Philobiblon: August 2005

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Net nuggets No 19

* The Scandinavian states are often cited as paradises of gender relations. But it seems not all is right in the state of Sweden. A reminder, if one was needed, of the difficulties of changing deep-seated cultural patterns.

* The same might be said about this preview of a book about race in America which argues that the whites are the problem. Is it also true of Britain and Australia? I think you could make a reasonable case.

* Britain is sending homosexual men back to Iran, where they face persecution, maybe even execution. (Except in one case the victim committed suicide first.) Read this excellent post on Musings from Middle England and write to your MP; I have. (Found on Tim Worstall's Britblog roundup.)

* But when it comes to pure barbarism, it is always hard to beat America. There's an account on Women's eNews of woman who had to go to court to enforce her right to an abortion, which of course she had to pay for, and made just in time. But what really struck me was the account further down the story of a woman who spent the last three weeks of her pregnancy chained to a hospital bed, having to call for assistance to have her chains moved when she even wanted to turn over. Now I've never been pregnant, and don't expect to be, but when you see heavily pregnant women they usually look very uncomfortable and shift around regularly trying to find some relief. Just imagine!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Thai women and work

Finally, very belatedly, I've done a quick update on my website, which has been hopelessly neglected for almost a year in favour of the blog. I guess in my new freelance writing life I'm going to have to do a major revamp soon, but in the meantime I've just put up a series of articles on "Thai women and work", written for the Kitakyushu Forum on Asian Women's foreign correspondent programme for 1995-6, that I stumbled across during my recent move.

There's Breaking through the barriers, a general overview, Sex work - A Labour issue? and Unemployment, A Looming Danger.

The statistics are not the latest now, but probably as up-to-date as many to be found on the web, and the articles might still be of use to somebody. (I do hate to labour over something that then just sits on a shelf.)

I know a lot more about HTML now than I did when I set up the website in 2001, although I'm still far from expert. I wrote these using a programme called Hotdog, which I got off the front of a computer magazine(!) I'm wondering if anyone can recommend any free or cheap programmes to use, as this now looks awfully clunky?

The man to ultimately blame for Wal-Mart

I've explored before the early modern practice of charivaris, or rough music, but was surprised to read of a late 19th-century example, and in London.

It was Guy Fawkes Day, 1876, and small retailers were protesting about the practices of William Whiteley, a former draper who was developing what would be London's first department store. About noon ...

A grotesque and noisy cortege entered the thoroughfare [Westbourne Grove]. At its head was a vehicle, in which a gigantic Guy was propped up ... vested in the conventional frock coat of a draper... Conspicuous on the figure was a label with the words 'Live and Let Live' ... In one hand of the figure a piece of beef bore the label "5 1/2 d" and in the other was a handkerchief, with the ticket "2 1/2 d. all-linen". (Quoted in Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End, Erika Diane Rappaport, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 16)

So this might be the man you could ultimately blame for Wal-Mart. "He became known as the "Universal Provider" - a merchant who claimed to sell anything to anybody. By combining dissimilar goods in one business and offering cut-price goods for cash only." (p. 17) He was consequently, local shopkeepers complained, putting them out of business.

Thus the debate over Wal-Mart, Tesco and their ilk of our time has echoes in late Victorian London. And there are others.

In 1872 Whiteley had applied for a liquor licence for wine in his new refreshment room. But this could mean LADIES drinking spirits in PUBLIC! The otherwise general liberal editor of the local paper complained: "... sherry and silks, or port and piques, need not of necessity go together when ladies go 'shopping'." (p. 30)

Today the debate in England and Wales is over the extension of liquor licence hours, which is producing a similar moralistic backlash.

Some complained that the provision of abundant goods in opulent settings encouraged consumption. Even the provision of "rest rooms" encouraged "excessive shopping" that produced a "wild and reckless period .... things are done in a financial way that would make the angels weep ... The afternoon's excitement has ... all the attractions of a delightful dream, with the slight dash of an orgy, leaving a lingering pleasure even over repentance". (p. 38) Today's debate is over-consumption of credit, and also, of course, plain over-consumption.

And finally, for those who complain about the pavement jaywalkers of Oxford Street, there's the consolation to know that once "two young servants were fined for driving their perambulators abreast... The magistrate asked them: 'How are the people to pass if you girls are gaping after soldiers and policemen?' (p. 44)

Monday, August 29, 2005

Update on yesterday

The man behind the mail-order bride slur, John Brogden, has been forced to resign. (And I was pleased to see that Anne Summers, one of the grandes dames of Australian feminism, agrees with me.)

On another subject altogether, has anyone else been having problems logging into Blogger? I keep having to have two or three goes at it, both at work and home, getting error messages indicating "cookies are not enabled". Anyone know of a solution? And yes, my cookies are perfectly available and I believe tasty, thank you.

Light blogging today, due in part to inertia induced by horribly sore muscles. The message for next season is that I must do more preparation for wicketkeeping. But I have added a nice range of new bloggers to my blogroll: please check them out.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

So what has changed?

Two stories on opposite sides of the world are a reminder that an awful lot of stereotypes about women, and men, haven't changed at all.

An Australian state Opposition leader has got into trouble for calling the premier's wife a mail-order bride. (She happens to be from Malaysia - actually highly unlikely to be a source of women using paid online marriage arrangement services, since it is far too wealthy.) It left me wondering why "mail-order bride" should be considered, as it undoubtedly is, a nasty term of abuse?

Perhaps the suggestion is that anyone who is a "mail-order bride" is little better than a prostitute (an uncomfortably obvious exposure of the traditional economics of marriage) and anyone who marries them can't get a "proper" woman - a slur on his manhood indeed. I wonder, if you called such women "economic refugees", would they get better treated?

Then in France, that home of supposedly sophisticated relations between the sexes, the Interior Minister, and possible future President, Nicolas Sarkozy is, according to The Telegraph considering divorcing his wife Cécilia, since while the French public apparently has no problem with male politicians having several simultaneous relationships, one of their wives doing the same thing is considered a reflection on her husband's virility.

Why even, if this were true, should virility have anything to do with political ability? Is there some hint here into the reasons why women candidates can find selection committees, if often not voters, so resistant to their campaigns?


On another side of stereotypes, the Sydney Morning Herald's Spike column reports that the second and fourth most common Australian web searches for men are Ned Kelly and Slim Dusty (an old-style country music singer, now dead). Funny how one of the most urbanised societies on earth clings to its foundation myths.

Shane Warne (cricketer) and John Howard (current, dreadful Prime Minister) were first and third, for the record.

Fever findings

Well the "sweat it out" theory seems to have made my cold neither better nor worse: thoroughly unscientific conclusion - it doesn't work.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Testing, to destruction?

Well today I tested out, possibly to destruction, the theory of "sweating out" a cold. Having been down with a rotten one for a couple of days, I really wasn't fancying a scheduled cricket game, but since I knew we were already two short I didn't think I really could pull out - nine is almost a team; eight really isn't.

So I trotted along, and wasn't altogether surprised to be asked to keep wicket. Well, I told myself, at least I won't have to run - just leap up and down and around hundreds of times ....

But in cricketing terms it worked quite well. I was pretty chuffed with how I kept, to one serious quickie and a couple of sometimes wayward medium pacers.

And then happily I didn't (quite) have to bat as we astonishingly - with the help of a magnificent century - managed to successfully chase a total of 251 in 32 overs.

And I didn't even get a lot of bruises ...

It was only the third time I've kept since taking it up again after an 18-year hiatus, and I think I have to thank cycling for the fact that I survived the experience - without the underlying level of fitness it has given me I would never have made it.

And feeling rotten might have even helped in an odd way - it took some of the pressure off feeling like I have to succeed amid an otherwise all-male team.

But as for the sweating-out theory, we'll see. I'm off to bed for a long sleep ... I may be some time.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 20

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly "top ten" collection.

Starting on the serious side, Pandora's Blog offers a reasoned defence of experimentation on animals in the light of the closing, under the pressure of sometimes-criminal protests, of a guinea pig farm in England this week. I fear, however, this is not a subject on which some people are amenable to reason.

Et. al is horrified that pupils are being issued with E-books as textbooks. "The pleasures of the library must be learned," she argues.

The D Spot provides pithy anecdotes about life in New York, including its so-not-tactful ladies who shop. Kat on Ratblog, meanwhile, has been encountering some not-so-tactful men in her lab. My first degree was agricultural science and her post reminds me of the lecturer who used to intersperse slides of naked women in between those of cow uteri, "just to liven things up".

Shorty PJs is musing on the place her occasional journal plays in her writing life, which sould seem to be a tortuous one, judging by the accompanying picture. (I don't know where she gets the illustrations from, but they are brilliant.) Becky's Journal's author meanwhile, has turned her hand to poetry for the first time ever, and it was published on Salon. (Regular poets out there are not allowed to turn green with envy - read it and you'll see she deserved it.)

Still on the literary side, but very much at the cutting edge, Jill/txt is musing on the possibilities unleashed by the release of the source code of the early 3d first-person shooter Quake. The idea, as I understand it in my largely "old literature" mind, is to turn it into a three-dimensional narrative. I'm interested in this because it seems to me there must someday pretty soon be a real breakthrough in the nature of popular fiction into a new form exploiting all of the possibilities of the web. But it doesn't seem to have happened yet.

Broken Clay Journal, meanwhile, is cleaning out her wardrobe and finding lots of black skirts. I guess most of us have a fashion "tic" like that - mine's black jackets.

Are We There Yet meanwhile, provides Reasons to ride your bike. Not a new post, but as you may have noticed, it is one of my areas of interest.

The Daily Blog with Kelley Bell, who might have some links with the Mary Daly school of feminism, is trying to start a debate on The Da Vinci Code, saying she finds it attacks the "wicked step mother and seeks to put men and women back on equal footing". I can't in all honesty see it myself, but read the post and make up your own mind.


Last week's is here if you missed it.


I've now made a collection of 200 female bloggers: I've already collected the first hundred together, and I'll soon put up a collected list of the past ten weeks.

I'm going to take it easy for the next couple of weeks - Femmes Fatales will continue, but mostly revisiting some of the old favourites. I'll probably pick up the hunt for new bloggers after that. Nominations of new blogs to include are still, however, highly welcome.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

What's your ink?

A fascinating collection of posts on the 18th-century email list has been exploring historic inks. It's a reminder of how much more complicated everyday living was in the past; how much you had to know about all sorts of things that now happen invisibly, off stage.

I once intended to learn Chinese painting - might even get back to it one of these days, since I love the results - so I have got a lovely stone palettes and ink sticks, which just have to be ground with water.

But in the West these don't seem to have developed; instead you started from scratch. There are some recipes here. (And if you are wondering about the seemingly essential "gallnuts" they are: "A nutlike swelling produced on an oak or other tree by certain parasitic wasps.")

But the results, it seems, from the The ink corrosion website - which deals in detail with "major threat to our cultural heritage" - were not always ideal.

This left me musing about modern inks: pen and computer. How durable are they? But then again as librarians often warn, electronic records are certainly worse.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The good, the interesting, the bad and the ugly

* Women's eNews today has a commentary on the lack of visibility of prominent women in the media. I found it hopelessly naive and US-centric, but it did remind me I'd been meaning to point to Pratie Place's post on the Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. If you were going to write a book on "great women of the modern world" she'd be near the top of the list.

* Research into the death of Christopher Marlowe that looks somewhat better founded than such reports usually are.

* Two Australian journalists face jail for refusing to reveal a source. This was not some issue of "national security", but a wrangle over veterans' pensions that embarrassed the government. So sad to think that little more than a decade ago Australia was one of the world's leaders in human rights. It is getting more like the "Land of the Not-Free" every day - which of course suits John Howard just fine. Still, I suppose it is at least not yet AS bad ....

* Alabama's use of the death penalty sounds like something out of the 19th century:

All 19 of Alabama's appellate court judges are white, as are 41 of its 42 elected District Attorneys. Odds are 1 in 3 that your jury will be all white as well. ...Though black people account for only 26% of Alabama's population overall, nearly 63% of its prisoners are black. Of the 23 people executed in Alabama between 1975 and 2001, 70% were black.

So much for the right to life.
(Via Pen-Elayne.)

Now I've done it

I've been planning it, then drawing back from it, getting excited, then getting cold feet, but I finally handed in my resignation at work yesterday. So soon (well probably in three months - that's the contract period) I'll be out on Grub Street, trying to earn a crust with whatever ideas for stories I can dream up (and, hopefully, some time soon, a book contract!)

Wish me luck - I'll need it.

(The image above is from a Punch cartoon - my source simply dates it as "Victorian". The text underneath says: Old-fashioned Party (with old-fashioned predjudices). "Ah! Very clever I dare say. But I see it's written by a lady, and I want a book that my daughters may read. Give me something else!")

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Goodbye Sir Ian Blair

Fearless prediction of the day: Sir Ian Blair, Chief of the Metropolitan Police (London), won't be in his post in a month. That follows his astonishing inept handling of the aftermath of the shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes.

It probably won't be the disgraceully hysterical policing that led to the shooting down of an innocent man by police that does for him - though it should. The inquiry will be dragged out long enough, and the water muddied enough (where did those CCTV tapes go?) that the media will have him out before then for his personal actions. (This post* does an excellent job of outlining what went wrong, so I won't go over this ground again.)

But the man who keeps questioning why "so much fuss" is being made over the police shooting rather than the criminal bombings (Excuse me - you're the state and you killed one of your own citizens for no reason at all) and who makes an unbelievable joke of his response when told - he says 24 hours after the shooting on learning of the mistake he thought "Houston, we have a problem" - is sure to keep making so many errors that the politicians already emerging like football chairmen to express "total confidence in the manager" will soon be changing their tune.

There's only one thing I'm worried about. I'm agreeing with Tim Hames. That's never happened before.

* Found on Britblog Roundup No 27, in which yours truly also has a humble part.

Theatre review: Antigone at Hell's Mouth

A joint production with the National Youth Theatre, a musical comic/tragic updating of an ancient Greek classic - introducing Antigone at Hell's Mouth, at the Soho Theatre in London like that will make most people run a mile. It sounds like a production you'd be dragged to kicking and screaming only because a Significant Other has a starring role. Yet the fact is Mike Shepherd's production is good, very good - a mature, sophisticated show to which the traditional youth adjectives of "energy-packed" and "vibrant" can also be fairly applied.

Nick Darke's story for the Cornish Kneehigh Theatre company has the Kernow Liberation Front finally deciding to throw out the colonisers and their second homes, taking back possession of the land, the sea and the very air for the people of Cornwall. The initial clash takes a youthful form, in a doubly fatal game of "chicken" with stolen cars. The rebel's champion was "Johnny Throttle", and while his opponent and brother, entombed still in his crushed vehicle, is to be given a state funeral in London, the bones of Johnny are to be thrown to the gulls. But his sister Gonnieta (Kate Hewitt) has already secured "Johnnny Throttle's Throttle Foot" as a holy relic and is, of course, determined to secure the rest for a decent burial.

On the other side the new "Duke of Cornwall" (Mike Davis), resplendent in beauty pageant-winner's sash, is just itching to exercise his newfound power, which includes the right to inflict capital punishment - such a step-up from being a singer in a fifth-rate cover band with a dubious family past. He's backed by a ridiculous pirouetting brigadier from London and a Machieavellian secretary who coaches him into his role. The members of his former band form his reluctant and ridiculous bench.

Yet interspersing these dramatic scenes of confrontation, which end in genuine tragedy, just as an Antigone should, are delightful comic interludes. Definitely the best are those of the Second Home Owners' Wives chorus, boasting faux posh accents, fluffy lapdogs on sticks, and a nice line in handbag swinging. But Zeus the dog - the Duke/Prince/King's human hound - played in fine playful Jacobean jester style, is another highlight.

The serious side of the chorus is a collection of blind, mystical archaeologists in boiler suits and gas masks. I wasn't sure about their opening of the play, but in its closing they provide a logical finality, and they settled comfortably within the simple but effective staging - the dust to which all will eventually fall plays a central part. The music too is evocative but never overwhelming.

There's barely a weak link in any aspect of this production. Check the full talent list; you'll read most of the names again soon.

The only other review I've found is here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Review: Digging the Dirt

Archaeology has to be central to our understanding of ourselves and our world - will help us to keep our feet literally and metaphorically on the ground, Jennifer Wallace argues in Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination. Well she would say that, you might respond - her background is in archaeology.

Yet she makes a persuasive cases that enmeshes the reader in accounts of post-modern theory, Romantic poetry, Victorian treasure-hunting, Freudian psychology and popular science. In the wrong hands this mix would be a half-baked mish-mash, hidden behind a palisade of incomprehensible jargon, but Wallace writes simply, directly, and with informative brevity, while often allowing her key figures to speak for themselves.

She is particularly taken with figures who operate in productive, even paradoxical, binaries, rather than the traditional definitive forms. So she introduces the poet Margaret Keogh, who immersed herself in the classical world of Pompeii from her English home. "Pompeii was impossibly distant for her and so it became a place of desire … She feels dead whereas Pompeii is paradoxically vivid and alive; she is grey and sad while Pompeii is sunny and happy … Men would travel to Pompeii and include it on their Grand Tour; women had to stay home and read about it." (p. 86)

Wallace makes an argument for archaeology forcing a materialistic, practical view of the world, which she calls "scepticism" and compares to Hamlet's experience in the graveyard scene, saying "the literalness of the dying process ... runs counter to any possible religious interpretation ... when faced with withered fragments of bone and tooth and hair ... worse when those remains are mingled with the dust". (p. 130) Yet she also asserts its importance as an indelible record, particularly in its modern use in forensic science: the undeniable witness at war crimes trials around the world.

These conflicting views of archaeology are at the heart of early Christianity, Wallace says, comparing Eusebius's discrete refusal to acknowledge Helena's rediscovery of the "True Cross" with the nun Egeria's enthusiastic embrace of a physical religion of place, "that it was at these spots that the stories cohered and where they appeared to make most vivid sense". Wallace admits the logic and reality of Walter Benjamin's explanation of the "aura" of archaeological objects, and, implicitly place, yet also drily points out that " hills of the Golan, for a start, are not as they would have been in Jesus’ time, being studded with landmines". (p. 169)

The study of archaeology and, in particular ancient history, frequently appears innately conservative, with its roots in that old standard "The Classics", but Wallace says that: "Stratified history is necessary for an effective, grounded, radical politics" (p. 20). She goes back to a National Assembly deputy who used it as proof that regimes could and did fall, grouping that view to Shelley's Ozymandias.

Wallace accepts the view of Deleuze and Guattari, that: "Stratigraphy ... enables knowledge, and it only through knowledge that we can organise political campaigns, establish communities, create a vibrant culture." (p. 187) But these she says, following these two authors, are in fact only useful fictions, a view also shared by post-modern archaeologists: "archaeology should move away from the hierarchical privileging of depth over surface and examine rather surface sites, delimited areas, nebulous spaces. It should be prepared to leave objects without a definitive explanation. And it should see archaeology as a form of rhetoric, rather than ‘reflection’ upon this world". (p. 189)

If you're interested in history and archaeology, and particularly their place in the world of thought, this is a book you should read.

But don't be put off by the theory. If you're just interested in the history of archaeology and society's interaction with it, there are also many great tales. I was particularly taken with the story of the plundering of Milton's grave as an example of what might be called the "naive" archaeological imagination.

Another review here.


We have come a long way

It is sometimes easy to forget that we have come a long way in a few decades. I was pulled up short by the information that "as recently as 1974 there was correspondence in the Lancet about why flowers handled by a menstruating woman should wilt".

Odd how many florists are female then ...

(From Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800, Anthony Fletcher, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995, p. 63)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

What's your cup?

To the Victoria and Albert today - and one of those annoying times when I was waiting to meet someone while they were waiting somewhere else. (He didn't have a mobile - still this must have happened an awful lot more before they existed ... )

So I spent the afternoon with the Tudors - something I should have done long before; I've had a bit of a mental block on the V&A and the whole "decorative arts" business: I spent too much of my childhood being dragged around antique shops that bored me silly. (Odd that seems now, but there were never any stories attached to things, only prices.)

The collection of textiles is truly astonishing. Not perhaps the royal stuff - that the marriage suit of James II should have survived, albeit without the waistcoat, is no great shock, but I was impressed by some of the humbler costumes, such as the embroidered lying-in smock dating back to 1630 using patterns from A Schole-house for the Needle by Richard Shorleyker (1624) and the jacket of Margaret Laton, whose portrait also survives.

I was also taken by a posset cup, looking rather more like a teapot, but with the spout instead meant as a straw. The V&A example looks not unlike this one, although not quite so elaborate. The V&A said that these were used for "warm nutritious drinks, often given to women after birth: milk beaten with eggs, sugar and spices and curdled with ale or sherry".

It hardly seems that women would have these just for the odd occasion they needed them, so I wondered if they might not be part of a midwife's kit, at least among midwives catering to the higher classes. Anyone come across this?

There's more about possets, and a recipe, here. Not altogether sure about sherry AND ale in it - otherwise it is more or less an alcoholic egg nog, which sounds fine to me. This article suggests these were not for new mothers, but rather for convivial suppers, with the liquor drunk from the spout and the "custard" eaten from the top.

According to this ballad, it certainly was ceremonial fare ...

The candles being light againe,
And things well and quiet,
A goodly posset was brought in
To med their former diet.
Then Robin for to have the same
Did turn him to a beare;
Straight at that sight the people all
Did run away for feare.

While in my cups, I also learnt another new term: fuddling cup. The root of the term is the same as "befuddled", and was an elaborate drinking joke, of the "fart cushion" sort that I suspect the Tudors would have found hilarious, and us in general less so.

Several vessels were linked together in a ring and the drinker would have required greater manual dexterity than is common late in the evening to end up with the liquid in his mouth rather than on his shirt. (There's an example here.)

A reminder of other differing sensibilities comes in the locket commemorating the birth of John Monson in 1597. Annoyingly, as in the case of many other characters in the gallery, the V&A tells you no more about him - a little biography please! He presumably is the same John Monson reported on this website as marrying Ursula Oxenbridge in 1627 and had a son John, later "Sir John" in the following year. He was the grandfather of the "1st Lord Monson" (b. 1693).

Nothing unusual in that, you might say, except this heart-shaped locket was made to hold the caul, which covered the baby's head when he was born. It was dried and placed in it. That's what you call a personal momento.

Net Nuggets No 17

* Marina Warner is an author for whom I have enormous respect. In this excellent piece in the TLS, she explores the meaning and significance of the fictional, quasi-fictional and non-fictional apocalypes on our screens today. Think of its as Baudrillard grounded in the flesh.

* This review of a biography of James Hogg certainly made me want to read the book, although it suggests it might not be for those of delicate sensibilities, or stomaches. It reminds me that that Australian country term for testicles is "bush oysters" - that give you a clue?

* A satirical thoughout experiment in Cro-Magnon science fiction? That's how you might describe this Brad DeLong post. If that doesn't seem to make much sense, try it for yourself.

* A Booklist on the subject of lesbians in Paris and London in the early 20th century. (Now that should bring some search traffic - although they'll be horribly disappointed.)

* Stories in America is taking a roadtrip through "Red" America and asking the questions of the day of "ordinary" people. The results are interesting, and frightening. So much for the Land of the Free, at least in Texas:

"It would hurt your job search if a potential employer heard you criticize Bush?

Of for sure, it could hurt. If I were lockstep in agreement with the Bush administration, there would be no issue. You do learn to conform. It's very common. You learn the hard way. I consider it a rabid form of Republicanism. It's not like the east coast Republicanism of the first Bush administration. That was completely different. Those Republicans don't recognize these Republicans, but these Republicans are the ones who are dominating."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

A forgotten humanitarian

On 10 May 1790 Sir Benjamin Hammett brought a bill before the House of Commons "for altering the Sentence of burning Women", which was to finally abolish the punishment of being burnt at the stake for petty treason (killing of a husband) and high treason (almost invariably "coining" - making fake or adulterated coins). The Bill became law on 5 June.

(I might note at this point that this is not a post for those prone to nightmares.)

There's little around on the internet on the issue, beyond this draft article about the attitudes of the period that may have led to the abolition. (And an interesting case of Nimbyism, in that it suggests the moving of the site of execution from semi-rural Tyburn to heavily built-up Newgate may have played a part in the change.)

Sir Benjamin was remembered in Notes and Queries in the 19th century, but seems to have been otherwise little noted.

N&Q reports that he told parliament this was

"One of the savage remains of Norman policy, disgracing our statute book, as the practice did the common law."

The replacement punishment still meant being hung by the neck until dead, but when you read an account of the death of Eleanor Elsom in Lincoln in 1722, that does sound like a mercy. Like most women in the 18th century (except occasionally when practical arrangements went wrong, as in the famous case of Catherine Hayes in 1726, when the executioner was said to be drunk), she was, it seems, dead before the fire reached her, but what she had endured first ...
"She was clothed in a cloth 'made like a shift', saturated with tar, and her limbs were also smeared with the same inflammable substance, while a tarred bonnet had been placed on her head. She was brought out of the prison barefoot, and, being put on a hurdle, was drawn on a sledge to the place of execution near the gallows. Upon arrival, some time was passed in prayer, after which the executioner placed her in a tar barrel, a height of three feet against the stake. A rope ran through a pulley in the stake, and was placed around her neck, she herself fixing it with her hands. Three irons also held her body to the stake, and the rope being pulled tight, the tar barrel was taken aside and the fire lighted. The details in the 'Lincoln Date Book' state that she was probably quite dead before the fire reached her, as the executioner pulled upon the rope several times whilst the irons were being fixed." (From William Andrews, Bygone Punishments, 1899 quoted in "Sentence of Death By Burning For Women" in The Journal of Legal History, Vol 5, No 1, May 1984, pp. 44-59; p. 47).

As Sir Benjamin told Parliament, this was gender inequality, for men convicted of the same offenses were no longer subject to drawing and quartering and "women should not receive a more dreadful punishment than men". Plus "it had been proved by experience that the shocking punishment did not prevent the crime". (p. 55)

Interestingly there seems to have been little debate, and almost unanimous support for the Bill, in, as Sir Benjamin put it, "the cause of humanity".

There's a very brief outline of Sir Benjamin's background, from a Taunton perspective, here. But I thought he deserved a bit more recognition as the architect of a small step on the road to civilisation. It would take another two centuries (not, you'd have to say in the broad sweep of these things a bad rate of progress), to finally, definitely, end the barbarism of the death penalty in Britain.

, a Technorati tag

Friday, August 19, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 19

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten posts.

On Bane's Desmene, the author is musing on the ways in which being a girl is a pain, while Academic Coach warns us to watch out for a deluge of supposedly women-friendly websites.

La Lecturess is musing on the value of academic gossip, while Sarsparilla is listening to the sounds of holiday life.

Pretty hard dammit is finishing her thesis - I think many of us can sympathise with that. In this post she goes back to its origins, an upsetting discovery made when she was still in high school. (To think it has taken me 40 years to even know what subject I might want to do a thesis on.)

Badgerings is remembering the 'theatrical strange-making' of an Alice Cooper concert. (And if you think life is tough for you at the moment, read her introductory post, and weep, and be glad if you live in a place with proper access to healthcare.)

Still on the health side, Code Blog: Tales of a Nurse, has an ambiguous story from inside a modern ICU unit.

On Sisters Talk, a mother wrestles with the issues of ADHD, particularly medication, while Geeky Mom is considering whether compulsion in education, at least for women in maths and science, wouldn't be a bad idea.

And if that all seems a bit serious, visit Girl with a One-Track Mind for a post in which she gives a man with a one-track mind a lesson in chatting-up etiquette. (Not, perhaps, a suitable-for-work blog.)


Here's No 18 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shortcuts to learning

There's nothing new about "idiots' guides" or shortcuts for those who want to write that exam essay without reading the text on which it is supposed to be based. I've just been reading a fascinating essay on Elizabethan and Jacobean examples.

The merchant William Fulwood in 1568 produced The Enime of Idlenesse: Teaching the manner and stile how to endite, compose, and write all sorts of Epistles and Letters: as well by answer, as otherwise, Devided into foure Bokes, no lesse pleasaunt than profitable.

He tells his "reasonable Reader" that this is not for the "cunning clearke" but the "unskilful scholar that wanteth instructions". It wasn't just for business, also including "what sorte thou mayest (I say at such vacant times) take thy penne in hande and gratifie thy friend with some prettie or pleasant conceit".

It went through eight editions up until 1621. By that time, women were also seen as a market. The Academy of Complements. Wherein Ladyes, Gentlemwomen, Schollers, and Strangers may accomplish their Courtly Practice with most Curious Ceremonies, Complements, Amorous, High Expressions and formes of speaking, or writing ... with Additions of witty Amorous Poems. And a Table expounding the hard English Words. This was published, perhaps unsurprisingly, pseudonomously. by one "Philomosus".

Travel guidebooks and phrasebooks start about the same time. One of the first in English was probably Andrew Borde's The fyrst boke of the Introduction of knowledge, which contained all of the information we'd recognise: descriptions of countries, their monetary systems, and useful foreign phrases. It was published in 1542, less than 70 years after printing had been introduced into England - it is amazing how fast printers learnt to seek out new markets.

There was even marriage guidance, if only as an aside from business advice. In An Essay of Drapery, Or the Compleate Citizen. Trading Justly, Pleasingly, Profitably (1635) William Scott wrote that a certain amount of dissemination was allowed, as "with one who hath married a wife, whome hee must use well, pretending affection to her, though hee cannot love her".

From "Handbook Learning of the Renaissance Middle Class", Louis B. Wright, in Studies in Philology, Vol 28, 1931, pp. 58-86.

I've been finding lately odd bits of fascinating scholarship in social history published in the Thirties. It seems that this trend was disrupted by the war, and a lot of the work has disappeared from view - the Fifties perhaps not being very "socially" inclined. I've found some of these Thirties journals very good hunting grounds for little-referenced material.

Cycle helmets: wear 'em

It is a frequently angry, everlasting debate among cyclists: helmets or no helmets?

I'm in one of the extreme groups: I won't go out without one.

Partly that's a function of coming from Australia, where they are compulsory, and partly it is because I think for the small amount of inconvenience involved you could save your brains. (And I don't go for the argument that it makes either you or motorists more careless - I know I'm still extremely vulnerable, and I doubt most drivers are paying enough attention to notice.)

This scary tale posted by a doctor backs me up, and shows that it is not just the motorists you have to worry about.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Emails and cupboards

Have you noticed how "e-mail" has now almost universally become "email"?

It's nice to know the more the English language changes, the more it stays the same.

I was reading in Liza Picard's Elizabethan London that a "cupboard" was once a "cup board", i.e. a shelf or a shelves on the wall on which you placed your cups - or rather your silver (or pewter) plate, sometimes with closed doors around them for security.

"The cupboard took a prominent position in any room - so much so that when a member of Gray's Inn misbehaved himself, he was summoned to 'come and appear at the cupboard in the hall' to hear what punishment the Benchers had inflicted on him. The hall was where the Inn's impressive collection of silver symbolised its power over its members." (p.60)

A buffet then also had a different meaning:
"The drinking habits of the time involved the guest calling for a drink every time he felt dry. He was brought wine or beer in a clean - at least rinsed - glass or drinking vessel, from this buffet. When he had swallowed his drink the glass went back to the buffet."

I'm slightly surprised by this; have certainly never read anything like it, in fiction or non-fiction. Aside from anything else, given the quality of the water supplies, this was surely a bad idea on health grounds. Any thoughts?

, a Technorati tag

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Thanks ...

A piece of email spam that took my fancy ...

Do accept my sincere apologies if my mail does not meet your personal ethics ..."


All readers complaining about being distracted from marking et al by the History Carnival should stop now: I just found an online Tetris game. (It was the one computer game that I really wasted some time over in my youth - it is most curiously addictive - I only played one game this time, really.)


But if you really need a one-minute chill, click through this lovely sequence of two hummingbirds' first 21 days.

Those mixed-up Britons

The promised second half of my notes from last week's British Museum gallery talk: as you can see from below, I've been a little busy with the History Carnival.

So, the British population: the first Homo sapiens sapiens arrive between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Before that the Britons were Homo erectus (for which the oldest evidence is about 700,000 years ago) and Neanderthals. But until about 7,500BC there was a land bridge between Britain and continental Europe, so populations presumably interchanged.

From 7,500BC to about 4,000BC the "Britons" were entirely cut off, but from around that date Neolithic farmers started to arrive in timber-framed leather boats - not dinghies but serious vessels that brought even livestock. (What a journey that must have been.)

They brought what is known as the Beaker Culture. But there were never - as taught in traditional history books - waves of Celtic invaders. There was a lot of interchange of culture and isolated mixing of populations - usually in pockets: the cart burials in Yorkshire indicate close ties with the Parisi (around modern-day Paris) - perhaps the result of a marriage alliance?, and the archer at Stonehenge who was shown to be from near the European Alps, but no big invasion.

So the first large influx of foreign people is Claudius's army, about 50,000 men, most of whom are of course from varying provinces of the empire. There were probably never more than a few hundred "ethnic Romans" in Britain. With an initial population estimated at between 2 and 6 million, this was a serious influence.

We looked at the lovely collection of tombstones grouped in Gallery 49. (Do check out the gallery if you haven't been for a while - it has now been totally re-arranged and refurbished and has an enormous amount of new information and material.)

There are legionaries and auxiliaries from the Adriatic, from Spain, from the Belgic tribes, from across Gaul, and a surprisingly large number of Palmyrians. Although one of the "Palmyrian" women, her name shows, had been a British slave girl from the St Albans area, who presumably "married up". Her tombstone shows her dressed as a perfect Palmyrian lady, but the Latin on it is a mess. The Palmyrian script (a form of Aramaeic) below, however, is perfect, suggesting a serious-sized community as it could support a stone mason.

So if you were in the town of Corbridge, Northumbria, today as "Little England" as you could imagine, in say 200AD, our guide Sam Moorhead suggested, you could have expected to hear half a dozen languages, and seen people from all parts of the Roman world, from "Ethiopians" (the Roman word for dark-skinned Africans), to Syrians, to people from what is now Russia. But virtually all of them would have thought of themselves as, or have been striving to have themselves thought of, as Romans.

So for about 2,500 years - until about 4,000BC - Britons were an ethnically isolated population. The mixing started with those Neolithic farmers and has been going on ever since ... so much for those who like to suggest there's anything solid or meaningful about the concept of race.

* While researching this I found a blog of the Boxgrove site, which dates back about half a million years, detailing recent work there.

Monday, August 15, 2005

History Carnival No 14

Sit back, relax, read, enjoy

Like an ancient Greek host who got to choose in what proportions to mix the wine and water, and so whether to host a decorous debate or a riotous rampage, as carnival organiser I get to decide who gets invited and what sort of tunes they can play. I've restricted the number of links to 40, so the party doesn't drag on too long, and tried for a mix of tones. You'll find some serious research here, and some original sources, but also posts that tell a good yarn: a love of narrative is a weakness of mine. So let the symposium begin ...

Being the middle of August, when many academics have more surf on their minds than web surfing, there's no great historiographic debates in this carnival, unless you count a question of literary history: Do the Hobbits come from Kentucky? In this post The Elfin Ethicist conducts some empirical research, building on posts by other bloggers.

Perhaps this carnival could start a blogosphere meme instead? I'm taken by the idea of a manuscript wishlist, found on Sauvage Noble: five texts (or set of texts) that you wish had survived but apparently haven't.

The canapes: modern tastes

Something about the weather seems to mean many are finding in history lessons relevant to today. A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land reviews a book about his homeland's own "McCarthy era" (and draws parallels with the new witchhunts being begun today). Clews: The Historical True Crime Blog, meanwhile, has recovered a horrifying story (perhaps not for those who are already having a depressing day) about a "family annihilator" called George Hassell, who in 1920s America murdered two sets of his "nearest and dearest": a total of two women and 11 children. It's a lesson for those who like to blame aspects of contemporary culture - like those pesky feminists - for similar crimes today.

Fragblog has found some papers showing how cavalier the [British] Foreign Office was about arms sales in the Seventies. On the lighter side, with the treason law also in the news in Britain, The Sharpener reports that "thanks to an Act from the reign of George I, if your faithful mutt shags one of the Queen's corgis, technically you are committing treason".

Got Medieval, meanwhile, finds that the American Right has developed a rosy-eyed view of the Middle Ages. In related news, over on the History News Network's Liberty & Power Blog, Sudha Shenoy muses on the origin of the word jingoism in 19th-century Britain and the lessons for America today.

Ancient Times

Is that a little modern for you? Well, off to Achaemenid Persia, where Alun is examining the theory that Zoroaster's Kaba is an astronomical instrument. Alun's conclusion - "I haven't the faintest idea" - is refreshingly honest (oddly enough you never get people quoted in newspapers saying that), but Alun does set out some of the questions that should be asked.

The ancients too had their almost unimaginable sorrows. Snail's Tales has rediscovered, with the help of George Bean, Niobe, who lost her 14 children to the wrath of the goddess Leto.

Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm is meanwhile shedding some light on the place of pagans in the Corinth of his period, while Hypotyposeis is on the trail of the first patron saint of Venice

The Velveteen Rabbi has been holding a comparative reading of the Koran and the Torah, finding some subtle differences and surprising similarities at "the intersections of our family history". There seems to have been a lot of fascinating posts relating to Jewish history recently: The Rhine River considers the 19th and 20th-century history of the Jewish body, and the difficulties some have had in accepting studies on the topic. Then, can a carnival point to another carnival? I can't see why not, so check out the Temple Mount blogburst on Kesher Talk.


Do you fancy a revolution? Well I've got a selection to choose from. Mohraz reports on the Babylonian revolution (aided by Cyrus the Great) that produced "the first declaration of human rights". Supermaxwell, meanwhile, is listening in to the French Assembly on the 4th of August 216 years ago, which heard how: "Men are everywhere eager to throw it off a yoke that has for so many ages pressed upon them so heavily ..." (Women too, I'd guess.)

Chapati Mystery has an account of the Trial of Mangal Pandey, the sepoy who might be labelled the originator of what the British call the Indian Mutiny. Then, while you couldn't call him a revolutionary exactly, Dom Mintoff was Malta's first post-independence Prime Minister and, Wired Temples reports, a complex and interesting character, and a survivor.

And while the Space Revolution has yet to properly take off, the latest flight suggests it is still (just) moving. Ideas in Progress looks back to the decision in the 1980s not to provide a space shuttle repair kit, and asks what has changed today.

The entertainment

After those meaty main courses, it must be time for some entertainment: no dancing girls or boys, sorry, but a musical revolution, courtesy of Regions of the Mind, who finds that Trinidadian carnaval musical was shaped by British colonial prohibitions. And it might be a good time to inspect the crockery: perhaps some Japanese Satsuma Ware for the cultural mix, courtesy of Purple Tigress on Blogcritics*.

Then a commentary on comedy from an old-time "blogger", Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848). Mr H., who personally blogs at the delightful, highly illustrated Gionale Nuovo, is posting his Curiosities of Literature as a blog. The entry to which I'm pointing has D'Israeli sounding curiously modern in criticising "humour, arising from a personal defect, [which] is but a miserable substitute for that of a more genuine kind".

For another old-time "blogger" check out the post on Public Brewery about Mark Twain. WordHoard has also been considering a list of potential bloggers of history, noting the similarity of the practice to the tradition of the miscellany. I was pleased to see she's also a fan of Sei Shonagon - if you haven't read her, do!

Now I used to work with an editor who didn't think a newspaper was complete without a recipe of some kind. (Fish conservation stories were always accompanied by one, which did seem a little odd.) I haven't exactly found a recipe to go with the wine for this carnival, but then if the offering consists of roast sheep's eyes, eaten from the sockets with a spoon, and bull's testicles, grilled and peeled, you might not want one. That's the non-recommendation of the neo-Darwinian biologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1934, recorded on Copernicus Sashimi.

But you don't want to go hungry either. Eastman's Online Geneology Newsletter has found that behind a phrase that has survived at least five generations in the United States - "1800 and froze to death" - there is a well-documented story of hunger and migration. The year in fact was 1816; I was surprised to see just how good the weather records are for the period.

And I haven't got a ghost tale to finish off the variety show, but perhaps a nice spooky Eighties spy story, ala Len Deighton, would do the trick: Dirk used to listen into top-secret shortwave
to spies in Europe, and he explains the whys and wherefores. Or perhaps you'd prefer a modern novelist's research into ancient Roman poisons? Do taste these berries ...

The beggars at the door

If you particularly like history from the point of view of the underdog, in London the whole area of Southwark has to get a mention. The author of The Aimless Ramblings of Zefrog - transplanted from ParisXXX(whoops, correction, from Dijon) - is exploring the history (and geography) of his adopted home. On Sleepwalker's Glory, meanwhile, there's a discussion of the politically fraught history of naming, still a big issue in parts of the world today.

War Historian, meanwhile, has collected documents about the difficulties of black soldiers in the American Civil War, and Greenespace has been revisiting the site of the Carrollton massacre.

Disability Studies has found examples of 19th-century teachers with disabilities. Is there yet a specialist field of "disability history"? If not, it seems to me there should be.

And if you are a bored 20th-century housewife who just can't be bothered to get up in the morning to cook your man a three-course breakfast with all of the trimmings, check out Barista's post on old pharmaceutical adverts: you'll find a pill that will make you a Stepford Wife in no time at all.


The chief historical anniversary in the past fortnight, which unsurprisingly generated a flood of blog posts, was that of the Hiroshima bombing. I've given it a special section, and restricted the number of posts linked, because otherwise it would have overwhelmed the carnival.

Through the cellardoor of existence collects two contemporary responses - one official, one a record of an eyewitness, while Paul on Soapgun tackles the big question - why was the bomb really used? He concludes: "In the end, those two cities were not victims of American/Soviet realpolitik, but of their own ultra-nationalist, unrelenting, fascist leadership."

Siris, meanwhile, reports on how early this debate started, with a post on Elizabeth Anscombe's 1956 protest against the proposal that Harry Truman be given an honorary Oxford degree, while Respectful Insolence notes that early opponents to the decision to bomb tended to be conservatives, an indication of how far political axes have moved.

Last drinks

Now that marks the end of the party proper, but for those of you still hanging around for those curious green liqueuers drunk only at this stage of the evening, check out Six Apart's pictorial account of what would have happened If Bloggers Had been Around Throughout History.

And if you need a book to cover hung-over eyes on the beach tomorrow, you might want to read The Little Professor's take on The Historian before deciding it's the one. Instead, you might like to decide, having analysed the bodice-ripping genre, as has Creating Textiles, to write one of your own.

Then, for the real long-stayers, I'll use the host's right to the final word to point you to a little puzzle that I've been exploring: what is the oldest surviving handwriting by a woman?

The next Carnival will be hosted by Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb on 1 September, email jboggs AT gmu DOT edu.

If you've inexplicable missed the others, you can find a list of them here. No 13 is here and you can find other carnivals here.

Thanks to all who sent me links. Any errors are of course mine - please tell me. I'll be happy to make any necessary corrections.)

* Declaration of interest: I'm an (unpaid) editor and contributor on Blogcritics.

The main image is a scene from a "south-Italian (probably Apulian) figured vase, as drawn in W. Tischbein, Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases", 1793-1803, taken from The Englightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, K. Sloan (ed), The British Museum Press, 2003.
The dividers come from Claudius.

, a Technorati tag

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 18

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten posts.

Given the debate there's been in Britain around the term this week, this is the multicultural edition. On that topic, Shanti on Dancing with Dogs finds much condescension in those who use the term.

And the term "cultures" can have many different aspects, not just ones related to regions or ethnicity: Autism Diva is worried that the guidelines issued to police on spotting potential suicide bombers might apply equally to some people with autism, and a real-life Professor McGonagall describes how she reached got students with a religious background and non-science majors interested in anatomy and evolution.

Now this might be described as indirect women's blogging, but I found very interesting the thoughts of "Mrs A, a Saudi woman in London", as transcribed by The Religious Policeman (a blog that has lots of interesting material about women's issues in Saudi Arabia). She says wryly that the "immodest" dress of the locals, "in spite of what the Imams say back home ... does not drive the local men into a frenzy of lust". Back in Saudi Arabia, Jo is steaming with the frustration at the restrictions on women.

So off to India, where Uma on Indianwriting is musing on friendships made at the gym, and how they can extend across continents. I was taken by the farewell for a personal trainer - as a special favour, no cake was provided. $uparna has meanwhile started the third year of her mechanical engineering course, and found things suddenly getting serious.

Then off to Australia, where MelbourneHumanFemale is having a rough day in the call centre; remember she CAN get your number. LadyCracker has meanwhile been applying "facial analysis" to some Australian politicians. John Howard would be horrified by the results.

On Nat's News, my namesake, who's teaching English in Phnom Penh, is travelling through Vietnam, and has found a South-East Asian city where parkas are on sale and an embroidery festival is a cause for great excitement.


Here's No 17 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The oldest writing in a woman's hand

I dragged myself out of bed early enough yesterday to finally make another British Museum gallery talk, this on "multicultural Roman Britain", which debunked more than a few historical myths and was absolutely fascinating. More on the broader themes later today if I get time.

But I wanted to devote a post of its own to a wonderful piece that gets no special attention in the gallery but which does, I'd suggest, deserve it.

It is one of the Vindolanda tablets, the hoard of letters found in the fort of that name on Hadrian's Wall that preserves the details of the everyday life of the garrison and their wives.

(Do check out the above link by the way - it is a model of archeaology on the web.)

One is a letter from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brochus, the Vindolanda fort commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort. Most of the invitation to the birthday party is written by the garrison scribe, no doubt to Claudia's dictation - his hand can be identified from other examples - but there's a three-line personal note on the end in which Claudia adds a personal touch:

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

(Sister seems to have been a term of endearment, rather than an expression of a family relationship.)

The gallery talk speaker, Sam Moorhead, suggested that this is the oldest surviving writing known to be in a woman's hand -- it is dated to between AD97 and 103 -- which sounds about right to me. Can anyone think of an earlier example?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Human rights for sex workers

I posted a link a couple of days ago to the campaign for Justice for Linda campaign, and I've done my bit in sending the email to Venezuelan justice officials.

But the case has continued to haunt me - not just because of the horrific ordeal that she endured - four months of captivity and torture; I'm afraid I've been a journalist too long, and have read too much of the details of trials that never make it in to print for reasons of "taste", to let such details affect me.

What really struck me was the legal situation:

"In an attempt to exploit an outrageous piece of the Venezuelan Penal Code which calls for a reduced sentence for crimes against sex workers, Carrera Almoina's defense claimed that Loaiza was part of a prostitution ring. If sentenced to jail time, Carrera Almoina would have only have had to serve a fifth of the normal sentence. No evidence was presented in support of these claims, and Loaiza has consistently denied them."

I was in a debate on the subject of religion over on Blogcritics about the damage done by religion, and here's a classic example of the hideously damaging social effects of religious morality.

What this law is in effect declaring is that sex workers are sub-human - one-fifth of a human to be precise.

I've had more encounters with this issue in Asia, and have written on women's humans rights there, but it seems this is a worldwide issue.

And it's an issue for ALL women, as Linda's case indicates. For this is really just an extension of the argument all too familiar to campaigners for women's rights for protection from assault in Western states: "she asked for it by being drunk/wearing the wrong clothes/being in the wrong place".

It occurs to me that only when the letter and the process of the law protects sex workers as it protects anyone else, is any woman fully protected. (Indeed, any person, since I suspect male rape is the great un-reported crime, and there are certainly plenty of male sex workers.)

, a Technorati tag

Quick query

Has anyone used a "pen scanner" for note-taking. Did it work? (It seems almost too good to be true.) Is there any particular brand or style you'd recommend?

Part of my current ongoing life revamp consists of reconsidering my data collection methods. It seems time to get out of paper.

If we're not quite to Vannevar Bush's perfect desktop, it seems as though we're getting close.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Which emperor?

I've been a bit serious lately, and I've had a depressing evening, so a bit of frivolity, courtesy of Ahistoricality.

Emperor Augustus
You're Augustus

Which Roman Emperor Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

(It is a bit obvious - if you want to be Nero it is not hard to work out which answers to select.)

This left me posing the question, has anyone one done: Which great courtesan of history are you? That should be a good one. (Alternatively, can anyone recommend a site (not requiring to much inclination to the techie) to set up quizzes on? I might just do it myself.)

, a Technorati tag

Monday, August 08, 2005

Frida Kahlo: one of the greats

My mindframe as I walked into the Frida Kahlo exhibition was sceptical interest. I'd read reviews by blokes that were
negative and reviews by blokes that were positive. And I was well aware of Kahlo's status as a feminist icon, who had a fascinating, traumatic life. But ultimately, you can only judge an artist by their art.

And it was Kahlo's art that caused me to leave the exhibition shaken, almost overwhelmed, and convinced that she deserves to be up there as one of the greats. One day an exhibition will establish this beyond doubt; this is not, however, that exhibition - it merely points towards that possibility.

The Tate show focuses too much on her early art, and her political art, which is, it must be admitted, rather thin, and sometimes undergraduate. The mocking of America in My Dress Hangs There (1933), which features a golf trophy and a toilet on matching monumental columns is mildly amusing, but it isn't great art. Her political paintings, while adding to the understanding of her life - her involvement with the nationalist Mexicanidad movement and marriage to a leading member of that movement - do little to advertise her art.

The first painting in this exhibition that stopped me was, however, very early in her career. A Few Small Pricks (1935)is based on a newspaper account of a brutal murder, in which a man who'd stabbed his lover with a knife many times said: "I gave her only a few little pricks." Enclosed in a simple wooden frame covered too with the "blood" of the scene, Kahlo presents its simply, realistically. There is absolutely no dignity, no glamour in this death: an early sign of an absolutely uncompromising artistic vision.

Even earlier, another central aspect of her art - its personal nature - is evident in My Birth, painted after Kahlo had suffered a traumatic miscarriage and her mother had died. She emerges in gynaecological detail, but her mother's face is shrouded like that of a corpse in a sheet, and the body/mother lies in a bleak, empty room, albeit it on perfectly made bed. This, with its Marian icon above the bed, must have been truly shocking in the Mexico of 1932.

But in this show you are then sent through several rather thin rooms of political art, drawings and still lifes (for which what I'd suggest over-grand claims are made - although the dreadfully kitsch circular flower painting, made for an American actress with whom her husband is thought to have been having an affair, is an enjoyable joke).

It is in the next two rooms that Kahlo's greatness emerges. It is no accident that nearly all of the paintings are self-portraits in one form or another: it is when Kahlo is in her body, or out of her body looking in, that she's at her most powerful. She makes the personal into art long before feminists came to call it political.

My single favourite, if I had to pick one, is Self-portait with Monkeys (1943). Kahlo, with a typically studiously neutral expression, wearing a simply white shift, stands amidst but apart from luxuriant tropical foliage, accompanied by these four primates. Two, diffidently and uncertainly, look as though they are trying to comfort her; the other two are curious onlookers. As a restrained portrait of sad, but proud, solitude and alienation it is breathtaking.

Yet Kahlo is not always so restrained. Self-Portrait with Loose Hair (1947) is more obviously, emotionally, bleak, as is The Mask (1945), in which Kahlo conceals her face behind a papier-mache image of La Malinche, the Indian mistress of the conquistador Cortes.

But it is when Kahlo maintains her distance that she is at her most powerful. That's again the stance in The Little Hart (1946)in which Khalo is a stag in a forest pierced with a flurry of arrows, yet her face looks out at us serene, groomed, detached.

That neutral expression becomes strained, however, in The Broken Column (above). Painted in 1944, it reflects the continuing deterioration of her already shattered body. It is a depiction of shattering, chronic, inescapable pain and suffering that refuses to slide into self-pity.

Kahlo is, perhaps inescapably in view of the framework of her life, chiefly a painter of the miserable side of the human condition. But she rises above that, to show that even in misery there can be dignity and nobility. And she shows that from the perspective of the human body - the female body. Can you really claim - as some continue to do - that this in any way invalidates her greatness, rather than amplifies it?

The exhibition is at the Tate Modern until October 9.

This is a good collection of resources about Kahlo.

, a Technorati tag

Act! Act Now

I'm not a great one for e-mail campaigns and joining in protests, probably mostly because I'm just not a "joining" sort of person, but I found that this horrific story just demands action.

It is of a woman falsely imprisoned and raped for four months in Venezuala, by a politically well-connected man. He got off - although that verdict is being appealed - and she faces an investigation for prostitution.

Warning: there are disturbing pictures on this story, but read it anyway, and take the action it suggests.
(Via Bitch PhD.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Net nuggets No 17

* The new, improved Carnivalesque is up at The Cranky Professor. In its new format, this one focuses on ancient and medieval history, which will be alternating with early modern. Don't miss it - particularly the lewd Maygames.

* Do we need editors? The Guardian explores the history of the editor, and their modern disappearance. (And presents the interesting thesis that the rise of the "creative writing" course is actually the rise of the editing course.)

My view: I've worked with only one writer I can think of who didn't benefit from or need editing, and anything I write I hope someone will edit properly.

* Recovering the voices of the victims of the Inquisition, from The Telegraph:

A Sicilian palazzo once used as a headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition has been discovered to contain dozens of pieces of graffiti by "witches" condemned to burn at the stake.

* Theatre isn't what it used to be, in some past golden age, critics of all ages complain. Looking at this "special effects" wig, as used by David Garrick playing Hamlet, that might be a good thing. (From a discussion on the 18th-century list.)

* The Bodleian has an exhibition on music hall. Not exactly what you'd expect, but it sounds fascinating.

* Not new, but an interesting description of 18th-century Smithfield.

* What a good idea: the NHS is paying for people suffering from chronic medical conditions to buy and care for a dog. No doubt the curmudgeon class will complain (and this article is distinctly ambivalent), but it is not hard to see how this could both save the NHS a lot of money and prevent a lot of suffering.

* And finally a good laugh: a "public service" pamphlet on how to deal with the "epidemic of blog depression".

Saturday, August 06, 2005

What are the police doing?

Any time I walk through a Tube station these days I see at least four police officers (and sometimes more). What are they doing? They're chatting, studying their nails, shifting from foot to foot, or simply looking bored and pissed off.

I don't blame them: as an approach to dealing with the terrorist threat I have to wonder who thought this was a good idea.

What precisely are they supposed to do?

Let's imagine an actual suicide bomber is approaching them - presumably in peak hour, when the entrance hall to the Tube will be packed with people.

First they have to somehow - perhaps by mental telepathy? - identify the bomber from among all of the other people dragging suitcases, lugging large backpacks, or boxes of what appear to be electrical items from the sales.

Then what do they do? They challenge the person, approach, then are the first to get blown up, together with all of the people around. If it is a less confined space than a Tube carriage I guess the carnage would be slightly less, and help would reach the victims more easily, but does the degree of improvement justify the expenditure of resources? I doubt it.

The theory goes that they are supposed to "reassure" the public. But anyone with half a brain will have reached the same conclusion as I - and the apparent emergency state of London, with police very visible everywhere, can only be adding to the panic among those of nervous disposition. (Reports are suggesting Tube usage is down 15 per cent - or to put it the other way around, 85 per cent of people are going about their business perfectly normally.)

After what is increasingly looking like the most horrific misjudgement in the shooting of Charles de Menezes, the police doing nothing might be a good thing, but surely they could do it more cheaply and sensibly by getting back on to a normal footing.

What they are now doing, as Matthew Parris points out in The Times today, is glorifying the suicide bomber.

Cycling Essex architecture

Inspired by the guided cycle tour of Kent medieval architecture that I enjoyed recently, last Sunday I set out on my own, with only a guide for company*, to try the same in Essex. The architecture and history was fine, and I learnt an awful lot about how not to read a cycling guide.

First the cycling: I learnt not to believe it when the label says this is an "easy" route - also read the bit where it says "undulating countryside". I think the easy label came because there were no big hills, but for the best part of 40 miles it was up and down, up and down; and the problem is, for me anyway, that the ups take an awful lot longer than the downs. (I also enjoyed another first - my first ride through a flooded ford - algae is very slippery under bike tyres, I learnt.)

I did, however, glean a lot about how to tackle inclines. I have virtually no hills on my London commuting routes, so have had no cause to learn. The way NOT to do it is to start at the bottom in the highest gear you think you can possibly manage, then battle and strain your way to the top, arriving a panting, sweating mess. Instead, start in a very low gear and arrive at the top in a reasonable state, even if after many more revolutions of the legs. (Obvious? Well in retrospect.)

So, I made it before dark - and I had started at around 1.45 (not helped by the train firm One, which manages to send two trains an hour to Stansted Mountfitchett on a Sunday, within five minutes of each other - clever).

And while I didn't get quite so much time for history as I would have liked, I did collect some nice snippets.

The most noticeable, seemingly localised (at least I didn't see it in Kent), feature of the houses in the villages through which I went (Much Hadham, Westmill, Furneux Pelham and Manuden) was pargeting, simple (here at least) decorative plasterwork, frequently seen on timber-framed houses and other pretty early ones. Mostly it seems to be patterns made with materials at hand - the bases of bottles, in one case I saw a large scallop-type shell, combs swept across the surface in a regular pattern. The only rule seems to have been: don't repeat anything already done in the village, or at least on the main street.

The church in Much Hadham is interesting in that it has been used jointly by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches for some decades, so it has much of the fittings and furnishings that would have been in pre-Reformation churches, making it most evocative.

There's an excellent guide to the village here. It also told me that the Elizabethan memorial which I was admiring from a distance (it is right beside the altar and I didn't think jumping over the altar rail was the done thing) is of a bishop's wife, Judith Aylmer, who died in 1615. It looks very like the memorial for Blanche Parry in St Margaret's, although sadly this one has lost its head.

What appealed about Westmill church was a memorial stone - no longer readable - but apparently that of Nicol de Lewknor, who died about 1300, said to be "one of the oldest personal memorials in the county". A handwritten notice beside it says he "came to a tragic end in France, on the day of his third nuptials, leaving no issues", and that he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"A tragic end on the day of his nuptials?" ... The mind boggles.

* This one is Philip's Cycle Tours Around London North, by Nick Cotton, if you were wondering. And when you work it out it's fine - at least I didn't get lost, and seldom even felt lost.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Celebrating 10 million

No, I haven't won the lottery (with a ticket I haven't got), but Blogcritics, of which I'm now an editor-at-large, is celebrating its 10 millionth hit. More than 8 million of those have been in the past year, the third of its existence, a growth that this post outlines.

If you haven't seen Blogcritics before, go out and check it out. It now has some 1,000 contributing bloggers. There's huge music and video sections, and, where you'll find me, books, culture and politics.

The politics section gets the most heated - sometimes it seems the right is in the ascendent, sometimes the left - but there's also some excellent news you might not get elsewhere. I was taken today by a post on Canada's new governor-general, a Haitian-born woman, who's replacing a woman of Japanese extraction. (Sad to think that in progressive politics Australia and Canada were once neck and neck. What does Australia get now? white male clerics with dubious pasts.)

In books you'll find a lot of popular light reading, but also plenty of meatier material, from a review of two books on the collapse of a major hedge fund to an explanation for genocide.

Culture is something of a catch-all. You'll find my theatre reviews there, but also musing on whether you should stay friends with your ex, and similar. And I got quite a bit of interest with a post on a 12th-century Anglo-Norman play, so you don't have to worry about dealing with what some might see as obscure topics!

If I've got one complaint, it's that women are in a definite minority. So if you're a blogger - particularly a female blogger - who posts on any of these topics - even if only occasionally - why not think about joining and getting more readers for your gems of wisdom, and more traffic to your blog? More here.

Friday femmes fatales No 17

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten posts.

The author of All's Well, Jezebel, a resident of London, is thinking "about extremes, about fanaticism, breeding hate and suicide" and wondering what the world would be like if children and clowns were given more of a say. Another Londoner, Lisy Babe, meanwhile, has a grave concern for her security and safety, because the doors just keep on attacking her.

Minerva, however, has escaped from London, but finds there are plenty of shocks in the countryside, in meeting another level of the food chain. (And check the design of her blog - it's brilliant.)

Two sides of discrimination. Thus Spoke Zuska checks out the latest report on US education, suggesting: "If we were just a tad less efficient at turning women, minority men, and lower-income students away from the doors of our science and engineering classrooms, we'd probably have all the science and engineering talent we could use". Mary Johnson on Edge-centric, meanwhile, wonders how a Supreme Court justice who is suffering from cancer should be treated, when he had ruled that a university was within its rights to sack a professor because she had the disease.

Then in the "news you can use" category, Creepy Lesbo offers a practical guide, gleaned from hard experience, of how children can deal with bullying. Dorothy Thompson, meanwhile, is a guest blogger on Author and Book News. She asks: "Are you prepared to be an author?" and offers some tips to make sure you are.

Now I might be being a little parochial here, in pointing to a London restaurant review blog - but the writing's good, so you can enjoy it, and all of the world comes to London sooner or later, or it should. So check out Krista likes food's verdict on Bibdendum. (Importantly, she always includes a comment on the "ladies".)

And on the week that the other Bridget has returned to the British media (what do you think, BTW?), Bridget Who is wielding something rather more exciting than a glass of chardonnnay. It's a "weapon of minor destruction" - but don't worry, it is only being used on the hedge.

Staying on the lighter side of life The Hot Librarian is seeking a date for Jemajesty, a small stuffed monkey. The librarian may not be like those with which you are normally familiar - in her profile she says is addicted to Jamba Juice. I'm not quite sure what that is - judge for yourself. (Not for those of Victorian sensibility.)


Here's No 16 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The medieval Eve

It's funny how once you get into a topic, new angles on it keep popping up everywhere. A few days ago I was exploring the early modern idea of Eve, then a journal I was reading for something entirely different fell open at an article about Eve in medieval English and French religious drama.

And what a different picture it paints. It focused particularly on the Jeu d'Adam, also called Mystere d'Adam, a 12th-century play, which it says was probably produced in England (although most of the web decriptions I found call it French). The article describes it (I suspect controversially) as "the oldest extant religious drama in any vernacular tongue".

In the play, I read, Eve "represents on the one hand the role of woman (in Aristotelian terms) as the formal cause of the Fall; and, on the other hand, because of God's promise that her seed shall crush the serpent's head, she prefigures the Virgin Mary as Adam prefigures Christ". She is also seen as a prophet of redemption, promising salvation.

Yet in the English mystery plays she soon loses the latter role to Adam alone and becomes "a comic butt for Adam's misogynistic humour". In France she was treated more sympathetically, but also lost that powerful prophetic role; she "evolved as the mother of the race, but died without believing in her own salvation".

From 'The Evoltion of Eve in Medieval French and English Religious Drama, Maureen Fries, Studies in Philology, Winter 2002, No 1, Vol 99.

An interesting article, but I do have one complaint - the Jeu d'Adam extracts are only printed in the original Anglo-Norman. I can't imagine there are too many people around who can read that, so while this is a topic that might be interesting to people in lots of fields, its full use is being restricted to specialists. Translations please!

There's a modern French extract here (I couldn't find anything in English) and a review of a book about women in French drama of the period here.

Now, I'd better go off and set myself 200 lines:
I must stick to the research topic at hand ....
I must stick to the research topic at hand ....