Philobiblon: September 2005

Friday, September 30, 2005

Net Nuggets No 20

* The changing shape of US law on sexual harassment in the workplace. US law, but universal issues.

* A history of child prodigies over the centuries - it seems it is not just Hollywood child actors who have problems.

* Of course you can't take this sort of thing too seriously, but the latest Prospect list of the world's 100 top intellectuals contains 10 women. Slightly better than the world leader's count then.

* News you can use: a list of tips for getting the best out of Gmail. Now if only they wouldn't call the delete bin "trash" ...

* The internet as the new Samizdat. Contains lots of American newspaper/magazine gossip and this lovely critique of copy-editors (sub-editors):

"Written by Thomas Farragher, my colleague at The Boston Globe, it reproduced the Gettysburg Address as if the speech had had to pass through the meat grinder of the Globe's main copy desk. I'd just had one of my own harrowing experiences with those ferocious editors, and the parody rang true.

Fourscore and seven years ago (can't we just make it 87 years ago?) our fathers (WHO ARE THEY?? Any mothers???) brought forth on this continent (North America?? Northern Hemisphere??) a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men (people, men and women, what???) are created equal. (Why don't we just say they founded the United States and leave it at that? Pacing's better.)"

Like most good satire, it has an element of truth about it.

Tips for the Omnibus

One of my favourite themes is how there is no such thing as the "good old days" - senior members of society have been complaining about the manners of youth not being up to their standards ever since the first Homo sapiens sapiens thought she could turn a strip of leather into a neat little bikini.

So some suggestions on behaviour on a bus:

"* Sit with your limbs straight, and do not with your legs describe an angle of 45, thereby occupying the room of two persons.

* Do not spit on the straw. You are not in a hogsty but in an omnibus travelling in a country which boasts of its refinement.

* Behave respectfully to females and put not an upprotected lass to the blush, because she cannot escape from your brutality.

* If you bring a dog, let him be small and be confined by a string."

Want to guess the date?

From The Times of January 30 1826, via Time Out magazine.

I find the class issues of this interesting, given the source. Did readers of The Times, or at least those assumed to read The Times travel on omnibuses at all? And wouldn't they have been assumed to know how to behave? Was this perhaps meant for the servants? Not having the original context there's no way of knowing.

Friday femmes fatales No 25

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

This week I'm half the way to taking the collection to 300.

To begin, a femmes fatales first, a bloggers' wedding. The Velveteen Rabbi officiated at the wedding of a couple who met at BlogCon. Altogether now ... ahhhhhhh .... (No I'm not anti-matrimony exactly, but I do find it an odd concept. However, to each their own.)

Now blogging about your fight with cancer sounds like a depressing subject, but in Minerva of A Woman of Many Parts can only be described as inspirational, in her personal message to her cancer.

The author of Entelechy, meanwhile, is confronting a difficult decision: whether to take on a challenging job helping to look after disabled children in addition to her studies.

Turning political, Panthergirl on The Dog's Breakfast finds that Georgia's governor seems to think all children live in two-parent families, with one at home. Betsy on her Page says that Americans shouldn't be talking about pork-barrelling, but the spreading of grease. (The metaphor works rather nicely, you'll find.)

On Crip's Chronicles, meanwhile, Teri is explaining why you can't afford to be disabled AND poor.

Now this is an old post, but it is on a subject close to my heart, as you can see from the link in my sidebar to Ethiopiaid. Amber Henshaw has been visiting the fistula hospital in Addis Ababa.

Still in Ethiopia (no, I don't get to write that often), Thea Keeps Painting the Planet is at the main celebration for the Meskil Holiday, the biggest in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar - it gets dramatic at the end.

Now The Budget Fashionista might not be everyone's cup of tea, and her advice is mostly relevant to the US, but when she's getting stuck into the editor of American Vogue, I'm happy to link up.

On At Home wiith the McMuffins, meanwhile, Mrs McMuffin is waiting for the stork to arrive. She really hopes it is not delayed.

Last week's edition is here.

Remember nominations are hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sciences: lows and highs

For the first time a giant squid, inhabitant of the ocean depth, has been filmed, the BBC reports. And it looks like the horror movie people might have been right about its hunting methods, and the scientists wrong.

And reality is also getting a little closer to the SF writers - particularly Kim Stanley Robinson of the Mars trilogy fame (although I don't know if he invented the idea) - wiith a successful experiment on the quest to build a space elevator - which if it ever came off, would get rid of all those messy, dangerous rocket engines. (Via Instapundit.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Are you listening to this victim, Mr Blair?

Tony Blair's speech to the Labour conference:

For eight years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change. And it was only when we started to introduce special ASB laws, we really made a difference. And I now understand why: the system itself is the problem. We are trying to fight 21st-century crime - ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime - with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.

The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't misunderstand me: that must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety.It means a complete change of thinking. It doesn't mean abandoning human rights; it means deciding whose come first.

"Batter", such a nice choice of verb, don't you think? And he wants a "complete change of thinking from innocent until proven guilty".

Mr Blair wants "victim's rights" to come first - so if she or he gets up in court and puts on a really strong performance, the crim gets an extra couple of years in jail. (Heading fast towards Hammurabi's "eye for an eye" - back to the 1700s, that's BC, of course.)

So today, the mother of the innocent Brazilian electrician shot dead by police on the London Tube says Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, must resign.

Mr Blair?

Why I am not a cultural relativist

Like most people who've studied philosophy, I went through a period of wrestling with the issue of cultural relativism: how can I say my cultural norms are good, and your cultural norms are repugnant?

A brief study of the issue of female genital mutilation resolved that problem for me comfortably - there are cultural practices that are simply indefensible and should be stamped out by all means possible, just like a species' general right to exist can be waived in a case such as smallpox.

And for all their faults - and Third World criticisms about their lack of attention to rights such as food and housing are legitimate - the United Nations human rights framework is a pretty good place to start in making value judgments.

But cultural relativism has taken hold in surprising quarters, including it would seem, the Northern Territory in Australia, where a 55-year-old tribal elder who anally raped and bashed a 14-year-old girl, who had been "promised" to him when she was just four years old, was given a jail term of one month. (Although the fact that the Territory's white culture is extremely masculo-centric might also, I can't but feel, have something to do with this.)

This was on the grounds that he apparently didn't know he was doing anything wrong under Australian law, and was merely following cultural norms.

Some of the background to this, as I understand it. A number of the tribal groups in the Territory have a tradition of very young girls being promised as wives to senior men in the tribe, and given to them at a very young age. I've seen explanations for this along the lines that this was a harsh, arid, unforgiving environment, and only experienced hunters were likely to be able to support a family. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn't. It is not, of course, true now.

The only good news is that someone has stepped in as the poor girl's advocate and is trying to have the sentence increased, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Women's lives

One of the things I try to do with this blog is celebrate the lives of forgotten or under-appreciated women. I'm still wrestling with the question as to why it is that women seem to disappear so easily from historical memory, when far less significant men survive.

I wanted to share information about a Yahoo group that is on much the same quest, sending out a daily email biography of a prominent woman on her birthday. New subscriptions are welcome.

Yesterday's subject was the English painter and illustrator Helen Allingham. You'll almost certainly have seen her work on a box of chocolates somewhere. What struck me about her life is how like its pattern was to that of so many modern women. Entirely by her own efforts, she established a career as an illustrator, but this ended when she married and had children. After a decade-long hiatus,, however, she started a second career as a watercolourist, and continued that until her death.

Today's character is Minnie Vautrin. I was writing yesterday of a would-be military hero, well in Nanking in 1937 she was a real hero.

"In Nanking, Vautrin is still remembered as Guanyin Pusa, "the living goddess of mercy," a heroine in the city's worst hour. When American Iris Chang discovered Vautrin's diary in Yale University Library in 1995, she was moved to write a book about the atrocities her own grandparents survived, saying "I felt that if anyone deserved her place in history, that person was Minnie Vautrin. ... Chang and Vautrin are the main characters portrayed in a recent Chinese national dance drama company production,_Nanking 1937_." (From today's email.)

Chang of course has her own tragic story.

Really Mr Boots

Picked up some antibiotics this morning from Boots the Chemist. The doctor tells me I have consolidation in my left lung (which makes me sound like a building site). The message of this is don't ignore nasty grating noises in the lungs for weeks, in the hope they'll get better!

But the printed label on the drugs says: "Keep out of childrens reach".

It seems Mr Boots has never heard of apostrophes.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Hille Feyken, Münster's "Judith"

I wanted to pull out one woman's story from the account of the Anabaptist Münster- that of Hille Feyken, a 15-year-old Dutch girl who was inspired by the story of Judith and Holofernes (the one that produces all those overwrought paintings of the young Jewish widow with the Assyrian general's head on a platter).

It isn't hard to imagine a fervently religious 15-year-old maiden, in a tumultous city in which all of the traditional norms had been turned upside down, believing that she could be Judith.

"A contemporary portrait of Hille, with an inset illustration of Judith carrying a sword and the head of Holofernes, shows a pretty young woman as she presumably appeared on the evening of June 16, 1534, when she was met by the Bishop's men outside the walls of Munster. She had ... 'enhanced her already generous attributes of beauty' with fine clothes and jewlery provided by the city treasury. She wore a pearl necklace and three rings, two set with diamonds, and carried with her twelve guilders. She also carried a beautiful shirt for the Bishop [the besieging prince], made of the finest linen. It had been soaked in poison that would kill him instantly." (p. 86)

She must have played her part well, for an official agreed to take her to see the bishop. But then another refugee from the city, one Herman Ramert, arrived, and to show his own "good faith" betrayed the plot. Hille was tortured and confused, but: "She was now ready with calm courage to suffer her punishment, she said, knowing that it was for the glory of God and that her soul would never die. After further torture on the wheel, Hille faced her executioner with a smile, and assured him that he had no power over her . 'We'll see about that,' he answered, and struck off her head." (p.88)

Adolescence and religious fervour are a dangerous combination.

I found only one other internet mention, on an item that also talks about several other prominent women in Munster.

The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster

Is human nature today the same as it was 50, or 500, or 5,000 or 50,000 years ago? What basic attributes do we share with our ancestors, and what is fundamentally different? (The last case is addressed by a brilliant book, The Mind in the Cave, on which I wrote here.)

Exposure to a variety of cultures around the world today has taught me that attitudes, ideas and thoughts that we think of as fundamental are often anything but - my belief in the essentiality of compassion was battered, for example, by casual Thai attitudes towards child prostitution. Yet reading Anthony Arthur's The Tailor-King, his account of the 16th-century takeover by Anabaptists of the city of Münster and its rapid descent into despotism and anarchy, I was struck by just how "modern" the events of 1534-5 felt.

The book was published in 1999 (by Thomas Dunne Books, New York), when the comparisons being made with Branch Davidians at Waco, the Heaven's Gate suicides, the Jim Jones tragedy in Guyana. Today, of course, it is tempting to add a further level of comparison with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Looking back, we go at least as far as the Zealots of Masada, and perhaps to the early Chinese and other tombs in which rulers were buried with large numbers of slain servants.

As in many modern cases of outbreaks of mass cult hysteria, one of the fundamental beliefs of the Anabaptists of Münster was that the end of the world was nigh, and they were the chosen people who would carry on in a heavenly state, while all others were condemned to some form of hell:

"Insofar as Matthias had a coherent ideology, it consisted of destruction to achieve salvation: "We preach the separation of the world. The state is to be used to destroy the state." He demanded a theocracy devoted to the worship of God the Father, the jealous and demanding and wrathful Father, no his meek and mild and loving Son. He railed against Satan, who spread himself outward like the limbs of a great oak tree, against the wicked idols of Moloch, against unbelievers in the saddle, against false Christs and false prophets. And he spoke fervently of the New Zion in Münster, where only the newly baptized could expect forgiveness from the Lord All others would be executed or expelled into the outer darkness." (p. 38-9)

Once the radicals had taken over, they first encouraged, then compelled, the "non-believers" to leave, at first allowing them to take their belongings with them, later forcing them to leave everything of value behind - much like many an incident of "ethnic cleansing" today. Many, however, tried to stay in the only home they'd ever known.

What is surprising and atypical about Münster, Arthur says, is that it had two successive leaders. The above-discussed Matthias, an old man, effectively committed suicide, in riding out with a party of only a dozen to take on the entire besieging army, only to be cut down by a crack force of 500 horsemen. The whole city watched.

Drawing on the Weberian concept of charismatic leadership, Arthur says this should have been the end of the city's rebellion and the Anabaptists, at least in Münster. But another scheming, charismatic, even brilliant, and young, man stepped in Jan vann Leyden (earlier Jan Bockelson)appeared before the crowd to report that even before the disastrous mission, he had been told by God in a vision that Mattias must die, and he must marry the former leader's widow (and thus implicitly take over). He even produced a senior man as a "witness" to his vision.

Arthur says:
"It says much about this strange young man's personality and character that he could so effectively turn his mentor's disaster into his own triumph. Of all the qualities that the preceding episode reveals about Jan van Leyden - ingenuity, imagination, timing - the one that stands out most is his intuitive mastery of what would later, in our own century, be called the technique of the big lie. Told with sincerity to a people anxious for reassurance, deriving from some source beyond and greater than its speaker, the big lie is so outrageously improbable that no one could possibly make it up. Therefore, it must be true." (p. 73)

And once this was swallowed, much could follow. Polygamy and divorce were declared legal - Jan ending up unsurprisingly with the largest "harem", of 16 wives. One of these, however, rebelled, only to be publicly beheaded in the cathedral square, the other wives dancing around her body. Such arbitrary public execution became commonplace, the city descending into a state of rampant anarchy. Yet what was surprising in all of this its effective defence against the besiegers admittedly badly led, but nonetheless professional soldiers, lined up against Münster's motley collection of townsfolk and peasants.

Arthur provides a straightforward account of the events of Münster, solidly based on original documents. He doesn't really, however, seem to have a great deal to say about them at the analytical level. His interest in the takeover of leadership by van Leyden seems to exhaust his exploration of the question "why?" Nonetheless, if you want to answer the question "what happened in Münster", this book will do the job, in a pleasantly readable form.

And what did happen in the end? Of course the besiegers took the city, and the frustrated mercenaries ran riot through it, pillaging, raping, killing, although the more important Anabaptist leaders were taken alive, including Jan van Leyden. The women who survived the slaughter were given the chance to recant their Anabaptist beliefs and go free, but some chose to die for their beliefs. Jan, retaining a oddly detached cheerfulness almost until the end, was executed by having his flesh torn off with hot pincers for an hour, before a dagger to the heart finally ended the spectacle. The cage in which his body was displayed thereafter can still be seen in Münster.


If you're looking for a more general, fictional, view of this period of religious turmoil in Europe, I'd recommend Marguerite Yourcenar's brilliant novel The Abyss.

Radio and blogs

My radio listening alternates between two BBC stations - Five and Four. (Can you tell I'm not into music?) I tend to switch off Four when the dramas come on - particularly The Archers! - as they always seem to consist of women crying or sobbing or screaming, or annoying posh accents - what Australians call "plum in the mouth" voices. I switch off Five when the football commentary drives me mad, or they've got motor-racing on - more irritating noises, or that hideous shouty Saturday morning programme.

I must thus have missed Five's report on blogging. There's an account here by the made-famous-by-reality-TV reporter, Saira Khan. (That's purely a statement of fact - good on her if she found a route to a new life that way.)

She wants to know about blogging communities, if anyone wants to take up the challenge.

Found indirectly via - I've forgotten the route now - via Tim Worstall's weekly Britblog round-up. (Don't miss the live blogging of last week's plane drama - unlike any live blog you've seen before.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sir Ian Blair: A Dangerous Man?

Sir Ian Blair is the Commisioner of the Metropolitan Police (London's force), usually described as the "most powerful policeman in Britain". He's also a man who, it appears, has at best a tenuous grasp of the principle of "innocent until proven" guilty, and the rule of law, not to mention community safety.

In a speech last week to other coppers, he proposed, among other things, that police be given the power to take licences off drivers (which would instantly deprive many people of their livelihood) and to issue ASBOs, the orders that can be about matters as trivial as wearing a jacket with a hood but that can result eventually in jail terms.

So that's making the police judges then. As one of the people at the front end of justice, a magistrate in London, says: "The two functions were separated a long time ago - let's keep it that way."

Sir Ian additionally suggested that soldiers be given short, "basic" training before being given jobs as armed police guards. So that's bringing military rule to Britain.

Later in the week, Sir Ian decided that it was time he looked into so-called role models for young people, in the form of Kate Moss (who, in case you're just back from Mars - I'll note has been emerged in a kerfuffle over alleged taking of cocaine). Blair concluded: "We have to look at the impact of this kind of behaviour on impressionable young people."

So that's making police social workers.

But don't worry, the police are very good at investigation of leaks that betray their own incompetence. So they must be doing some police work.

Sir Ian, so he tells us, considered resigning over the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician. It is surely time someone suggested it to him again.

Review: In Search of Fatima

Imagine you are a seven-year-old girl, who's known years of escalating conflict - skirmishes, sniper shootings and bombings - that left your parents distracted and your only real companions the maid and the family dog. Then, suddenly, with no more than a few minutes' notice, you are wrenched away from your home - leaving behind the maid and the dog, which stands in the street looking after you as though he understands you won't be back. You're then dumped in your grandparents' overcrowded house in a religiously rigid city - where to your bemusement your plaits - an eight-year-old's plaits - attract abuse in the market for your lack of a veil. Then you're suddenly transported to early 1950s England, an entirely foreign culture, climate and people, who can't even pronounce your name.

That was the fate of Ghada Karmi, author of In Search of Fatima, a personal memoir that tells her story, and that of her Palestinian relatives and friends, indeed of the Palestinian people. After many vissitudes, Karmi went on to lead an organisation pushing the Palestinian cause, so this is a political book, but much more it is the beautifully written, honestly told, story of that seven-year-old girl, who found shocking the things that any child might find shocking - that floors were suddenly made of materials she'd never encountered before "immense halls with polished floors, vinyl and wood ... in Palestine, floors were tiled or made of stone". And "the people here looked different ... They were taller and bigger and had pale skins. The men didn't have moustaches and I wondered why none of the women seemed to be pregnant; I could see no swollen bellies anywhere. Not like Palestine."

There's awareness now that children transplanted, particularly in such turbulent circumstances, need special attention, but in post-War Britain, and in the Palestinian culture in which Karmi was still absorbed at home, it seems there was not even the inkling of such concerns. And she was handicapped by a seriously self-obsessed mother, who seems sometimes to have suffered depression, but even when she was not ill was utterly wrapped up in her own concerns.

Karmi makes excuses, understandably enough, yet is also aware of the limitations imposed by her mother's cultural background - the lack of education, or any expectation that her mother be able to cope on her own, as fate forced her to do. And she remembers her own anger at being treated as a second-class citizen:
"People thought he was special and better than me because he was a boy. They said that as he was the only son, just like his uncle, he must be treated especially well. My mother would now make me lay the table and also clear up, whereas the arrangement in Jerusalem had been that one person would lay the table and the other clear up. When I complained that it was unfair and he ought to do half, she told me that he was a boy and sisters must serve their brothers. ... When Ziyad was born, the family in Tulkarm had slaughtered a sheep to celebrate ... But when I was born, she said, no one killed any sheep for me and it used to make me cry."

Karmi's family arrived before the great post-War influx of immigrants to London, and the memoir provides an interesting account of the city of the period and particularly its early encounters with foreign cultures, often showing ignorance of difference, if equally often a kindness of spirit:
There were different types of coupon for different items, including one for sweets. Neither Ziyad or I understood much about this, but I recall that soon after our arrival in London we took our two ration books and went down the road to the newsagent's shop. There, we offered them to the woman behind the counter with the one important word we knew in English, "chocolate". She looked through the books and shook her head. Evidently, we did not have the appropriate coupons. But we must have looked so crestfallen that she smiled and gave us a toffee each.

Her father insisted - from an understandable desire that his children obtain an easily transportable vocational skill - that she study medicine, despite her strong inclination towards the arts, so Karmi ended up as one of a handful of women among many men in her class at the University of Bristol. By this time she had decided her only salvation lay in being wholly English, and that led her to a relationship, then marriage, with a fellow student from a traditional farming family in the area. Her mother never accepted this; her father only with extreme reluctance. Your heart can only ache for this transplanted, neglected, overwhelmed child trying to find a place to call home. It's hardly giving anything away to say the marriage ended badly.

Yet her sister, a few years older, who clung to her Palestinian identity and returned to the Arab world as soon as possible, also ended up divorced. This is a tale too of being female in the Fifties and Sixties, with all of the substantial disadvantage that entailed, even for women with excellent educations.

The book ends with Karmi returning to Jerusalem and finding her old home. If there is one disappointment it is in the title. I kept expecting Karmi to go looking for Fatima, the maid who seems to provide the title of the book. Perhaps she did, but could not write about it. But I would have liked to have known more of her story - the peasant woman left behind, or at least of that of women like her. Karmi acknowledges the snobbery of the society from which she originated, but perhaps is still unavoidably infected with it.

Those of a strongly pro-Israel bent might find aspects of this book challenging, yet it is an honest, if one-sided, account of the conflict that produced the Jewish state - and from the side less often heard in the west. But more, it is a human account of the second half of the twentieth century, its challenges and changes.

Serious readers of serious newspapers

From the Guardian website a minute or so ago:

"What you've been reading: the most popular stories on Guardian Unlimited between Sept 17 and Sept 23
1) Both Merkel and Schröder claim chancellorship
2) Blair attacks BBC for 'anti-US bias'
3) Mice could provide clue to Down's syndrome illnesses
4) New Orleans feels first effects of Rita
5) British tanks storm Basra jail"

Who says people only want to read about celebrities, sport and "lifestyle"?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The literature of climate change? Where is it?

You might say it is too early, but Robert Macfarlane today asks in the Guardian - comparing it to the literature of nuclear holocaust - where is the literature of climate change?

And perhaps this is more than a question about creativity:

Bill McKibben, author of the premonitory classic The End of Nature (1989), has written of how individuals would not act against climate change - altering their habits of consumption, lobbying policy-makers - until they felt "fear in their guts". Literature has a role to play in inducing this gut feeling, for one of its special abilities is that of allowing us to entertain hypothetical situations - alternative lives, or futures, or landscapes - as though they were real. It has a unique capacity to help us connect present action with future consequence.

I shall never forget reading Neville Shute's On The Beach as a 12 or 13-year-old, illictly under the bedcovers by torchlight. When I finished, around 3am, Australian suburbia outside was dead quiet, and I was that I was the last person left alive in the world.

The same sort of scare about climate change, spread as widely as possible, could only be a good idea.

Persephone Books: The old and the new

My latest Persephone Quarterly tells me that this season's books are about the very young and the very old. Doreen, published in 1946, is the tale of a nine-year-old Cockney girl sent away from the threat of bombing in 1939 to live with a middle-class family in the country.

The Persephone account says: As Jessica Mann [author of the preface] observes: ‘In 1946 few British people had yet heard of child psychology and specialists were only beginning to understand that bombs might have traumatised children less than the belief that their parents had deserted them.’ However, she concludes, ‘the separation of parent and child is a cruel fate but not as cruel as the risk of death.’

The psychologists might only have just thought of it, but the book makes it obvious the writers had.

The second book is There Were No Windows (1944), "based on the last months in the life of the writer Violet Hunt". She's suffering from a deterioration of memory that would probably today attract the label "Alzheimer's".

If you haven't heard of the company, they "reprint forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers". The books are paperbacks, but beautifully presented - ideal for presents. In fact I've give Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as a present several times due to multiple rave reviews - really must read it myself one of these days.

But really, if you're stuck for a present idea, they're ideal. And no, they're not paying me!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Reports of Nushu's demise were exaggerated

I first read about the unique script of Nushu, the only known one to be solely used to women, in the Sydney Morning Herald almost a quarter of a century ago. Then it was being "discovered". Last year, it was being declared "dead", when Yang Huangyi, its "last user" died at the age of 92.

Yet today's Guardian reports that it is still going strong in its remote homeland in southwestern Hunan province.

The impetus is economic and the results anything but romantic. But the reinvention of the embroidered script as a tourist moneyspinner is reaping dividends and a new generation of girls is studying the language not for a means of intimate communication but because it offers a chance to earn more than their brothers and fathers.

It is thought that Nushu was invented by women so they could record their thoughts, and communicate with each other, without their words being intercepted by men. In the area there is a strong tradition of "sworn sisterhood", and the script was one way women could maintain these relationships after marriage, when they could be torn from their home families and villages, to become virtual prisoners in the homes of their husband's families.

There's a whole website devoted to the script, the World of Nushu (it has some technical problems, but is worth sticking with) and you can see some examples of the script, in comparison with the Chinese, here. There's also a short academic article and a Chinese account of an exhibition here here (although something seems to have been lost in translation, since it speaks of an exhibition, but doesn't say where it was).

There also don't yet seem to be any commercial sites selling items on the web - an opportunity for somebody!

History for nothing:clicks for free

(With apologies to Dire Straits.)

A great deal: the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (that's of the UK) is offering free access over the weekend. You do have to sign up, but it is a painless process.

I went looking for female "relatives" and found:

Etheldred Benett: (1775-1845) who "acted as a clearing-house for palaeontological and geological investigations throughout Wiltshire, though these were sometimes interupted by electioneering for her brother in the often sordid provincial politics before the Reform Act of 1832."

Anna Maria Bennett, novelist: (d. 1808) Very much a self-made woman, from obscure origins, "she met Admiral Sir Thomas Pye while working in a chandler's shop. She became his housekeeper and mistress in Tooting, Surrey, and had at least two children with him ... Her daughter became the famous actress Harriet Pye Esten (1761?-1865)."

Louise Bennett,suffragist, trade unionist, and pacifist: ] (1870-1956): "It was the bitter labour conflicts in Dublin in 1913 that awakened Louie Bennett to full realization of the desperate situation of Irish women workers—‘the slaves of slaves’—who were very near starvation level. She founded the Irish Women's Reform League and thereafter became the leading activist and organizer in the cause of economic justice and human dignity."

Sarah Bennett, governess: (1797-1861) "The extent of her correspondence to former pupils, family, and missionaries (profits from the memoir were dedicated to the Church Missionary Society) gives an indication of the esteem in which she was held, especially as a role model for young ladies in similar straitened circumstances."

Not such a bad lot.

Friday femmes fatales No 24

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

This week I'm a bit further on my way to the collection of 300.

First, I have to highlight Claire's extremely promising new blog, We Are Still Here, which combines interests in feminism and history, so you can guess it is why the top of this list. Claire has been browsing the many little-known female writers on Project Gutenberg.

Staying on the artistic side, Gert, who promises she's "woman-shaped", on Mad Musings of Me, reviews a Donizetti concert performance. On Sudden Nothing, meanwhile, the Legendary Monkey wrestles with the difficult problem of writing about truth that is stranger than fiction. Then Deepa on Tea Shop on the Moon (what a lovely image) writes about Kamala Das, "one of the first women in India" to write about sex outside marriage, saying only now is she able to comprehend her courage, and her craft.

Moving on to "real life", or something like that, Colette on Dancing on Colette's Grave writes about the perils of internet dating. Bitter-Girl, who boasts she's "now with extra cranky" is meanwhile detailing the perils of life in Cleveland and Lisset on Did I SHave My Legs for This? is lamenting the disconnections caused by the night shift. (Know the feeling - you might notice I often post at some pretty odd times.)

If that seems a bit depressing, then Laura Young on Musings of an Ant Watcher introduces Rasputina's "wicked romp" "through territory one would never have dreamt possible for two cellists and a drummer" and Connie Phillips on Blogcritics is celebrating The Vanity Project, a musical celebration of "the LA dream".

Finally, for those not yet convinced about Bill Gates and company, The Common Scold notes its non-existent diversity policy.

Last week's edition is here.

Remember nominations are hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Two Englands: 1939, before and after

I noted yesterday how well HV Morton could write, on my reading of his I Saw Two Englands, which covers two trips across the country before and after the outbreak of war. Although much of it is more or less hack travel writing, this is also a fascinating portrait of a country on the cusp of war, and in the early "phoney war" period.

Two of the book's images might sum it up:

This is labelled "crookmaker of Pyecombe". Morton laments that this is an England already almost gone - indeed you might call it a pre-WWI-style relic. "The head of the crook is of iron or steel, and nothing makes a better crook than an old gun barrel. The haft of the crook must be formed of unpeeled hazel for the shepherds will not have ash. They polish the hazel until it looks like mahogany.
As the purpose of a crook is to catch a sheep by the leg, and as the various breeds of sheep in England vary in size, there are many patterns. A Sussex crook would be of no use to a Kent shepherd, and a man herding Dorset Horns would require still a difference pattern. ... Pyecombe crooks last more than a lifetime, but as there are fewer shepherds than ever on the Downs, there is not much genuine demand for them today. Instead the Mitchell brothers are generally busy making crooks for bishops and hikers." (p. 111.-112)

Yet in between his accounts of architectural and cultural relics in the first section of the book, Morton is also seeing an England waiting for war. At Fotheringham, the site of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Morton finds a hand-written notice on the wall of the church about what is to be done after the proclamation of a state of war: "The Church bells will not be rung or chimed during the whole period of a state of War for any ordinary or special services ... In the event of an enemy air raid threatening the village, the ALARM will be sounded by two, or more, of the church bells being rung continually for two, or more, minutes. When the alarm has sounded DON'T .... Be surprised at anything that may happen." (p. 178)

At his hotel the next morning Morton meets an historian who says: "I gave up reading the papers last September and feel better for it in every way ... there are not sufficient facts available these days on which anyone could base an opinion, therefore I feel I miss nothing." (p. 179)

He also writes about class in a distinctly looking-down-the-nose way that must still have been acceptable in 1939, but that by the end of the war would, I suspect, have sounded a bit much. So in Fittleworth, Sussex, in the Swan, he has what he says is the only interesting conversation he has ever had with a bar maid. "The girl told me that she had been getting up at six o'clock for the past few mornings in order to photograph a family of foxes living on Fittleworth Common... no one, except perhaps Thomas Hardy, could have imagined a barmaid in the bracken, watching for little foxes." (p. 113)

This of course is the post-outbreak photo, of members of the Women's Land Army ("land girls") being trained at an agricultural college. "As we were walking round, a shapeless female figure in voluminous garments passed across the weeping landscape ... 'She used to be a fashion artist,' said the Principal. Another figure in corduroy breeches clumped past with a spade across her shoulder. 'She was a typist,' said the Principal. 'No, I'm wrong, a ladies' hairdresser.'" (p. 276) While he's there a group of evacuated London schoolboys come past on a tour and express astonishment about where their food comes from.

The overall image is of a country is a state of slightly bemused dislocation, waiting for the bombs to fall, and in the meantime being disproportionately shocked by minor changes to their lives. "In the public-house between Frome and Bath ... the tap room was full of the usual country characters, all talking about the War and listening to the B.B.C. news bulletin. Until the War the names of B.B.C. announcers had never been divulged, but as soon as War was declared, these gentlemen owned the best-known names in England. At first the phrase "and this is Frank Phillips reading it" was as startling and extraordinary as if The Times leaders had been signed." (p. 214)

The postscript of the book has Morton as a member of the Home Guard ("Dad's Army" - and this sounds like that) leading his platoon in a search for downed German airmen. "Harry and George clumb upon a mound of hay and prod about in it; and I am reminded of some story, read long ago, of Roundheads searching for Cavaliers.... Danger gas skipped us for a century or two; and now we are back in Danger, with a gun under the bed and an ear cocked for the sound of a signal" (p.285-7)

One more interesting snippet as my postcript.

"The verb to canter is, of course, a contraction of a 'Canterbury gallop', which was the easy hand gallop into which the pilgrims urged their horses, possibly when they came to level stretches of the South Downs." (p. 69)

(My edition is Metheun and Co London, 1942, I'd imagine the original, produced to the "Book Production War Economy Standard" - it is a hardback, but the paper's very cheap-looking.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Two short lessons in how to write

1. "I shall never believe in ghosts until I hear of one that spends its time turning on the hot water or switching the electric light off and on. A ghost that merely glides past all these fascinating modern improvements is not, to my way of thinking, genuine or convincing." (p.15)

2. "Indeed, from their willingness to provide tea and sell fudge, it is clear that the old houses of Alfriston fully appreciate the profit to be made from those who are so starved of beauty that they will go miles to look at a thatch." (p. 102)

These from H.V. Morton's I Saw Two Englands, 1939 (covering journeys before and after the outbreak of war).

As befits a highly prolific writer he's uneven, but when he's good he's very good.

He's even got a personal society.

More later, hopefully.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Childless, happy AND altrusitic

I'm a fan of Lionel Shriver as an author, but as a social commentator she's way off-beam. Writing in
this weekend's Guardian, she says:

"After talking myself blue about "maternal ambivalence", I have come full circle, rounding on the advice to do as I say, not as I did. I may not, for my own evil purposes, regret giving motherhood a miss, but I've had it with being the Anti-Mom, and would like to hand the part to someone else."

While I can sympathise with her being fed-up with a one-line media stereotype, she then goes on at great length to talk about her desire for her own life as her own "evil purposes", saying of her (relatively) child-free generation: "We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don't especially care what happens once we're dead."

What tosh. I'm childless myself, entirely and absolutely by choice, and know lots of other people who've also chosen not to have children, but this means we have more time and energy to devote to the present and future of our societies and our world. While parents have chosen, as is their right, to put vast amounts of time and energy into helping usually at most a couple of human beings face the future, we're doing the voluntary community work, conducting the environmental campaigns and generally facing the issues that take entire societies into the future.

To say that this is more "selfish" than putting the same effort into passing on a few of your genes is ridiculous. Indeed there's a case to be made that if anyone is being selfish it is the parents - certainly those who have more than their replacement allocation of two children.

European societies, as Shriver discusses, are getting very exercised by their ageing social structures, but the world's population is still growing at a great rate - probably far beyond its sustainable carrying capacity. All that needs to happen is for it to be more evenly distributed.

And if a reminder of the enormous pressures to which we are subjecting this fragile planet were needed, two stories in the Guardian today certainly provide it.

I was struck by a line in a story about China building a railway to Tibet: "The roof of the world is melting." Then there was the piece about how budget airlines are taking off in India.

The railway is taken as just one symbol of that "those billions are travelling, earning and consuming more than ever before". But the very foundations of the track, and of the future, are put at risk by that very growth, even though the trouble the engineers are having with the permafrost melting is entirely down to Western over-consumption over the past two centuries.

The human race can't afford to have them consuming at Western levels, yet if there is to be any hope of convincing them not to do so, we need to dramatically cut back ourselves. The childless are helping with that problem, through that choice, and many others.

So if you're looking for a new "anti-Mom", here I am.

Loving the Parthians

An email today reminded me of one of those wonderful "labour-of-love" websites that often don't get the attention they deserve:

It is a collection of varied resources about the ancient civilisation, with a particular focus on coins. And if you think that sounds rather dull, well check out this collection of images of horses from Parthian coins. I was reminded anew of just how fine the workmanship on ancient coins can be.

There's also the inevitable collection of recipes - mainly arriving via the Romans. Pliny reckoned their bread would keep for centuries, if you consider that a recommendation.

The only Parthian (real) site I've visited is Dura Europos, on what is now the Syria-Iraq border; then it was the Rome/Parthian border. It is a magical, haunting place, set on a great bluff over the Euphrates. (The atmosphere is only magnified when you know that the actual archaeology of the final battle here was preserved in the bones of the defenders").

Monday, September 19, 2005

A big question: What causes war?

That's the question Barbara Ehrenreich tries to answer in her brilliant Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passion of War. Or, to put it more precisely, what predisposes the human species to get caught up in war fever?

Her answer, to simplify, is that it comes from the fact that we are the only species to have gone from being mainly prey to almost entirely predator. "Here is what we might call the missing link within the theory of human evolution itself: how a poor, shivering creature grew to unquestioned dominance. Before and well into the age of hunting, there must have been a long, dark era of fear when the careless and stragglers were routinely picked off, when disease or any temporary weakness could turn man into meat." (P. 45)

The point at which the roles began to turn, Ehrenreich reports, citing William H. McNeil among others, is when humanities and humans started to act as a group, making noise, throwing sticks and stones and otherwise acting together. "As any demagogue knows, a crowd is most likely to bond into a purposeful entity when it has an enemy to face. Millennia of terror seems to have left us with another 'Darwinian algorithm': that in the face of danger, we need to cleave together, becoming a new, many-headed creature larger than our individual selves." (p. 82)

Further,: "The transformation from prey to predator, in which the weak rise up against the strong, is the central 'story' in early human narrative. Some residual anxiety seems to draw us back to it again and again. We recount it as myth and reenact it as ritual, as if we could never be sufficiently assured that it has, indeed, occurred." (p. 82)

And humans continue to promote this anxiety culturally - through stories of beasts "coming to get them" if they're bad, through horror movies, through Roman 'games' plus the human child is for a very long time just as vulnerable as our early ancestors.

The hunting that occurred, as we got to the top of the food chain, was primarily a large group activity - herds that occurred in great numbers were driven off cliffs, into bogs or human-made traps, a task that would require every member of the tribe to participate. It was only perhaps as recently as 15,000-10,000 years ago, with the combined effects of climate change and, probably, human predation, that animal numbers fell to such a point that a few mobile, adult individuals would travel, perhaps long distances, to stalk and spear game.

Not coincidentally, Ehrenreich suggests, that roughly coincides with the first evidence of what looks to us like war, a rock draw in Spain showing bands of stick figures wielding bows and arrows against one another. Graves from the same era in Egypt and East Asia support that conclusion (p. 117)

But this was not a case of competition. Ehrenreich suggests that as gathering and crop growing developed "the majority of adult men would have found themselves in need of some substitute for the hunter-defender role. As encounters with wild animals (both game and predators) became less central to human survival, so, potentially, did adult males become less central to the survival of women and children. In their engaging study of warfare among southwestern American Indians, anthropologists Clifton B. Kroeber and Bernard L. Fontana propose that war may indeed have arisen to fill the void. One by one, they eliminate the various materialist theories - involving land and access to water - which have been offered to explain these peoples' perpetual wars, and propose instead that war exists because it is a prestigious thing for men to do, that it is an exciting and even "religious" undertaking." (p.124)

And once this direction was taken, it was hard to stop. "As it spreads from place to place, war tends to stamp a certain sameness on human cultures. At the most obvious level, it requires that each human society be as war-ready as the other societies it is likely to encounter ... No doubt there are other directions in which human cultures might have evolved - towards greater emphasis on the arts, for example, or philosophy, or more lighthearted games and rituals. But war, once chosen by some, quickly became the 'unchosen direction' imposed on all." (p. 134)

War has traditionally been analysed by reference to social and economic structures of societies, but Ehrenreich says, it has persisted through all of these. It can be thought of she says, as a meme. Ehrenreich says this concept is still rather loose and inadequately theorised, but suggests that in the case of war "it would have to be conceived as a loose assemblage of algorithms or programs (in the computer sense) for action " (p. 234)

"If war is understood as a self-replicating entity, we should probably abandon the many attempts to explain it as an evolutionary adaptation which has been, in some ecological sense, useful or helpful to humans. ... Culture, in other words, cannot be counted to be 'on our side'." (p. 235)

"It is ... a parasite on human cultures - draining them of the funds and resources, talent and personnel, that could be used to advance the cause of human life and culture. But 'parasitism' is too mild a term for a relationship predicated on the periodic killing of large numbers of human beings. If war is a 'living' thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. To look at war, carefully and long enough, is to see the face of the predator over which we thought we had triumphed long ago." (p. 238)

But there are actions that can be taken to combat the meme, for "if the twentieth century brought the steady advance of war and war-related enterprises, it also brought the beginnings of organised human resistance to war. Anti-war movements, arising in massive force in the latter half of the century, are themselves arising in massive force in the latter half of the century, are themselves products of the logic of modern war, with its requirements of mass participation and assent. When the practice and passions of war were largely confined to a warrior elite, popular opposition to war usually took the form of opposition to that elite." (p. 239) And within anti-war movements, humans can discover that euphoria of banding together for common survival, Ehrenreich suggests, that they first found when a band of humble hominids drove off a sabre-toothed tiger by working together.

It is a brilliant account, and I'd highly recommend reading the book, which has far more complexities than I have space for here. My edition is Virago, published 1997.

Which makes me think about bringing it up to date. What is changing in the 21st century, it seems to me, is that certainly the dominant Western states are moving away from "mass" wars. Of course this is only a good thing, in the avoidance of bloodshed, but if wars are to be conducted by robots and drones, as the Americans seem to be aiming for, the impetus for anti-war movements that Ehrenreich identifies will have disappeared. (Unless of course the robots decide to rebel!) And if the humans involved are those from lower socio-economic groups (also the case in America and other Western societies), they're the ones with the least voice to speak out against the wars in which their sons and daughters are dying.

Perhaps we all need to do something about that.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review: The Dragons' Trilogy, by Robert Lepage

How can you sum up 325 minutes of theatre - that's nearly five and a half hours (albeit with three intervals) - that whirls with imagery, pulses with energy and buzzes with ideas?

At the level of narrative, The Dragons' Trilogy, now at the Barbican, could be summarised as a too-neat, too-circular family saga: two young French-Canadian girls living in Quebec City in the 1930s, close friends, begin the play just on the cusp of adolescence. One gets pregnant and is gambled away to become the wife of a first-generation Chinese-Canadian by the drunken barber father. The other joins the army, marries "appropriately" and has two sons. Meanwhile in Japan, a geisha is made pregnant by an abusive Englishman, who abandons her. The daughter of that baby will eventually get together with the French-Canadian's son, while the illegitimate daughter will, well not to give too much away, will suffer a nasty fate.

Yet the director, Robert Lepage, is not, you can't but feel, terribly interested in narrative, or indeed dialogue. He knows audiences expect it, crave it, and gives them the bare bones, in a sometimes naturalistic, sometimes stylised mixture of English, French, Chinese and Japanese. (There are surtitles when necessary.)

What really matters to him, however, is the stunning image, the shock of movement, the flash of light. Sometimes it is surreal. At one point a nun standing in the basket of a speeding bicycle (being ridden by the father of that illegitimate girl, still a delivery man in his home town) is shouting out the humiliation of her public trial in China after the revolution, underneath a screen image of Mao, while the married French-Canadian woman sits on the roof of a shed learning to type to a disembodies voice of an instruction manual that is actually commenting on the action, while her old friend sits and mourns the departure of her daughter.

Yet it all makes sense. Really!

The triology is staged in a pit of gravel, a brilliant touch for often what is important here is the swish of movement through it, or the stamp of (metaphor) jackboots, even the slice of ice-skates. An often underused sense often strains for full fitness. It is also a Japanese garden, a grave, our earth mother, and a parking lot that contains the history of all that came before.

So what does it all mean? I heard more than one member of the audience asking. That's where the reviewer's task gets really difficult. It would be possible to use phrases made vacuous by overuse like "choice and free will", "the flow of life", "the human condition", "the modern condition", "the female condition". Really, this is a show about life in all of its messy, and metaphorical, reality.

And it is an optimistic reality. The new generation, coming to life as the old fades away with the "white dragon" of autumn, seems to be making a better fist of it, in its glorious multicultural, multi-ethnic reality, than did their parents and grandparents.

Last time the Trilogy was produced in London, one reviewer said "See Robert Lepage and die". It is hard to disagree.

A Guardian biography of Lepage is here, an academic article on his work here, and a review of a book about him here.

First find your priest-hole

My knowledge of priest-holes - hiding places used from the 16th century onward to hide Catholic priests in Protestant England, as well as Cavaliers, Roundheads and the odd Jacobite and, one suspects, plenty of clandestine lovers - comes chiefly from Jean Plaidy, which means it dates back a way.

But now I can update it: from the 18th-century email list, Secret Chambers and Hiding Places, by Allan Fea, on the net. He notes:

From Horace Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe, Scott, Victor Hugo, Dumas, Lytton, Ainsworth, Le Fanu, and Mrs. Henry Wood, down to the latest up-to-date novelists of to-day, the secret chamber (an ingenious necessity of the "good old times") has afforded invaluable "property"—indeed, in many instances the whole vitality of a plot is, like its ingenious opening, hinged upon the masked wall, behind which lay concealed what hidden mysteries, what undreamed-of revelations! The thread of the story, like Fair Rosamond's silken clue, leads up to and at length reveals the buried secret, and (unlike the above comparison in this instance) all ends happily!

Thank you Gutenberg Project!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

You be the judge ...

I think the result is about right, but you be the judge.

Your Brain's Pattern

You have a tempered, reasonable way of thinking.

You tend to take every new idea in, and meld it with your world view.

For you, everything is always changing. Each moment is different.

Your thinking process tends to be very natural - with no beginnings or endings.

(Via: Triple Pundit.)

Air travel: paying your dues

Having just flown back from a week in Biarritz, I was feeling a bit guilty about my greenhouse gas emissions - it would have been technically possible to take the train, but at more than 10 hours the journey seemed just a bit too long to be practical.

Personal political reminded me that I meant to do something about it, in donating to a project enough to cover the emission from my flight. She took me, indirectly, to Climate Care, where I was a little surprised to find only £5 would cancel out the guilt.

I sit at my desk now, looking out on a blue autumn sky with puffy clouds, which are being dodged by the planes swinging around on final approach to Heathrow, disappearing behind the Euston Tower. If everyone on each of those paid in full for their flight, it wouldn't end global warming, but it would certainly help to make a difference.

Learn more

I haven't been involved in one of these before, but it certainly looks interesting, even if primarily meant for the classroom. It might even help with some answers to yesterday's "seven out of 159" equation.

The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University is happy to announce that our website Women in World History ( will host four month-long online forums in 2005-06.

These forums will give world history teachers the chance to talk about ways to teach issues surrounding women and gender in world history, and how to access classroom resources, including online primary sources. An educator with high school classroom experience and a historian will moderate each forum. Each forum will be an accessible email listserv that allows all participants to post comments and see all responses.

The first forum begins October 1: Women in World History, moderated by Merry Wiesner-Hanks (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Heidi Roupp (Former President, World History Association)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Seven out of 159 world leaders are women

Today's Guardian centre-spread picture of all of the world leaders at the UN summit (and not all of them are the top leaders) makes a depressing sight.

There are - count 'em - seven women out of the 159 total. For the record they are:
Gloria Arroyo, President of The Philippines
Khalida Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President of Sir Lanka
Tarja Halonen, President of Finland
Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia
Truong My Hoa, Vice-President, Vietnam
Fausta Morganti, Captain Regent, San Marino

So that's five national leaders - where are all those "men's rights" types who claim women are taking over?

(You do have to feel sympathy for the poor protocol officers who had to muster that lot and get them in line, without putting sworn enemies too near each other, and all pointing in the one direction. For those who are sarky about UN diplomats, just imagine that job.)

I Love Tracey Emin

The best thing in The Independent most weeks is Travey Emin's "My Life in a Column". Gloriously irrerevent, utterly unashamed and open, there's nothing quite like it. Women traditionally don't write like this:

"It's like wishing your arse smelt of lemon, imagine what lemons would smell like."

(And yes that should be a semi-colon, but still ...)

Unfortunately she's on a subscription system, but you can read the first part of this week's column here.

And if you have somehow managed to avoid her story - it is true she is a media tart of an artist - there's an outline of her career and lots of links here. (And the best of her art is also brilliant.)

Friday femmes fatales No 23

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

After a fortnight of returning to old stamping grounds, this week I'm recommencing the collection of new female bloggers, on my way to an nice even number of 300.


A Little Pregnant, who was obviously rather more than that, offers personal reflection and family accounts of Katrina, while in the other big US news of the week,"Pissed-off Patricia" on Blondesense has a pithy selection of questions for Judge Roberts.

Back in the UK, Gendergeek is angered by a spurious connection being made feminism and paedophilia.

Jenny D. on Back Talk asks some of the big questions: Can you teach? How do you know? Still in schools, on The Crazy Rants of Samantha Burns, you-can-guess-who asks if kids should be punished for their parents.

On the artistic side, Sweet Jane on Parisist is getting away from the grey of a Paris autumn with a spectacular art installation. (Even if you can't read the French, check out the pics.) Jeanne on Body and Soul discusses the - rather odd when you think about it - idea of turning blogs into books.

Open Brackets, meanwhile, has come up with some useful new words, including Grouptard: [user] group + retard: The maddening and ever-present fool who apparently always populates otherwise lovely user groups.

On the personal side, Sara Lynn on the beautifully named Yeah, But Houdini Didn't Have These Hips reports on how not to have a birthday. Belle in the Big Apple, meanwhile, is waying the choices and compromises of city life versus the Southern Boy. (Don't tie yourself down, I'd say.)

Last week's edition is here.

Remember nominations are hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?


A loss of air in return for lots of hot air

Was chuffed to hear about the group of Paris campaigners against four-wheel-drive vehicles, who call themselves the Deflators (Les Dégonflés). They are going around letting down the tyres of four-wheel-drive vehicles (SUVs), a campaign that has been stepped up since the local authorities wimped out of banning the monsters from the city.

SBS reports: "The group has promised to make a video of its tyre strikes available on the Internet within the next month with the aim of inspiring the same action in other French cities."

Now I can hear all the complaints now:

1. That must be illegal.
No, according to a report on BBC Radio Five yesterday (not on the web), it isn't, since no damage is caused. (Legal note: This is the case under French law; it may not be the case elsewhere.)

2 You're inconveniencing "innocent" people.
Oh no they're not - these are people behaving in a thoroughly anti-social manner. Society is entitled to extract a penalty from them for that. Teenagers who behave in an anti-social manner are forced to spend their weekends picking up litter; having to pump up your tyres and not being able to get where you wanted to go instantly might provide a good time for a little reflection on your behaviour.

As one blogger puts it: "La guerre du macadam est ouverte."

In case you still don't realise how bad they are, from yesterday's Guardian:

"4x4s are responsible for 43% more greenhouse emissions and 47% more pollution than the average car. You are 27% more likely to die if you are hit by a 4x4 than by an ordinary car. But, bizarrely, you are also 6% more likely to die if you are an occupant of a 4x4, because 4x4 drivers, feeling invulnerable, drive faster."

More about Paris anti-4x4 campaigns (in French) here. The British campaign, as yet rather more restrained, is here.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Victorian view of womanhood, from a woman

An eBay impulse purchase (very quiet days at work are so expensive), Shakspeare's [sic] Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical & Historical, by Mrs Jameson, author of Sacred and Legendary Art etc, London, George Newnes Ltd, Southampton Street, Strand, 1897.

Surprisingly for what otherwise (paper, typography etc) looks like a cheap edition, it has a stunning embossed leather cover:

And I'm trying to still like Mrs Jameson, despite:

"The intellect of woman bears the same relation to that of man as her physical organisation; it is inferior in power, and different in kind. That certain women have surpassed certain men in bodily strength or intellectual energy does not contradict the general principle found in nature. The essential and invariable distinction appears to me this: in men, the intellectual faculties exist more self-poised and self-directed - more independent of the rest of the character, than we ever find them in women, with whom talent, hoever predominant, is in a much greater degree modified by the sympathies and moral qualities." (p. 37)

Interesting contrast to yesterday's early modern version of patriarchy.


History Carnival No XVI is up ...

... and it is a beauty. You might recall mine was a Greek symposium, well this, on Respectful Insolence, is a premium video channel - of a class of something I've never seen on the old box.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Afterbirth - Theatre Review

A play about a 14-year-old from East London who's just got out of care and back with his dysfunctional family will, you might safely predict, have plenty of shocks, and be staged in a confrontational, in-your-face manner. And that is the case with Afterbirth, which opened tonight at the Arcola Theatre.

The play begins with the graphic description by a group of youths of a video of a fatal rape of a senior citizen on the estate who was being punished for "grassing up" one of its criminal families, then Val, Baz's shatteringly dysfunctional mother, walks around on stage for several minutes "with her tits out", as her older son Morris puts it, parading in front of him and a visiting mate. Then there's full-frontal nudity from the middle-aged paedophile character(at least if you're sitting in the seats on the left as you enter the theatre - you've been warned), as he gets out of bed after a night with Baz, the 14-year-old. (The 16-plus ticket rating is fair enough.)

This first full-length drama by Dave Florez, is, however, considerably cleverer and more thought-out than those "shock-jock" scenes might suggest. They are only softening up the audience for the real earthquakes to come; most of which happen in their minds, rather than graphically on the stage in front of them. Yet the thought, the fear, that they might lingers.

The play begins as Baz (David Judge) returns home, to his glue-sniffing mates and the paedophile Ken (Paul Moriarty), who, it emerges, is the closest thing to a parent-figure or older brother that Baz has ever known. The subtlety of this relationship hints at the complexities to follow, although, for reasons I cannot reveal without giving away too much of the plot, you're left in no moral doubt about the ultimately thoroughly exploitative and vile nature of the relationship.

Baz then sits down in front of the television with the chain-smoking Val (Clara Salaman), but the closest she can imagine to a motherly gesture is the jerky, uncomfortable offer to take away his drink can. In the background is Baz's new (half)-brother, Alan, in whom the boy has invested all of his fervent homes for family and stability. (An interesting take on the more usual model of female teen pregnancy.)

We gradually meet more of the thoroughly dysfunctional family: Morris, the football lout, and Madonna, the drug-addicted prostitute sister, who's trapped in messy sort-of-snout but mostly sexual relationship with a sleazy policeman (Chris Chilton). This is the aspect of the play - with its all-too-Billish cliches, that works least well. But general, Florez is successful in avoiding the obvious council estate plot lines; I was particularly impressed that the social worker who appears at the end is not a figure of fun or loathing, just a man of compassion trapped in a potentially explosive scenario. And we're not just presented with horrors flat out, some unfold subtly, with the Morris-Val scene, for example, suddenly appearing in a new light after later revelations in the play.

There's plenty of humour, situational, slapstick and verbal, most of which is built into the plot in a sophisticated matter - there's little slapstick for the sake of it. (Even the nappy smell jokes, which start to get a little wearing - do in the end have more point to them than might seem possible.)

At the peak is the turning point scene with Karim (Kal Aise), Val's latest boyfriend and the presumed father of Alan. It starts out roaringly funny, then turns into something deeply dark. As is the play from this point on.

This is a truly fine first play - we can certainly hope to see more of Florez - and a well-staged production by the director Deborah Paige that makes full use of the Arcola's star-shaped space. David Judge does a fine job of portraying Baz's real, if desperate, affection for the baby Alan, although is physically less than convincing as a 14-year-old - a tough ask for any adult actor. The production also sees a particularly fine performance from Clara Salaman, who manages to syympathetically play a drunken, drugged-up, hopeless mother without descending into slapstick farce.

It is hard to see this play achieving the "perfect" result for any fringe production in transferring to the West End - the subject matter and a certain rawness militate against it - but it is a production that certainly deserves to be well patronised at the Arcola.


For visitors to London, and those who don't know the area, I should perhaps add that as with most fringe theatre, this isn't in the best part of town. This doesn't mean you need to be paranoid, but flashing wads of cash or expensive mobiles on the street would probably not be a good idea. But you can dine well, and astonishingly cheaply by London standards, in the many Turkish restaurants that line Dalston High Street.


The 'weaker vessel': blame Tyndale

How a cliche caught on:

"The phrase 'the weaker vessel' originated with Willian Tyndale's translation of the New Testament into English in 1526 and became common usage during the next hundred years or more. Many must have encountered it in the King James version of the Bible ... It is hard to think of a single phrase which brings together more aptly the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition of the subjection of women wiith the humoral physiology of the ancients."

Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800, Anthony Fletcher, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 60

As a book it has useful anecdotes, but is otherwise nothing to get excited about.


Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture- Review

For any woman growing up in, and living in, the Western world, issues of body image, body shape and sexuality can be problematic. For black women, there's an additional layer of complexity, of danger, of risk of being dangerously misunderstood. In Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, Janell Hobson explores the centuries of racist exploitation that have produced this state of affairs - most recently brought into focus by the infamous Janet Jackson Superbowl incident - and ways in which black women creative artists have tried to confront it.

At the centre of Hobson's account is the life, and posthumous treatment of Sara Baartman, a woman who was brought from what is now South Africa to England and France and between 1810 and 1815 exhibited as the "Hottentot Venus" . Particularly exciting (in several senses of that term) to those who paid to see her sometimes unclad body were her supposedly abnormally large buttocks and genitals. After she died, her body was dissected and her brain and genitals preserved, with casts of her body and her skeleton.

Well, you might say, that was a past, barbaric age. Then you learn that it was only in 2002 that these remains were finally returned to South Africa, after a long campaign, and given a proper burial.

And, Hobson, points out, the history of exploitative, demeaning use of black bodies, particularly female bodies, is a continuous one. Even anti-slavery campaigners used sexualised images of flogged and otherwise abused women for their cause, then images of naked black bodies, both male and female, were used by the National Geographic Society (among others) in "anatomical education", "primitive-style" nudity being acceptable where "civilised" was not, which of course provoked a suppressed erotic reading of these supposedly pedagogic materials.

Hobson says:

"When this colonial historic imagery combines with the more familiar American popular iconography of desexualised, fully clothed mammy images and celebratory imagery of white female beauty, we may be able to more fully comprehend interstices between race and gender that shape our uneasy responses to sexualised visual representations of black women".

How, she asks:
"Can a black woman hold up a mirror that reveals an alternative image of herself, free from the iconographic history in dominant culture that cast black female bodies as illicit, hypersexed, primitive and obscene?"

As these extracts suggest, Hobson's writing is intelligent without being buried in that bane of so many otherwise fascinating texts, academic jargon, despite her position in women's studies. This is a book accessible to virtually any reader, and one that many black women, and their white compatriots, would surely find illuminating in their encounters with cultural conundrums of competing demands for sexual display and "modesty".

Some, however, might find confrontational the fact that Venus in the Dark contains representations of the very images that it is critiquing, including those of Baartman. Hobson says: "Such images need to be confronted". I agree. Surely to write about these images without presenting them is only to magnify their power and malevolence.

Where Hobson, perhaps inevitably, is less successful, is in her prescriptions for dealing with the issue. Her chosen arena is in cultural construction, mostly "elite" art, with some popular intrusions. This is not my specialist area, but I do feel she's overly prescriptive in her readings of artworks, and her classifications of them as "successes" or "failures" in their treatment of the Hottentot Venus image.

Among the artists whose treatment of Baartmen she addresses are the poet Elizabeth Alexander, the writer Toni Morrison, the artists Penny Siopis, Renee Cox, Carla Williams and Willie Bester, and the digital artist Mara Verna, who has a website dramatisation.

In "The 'batty politics': towards an aesthetic of the black female body", Hobson then looks at aspects of popular culture, from the tennis champion Serena Williams, the entertainers Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, the dancers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, and hip hop musicians. Hobson says of Jennifer Lopez:
"Dominant culture later came to celebrate Lopez's behind as part of a recognition of "exotic" and "hot" Latinas, women perceived as "more sexual" than white women but "less obscene" than black women ... what has not changed is the racism and sexism underlying her popularity". (p. 103)

Hobson's prescription is that black women "must confront the prevailing imagery of grotesque derrieres and black female hypersexuality to distinguish the myths and lies from our own truths and the ways we wish to represent ourselves." (p. 112)

Finally, I have to share one account from the book that I found particularly horrifying, and that every woman should know:
The scientific display of Baartman's fragmented body would further shape other acts committed against black female bodies. This is exemplified specifically in the founding of gynecology, as antebellum physician J. Marion Sims invented the speculum while practising surgical experiments on enslaved black women in Alabama from 1845 to 1849. One named Anarcha would be operated on thirty times without anesthesia." (p. 48)

This book isn't perfect, but there's much in it that anyone who confronts issues of gender and race should know and think about, and that means everyone.

, ,

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The new Guardian: what do you think?

The new "Berliner" (mid-sized) Guardian has drawn much scorn from my workmates (but then I do work for the opposition). Although it is only early days, I'm, however, quite excited by it. As Stephen Glover wrote in The Independent, the question is "whether this is the same old Guardian repackaged in a new form, or whether it has become a different sort of newspaper, possibly more upmarket or even more Establishment in its feel".

And I think the answer to that is that it seems to be going upmarket, or at least holding its ground, which in a newspaper market fast streaming towards the populist can only be a good thing.

There can be lots of technical objections to the design - it is certainly over-busy at present, and I do think the interaction of the heads with sub-heads wiith bylines is going to have to be worked on, but the overall message is that this is a serious, even heavy, paper. I'd like to think that can work!

They are, however, I'd suggest, going to have a big problem in newsagents with it falling apart - and bagging is a very expensive option.

Yet this all might in the end up being academic. What really matters for the Guardian is that it is the only paper that really gets the web, as evidenced by its remarkably open blog about the development and implementation of the new design.

It has made itself an international brand through its huge and fast-acting web presence - I often notice how often purely American sources cite it - and through that in 10 years it might be the last "newspaper" left, when all of the dead-tree versions have long gone.

Review: War Reporting for Cowards

First, I should make a declaration of interest. I was working for The Times during the period covered by the bulk of War Reporting for Cowards, and I know all of the people in the London office about whom Chris Ayres writes, although I never met him. And I think he gets their characters and mannerisms well; at least as well as you could reasonably expect anyone still working for them to do.

As the title suggests, there are echoes in this book of a long British tradition of comedy drawn from men behaving ineptly, JK Jerome's Three Men In A Boat, perhaps the originator of the genre, the comedy of course coming from the fact that men are not expected to be incompetent in dealing with physical challenges. (We'll really have got somewhere when a female correspondent can write a similar book, without provoking a "do women belong in war zones?" debate, and facing unemployment. That, I fear, is still some decades off.)

Yet Ayres gets a long way beyond the limitations of the genre of comedy, and indeed the common line of "war reporting", into his real feelings of terror and pain during the nine days he spent "embedded" with the US marines during the invasion of Iraq. This is a real book from an observer at the very heart of the war; he's not a subtle or outright cheerleader for the "sport", as are so many who write on the subject.

Ayres was indeed as unlikely a war correspondent as could be imagined. His account begins with him as a student in the City University post-graduate journalism course, which, as he reports, gets a remarkable percentage of its graduates into the national media. But he chose the unfashionable business stream, and thence with unpaid work experience on the Times business desk. (Yes this is how many people get into journalism, and goes a long way towards explaining the narrow social pool from which British national journalists tend to be drawn.)

His account of this time does fall rather into the Boat trap; had he been as inept as he suggests, he would never have got a job - and he must surely have learnt what a "nib" was at journalism school. (Connections, unless they are very strong, will still only get you so far.)

Gradually, Ayres reports, however, he became a veteran of the business lunch, and through following e-business through the dot-com boom, an office star. It seems part of the persona that he claims this was an accident, but then it was an accident that he was in New York, on the very doorstep of 9/11, and shortly after at the middle of the anthrax attacks.

He then saw an opening when the current editor of The Times, Robert Thomson, took over, and bid for, and won, the job of Los Angeles correspondent, because, Ayres says, "He apparently had wanted someone on the West Coast who could write about the economics of celebrity fluff, as well as the celebrity fluff itself."

The reality, I'd suggest, was a bit more complex. The fact is that "serious" national newspapers are increasingly being pushed - some would say by social trends, some would say by newspaper fashion, some would say by desperation for readers - to include more and more of what their traditional staff dismissively call "fluff". And most staff have to be bludgeoned into writing this material; anyone who volunteers and shows the real desire that Ayers apparently has to cover it is likely to find it a great way to get ahead. This is particularly the case at The Times, where its history as "The Thunderer" is at war with its market position at the bottom of the old "broadsheet" chain, just above the traditionally tabloid Daily Mail. (This was the great unmentionable fact when I was working there.)

So how did he end up in Iraq as a war correspondent? From what I knew (which was not a lot) from the London end, Ayres' account is accurate. The idea of "embedding" journalists with the troops was a new one, and newsrooms were, justifiably, highly suspicious of how effective it was likely to be. So experienced correspondents - the ones expected to provide the bulk of the coverage - were placed strategically around Iraq - in the Kurdish areas in the north, in Iran, in Baghdad itself. Putting reporters with the troops was seen as a high-risk option, likely to produce little more than military PR, so inexperienced, seemingly ill-equipped, reporters like Ayres were given that role.

As it turned out of course, the northern front never rolled, thanks to the Turks, and it quickly became clear that it was horribly dangerous - and several journalists paid with their lives - to attempt to report on your own. So it was left to the "embeds" to report the progress of the war - in the case of Ayres, as he presents himself, a hypochondriac, physically inept, overweight man, with no military knowledge or background whatsoever.

Yet as I remember at the time, and is clear from the book, he made a great war correspondent. He described what he saw, what he felt, what he heard, from the perspective of a naive, unknowing viewer - exactly the same as the position of the reader on the 7.50 from Saffron Walden. So War Reporting begins:

The day, like most of my days in Iraq, had got off to a bad start. I awoke that morning, as usual, shivering violently and aching from another night in the Humvee... The first thing you notice is the contortion necessary to sleep inside the vehicle: the head dangles inches from the bare metal floor; the right leg is somewhere behind the left ear. The spine feels as though it has been splintered like a cocktail stick ...
Then comes the mental replay footage from the night before - the hollers of 'Lightning! Lightning!'; the absurd 3am fumble for the gas mask, welly boots and rubber gloves; the casualty reports over the radio ...

And even Ayres, perhaps the least likely marine in history, gets caught up with the feelings of the men with whom he is enduring all of these deprivations, and on whose protection his life depends. His account is their account too. When Ayres resists being taught how to fire an M-16, he tells what happens next:
Murphy ... looked me in the eye and drawled, 'So if there's a shitstorm, and you can shoot an Iraqi and save my life, or NOT shoot an Iraqi and let me die, what you gonna do?" It was more of an instruction than a question. And I had to spend the rest of the war sharing a Humvee with Murphy ... I wanted Buck and his men to beat the Iraqis as much as they did. After all, my own life was at stake. "I'd shoot the bastard," I said quickly. Then I took the weapon from his hands."

Here is a reporter who can write, can tell a story, can make you laugh and make you cry. (And speaking as a sub-editor, I can say that is far from a common case.) Reading War Reporting for Cowards will give you lots of laughs, and many squirms of uncomfortable self-recognition at your own condition as a 21st-century human being. You'll also finish up knowing a lot about war, and newspapers, and how they fit together.

What the New York junior cousin thought of it is here.