence (see The Lawrence Captive Airship Over San Francisco in 1906 and 1908) and the photographer Arnold Genthe's classic images from Chapter 10, Earthquake and Fire, of his 1936 autobiography As I Remember.

As to The Onion, definitely check out its book Our Dumb Century, a 164-page collection of newspaper pastiches ridiculing US social trends and attitudes, from 1900-2000. A site search on for "Onion in history" finds plenty of tasters such as the issues for August 5, 1914, October 29, 1919, April 9, 1942 and November 22, 1963.
- Ray

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