history

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.

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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’.

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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

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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

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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.