Philobiblon: December 2004

Friday, December 31, 2004

Australian women writers

This has been the topic of discussion on my email book group, and I've had to shame-facedly confess that I've hardly read any. (I'm talking about fiction here.)

The only one who immediately sprang to mind is LE Usher, who is an expatriate, so not sure if that counts. The central character of her "Miss" is a single female bookseller, just the sort you want on your street corner.

She says:

"I enjoy living over the shop, it soothes me to know that these books are underneath me. For they are mine. ... I have chosen them, taken them into my hands, raked my eye over their every detail, opened them and smelt their secret smell, and chosen then to sit on my boookshelves....

On a number of occasions I have refused a sale simply because I didn't like someone's face or their hands. I have taken my book back from them, apologetically stating that actually this particular book is not for sale.

Understandably some of them argue - bemused tones turning to irritation and often belligerence. Most often they never return, which relives me of the task of saying no a second time."

But then again, she might not be a great neighbour, since she becomes obsessed with female criminals of the past.

"I began to ask myself the question why, if women of such audacious criminal deeds had existed for centuries, did we find contemporary women murderers such a shockinh anomoly? ... there appeared to me to be a strong historical precedent for the current crop of women who killed."

And yes, she is tempted ...

(The book boasts a rather good little biography of women criminals - original sources.)

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Really, really glad

... that I'm not in Australia at the moment, as little Johnnie Howard has just passed Hawke as the second longest-serving Prime Minister and the media is apparently falling over itself to "celebrate".

As this article indicates, the fact that he even got elected in the first place was astonishing. But once there, he grasped the Daily Mail "scare 'em silly with invented or grossly exaggerated dangers" tactic, and used that well. Still, Lady Luck, don't you think this is enough?

As for the tsunami, well, what is there to say? It is a reminder that for all that the human race has accomplished in increasing its power over the environment, it is still puny in the face of the great natural forces. Greenhouse effect anyone?

On that subject, it is a pity that the US was unaffected - the demonstration might have done it good, at least if this London Review of Books article about the state of play on global warming in biology and politics is correct:

"A more sinister explanation for Washington’s resistance has to do with the centrality of military strategy in contemporary policy-making. Donald Rumsfeld and others like him have apparently calculated that climate change will enhance rather than detract from the country’s long-term security.

The US, with its flexible economy, temperate location, low population density and access to Canadian water, oil, natural gas and agriculture, would suffer less than other major countries as a result of climate change.

‘With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology and abundant resources,’ a report prepared last year for the Pentagon concluded, ‘the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses . . . even in this continuous state of emergency the US will be positioned well compared to others.’ (The report is available at change.pdf.)

In comparison, China and India would struggle to cope with severe storms, decreasing agricultural production, energy shortfalls and mass population displacements, while the EU is ill prepared for the Siberian climate that would follow the collapse of the Gulf Stream, not to mention the waves of environmental refugees from North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East that would hit European shores.

If the weakness of one’s opponents is as important as one’s own strength, the emissions generated in the US by SUVs and climate-controlled houses could be conceived as an insidious weapon in a ruthless struggle for power.

Finally, a little bit of sanity, in an article on Understanding Terror Networks someone has actually done some solid-looking quantitative research on the nature of al-Qaeda networks.

Happy New Year!

What is history?

"Sometimes, as I work at a series of patent and close rolls, I have a queer sensation; the dead entries begin to be alive. It is rather like the experience of sitting down in one's chair and finding that one has sat on the cat."
F.M. Powicke, Ways of Medieval Life and Thought, London, Odhams Press, 1950, p. 67.

He was "for many years was the Regis Professor of Modern History at Oxford" - you can just imagine him fitting into the stereotype, at least based on this quote.

I think this was a quote from somewhere else. I've lost the original reference, but it was such a nice quote I couldn't resist posting it.

And yes, yippee, I have hit bottom on the piles of paper around the desk. I haven't actually got into the desk yet, but I've got to buy some boxes for a new filing system tomorrow. And I might treat myself to an extra filing cabinet.

Can you guess one of my new year's resolutions? It is one I make every year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Fighting off dust balls

I'm supposed to be doing a quick desk tidy, followed by lots of work ... well you can guess where I'm at. But I did just stumble across the address for a wonderful website about the Megalithic temples of Malta.

The best book I've found is Malta Prehistory and Temples, D.H. Trump, Midsea, 2002.

It is a great place to visit about now, as I did last January. Oops, that means I haven't really sorted out the piles around my desk since ....

Hi ho, hi ho ...

Procrastination central

I'm supposed to be having a massive desk clear-up and finish-off of various projects, so what am I doing ..

You are Bettie Page!
You're Bettie Page!

What Classic Pin-Up Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

I have to confess that I'd never heard of her, but she did have an interesting life, certainly self-fashioning herself in an admirable way. Her take on it:

"I don't know what they mean by an icon. I never thought of myself as being that. It seems strange to me. I was just modeling, thinking of as many different poses as possible. I made more money modeling than being a secretary. I had a lot of free time. You could go back to work after an absence of a few months. I couldn't do that as a secretary."

New old words

Having discovered a new exclamation - Zounds, see post below - I've also stumbled across another long-term word survivor, Alsatia. I recently emailed someone on this subject:

"The designation "Alsatia" in London is most commonly used for the area north of the river that was covered by the White Friar's monastery (to the south of the west end of Fleet St). That had, it is commonly said, arisen because the Alsace/Alsatia area of continental Europe was also lawless. (No idea if that was true or not, but it was what London thought.)

This Alsatia was a constant source of trouble well into the 19th century. In one case, in 1691, the benchers of the Inner Temple ordered that the gate between the two areas be bricked up. The "Alsatians" attacked the workers and killed one of them, and when the sheriff arrived at the scene they knocked him down and stole part of his chain of office."

The term's origins seem to be lost in the mists of time; it is probably approaching 1,000 years old. But the term, used more generally, also survived, I've just found, well into the 20th-century. From Margery Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke (first published in 1952).

"It was a market, Geoffrey saw, one of those small Alsatias which are still dotted about the poorer parts of the city, protected by ancient custom and the independence of their patrons. Ramshackle stalls roofed with flapping tarpaulin and lit with naked bulbs jostled each other down each side of the littered road; their merchandise, which ranged from whelks to underwear, was open to the sooty air, while behind them tottering shops, open-fronted and ill lit, cowered odorously."
(p. 95 in my 1953 Reprint Society edition)

Living as I do on Leather Lane in central London, in which just such a market survives, I recognise the description immediately, although the "tottering shops" here have been, or are being, gentrifed, and the council chases out the pirate software vendors.

A corrective to the claim ...

... that we live in an unusually uncouth or rough age can be found in my Christmas Amazon order, my usual present to myself, which includes a collection of verse from 1580 to 1830 (concentrated in the earlier section of that span).

Two samples from the milder end of the spectrum:

I owed my hostess thirty pound

I owed my hostess thirty pound,
And how d'ye think I paid her?
I met her in my turnip ground
And gently down I laid her.

She oped a purse as black as coal
To hold my coin when counted.
I satisfied her in the whole,
And just by tail she found it.

Two stones make pounds full twenty-eight,
And stones she had some skill in,
And if good flesh bear any rate
A yard's worth forty shilling.

If this coin pass, no man that lives
Shall dun for past debauches.
Zounds, landlords, send but in your wives!
We'll scour off all their notches.

(From an undated song sheet, probably early 18th century. In case you were wondering: "just by tail" means exactly paying off a debt; "yard" was a word for penis and "stones" testicles. Zounds I haven't worked out - Google gives me " a group of anarcho-punk rockers" - probably not quite right.)

And then Sir John Davies, leaving nothing to the imagination, and proving not much has changed in the weirder bedrooms of the nation ...

When Francus comes to solace

When Francus comes to solace with his whore
He sends for rods and strips himself stark naked,
For his lust sleeps and will not rise before
By whipping of the wench it be awaked.
I envy him not, but wish I had the power
To make myself his wench for one half hour.
(From his Epigrammes and Elegies, ?1596. The modern text gives no idea of Francus was, but I bet contemporary readers did.)

Lovers, Rakes and Rogues: A New Garner of Love-songs and Merry Verses, 1580-1830, John Wardroper, Shelfmark, 1995. Poems pages 154-5 and 186.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

This fortnight's acquisitions

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson, Paula Bryne, HarperCollins, 2004. (Thanks Anne, lovely present)

In 1772 the 14-year-old Mary, who was to have successive careers as actress, courtesan and writer, wrote that she loved the "buzz" of London (p. 25). Curious, since it is one of those words that sounds as though it should be a recent invention. More later - she's a great character.

'Almost a Man of Genius,: Clemence Royer, Feminism and Nineteenth-Century Science, Joy Harvey, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1997.

The Diary of A Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-65, by Cleonie Knox, Thornton Butterworth, Second impression 1925 - a further excursion into old historical fiction.

Goya, Robert Hughes, Vintage, 2004, only £9 from Amazon - a bargain for a beautifully produced large paperback.

Lovers, Rakes and Rogues: A New Garner of Love-songs and Merry Verses, 1580-1830, John Wardroper, Shelfmark, 1995.

(Plus the paperbacks in the post below, and the lovely Sevenoaks history.)

Take that, slap!

For those who assume academic life is genteel, a couple of quotes:

"A man who has never looked on Niagara has but a faint idea of a cataract; and he who has not read Barere's Memoirs may be said not to know what it is to lie." - Thomas Macauley, who died on this day in 1859.
(From the Today in Literature email.)

A footnote from the Mary Robinson biography (see post above)
* Robert Bass, The Green Dragon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (New York, 1957) ... though Bass undertook valuable archival research, his transcriptions were riddled with errors, he misdated key incidents, and he failed to notice many fascinating newspaper reports, references in memoirs, and other sources. It is no exaggeration to say that his inaccuracies outnumber his accuracies; if Bass says that an article appeared on November in the Morning Post, one may be assured that it is to be found in December in the Morning Herald. (p. 3)

Monday, December 27, 2004

A selection of light reading ...

... suitable for the season.

Best: Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom: A well-done account of an 16th-century honest hunchbacked detective, in the service of the dastardly Thomas Cromwell, who is given the job of finding out who killed the vicar-general's last agent in a Sussex monastery whose days are clearly numbered. The fact that he and his servant get undressed for bed all the time is vital to the plot, if I suspect historically inaccurate. The ending - answers on an e-mail if you want to know - is surprising, if improbable. (I'll be buying the sequel.)

Not bad: Rough Trade, Dominique Manotti, a translated-from-the-French detective story/thriller hybrid set in the seemy side of Paris, with distinctly left-ish credentials, being built around the Turkish illegal workers (successful) push for residency rights in 1980.

Don't bother: The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde: has had rave reviews and been compared to the work of Douglas Adams. It has some of the wit and none of the intelligence, reminding me of those endless Radio 4 comedy shows in which Oxbridge-type males try to demonstrate how clever they are with word games.

Christmas at Sevenoaks

I spent the festive days with the family of a friend at Sevenoaks - lovely food, wine and company - and excellent presents, books and the makings of some seriously luxury baths. It was the first Christmas I've done in about 10 years, so quite a novelty.

I also learnt a little about the history of a town now known most as a commuter suburb of London. (It was the only place I know of in Britain where the trains were running on Boxing Day - such an odd concept there is of stopping public transport on the days when many people just have to get around.)

There's an outline of Sevenoak's historyhere. Most famous is Knole House, best known as the home of Vita Sackville-West, although it has plenty of other historical associations.

There are many Tudor notes in the region - it was handy for London but definitely "country" then, and from those times onwards everyone who was everyone seems to have passed through.

Jane Austen, aged 12

Austen, originally uploaded by natalieben.

... was one of Sevenoaks to-be-famous visitors, staying with her uncle, Francis Austen, at The Red House, above, in 1788.

The house dates to 1686 and between 1688 and 1734 was home to a Dr Fuller, famous for personally testing all of his remedies before he used them on his patients.

From a book of watercolours, Ann Kearn's Sevenoaks, text by Patrick Harper, Foxprint, 1992.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A bit of convict blood

... actually I almost certainly haven't got any (unfortunately, since it is now fashionable), but having just finished the Australian seasonal phone calls I thought I'd share this lovely story of a woman probably fairly described as "spirited" who twice cheated the hangman before making a success of life in Australia.

Margaret Catchpole was the sixth child of a labourer in Suffolk, and she became a servant of John Cobbold, an Ipswich brewer, promptly saving one of his children from drowning. But she then fell in love with a boatman whose day job disguised his smuggling. To keep a tryst in London she donned sailor's clothes and stole a horse from her employer's stable. She was caught as she sold it in London.

Back in court in Bury she was sentenced to death, but her employer's vigorous intervention had that converted to seven years in jail. Three years into that sentence, with the aid of her lover, she broke out, "in a very bold manner" letting herself down from the spikes on the wall. She was about to board her lover's vessel - probably in male disguise - when a scuffle broke out in which her lover was killed.

Once again she appeared before Bury Assizes and once again Chief Baron Macdonald sentenced her to death, but again this was commuted, now to transportation for life. She sailed for Botany Bay in May 1801.

There she eventually married a prosperous settler, but she did not forget her old friends, sending back curiosities from Australia, and she remains locally famous in Ipswich, with - that ultimate English fame - a pub named after her. In Australia she has the wing of a maternity hospital, for it seems there she became a midwife.
(Taken from The English Abigail, Dorothy Margaret Stuart, Macmillan, 1946.)

More here and here. And it seems the story was made into a movie in 1911 and inspired a play.

Beautiful books

bookshop, originally uploaded by natalieben.

I just found this wonderful picture of a bookshop in San Francisco that has been entirely rearranged by colour as a piece of artwork. It has been so popular that the display has been extended (or maybe they just can't face the re-arrangement job.)

The artist, Chris Cobb, calls the work "There is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World". He said: "Even though there is so much to be unhappy about in this world, we should try to create something amazing and beautiful and interesting despite all of the problems."

Sounds facile, but the result certainly is beautiful, and what a great way to mix up ideas, throw them together and see what emerges.

Found at Superhero Journal.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

An alternative Christmas story

Hat-tip to Laputan Logic, I've just explored a fascinating collection of biblically related material, including an early anti-Christian Jewish acount of the life of Jesus, the Toledoth Yeshu, in a version dated to the 6th century:

"In the year 3671[1] in the days of King Jannaeus, a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah.

Near his house dwelt a widow and her lovely and chaste daughter named Miriam. Miriam was betrothed to Yohanan, of the royal house of David, a man learned in the Torah and God-fearing.

At the close of a certain Sabbath, Joseph Pandera, attractive and like a warrior in appearance, having gazed lustfully upon Miriam, knocked upon the door of her room and betrayed her by pretending that he was her betrothed husband, Yohanan. Even so, she was amazed at this improper conduct and submitted only against her will.

Thereafter, when Yohanan came to her, Miriam expressed astonishment at behavior so foreign to his character. It was thus that they both came to know the crime of Joseph Pandera and the terrible mistake on the part of Miriam. Whereupon Yohanan went to Rabban Shimeon ben Shetah and related to him the tragic seduction. Lacking witnesses required for the punishment of Joseph Pandera, and Miriam being with child, Yohanan left for Babylonia. ...

Interesting how forms of slander - such as accusations of bastardy - haven't changed much over the years, although it does make Mary virtuous - I wonder why?

This from an University of Pennsylvania grad student's lovely collection of material, including images of the temptation of Adam and Eve and a collection of resources on Lilith, which takes me back into the Gnostics, on whom I have posted before here and here. It also led me to the Gnosis Archive, which has many original sources.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Really modern texts

I was about to start by saying that in spite of new technology, print materials in their content and layout have changed astonishingly little in the past 20 years, when this news arrived in my inbox:

The current issue of _National Geographic Traveler_ presents a novel fashion in captioning. The rather long captions of a photographic feature are broken into "paragraphs" indicated, not by indentation or by a line of white space, but by a red paragraph symbol."

OK, not earthshattering, but interesting nonetheless. (From the wonderful CEL-ery.)

But, such rare and minor exceptions apart, "literature" or "art" harnessing the power of the web and its technologies has not even reached the avant-garde stage, let along the Amazon best-seller lists. Yet Hayle, in the book on which I posted yesterday pointed me to an interesting example, Lexia to Perplexia, by Talan Memmott.

It is written in a creole combination of English and computer code, and explores these from the stories of Narcissus, Echo and Minoan funerary myths. But it really is rather fun, I promise. (Although you probably need broadband.)

No, it is really not so "difficult" as it sounds. e.g.
"From out of NO.where, Echo appears in the private space of Narcissus.tmp to form a solipstatic community (of 1, ON) with N.tmp, at the surface. The two machines -- the originating and the simulative -- collapse and collate to form the terminal-I, a Cell.f, or, cell...(f) that processes the self as outside of itself -- in realtime."

(Hayle helpfull explains that n.tmp is the name usually given to a function that will be replaced by another, "solipstatic" - the state of mental isolation denoted by solipsism is conflated with static; I-Terminal is "I". "Realtime is a phrase programmers use to indicate that the simulated time of computer processes is running, at least temporarily, along the time experienced by humans.")

A lot of it is more graphic, e.g.

face >> to << face

... which then swaps to ...

other << to >> other.

And to prove there can be many different forms of texts, check out the fun Geek-T, "Geek History Through T-shirts". (There must be a paper in that for any historian of the 20th century out there.) Hat-tip to Memepool.

Perplexia to gender

My final post (for the moment anyway) on gender and blogging, currently debated, well just about everywhere, but you could start with my last post here.

I finally got around to starting N. Katherine Hayles Writing Machines, which, she says, "aims to explore what the print book can be in the digital age". This requires consideration, she says, not only of "the theories, concepts and examples", the visual design of the book itself, "the people initiating change and resisting it, writing books and creating digital environments, struggling to see what electronic literature means and ignoring its existence altogether," but also "narrative chapters interrogating the author's position, her background and experiences, and especially the community of writers, theorists, critics, teachers, and students in which she moves". (p. 9)

She says this has forced her to "become an autobiographer almost against my will".

"I am reminded of Henry Adam's satiric admiration of Rousseau's determination in the Confessions that he will reveal everything about his life ... If Rousseau ranks as a ten in self-display and Adams a one, I come in somewhere around three ... Although there will be biographical elements in the persona who will be written in these narrative chapters, no one should confuse her with me. To mark that crucial difference,she needs a name related to mine but not the same. I will call her -- Kaye." (p. 10)

This struck me as in some ways analogous to what has been described as the "typical female academic blog" - pseudonymous, containing a large amount of personal stuff, including material about friends and colleagues.

It touches on something that I feel is some often lacking in all forms of scholarship - in the humanities and sciences - a preparedness to acknowledge where the scholar is coming from, why s/he is addressing these questions in these ways. Also lacking often is a preparedness to acknowledge that any work of scholarship is inevitably collaborative, and the nature of that collaboration will effect the result.

My reading and experience suggests that female scholars are more often prepared to these facts than male, and fields in which women are prominent are more aware of the necessity of this - perhaps women are socialised to be more aware of their own biases and weaknesses, and to be more ready to acknowledge them, and conversely, men are more often socialised to flex their egos.

Would a "male" Hayles, if this could be imagined, have thought the biographical outline important? I suspect not. And if "he" had, would it have been diluted by the persona overlay?

In many areas of academia exploration of anything "personal" is still likely to be penalised, particularly for women, these suspicious interlopers in the ivory tower. So women academic bloggers want to explore these issues - they realise it is an essential part of scholarship and life in the academe -- but often they can only safely do so pseudonymously.

P.S. As I expected, the book is brilliant. I'll post more tomorrow, and also explain the title of this post.

Additional note. I just found that CultureCat has made a collection of links to blog posts on this issue.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A useful seer

There's a tendency to think that the ancients must have been a gullible lot - all of that digging in entrails and watching the flight of birds to determine the future, but perhaps they were cleverer than they looked.

The Greek word usually translated as seer is mantis (which in ancient Greek also referred to the spider, which suggests the human practice required lots of sitting around, waiting and watching). Oracle is Latin.

The most famous mantis was Blackfoot (Melampous). Held in a prison cell, he called for the guards and got out seconds before the roof fell in - the story goes that the woodworms had "told" him they were chewing through the beam. Perhaps they used a trail of sawdust ...

He went on to cure a king's impotence, "having learned" from a vulture, that when he was a boy the king's father had threatened him with a gelding knife then left in the bark of a particular tree. He then prepared a solution of rust from the knife that restored the king's virility. No modern psychiatrist could come up with a better explanation and treatment.

This from a fascinating piece in the London Review of Books. You can read the full article, dense but worth sticking with, here. It is a review of The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles, by Michael Wood, Chatto, 2004.

Uses and abuses of printing

I'm often in the British Library, but usually trying to read too many books in too little time, so it was only finally today, since I really wasn't in a working mood, that I checked out the displays.

The Magna Carta was on the essentials list, of course, and the Codex Sinaiticus, a codex of the Bible in Greek from the middle of the 4th century - now that is an astonishing piece of material survival.

But what most took my fancy was the "Indulgentia" an A3 size sheet (landscape form) printed in 1454, possibly by Gutenberg. The display told me:
"Indulgences were among the first items printed in the West. [They] meant an end to the labour-intensive and costly procedure of writing thousands of letters for visits to a single town, thus maximising profits."

The purchaser had them signed, this one was for Hinrich Mais, a pastor, "and several of his female relatives", issued at Neuss, near Dusseldorf, and could then show it to his or her parish priest as proof of the transaction - a receipt in fact, no doubt the first printed receipts.

But I couldn't help wondering how this contributed to Luther and all of that - the printing made the church's entirely mercenary view of the transaction transparent, whereas at least when a cleric had to laboriously write out in a beautiful hand your indulgence, you were getting his time and labour, and theoretically goodwill (although possibly in practice curses) in the process.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Save a life or two, or at least try

Amnesty International UK is reporting on two cases of women in Iran in imminent peril.

A 19-year old girl, “Leyla M”, who has a mental age of eight, reportedly faces imminent execution for “morality-related” offences after being forced into prostitution by her mother as a child. According to a Tehran newspaper report of 28 November, she was sentenced to death by a court in the central Iranian city of Arak and the sentence has now been passed to the Supreme Court for confirmation.

Leyla M was reportedly sentenced to death on charges of “acts contrary to chastity” by controlling a brothel, having intercourse with blood relatives and giving birth to an illegitimate child. She is to be flogged before she is executed. She had apparently “confessed” to the charges. Earlier reports stated that there would be an appeal, and the 28 November report indicates that this process is now at an end.

Social workers have reportedly tested her mental capacities repeatedly and each time have found Leyla to have a mental age of eight. However, she has apparently never been examined by the court-appointed doctors, and was sentenced to death solely on the basis of her explicit confessions, without consideration of her background or mental health ...


Hajieh Esmailvand is at risk of imminent execution after her death sentence for adultery was upheld by the Supreme Court in November. She could allegedly be stoned to death as early as 21 December. Her unnamed co-defendant is at risk of imminent execution by hanging.

According to reports, Hajieh Esmailvand was sentenced to five years imprisonment, to be followed by execution by stoning, for adultery with an unnamed man who at the time was a 17 year old minor. Although the exact date of her arrest and trial are not known, it is reported that she has been imprisoned in the town of Jolfa, in the north west of Iran, since January 2000.

In November 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Hajieh Esmailvand but changed the lower court's verdict from 'death by hanging' to 'death by stoning'. Reports suggest that the Supreme Court has ordered that the remainder of Hajieh's five year prison sentence be annulled so that the stoning sentence can be carried out before 21 December.

The websites suggest officials to email.

Gender, academia and the media

There's been a raging debate over on Crooked Timber about women academic bloggers and the alleged dearth thereof.

In the light of which I was amused to count the number of women on a Channel Four programme, What We Still Don't Know this evening, which spoke to academics whom I would assume came entirely from the physical sciences, mathematics or related fields. Now I missed the first 10 minutes or so, but of the seven or eight academics I heard, guess how many were women? That's right, none.

There might still be enormous gender bias in the humanities - and the academic conferences that I've attended have certainly shown that - but it is far, far worse in the sciences. (And since my first degree was agricultural science - as my profile says, I was 17, that's my only excuse - I know plenty of women still battling from within the system.)

As for the media, my "day" job, well it is probably a little better than the sciences ...

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Another couple of presents ...

If you are still desperately trying to find a perfect present, check out Persephone Books, which publishes out-of-print titles by women writers. "Titles include novels, short stories, diaries and cookery books. They are all carefully designed with a clear typeface, a 'fabric' endpaper and bookmark, and a preface by writers such as PD James, Jacqueline Wilson and Jilly Cooper."

These are lovely books, that rescue women writers who had almost been forgotten. I went into their office for the first time on Saturday. It is in a simple, old-fashioned shopfront, with the books piled high and enthusiastic purchasers sharing their view on the volumes before them.

The universal recommendation was for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. There's an article on the website about it, as there is for each volume ...

"Miss Pettigrew was a sparkling and slightly risque contemporary tale set among the young and beautiful.

It unfolds over twenty-four hours and tells what happens when Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a spinster who has led a sheltered life, is sent to the wrong address by an employment agency.

Instead of finding a fraught mother with a fractious brood, she encounters glamorous night-club singer Miss LaFosse who “had as many male admirers as Miss Pettigrew had had children to watch over in her long years as governess."

A fish out of water, Miss Pettigrew proves equal to the task of sorting out this flighty young thing’s life, deftly disposing of the cocaine (shocking then as now) which she finds in her bathroom.

Critics went wild for this “tonic book”. One called it “jolly, deliciously naughty and frolicsome”; another “the type of book that will bring joy to every woman’s heart."

P.S. I'm not on commission, just enthusiastic.

Alternatively, if Christmas madness is getting to you, go for the really insane option of The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre display at the Oxo gallery - creations that will make anyone laugh. I liked the mad butler figure powering an ultralight with flapping wings via a bicycle, complete with socks drying from the front propeller and a pig in a garbage can on the wing. (No I don't know why either.)There's also a complete circus in one ring, including a lady standing on a horse's back who jumps through a hoop on each revolution.

In the slightly sick, not really for the children, category I also liked "Poisoned milk", a cat that laps a dozen times at the spilt milk before the second cog finally tips over and it collapses in a boneless heap, and "Drifting apart", a couple sitting at each end of a bath-tub that jaggedly splits down the middle, water and all.

For anyone who can't make it to London there's a "virtual" exhibition here. (Flash required)

I thought about buying one of the kits for my god son, but maybe another time - not really a Christmas Day sort of present, with incredibly intricate assembly required.

A festive season present

You're allowed a little fantasy in mid-winter, I think, all those long dark nights and peering into the flickering flames, so enjoy this one from the New York Times.

A Not So Wonderful Life
Published: December 19, 2004


CLOSE SHOT - Rummy is standing by the railing, staring morosely into the water. The snow is falling hard. Feeling a tap on his shoulder, he wheels around and wrestles an old man with wings into a headlock.

OLD MAN: Ouch! Tut, tut. When will you learn that force doesn't solve everything?

RUMMY: Who the dickens are you?

OLD MAN: Clarence, Angel First Class. I've been sent down to help you.

RUMMY, squinting: You're off your nut, you old fruitcake. You can't help me. I was a matinee idol in this town, a studmuffin. Now everyone's turned on me - Trent Lott, Chuck Hagel and that dadburn McCain.

CLARENCE: No more self-pity, son. I'm going to show you what the world would have been like if you'd never been born ...

Unisex sport

In a conversation at the office Christmas party (no, this was a fairly sober one), I was talking about playing in local squash leagues and my companion, a quite sporting woman, expressed astonishment that men and women played on equal terms. I pointed out that, as in most sports, it is your skill and ability to play intelligently that matters far more than the highest degree of strength or fitness.

And it is great. As a 38-year-old woman I just love beating the arrogant young males who on arrival at the court look at you and wonder why they bothered to arrange the game - they obviously won't get a workout.

In fact there's really no reason for most sports, maybe all sports, to be segregated.

I've played football (soccer), rugby (well once, and I was outclassed, but that was because of lack of experience), and still play cricket with men, in addition to the squash. I'm slow, but moderately clever and quite strong, and that reflects my childhood experiences, development and training level, not my gender.

And maybe, slowly we're heading in the direction of unisex sport, with the signing of the first woman to play professional league football, in Mexico.

From The Guardian:
A Mexican professional football club has made history by signing a woman. The move has already caused an uproar, but the player is undeterred.

"I'm not frightened of anything," Maribel Dominguez told reporters at a packed press conference called by the second division club Celaya.

"I want to thank all those who believe in me and ask those who don't to give me the chance to try. Maybe I will fail, but at least I will have tried."

Player and club insist there is nothing in the rules prohibiting women from playing in the professional men's leagues. They are waiting for Fifa to endorse the move ..."

The fastest woman in the world may never beat the fastest man over 100m, because the top end of the male bell curve is usually above the female for the required characteristics, but the best marathoner in time could well be a woman, and think of how women's sport would leap ahead with all of the new opportunities and the new drive to get better, faster.

Mementoes of late antiquity

I nipped up to the British Museum this morning for a talk on Ephesus (one of my favourite places in the world), but it was cancelled, so I opted for an exploration of late antiquity and Byzantium. (And found they've substantially remodelled these galleries - check them out if you haven't been there a while.)

The first theme that emerged was the practicality of the ancients. There are a large number of "gold-based cups", with pictures in gold leaf samdwiched between two layers of glass on the flat bottom. When one partner died, this served as their burial marker. (Many have been found in the catacombs of Rome.) Nothing like being prepared.

You can see an example here. Most are Christian, but this one shows a pagan adopting Christian iconography, but saying "in the name of Hercules" instead of "in the name of Jesus". There's also one in which Cupid offers a blessing.

All you could want to know about Roman glass techniques can be found here.

There are also a large number of gold wedding rings. They show Christ and the bride and groom on the bezel, and are all engraved with the the word "harmony" (in Greek of course). If you take injunctions to behave in a certain way as indications people are acting the opposite, that gives you some idea of the marriages of late antiquity.

But they are also an octagonal shape, which makes them childbirth amulets - that double-purpose investment again.

Finally I did get to Ephesus, in the form of a moulded glass cameo, a tourist trinket of its day, showing the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus". They were Christians said to have taken refuge in a walled-up cave in AD250 during a persecution, who emerged more than a century later, just when a controversy was raging about the reality or otherwise of the resurrection of the physical body. Having put the "heretics" to flight, they then conveniently disappeared again for good.

This translation from a medieval Anglo-Norman source gives a less cynical view on it.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

In the flesh

beale, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Popped into the National Portrait Gallery today for half an hour to commune with the Stuarts, and was rewarded with the discovery that they've hung this self-portrait by Mary Beale, the first professional female painter in England.

I've only previously seen it in reproduction. The first surprise was its size - this is a huge, impressive canvas (an impression magnified by the heavy gilt frame).

The drapery of her dress and shawl is impressively detailed - it is thick, stiff and shiny. Would you call it a taffeta? If so a little research suggests it would then have been made of silk and very expensive.

The painting is subtly lit from the right of the frame (as you look at it), and a shadow thrown on the wall to the left.

This was painted, it is thought, as a showpiece for her work, just before she set up her professional studio, which was managed by her husband - you could almost call him one of the first house husbands. The companion painting of him is in Bury St Edmunds.

And what I find surprising is that none of their friends, in the clergy or the Royal Society, seem to have found it odd that she was effectively supporting him financially.

But she'd be pleased to be hung in such august company today - Room 6 -- with Boyle, Harvey and other scientific luminaries.

She has other works in the National Portrait Gallery.

She is also supposed to have painted a portrait of Aphra Behn. If anyone knows anything about that I'd love to hear it.

America's non-existent 'war on terror'

An informative interview with Michael Scheuer, who served in the CIA for 22 years, until this year. He was the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999.

"I think al-Qaeda is probably in good shape. One of the problems facing the U.S. intelligence community is that it continues to regard al-Qaeda as a terrorist group rather than an insurgent organization and we have never really constructed an order of battle for the organization. We only know of the leadership. And when U.S. politicians say that we have destroyed two thirds or three quarters of the leadership, what they are really alluding to is al-Qaeda's casualties based on the information available in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There are a lot of people who we just don't know about and moreover al-Qaeda has demonstrated a remarkable capability to replenish its losses."

"I don't think Afghanistan and Pakistan are denied areas to al-Qaeda. There are very few U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the warlords control many of the areas. The tribal areas in Pakistan, save for South Waziristan, are not controlled by the Pakistani government. You can make the assumption that Afghanistan and Pakistan are denied areas but really the only thing you can be sure of is that they are not where U.S. forces or Pakistani forces are. I mean al-Qaeda and the Taliban can operate with relative ease in the tribal areas of both countries. And because a lot of national reconnaissance systems have been focused on Iraq, we don't have that many resources to track these people from space."

"This is perhaps my wishful thinking, but I think if we made some tangible changes to our relationship with Israel, started a serious discussion on securing alternative energy resources and refused to gratuitously support Putin's actions in Chechnya, that would give America an opening. Maybe then people would actually start listening to what we are saying. The problem is we don't even have an audience in that part of the world right now."

"We appear to be in a temporary phase where the current Administration looks at the world as it wants it to be and not as it is. Likewise, the Administration seems to be making it clear that it is not interested in analysis from its intelligence community if that analysis doesn't mesh with or support the Administration's views, policies, and perceptions. As a result, open-source publications have become by default the conveyor to the public of information and analysis on what is really happening in the world. America's citizens certainly need this information. I also believe that many professional intelligence officers will welcome such publications because they themselves are unable to present the world as it is to senior government officials."

Friday, December 17, 2004

Good news!

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

"A ban on smoking on Sydney's popular Bondi, Bronte and Tamarama beaches came into effect today and may be extended. Waverley Council Mayor Peter Moscatt said under the ban, one of the first in Australia, smoking on the sand will be prohibited but other nearby areas may follow."

Having just about lost my voice and suffering from creaky-feeling lungs, the effects of the smoke level at the office party last night, I can only croak: "Yippee."

I've been saying for years that governments would finally ban all public smoking only when I was just too old to enjoy it, but maybe I'll get a few years of clean-air pubs and restaurants - the Blair government being timidly headed in that direction.

Then if they'd just ban smoking on pavements (footpaths), so that when cycling peacefully along the road you don't suddenly cop a lungful ...

An independent-minded woman

Today I met Mitbahiah, a 6th-century BC Jewish woman living in southern Egypt. She lived in a remarkably egalitarian world: "a woman could readily divorce her husband, with or without his consent. From other documents, we know that a woman could exercise this right by "standing up in congregation and merely declaring 'I divorce my husband'."

Mitbahiah, who seems to have been a shrewd investor, also had a full economic life; lending money to her father that was eventually partially repaid by the transfer of a house. She also did rather well out of her three marriages, the middle of which was outside her community, to an Egyptian official. She got to keep all of the wealth she had taken into the union, and half of his when she left, after less than 12 months.

From Al-Ahram Weekly, via The Head Heeb, a fascinating occasional blog by a scholar studying Jewish history.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Meme of misery

From Early Modern Notes, described as a "meme with a difference":

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

So I did: from Diary of Mrs Kitty Trevylyan: A Story of the Times of Whitefield and the Wesleys, 1866: I've bolded the relevant sentence but left in those around it for context.

"This morning two gentlemen who were calling on papa were lamenting the degeneracy of the times.

One was an old general, and he said --

"We have no heroes now -- not a great soldier left. Since Marlborough died, not an Englishman has appreared who is fit to be more than a general of a a division ....

"My great-uncle, a Fellow of Brazennose, took up the wail. 'No indeed he said; the ages of gold and iron and brass are over; the golden days of Elizabeth and Shakespeare, and the scattered Armada; the iron of the Revolution (for rough as they were, these men were iron; the brass of the Restoration ; and now we have nothing to do but beat out the dust and shavings into tinsel and wire."

"We have plenty of wood at least for gallows," interposed my brother Harry. "Cartloads of men are taken every week to Tyburn. I saw one myself yesterday,"

"For what crimes?" asked the general.

"One for stealing a few yards of ribbon; another for forging a draught for £50," replied Harry.

"Ah," sighed the general, "we have not even energy left to commit great crimes!"

Oddly enough, Sharon also managed to get to a hanging, or at least a sentence therefor.

Perhaps others can find something more cheerful, although this passage does make me think about something universal in human nature - the memories of the "good old days".

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The damage done by sexual repression

To the Almeida theatre this evening, for The Earthly Paradise:

"June 1871. William Morris spends summer in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire in the company of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and their beloved Janey - the wife of one and muse of the other.

It seemed that they had found their ideal, in harmony with nature, a garden of earthly delights. But cynics whispered that the move from London was to conceal the very Pre-Raphaelite affair between Janey and Gabriel... "

An excellent, if very showily theatrical show. If you are planning to go, you might want to stop now ...

If not, then I can say that although it focuses for much of its length on the two men, the enthusiastic, boyish Morris, and the self-consciously arty, dramatic Gabriel, it turns out in the end to be largely about Janey, and how both have treated her for their own ends. William wanted to self-sacrificingly throw her into his friend's arms (he only married her originally because the already committed Gabriel couldn't). Gabriel wanted to worship her "purely" from afar, and reacted to the opportunity by pushing her away, driving himself mad in the process.

(Of course in the background is his relationship with his dead wife Lizzie, to which there is a famous story attached - he buried the only copy of his poems with her, guilty over neglecting her for his work when she lived, then seven years later had her exhumed so he could get them back.)

Janey is, we eventually learn, tormented by this - tormented by her desire for Rossetti (which she is not supposed to feel as a Victorian woman), and also tormented by her feelings of being out of place, since she was dragged up from being a stableman's daughter to being a "lady" by these two men for their own purposes, having had no real say in the matter herself.

This of course is the (male) playwright's view - and quite a feminist one it is too. But it seems to be close to the facts, at least in outline, see for example here.

See also the Rossetti archive. I found one webpage about her.

P.S. I should say that after my brief post on Aphra Behn, Sharon on Early Modern Notes compiled a whole web bibliography - definitely worth checking out.

Salute the queen

chessqueen, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Luckily, most of the sales of review copies of books held in newspaper offices (which raise money for charity) are held at lunchtime, when I'm not there, otherwise I'd have already had to move out of home to make space for the bookshelves.

But I was reminded of what I'm missing by a rare sale I managed to get to, where I bought (along with lots of other books), Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, by Marilyn Yalow, 2004, Pandora.

It explains that when chess was invented in India, then transplanted into the Muslim world (where non-figurative pieces were used because of Islamic iconoclasm), and finally arrived in Europe with the Moors, the piece that stood beside the King was the vizier.

The first chess queen recorded appears in a manuscript written in the late 990s in the Einsiedeln Monastery in Switzerland. The monk who wrote it was German-speaking, although of course he was working in Latin. He makes no particular remark about her presence, so the piece was obviously well established. (p. 17)

A pawn, as today, could become a queen by getting to the other end of the board, but only if the original queen had been taken.

" attempt to preserve the uniqueness of the king's wife, his only permissible conjugal mate, according to Christian doctrine.... The idea of multiple queens on the chessboard proved so anxiety-making for Europeans that it remained a subject of contention for centuries to come". (p. 18)

The author seeks to find a unique model for the chess queen, proposing either Adelaide of Germany, queen to Otto I, "a second Charlemagne", or her daughter-in-law, Theosophano, the Byzantine princess, queen to Otto II and mother and regent to Otto III.

This I'd suggest is problematic - perhaps one sycophantic courtier might have had the idea of commissioning a set featuring a single powerful queen, but the idea would sure have not caught on broadly, with chess seen as a model for courtly life, unless queens in general were significant "players" in politics and war.

Yalow indeed makes this point, saying: "for a brief period in the 980s, the rule of queens regent was dominant in Western Europe. Not only were Adelaide and Theophano regents for Otto III, but Adelaide's daughter Emma was regent for the French King Louis V, the duchess Beatrice of Lorraine ruled for her minor son, and the youthful Aethelred II in England was under his mother's tutelage." (p. 26.) It is surely no accident that about this time the chess piece appeared.

It's "funny" how little focus gets put on such periods of history.

P.S. This is an interesting read, but irritating when the academic writer makes patronising attempts to cater to an "ordinary" audience. Reaching them surely does not require the profuse use of exclamation marks!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Raise your glasses please ...

Virginia Woolf said: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she -- shady and amorous as she was -- who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits."

Not quite, I would argue in the light of today's knowledge, historically accurate, but Behn deserves it anyway today, on the anniversary of her baptism. (Her birth date is not known).

Which I know from Today in Literature's free newsletter. (This link will only work for a couple of days.)

I'll be raising my glass this evening for this, and for my cricket club (belated) end of season dinner. It may be some time before I return.

'Queen Elizabeth's posset for winde'

Half an ounce each of ginger, cinnamon, galingale, aniseed, carraway seed, fennel seed and two drams each of mace and nutmegs, to be reduced to powder and taken before or after meat.

(Galingale seems to be galangal, as used in Asian cooking.)

There's certainly plenty of testament to the early spice trade there - and I reckon it might have even worked. Certainly aniseed and cinnamon help to settle my stomach.

(The English Abigail, by Dorothy Margaret Stuart, London, Macmillan & Co, 1946, p. 22.)

Monday, December 13, 2004

More to celebrate ...

... about the EU. It might even (partially) save the US from itself, by tightening standards for consumer goods in chemical content, recycling.

"Cameron points out that the United States and the European Union remain each other's most significant trading partners in the world--our entanglements are deep and abiding. But as Europe becomes a more assertive political force, the question will become, as he puts it, "Why shouldn't Americans enjoy the same standards as Europeans?"

Such a basic question used to run in the other direction, when the United States set the gold standard for the world's environmental health. And the answer strikes at the core of the Bush Administration's most savored narratives--that we, alone, are masters of our nation's fate."

From The Nation, via Arts and Letters Daily.

I've another celebration here.

Now I'm off to write my Christmas cards. My record is sending them on Boxing Day, but this year I'm aiming to actually get them to (most) people by Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Thank Cecilia

I learned yesterday that if you want to thank, or blame, anyone for the "1066 and all that", perhaps it should be a nine-year-old girl called Cecilia.

She was the daughter of William the (to be) Conqueror and his queen Matilda, and she was given to a monastery in France before the invasion set out to help to ensure God's blessing on the expedition. She became a great abbess at Caen. There's a geneological summary here.

This was at a Historical Association talk at the Swedenborgh Society in Bloomsbury; a lovely hall very evocative of 19th-century "self-improvement".

The Historical Association local branch programme can be found here.

This week's acquisitions

abigails, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Only two this week, possibly because the post is getting even slower than usual.

One is the curiously titled The English Abigail, by Dorothy Margaret Stuart, London, Macmillan & Co, 1946, from which the above illustration is taken. "Abigail" is apparently a term for servant, although I've never heard it before.

It traces from Norman times into Victorian, although its definition of "servant" is rather broad, seemingly from the lowest scullion to the Queen Elizabeth's Chief Gentlewoman, Blanch(e) Parry.

The above illustrations are apparently from the Luttrell Psalter; "We see her kneeling beside a young lady and holding up a round hand-mirror so that the effect of the elaborate head-dress may be seen; we see her helping to make a bed, and stretching out streets which fall into symmetrical, angular convolutions..." (p. 4)

One theme that carries through the book is how the "great and good" are always complaining about the servahts climbing above their station, from the 14th-century poet John Gower to a correspondent to The Lady's Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of 1823:
"I found nothing but young ladies, delicately arrayed in white, with their heads a la Brutus, who declared they were all anxious for places, and wished to go out to service."

The second purchase was Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple (1652-54) edited by Edward Abbott Parry. It is available online, as I mentioned here, but for £1 on ebay how could I resist?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A state of rapturous stupidity

I'm limiting posts on current politics as too depressing, but I have to point to a site (thanks to Personal Political) with a speech by Bill Moyers when he accepted Harvard Medical School's Global Environment Citizen Award. It makes depressing reading:

"One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress.

...millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed - even hastened - as a sign of the coming apocalypse ... Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election - 231 legislators in total - more since the election - are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups.

... One of their texts is a high school history book, America's Providential History. You'll find there these words: "the secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie…that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.' however, "[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth……while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."

This reminds me of a site someone on Feminist Blogs pointed to (sorry, forgotten who), the Rapture Index. I thought at first this HAS to be a spoof, but gradually it becomes clear that they are deadly serious.

The idea is this is an index, just like any financial measure, judging how close is Judgement Day, when they confidently predict the predictions of Revelation, as written around two millennia ago, will come true to the letter.

And they get terribly upset when news is good, e.g."Financial unrest: The lack of any major news has downgraded this category."

Such a pity the church father didn't chuck that chapter out of the Bible when they were finalising it, as they very nearly did. It might have saved an awful lot of trouble. But so reassuring that financial indexes always seem to get their predictions wrong ....

Finally, on a more cheerful note, I just found the Freethought of the day website. It commemorates the birthday (in 1849), of the Swedish author and social critic Ellen Karolina Sofia Key. She wrote: "the most demoralising factor in education is Christian religious instruction. . . . even a more living, a more actual instruction in Christianity injures the child".

That reminds me of some children I used to babysit - and this was only 20 years ago. One of the five-year-old's paintings was on the fridge. It was on the subject he had been assigned by his apparently normal suburban Catholic school: Hell, and all its fire and brimstone. Frightening a five-year-old with Hell; if that's not child abuse I don't know what is.

Meet Sheela Na Gig

Thanks to a tip from a member of my online reading group, I found out about an unexpected side to Norman churches, Sheela na gigs, carvings of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva.

One suggestion is that this is a survival of pagan imagery, particularly perhaps in Ireland where a Celtic goddess was shown in a similar way. Another theory is that they were medieval morality figures, another that they represent the passageway to and from the afterlife. There's a sensible summary of the theories here.

There's a feminist, Mary Daly-style, article about them here. It says: "The reason for the adoption of Sheelas on secular buildings has been attributed to the Irish seeing them as a protective force, as noted by nineteenth-century researchers who “were told by local Irish people that Sheelas were intended to ward off evil.” This is reported along with a fascinating claim from a traveler in Ireland in the 1840s that, in order to lift a curse of bad luck, the afflicted should “persuade a loose woman to expose herself to him”.

Curious that such a widespread image (the first website has a long list and is collecting more) should be so little known and its history so unclear - but then perhaps not. Can't imagine Victorian historians talking about them, at least not without lapsing into Latin.

You can even buy a modern pendant reproduction here. It would certainly be a talking point.

Friday, December 10, 2004


I've always been suspicious of a Western tendency to worship at the feet of the Dalai Lama, condemn China for its invasion and subsequent treatment of Tibetan culture, and call (no doubt hopelessly) for the restoration of the hereditary theocracy. The current Dalai Lama may be a very nice bloke, but when he dies a group of religious courtiers would get to rule for the next couple of decades, and then who's to say what the next one would be like?

It is difficult, however, to get a decent handle on pre-Chinese Tibet, since the whole topic is so tied up with active politics.

So I've found my reading group's current text, Alexandra David-Neel's My Journey to Lhasa, very interesting.

She was apparently the first foreign woman to reach Lhasa, officially closed to women, which she achieved by disguising herself as a poor pilgrim. Now she is very much an imperious, sometimes arrogant, woman of her own Western culture, but I found the following account particularly interesting....

"The poor peasants, to whom my apparent poverty and my beggarly attire gave confidence, described their distress in that country where the soil does not produce every year enough grain to pay the pax in kind.
To leave the country, to look for better land or less exacting lords, is not permitted. A few ventured the flight and established themselves in neighbouring provinces. Having been discovered, they were taken away from the new home they had created and led back to Tashi Tse, where they were beaten and heavily fined.
Now many who had thought to imitate them, too frightened by the fate of their friends, remain, resigned, all energy destroyed, growing poorer each year, expecting no deliverance in this life. Others looked towards China. 'We were not ill-treated in this way when the Chinese were the masters,' they said. 'Will they come back? Maybe ... but when ... We may dies before.'"
(p. 119)

Food for thought.
(Reference from a 1940 Penguin, first published 1927. No translator's name given.)

Here's her "official website" (a lot of it in French) and a short bibliography.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The working week

There is a general idea that in the past people were forced to work vast numbers of hours a week, either in paid employment or in subsistence agriculture, but like many bits of "common knowledge" it seems to be largely a myth.

In subsistence and near subsistence farming cultures today seasonal unemployment is the norm - which makes sense when you think that while in low-tech agriculture a lot of labour is needed for field preparation, (often) planting, and harvest, not a lot usually needs to be done in between times.

But even wage employment was not so full on as we tend to think. eg. tin miners took an afternoon nap during their shift, while a treatise of 1778 noted that: "When a pair of men went underground formerly, they made it a rule to sleep out a candle, before they set about their work .... then rise up and work briskly; after that, have a touch pipe, that is rest themselves half an hour to smoke a pipe of tobacco, and so play and sleep away half their time...

Similar practices were described in many other trades and occupations. Most symbolical of customary irregular working was the observance of 'Saint Monday' - that is, keeping Monday as a holiday and hardly beginning the week's work until Tuesday. .... It has been suggested that among urban workers, Saint Monday was so generally observed by the later 18th century that a regular 'week' of which Tuesday was the first full working day was already in existence."

(J. Rule, "Against Innovation? Custom and Resistance in the Workplace 1700-1850", in T. Harris (ed) Popular Culture in England 1500-1850, Macmillan, 1995, pp. 180-181.)

I wonder if in the high working hours cultures of the UK and US, people are not working more on a regular basis than ever before.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Google Gmail invites

I've got six; if you'd like one please email me through the comments. First come, first served.

I have by no means explored all of its possibilities, but I have redirected a lot of my high-volume email lists through there, which at least cuts down for my other address, and the search function is much better than Outlook's - as you'd expect.

Thoughts on America

I find it hard to think about the US at the moment; it is all so depressing, the fundamentalism, the environmental destruction, etc, yet I've come across two arguments that have made me think about it more clearly, if no more happily.

The first is historical. (And I confess to knowingly little more than bare outlines of American history). But I have just read that in the 1800 election John Adams, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Thomas Jefferson, president of the American Philosophical Society, both "major figures of the American Enlightenment who believed that what the Europeans had merely imagined was being realised and fulfilled in the New World".

The historian Henry May said that this "marked the real end of the Enlightenment in America. [Afterwards] the Secular Millennium rapidly turned into Manifest Destiny." and idealistic rhetoric and practice was replaced by popular democracy. (Quoted in F. Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Harper 2004, p. 107)

Not a cheery thought really; if this is a two-century trend, how long before America gets to Saudi levels of fundamentalism?

My second piece of reading possible has an answer to that. In the November Prospect, which I've only just managed to catch up with, Timothy Snyder argues the similarities between George Bush's America and the world of Orwell's 1984. There's the totalitarianism, detention without trial etc, and, perhaps most spookily of all, the language. "As everyone knows, America's official discourse, as typified by the president's active vocabulary, has declined precipitously.

"His administration also generates Newspeak on purpose. The USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), for example, exploits the positive associations of the words 'USA' and patriot' to name a law that restricts the freedoms of many Americans ... The attackers of 11th September were 'our enemy', a general term that is then applied to people who had nothing to do with the attack, such as Saddam Hussein." ("War is Peace," p. 32)

No wonder everything possible is being done, from what I can see, to dumb down the American education system. Eventually that will have economic effects, but then I guess you just whip the slaves to work harder (than they already are).

An angry woman

This is a long post, but I think worth it, for the sheer driving anger that it expresses, and its wonderfully defamatory nature. It arose following a lawsuit over property on which John Horell was on the other side to the writer, Joan Armburgh.

But he had been raised by her mother, and she expected him consequently to take her side. The issue was around the parentage of two girls, which the claimant said were his wife's, while Joan believed they were his illegitimate daughters.

Joan Armburgh to John Horell, c. 1429-30

Bare friend in such manner wise as you have deserved, I greet you. For as much as it is not unknown to you and openly known in all the country, that your chief making has been through the manor of Radwinter, first by my lady mother's day and since in my time and notwithstanding that you, as a cuckoobird devouring the hedgesparrow when she hath bred him up and as an unkind bird that fouls his own nest, have laboured from that time unto this with my adversary John Sumpter and with them that have wedded his two bastard daughters, noising them all about the country for sisters and right heirs, there as you know well the contrary is true, so far forth to at you as the devil's child, father of falsehood, whose kind is always to do evil against good, has forsworn the divers times before escheators and justices to give the country false information that should pass between us in disinheriting of me and of my heirs of the moiety of the mother's inheritance in all that ever in you is, the which with the grace of God shall never lie in your power nor in no worthless fellows that have wedded those false bastards.

And besides this you have stirred mine adversaries to do strip and waste within my ground and to throw down my hedges and woods and especially the timber that groweth about in the garden, the which grieves me more than all the wrongs that they have done to me to this time, and have counselled them not to leave so much standing as pear trees nor apple trees nor any manner of trees that bear fruit and have a rejoicing in your heart to see the place at the utmost devoured and destroyed.

In so much that when you sit in taverns among your fellows you have a common byword in manner as a false prophet, saying that you hope to see the day that a hare sits upon the hearthstone of Radwinter hall, but I trust to God ere that manor that has been a habitation and dwelling place for many a worthy man of my ancestors from the Conquest to this time, and a long time before, be so desolate as you desire, that you will see my husband set up a pair of gallows within the same franchise for your neck, for those you curry be more able to dwell upon a bond tenement as their kin asks, not upon a real lordship, the which well shows by the destruction that they have done in the said manor, leaving not a stick standing upon the ground; I thank God I am strong enough to buy timber for a pair of gallows to hang you upon, and that you have well deserved it by the same token that you robbed two women of Sampford, which is well known, of the which, one of them you set upon a tree and that other you lay with against her will in the porter's house within the manor of Radwinter, for she should discover you.

Wherefore I trust to God that he will vouchsafe to give me power to serve you as the eagle serves his birds which he finds unkind and that will smite the dam with the bill and contrary to his own kind, for when an eagle has kept up his birds til they be somewhat mighty of themselves, he dresses their heads even against the sun
when it shines most bright and such as have been found kind to the dam and that look warily in the sun without any twinkling or blenching of their eye as their kind asks, he breeds them up until they be mighty enough of themselves to fly where they choose. And such as he has found unkind to the dam and that may not look against the sun without twinkling of their eye, as their kind would, he draws them out of his nest and throws them against the ground and breaks their necks.

This eagle in holy writ is likened to Christ who is father and mother to all Christian people. These birds are likened to the people here on earth, who ought all to be his children, the sun is likened to righteousness and truth and, like the eagle serves his unkind birds in manner and form as it is before rehearsed, right so the good Lord shall serve the unkind children of this world that will not look in the sun of righteousness nor go in the way of his commandments but rob and riven and do extortions and deprive men of their goods, their livelihoods and their lives with false fore swearing, he shall shorten their days and draw them out of their nests that they have been brought up in, that is for to say out of this world and throw them into the pit of hell.

And therefore by leave of that good Lord I take example of the eagle and for as much as you are like the eagle's bird that may not behold in the sun of righteousness, that is to say that you have made yourself blind through bribery and mead that you have taken from my adversaries and will not know the truth, but like an unkind bird have fouled the nest you were bred up in of a knave of a nought, that is to say, you have counselled my adversaries to distrain the manor of Radwinter as within rehearsed, the which manor was the cause of your trust and like a false cuckoobird you have laboured to devour your dam, that is to say, my mother and me, who have been mothers of your trust and your bringers up.

For anon after the death of my mother you stole away the moveable goods from Radwinter, that is to say, 'nete' and sheep and swine and household goods that should have been sold by her executors and used for her soul, and afterwards you had the management of Radwinter and Thycko and had as much of my goods as drew to the value of xl marks and falsely feigned general acquittance under my husband's seal and would never cease from that time to this with your false records, in hope to have disinherited me of my livelihood.

And therefore I give you my word that it shall not be long, though it costs me £40, but that I shall get me a judge to sit under commission on the franchise of Radwinter as I may and, if law will serve, with the grace of God you will be pulled out of the nest that you have gotten in your trust and laboured so sorely to destroy, and made to break your neck on a pair of gallows. I can say no more at this time, but I pray God send you what you have deserved, that is to say, a rope and a ladder.
(Chetham Mun.E.6.10(4); The Armburgh Papers, pp. 120-3)

My understanding is that women at this time, of her standing at least, would most often have dictated a letter to a scribe or clerk in their employ; just imagine her spitting it out - what a scene that must have been.

From Letters of Medieval Women, A. Crawford (ed) Sutton, 2002, Thrupp, p. 39-40. (I posted another letter here.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Someone had to do it

Scribbling woman kindly points towards my post on Gwen John's painting of her cleaning lady, which she links with Claire over on Early Modern Print Culture writing about an exhibition that I saw at the National Portrait Gallery last year, of Below Stairs: 400 years of Servants Portraits.

My favourite was a portrait of Bridget Holmes, a 96-year-old servant in the English royal household. Her job was being a "necessary woman", who did, as you'd expect, the necessary - emptying the chamber pots. Her "career" ran from Charles I to William and Mary.

There's a description of the painting and painter here, and the Guardian's account here.

While I'm on the subject of art, please allow me a little celebration that my favourite won the Turner Prize tonight, even if I did predict another result.

Monday, December 06, 2004

An individual

A final note on the artist Gwen John, from a lovely description of her by Jeanne Robert Foster, an American poet and editor who visited on behalf of her companion, who was Gwen's patron.

"Jeanne thought Gwen probably seemed younger than she actually was, and guess her age at 38 or 40 (she was 44). She noticed that she also created the impression of being taller than her actual height ... She thought Gwen looked a bit like a nun, with her dark hair parted in the middle and 'framing her face in an oval rim of shadow'. ...

Her face was a 'pure oval' ... Her voice was quiet and 'wavering', though 'occasionally broken by contralto notes of a fantastic determination to live as she pleases'. She noticed her hands, ' the slightly swollen pointed graceful hands of the heaven-born artists', and that she moved swiftly with a slight, attractive awkwardness.

Jeanne though she would never describe her as shy. 'She is perfectly poised, a great lady in a way, bitter towards the average person, determined to get her own way, proud, savagely proud, yet childish, very affectionate, wanting love, yet refusing it. ...

[The house] She found a stone floor, with no rugs, and no furniture in the living room except a very hard couch, a tiny coal stove and battered little oil stove, a small bookcase in the wall, a bare pine table (the round one which appears in the Interior paintings, a 'stand (simple easel) and three chairs. There was one picture on the wall, a drawing of Augustus's. ...

The overall atmosphere was, she thought, 'monastic,' rather than impoverished." (p.203-204 - biblio details here.)

A multidisciplinary world

Since I was at the Tate Britain on Saturday I thought I might as well check out the Turner Prize exhibition; coincidentally the winner will be announced tonight.

I was pleasantly surprised. I thought three of the four artists nominated were really worth exploring, which is not a bad average. But what I was taken by was the way that each of those three is an artist-slash-something.

Jeremy Deller is an artist/activist - he puts up and photographs memorials to people he thinks deserves to be remembered - eg an Australian cyclist killed in London (close to the bone that one for me), protesters killed in the miners' strike, etc; and organises big public events with a strongly political edge.

Kultug Ataman is an artist/documentary makers - his main work showing here is films of six people from the far east of Turkey - Arabs from a community that believes very strongly in reincarnation, which is what they talk about.

Langlands and Bell are artists/architects, and there work here focused on Afghanistan after the war - particularly the omnipresence of NGOs (and their acronyms), a videogame-style exploration of "Osama's house", and a film you can't see on legal advice "because of an ongoing trial at the Old Bailey". (You can't get much more "relevant" than that.)

You might have noticed no women yet - and as is far from unusual there are none; the "token" position would appear to be filled by a black artist, Yinka Shonibare, whose work - at least displayed here (and the judging is on the artist's entire body of work, not just this show - and I don't claim to be an expert so fans please don't start flaming me!) - just doesn't have the same intellectual content. A literal reconstruction of Fragonard's "The Swing" just made me go yeah? and a wall covered with circles of fabric ditto.

But the first three artists, it seems to me, are in their different ways confronting and perhaps beating Baudrillard's claim for the triumph of the hyperreal - by situating their work very firmly in the physical nature of the everyday they are insisting on its existence - their art is not just a simulation depicting simulation.

For what it is worth, which is almost nothing, were I betting I think I'd go for Langlands and Bell. Personally I preferred Deller, but I suspect their topicality will prove irresistible to the judges.

The other thing that was very impressive yesterday was the viewers - the place ws packed, and the average age 30 or even younger - this is art that is speaking to its audience. (Over with Gwen John, however, the average age would have been closer to 60, and very "middle-class regular gallery-goer".)

This week's acquisitions

* The Reform'd Coquet, Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, and The Accomplished Rake, Mary Davys, Martha F. Bowden, ed, University of Kentucky Press, 1999 - a purchase inspired by a seminar paper on the novelist, briefly discussed here

* 'Almost a Man of Genius', Clemence Royer, Feminism and Nineteenth-Century Science, Joy Harvey, Rutgers Uni Press, 1997, about a "thinker who wrote extensively on science, philosophy, feminism and their interaction, for both specialist and popular audiences ... [on gender and science] most notably in connectionwith the widely debated implications of Darwin's theory of evolution for man and woman's place in both nature and society".

* Diary of Mrs Kitty Trevylyan "A story of the times of Whitefield And the Wesleys. By the Author of "Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family", London, T Nelson and Sons, 1866. (Ebay impulse purchase)

* Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Atlantic, London, 2004

*Christianity: A Global History, David Chidester, Penguin 2001. (Ordered when I held out hopes of a small part-time OU tutoring job, which don't look like being realised.)

* Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayles, MIT Press, 2002: Hayles is one of those people who after you've read a couple of paragraphs you realise they are genuinely original, brilliant figures - I leant heavily on her in my thesis (posted on my website).

Saturday, December 04, 2004

This odd business of parenting

The artist Gwen John when in middle age told a friend: "When I was a child I used to cry all the time and they told me 'don't cry now, when you're grown up you'll have something to cry about'. So I was afraid of growing up and I never expected any happiness in life." (p.1)

So much for the grand old days of childrearing.

This reminded me of an article (sorry free registration required) in The New York Times about a study looking at "What Makes People Happy?". Peculiarly the main answer was TV, but "taking care of children - bless their young hearts - is often about as much fun as housework". (Don't you love the way the reporter felt he had to insert that sentimental clause.)

"The study, of 909 women living in Texas, found that in general, the group woke up a little grumpy but soon entered a state of mild pleasure that increased by degrees through the day, punctuated by occasional bouts of anxiety, frustration, and anger. Predictably, they found that commuting, housework, and facing a boss rated as the least pleasant activities, while sex, socializing with friends and relaxing were most enjoyable.

Yet contrary to previous research on daily moods, the study found that the women rated TV-watching high on the list, ahead of shopping and talking on the phone, and ranked taking care of children low, below cooking and not far above housework."

It makes sense really; the people you see in public looking really miserable are almost invariably in charge of children.

(Thanks to Rox Populi for the reference.)

Gwen John, adventurer

To the Tate Britain for the Gwen John and Augustus John exhibition, much and justly praised, for its art and its social documentation.

He was, of course, much the better known and regarded during their lifetimes - all sorts of extravagant praise was heaped on him (no doubt to his detriment), but to my eyes, while he could certainly draw, most of his paintings are no better than local "art show and fete" jobs. (He is support for the theory, which I learnt about here, that technical skills are not necessarily good for an artist at the start of their career.)

She, however, from quite early on, was striving towards the intellectually original and technically perfect, as is now being recognised.

It seems odd in some ways, that what she arrived at was small, "domestic", self-contained scenes, often described as very prim and "womanly", while she was actually living a life of almost total freedom. She was a model for and lover of Rodin, and in her adult life always lived alone, by choice, supporting herself by her art and her nude modelling for artists. (Even today many still find this desire to live alone odd; I know I'm regularly told so!)

A review of the exhibition can be found here.

I was unable to resist the biog in the bookshop (Gwen John, a life, by Sue Roe, Vintage, 2002), an author who must have had a wonderful job, since huge quantities of her letters and those of her circle survive.

One of her earliest oils was of Mrs Atkinson, the cleaning lady. "She used to greet her affectionately with a kiss, shocking Edna Waugh's sister Rosa into ... 'All barriers of differing class and occupation were silently shattered by the sight of that simple act.' (p. 21)

She and Dorelia, her brother's mistress, set out together to walk to Rome. "Augustus ... thought they should pack a pistol. But Gwen would not listen 'she never did.' They set off that August 'carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment'. ... They began the long walk up the River Garonne ... Gwen sent home evocative accounts of their journey, lyrical descriptions of the evening light along the west coast of rural France; incidents involving the locals and bizarre, nocturnal adventure. In the villages they drew the locals for a few centimes ... They lived on bread, grapes and beer, and spent their time fending off strange men who tried to take them on detours." (p. 38) This, for a solicitor's daughter in 1903 (albeit one who had a relatively unconventional, motherless childhood) is amazing stuff!

The painting she did of Dorelia, entitled "The Student", after they had settled briefly in Toulouse, is one of the finest of her early works. They didn't make it to Rome, however; but headed instead for Paris (probably because of a man Dorelia had met, although Gwen later helped get her back for her brother.)

A collection of her work can be found here.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Keeping up with the 15th century

Proving there is nothing new about keeping up with the Joneses ...

A letter from Margaret Walkerne to her stepfather, Robert Armburgh, c. 1430:

My dear and well beloved father, I commend me to you, doing you to wit that I have but a little while to go and am like within a short time with the grace of God to be delivered of child.

And for as much as ladies and gentlewomen and other friends of my mother's and mine are like to visit me while I lie in child bed and I am not purveyed of honest bedding without the which my husband's honest [honour?] and mine may not be saved, and also my friends have been put to so grievous costs and importable changes through entangling of their adversaries, and my husband is new come into his lands and is but bare and as yet hath little profit taken thereof and hath laid great cost on his husbandry that they may not acquit your good fatherhood that you would vouchsafe in saving of mine husband's worship and mine to lend me two marks [13s 4d] or twenty shillings unto the next term [rent[ day that my husband's farm comes in, and then with the grace of God you shall be well and truly paid again. I can no more at this time.

(You can take a breath now - they weren't big on full stops then.)

From Letters of Medieval Women, A. Crawford (ed) Sutton, 2002, Thrupp, p. 39-40.

The commentary says it is not known if her stepfather was able to oblige, since "he and her mother were in serious financial difficulties over a legal case and the expense of Margaret's wedding, so she may have had to put a brave face on it and receive her visitors with what she had".

For those not up on these times it is worth noting that clothing (and bedding) then was very expensive, particularly the fine stuff Margaret obviously wants.

Much more could probably be found in The Armburgh Papers: The Brokholes Inheritance in Warwickshire, Hertfordshire and Essex, c.1417-c.1453, Woodbridge, 1998.