history

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.

Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.

kepler-solar-system-1

Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Stories of empire

IMG_20180117_162519~2.jpg

Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

Signs of age: when even adults are too young to share your past

A few weeks ago I heard a bang outside and thought ‘car back-firing’, then I wondered if that still happens, and if it doesn’t then what do young people attribute unexplained sudden noises in the street to? The more I thought about it, the more I realised how many familiar everyday things from my childhood (though I grant that some of them were already old-fashioned) are completely unknown not only to children but many adults today and would require explanation in a story. Among them are:

  • the long, frustrating search for a working payphone
  • hoarding coins of a particular denomination (10p for the phone, 50p for the electricity meter)
  • crossed wires on the phone
  • older relatives answering the phone using the old 3 or 4 digit version of their phone number
  • people answering the phone by reciting their phone number
  • yellow headlamps on cars that had been to Europe
  • foolscap paper
  • cheap cameras with no focus control, and separate flash cubes
  • having to limit yourself to taking 24 photos on an entire holiday
  • Betamax vs VHS
  • floppy disk drives (particularly five and a quarter inch)
  • only having 4 TV channels to choose from (and they shut down overnight)
  • piling as many kids as possible in the back of an estate car for a day out, sometimes with a couple of dogs too
  • wondering what to do with the (entirely detachable) ring-pull from a can of pop, maybe getting a moment’s entertainment by wearing it as a ring
  • hoping to hear a song on the radio, or searching charity shops, car boot sales and second-hand record shops for years to find it, instead of being able to reach for spotify or YouTube

This undoubtedly happens to everyone as technology and fashions change, but it does give you a realisation of the passing years. Anybody got any more examples to share from their perspective?

Speech from the dead

Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.

I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.

I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.

Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.

I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.

 

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

wp-1492358741676.jpg

I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Week 9: Research and the art of getting sidetracked

The week between Christmas and New Year – Twixtmas, as I’ve heard it referred to rather delightfully – is an odd time of suspended normality. OneMonkey and I had nothing particular to do, nowhere to be, I was full of cold most of the week and the weather wasn’t enticing us onto the moor much. What to do in those circumstances? Why, read, of course.

READ, carved in rock

As well as the end of a fantasy novel and the start of an intriguing crime novel (set in Mumbai, probably to be reviewed here later) I’ve read acres of newsprint. Online, naturally.

The trouble I always find with (historical) research is that I find everything fascinating: grain prices, shipping reports, court circulars. I start out quite innocently with a Bradford Observer from the mid-nineteenth century and before I know it I’ve hopped to the trials of a new steam coach (1837) and thence to 1812 where I ricochet between Luddite riots (and their associated trials), the assassination of the Prime Minister, a short account of the largest sheep a local butcher had ever slaughtered, and the abandonment of the leather tax (when the government, joined up as ever, realised it would be paying most of it on military equipment). Every single one of these articles (plus the inspection of militia regiments, the tragic death by fire of a small child, and a spate of highway robberies outside Wakefield) sparks story ideas and a whole series of questions. I start to forget what I was researching in the first place.

Amazingly I have found time this week to work on the semi-rural fantasy novel (now over 22,000 words), look back on the year in reading (probably to follow in its own post) and write some shorter pieces. I also ate the last mince pie of the season.

I hereby raise my mug of Earl Grey to all of you and to the coming year, may the two have a harmonious coexistence.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).

Ilkley Litfest: Mike Jay

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was an eye-opening talk on the history of asylums. Straight away, in my first sentence, I’ve struggled with what to call them, and that difficulty in terminology was the first thing Mike Jay addressed.

twml-jacket-400x619

His book is called This Way Madness Lies, and he stressed that none of his word choice is intended to be offensive but when you’re covering hundreds of years of history the words people use change as much as the attitudes. Madness, lunacy, insanity, mental illness. The affliction as permanent and inherent, or able to be treated with rest, electric shocks, drugs. The asylum as prison, hospital, home. All these changes in perspective reflect changes in society or the progress of medicine.

It is not a linear, progressive history and Jay suggested there were cyclical elements and also – which I found particularly thought-provoking – that if you took a snapshot at any one time you would find examples of both good and bad conditions. He also talked about delving into several hundred years worth of the Bethlem hospital (‘bedlam’) archives over the last decade, and gave a very brief overview of the ‘open air asylum’ at Geel in Belgium, which I hadn’t heard of but has about as long a pedigree as Bethlem (Geel is a town in which there is a centuries-old tradition of taking people with mental problems as boarders with families).

All in all, a packed 45 minutes where Mike Jay rattled through a number of topics from his (illustrated) book and showed a selection of slides including art by asylum inmates, some or all of which were taken from the book. As the audience questions about the effects of austerity on mental healthcare today, and the possible future for psychiatric treatment, showed this history illuminates the present and I’ve added this hefty volume to my To Read list.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Budget airline luggage charges are nothing new

Researching something else entirely in local newspapers online, I was distracted by a legal case from August 1858. In the County Court at Keighley a Mr Busfeild was attempting to claw back his unfair fee from the Midland Railway after it had decreed that his child’s pram did not constitute ordinary luggage and therefore they had no obligation to carry it without charging him. The railway company did not dispute that the pram was within the size and weight limits they set out for luggage.

Busfeild v. The Midland Railway Company. Are Perambulators Luggage?

The judge retired to think about it, and his verdict was delivered the following day and reported under the headline above in The Leeds Mercury. He went around the houses a bit, and eventually decided that since luggage was ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his present convenience’, a pram was not luggage. The judge did not think that a family trip to the seaside ‘usually’ involved a pram and therefore the railway company were within their rights to charge an extra fee for carrying it. The general manager of the Midland Railway, a Mr Newcombe, claimed that if you started allowing prams as luggage, next thing people would be wanting small basket pony carriages on trains! With a slight updating of the specific items in question I can imagine spokesmen for budget airlines coming out with similar justifications today. Interesting to think they’re part of such a long tradition.

Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/08/17/bradford-female-educational-institute/

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

Educating girls: have we come as far as we think?

I have a great passion for education, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I also have ready access to a university library, so I pick up things like A History of Women’s Education in England by June Purvis (Open University Press, 1991) to while away the commute. An interesting overview of the situation between 1800-1914, it touches on some things I didn’t know about and some (like the Bradford Female Institute) that I did but haven’t often seen anyone else write about.

Two passages in chapter 4 (Education and Middle-class Girls) made me wonder how far we’ve really come, however. In 1864 Emily Davies (later co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge) wrote a paper about the poor state of secondary education for girls for the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, in which she commented that since ladies are left ‘in a state of wholesome rust’ as she put it, they have little to talk about except ‘children, servants, dress and summer tours’ and if you hand them The Times they’ll turn straight to the adverts and the family notices.

Since I neither have children nor go on holidays I often find myself adrift in a female environment as conversation (even among women I know to have engaged in higher education) frequently centres around children, fashion and soft furnishings. There are, I should point out before my female friends revolt, a few honourable exceptions. However, glance at a few magazines aimed at women and you’ll find the content largely revolves around those subjects as well, with some celebrity gossip thrown in. Perhaps the progress we’ve made in that area lies in the fact that some men are eager to talk about their children or their GBBO-inspired attempts at cakes too.

The other passage that struck me was in a section about the fear of educated girls becoming ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unmarriageable’, leading pioneering headmistresses to promote both academic subjects and the old code of ladylike behaviour. In 1994 I was about to move up into sixth form in just such a pioneering school (founded 1878 as the girls’ offshoot of a 16th century school for boys). The headmistress gave a motivating talk in which we were generally exhorted to work hard and become career women – medicine, dentistry and law being the main acceptable professions to aim at. In the same talk, however, she mentioned dress and appearance for the final two years of school: a suit, court shoes, small pearl earrings and we would be permitted a single ring, to allow for that solitaire diamond. The actual reference at the time may have been tongue in cheek – though I remember being aghast at what she was saying I don’t clearly remember the tone – but the fact that even half-jokingly you would suggest to a roomful of teenagers that a desirable outcome to their many years of undoubtedly expensive (if not on an assisted place) education would be to get engaged by the age of eighteen! It still leaves me at something of a loss for words (is that a sigh of relief I hear?). Presumably attitudes like this contribute to the so-called leaky pipeline (women drifting away from science in particular, as you progress further up the academic hierarchy). It’s twenty years since I left school (this week exactly, I think) and I hope things have changed, but sadly in schools like that I fear not.

An enjoyable performance in York

Last night Alice Courvoisier and I presented an evening of stories and lectures on the theme of time, as part of York Festival of Ideas. We did something similar about this time last year, but whereas that was a pure storytelling session, this year we mixed it up a bit by including short lectures on relativity and Newton’s concept of absolute time, among other things.

P1040788_crop

Alice gets quantum

Despite the hard science, the audience generally seemed to enjoy themselves and applauded loudly at times, laughing at appropriate junctures (the room was much more populated than the photo suggests – the front row is never first choice), and Alice had them spellbound as she told myths and fairytales she’d memorised for the occasion. One soon-to-be-graduate told Alice it was the best lecture she’d attended in her entire time at university (we were at York University for the evening), and while that was undoubtedly excited hyperbole, it was nice to think someone got so much out of it.

I’d written a story specially for the evening, called Lancelot Names the Day. It’s set just before the calendar change in 1752 and is about a sneaky but stupid merchant called Lancelot Busby (who was a real man in 18th century Tynemouth as I recall, whose marvellous name I spotted in a parish register. I wish to cast no aspersions on the real Mr Busby who I’m sure was an upstanding pillar of the community).

P1040787_crop

Calendars and time zones can be fun, just bear with me

I also wrote an essay on standardised time as opposed to solar time, and the introduction of international time zones, which was fascinating to research and by the reaction in the room, some people learnt some stuff from it (and it generated a bit of discussion afterwards).

If you were one of our live audience, thanks once again for missing a warm sunny evening to sit in a seminar room with us. Should you wish to relive at least part of the evening, here are recordings of me reading first the lecture, then Lancelot Names the Day.

https://chirb.it/KEBeEB

https://chirb.it/xO83Pp

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

Tea

Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

dragon

Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

Quick news and reviews round-up

This is the first of 10 days off work for me, and while it’s going to get busy soon I thought I’d take a few minutes out to update you all (because I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my news).

I wrote a review for The Bookbag a couple of weeks ago, which I seem to have forgotten to point out. It was a fabulous crime novel called Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, translated from Estonian and set in medieval Tallinn. If you’re at all partial to Cadfael or Shardlake (or enjoyed The Name of the Rose) I’d urge you to go read my review then find yourself a copy of the book. I need to get hold of the first in the series now, as the one I reviewed was the second.

The busy period I alluded to above is caused by my forthcoming evening at the York Festival of Ideas with French friend Alice, we’re on at 7.30pm on June 9th and that is scarily close now. If you recall, we did a similar event last year, but that was (loosely) a play within which we read out stories or recounted myths and legends. This year there’ll be a bit more of a lecture-like feel to it I think, with snippets of physics and history as well as stories read out by me and told free-form by Alice. Come along if you’re in the vicinity and you might be interested in time travel, calendar adjustments, and the standardisation of time.

On top of that, Ilkley Writers are going to be at Morley Arts Festival at the end of September. We began planning our performance in detail yesterday and I’m particularly looking forward to it because of my long association with the town. Big Brother practically lives at Morley library.

Right, back to the fine-tuning for York. Accompanied by a cup of tea, naturally.

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

bryson-cover_2699590a

Bill Bryson’s eminently readable style makes this doorstopper of a book about one spectacular summer most enjoyable. It was much more focused than At Home and I learnt all kinds of fascinating things. Mainly about early aircraft.

He managed to highlight the web of connections between all the big players at the time – politicians, newspaper men, aviators, inventors, sports stars. He also used the summer of 1927 as a gateway to other history (this laid the foundations for that or was the culmination of this) though it does seem to have been a particularly packed season. I wondered if you could get a similar book out of any year or if there really was something special about this one.

Charles Lindbergh and various attempts at long-distance flights are the unifying thread to the book but even though I’m not especially interested in that, Bill Bryson made it captivating. It’s the baseball sections that mystified me – he did throw in the odd explanation but I’m so unfamiliar with baseball that it didn’t help. I’m afraid I sort of skimmed them in the same way I do the hunting interludes in Anthony Trollope, or cricket matches in PG Wodehouse.

All in all though, an entertaining book about an age and a place that much has been written about. Certainly read it if you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s previous books regardless of subject matter, and give it a go if (like me) you have a certain fascination for 1920s America.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

22912907

Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.