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.


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.


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).


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.