Philobiblon: November 2005

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Rewriting London's early history

Historical memory is a fickle thing. Look at London. The Roman city has always loomed large, but Anglo-Saxon London - or rather Lundenwic (c. 600-886) - was forgotten. For centuries, scholars scoffed at Bede's description of a thriving trading centre. It has only been in the past two decades that archaeologists have found what he described, a large, rich settlement in the area that is now Soho and Charing Cross.

It is thus apt that the Museum of London should decide to revamp its medieval gallery now, when some sense has been made of the glorious finds. The new display - which contrary to its name covers more than a thousand years, nearly half the city's history - was opened last week, and was worth the wait.

The Museum is well known for its accessible presentations, and the new gallery fits the mould, although with fewer reconstructions than its justly celebrated Roman displays. In presenting the newly rediscovered Ludenwic in particular, for which there is so little other information, the history has to be "read" from the objects found. These might have been what were once called the "Dark Ages", but beautiful things were still celebrated and sought after.

Some would have belonged to the aristocrats of the age, such as the still stunning brooch of gold and gold wire, set with garnets, that was buried in a woman's grave in what is now Covent Garden in the mid-600s. Read more

How to play Othello: a theatre-goer's theories

My 19th-century "blogger", Frances Williams Wynn, is today setting out her views on the great Shakespearean actors of her age. She's definitely a partisan of Kean, but thinks little of Kemble. I think our modern tastes might have agreed, if this article is anything to go by:

By the standards of the time, he was unsuited to the great tragic roles. The style then in vogue was artificial, declamatory, and statuesque, and its leading exponent, John Philip Kemble, was an actor of classic good looks, imposing figure, and vocal eloquence. Though Kean had handsome features, notably unusually expressive eyes, he was small, with a voice that was harsh, forceful, and commanding rather than melodious. He could never have hoped to compete with Kemble on Kemble's terms, so he had to become an innovator as well as a virtuoso. On Jan. 26, 1814, when he made his Drury Lane debut as Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the measure of his triumph was not to outshine Kemble but to outmode him.

Three million girls abused and mutilated every year

I was going to write an extensive post on this, but it is so depressing I couldn't face it. From the Unicef press site:

An estimated three million girls in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East undergo genital mutilation/cutting every year, according to a UNICEF report released today.
Yet the study says that with adequate commitment and support, this millennium-long custom could be eliminated within a single generation.

Carnival of Feminists No 4 is approaching fast

It will be on The Happy Feminist on December 7 - deadline for submissions is December 5.

And due to popular request a theme - or suggestion for posting topic - is added:

This theme is optional, and I fully intend to include a variety of posts that do not relate to this theme. If you have already submitted a post to me, there is no need to submit a new post.

What I am most interested in hearing about is how you first came to identify yourself as a feminist. What made you adopt that designation for yourself? Was it a slow process or a Eureka moment? When did you realize that you were a feminist? I am especially interested in hearing from people who grew up in communities where feminism was a rarity.

See the full call here or send submissions direct to veryhappyfeminist AT yahoo DOT com.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Libertine - portrait of a grey, grimy and brilliant land

The England of The Libertine has been a on 15-year-long binge - a binge of drinking, and fucking* and every other kind of debauchery that its brightest and best could dream up. Suddenly, however, the "hair of the dog" has become ineffective and through the lens of director, Laurence Dunmore, you see a society abruptly awakened.

It is opening its eyes to a grim, grey and desperate land; even the gaudy decorations of the theatre are fading, peeling, corroding. But John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), the man who has always shone above the rest, is not prepared to turn his path towards righteous, restrained endeavour that fits the new era - will not, and perhaps cannot.

I've always thought of Depp as a pretty-boy actor (when I've thought of him at all), but he turns in a stunning performance here, book-ending the film with wry, searingly honest monologues in which the twitch of the corner of an eye speaks volumes. And he manages to be both awful, and awfully attractive.

Yet he is almost eclipsed by Samantha Morton, playing his protege, the actress Elizabeth Barry, who, however much she might have to play the whore in the wings, is determined on stage to be her own woman, and secure her own fame. The final scene between her and Rochester is a wonderful portrait of a woman who has fought for and achieved power - for her the power over the fickle, dangerous, but passionately loving London theatre mob.

John Malkovitch is powerful too as the King - the man who'd led the party when he was restored to the throne as a fresh-faced youngster, but who's now an ageing roue, seeking, like any leader on his way out, to secure his legacy. He, as much as a king can, loves his subject Rochester, and he wants him to deliver for himself, but like any father, knows deep down that the Earl will always go too far.

But the star above all here is the camera - the way it peers through the murk to focus on a greasy strand of hair, a goosebumped arm, a bottomless pool of mud. You can almost smell and taste this rough, barbarian world - yet it is a world that values culture, wit and learning, a world the dissects and analyses every catch in Ophelia's voice, inspects every line of a new play to find the one that rings true.

And the language of the film - the words of the earthy, blunt 17th-century street, of the rapier-fast wit of the aristocratic fop, and the orutund flow of the formal stage - is brilliant. (It is based on the play by Stephen Jeffreys, and it shows in a classiness and complexity seen in few movie scripts.)

There was really only one scene I thought didn't work - the orgy in St James's Park, or at least the orgy that Rochester imagines. It is far too tame, too Vaseline-lensed an affair for the imagination of Rochester, but then again the director had to get at least an 18-certificate for it.

That's a reminder that for all the claims of the moralists, ours is an age far more uptight and hung-up than later 17th-century England. And in fact overall The Libertine is by no means an explicit film. A great many sexual things are suggested, but it never - thankfully - gets anatomical; it doesn't need to.

The only other negative is the handheld camera work - spinning around a character in a slow circle is rather overdone, and the first-time director should immediately put away the technique of moving two characters in and out of focus as each speaks - very year-one film school.

Nevertheless, as a portrait of an age, and of a brilliant man who's bent on sticking his hand in ever fire so that the pain can tell him he is alive, this film would be hard to beat.

I seldom go to the cinema, but my recommendation would be that even if you only go to one film a year, go to this one.

*I use the basic Anglo-Saxon here because it seems appropriate in the context of this film. (If it offends you here, you really don't want to see it.) The film itself has very few of today's "obvious" taboo words, but it might well revive a few of the old ones.

Menstruation: why is it so hard to say the word?

"Condoms", "anal sex", all sorts of previously banned terms are regularly bandied about by the mainstream media with scarcely a wince to be seen. Yet how often do you see the word "menstruation"? Nothing (necessarily) to do with the sexual act, so, you'd think, less likely to be taboo, but somehow it is still seen as something not to be mentioned in polite company, or "family newspapers".

I've been reflecting on this after reading Menstruation: A Cultural History, edited by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie, which provides a historical framework for understanding the strength of the taboo. Also, it makes clear how much beliefs about women contributed to the framing of women as inferior.

It starts, as so often, with Aristotle. For him, there was only one sex, females being merely an inferior form of male. This conclusion arose because as the normal human shape was male, for a woman to be capable of producing a male, menstrual blood must be male, in effect a lesser form of sperm.

When this got picked up by medieval cleric scholars who, theoretically at least, had no contact with women, it only got worse. Menstruation was a cleansing process - uniquely required by the female body - (so emmenagogues - preparations for bring on menstruation - could be seen as pro-natal, rather than abortifacients). Although I wonder how many women really understood what was going on. As a consequence of this belief, menstrual blood and women who were menstruating, could be seen as impure, and dangerous. (The process of churching women after birth certainly had something to do with this - although not according to official theology.)

And it meant that menstruating women would stain mirrors. "If a woman has this flow and looks into a mirror during this time, this mirror becomes like a bloody cloud. And if the mirror is new, one can hardly remove the red staining from the mirror, but if it is old, one can easily remove it," said the Secreta Mullierum [Secrets of Women, written circa 1300.

Then such a lovely image: "Therefore Avicenna says that the uterus of women is like a toilet that stands in the middle of town and to which people go to defecate, just like all residues of the blood from all over the woman's body go to the uterus and are cleaned there." (p. 66)

And a menstruating woman can pollute in all sorts of ways - speaking to one makes a man's voice hoarse; a baby conceived when a woman is menstruating would become leprous, it could give children the evil eye, and sex with a menstruating woman could give men all manner of diseases.

It is not until the 20th century that you start to get to heroes in this story - usually female doctors and researchers, the "most definitive expression of the approach" was in The Hygiene of Menstruation: AN Authoritative Statement by the Medical Women's Federation in 1925, which said: "Menstruation is a natural function; it is not an illness, and girls should therefore continue their normal work and play during the period. It should not be and is not normally accompanied by pain or malaise." (p. 112)

Yet there were still social hangovers. In 1926 Johnson & Johnson printed a "silent purchase coupon" for Modess sanitary napkins, so it "may be obtained in a crowded store without embarrassment or discussion". But still women complained that the shape of the box was easily identifiable. (p. 250)

(Tampons, by the way, for the historical record, were patented in 1931 and put on sale in 1934.)

What strikes me is that growing up in the early Seventies in Australia I was still affected by many of these attitudes. Mum told me carefully that I had to make sure Dad didn't see my sanitary pads. (I don't recall any explanation being given, there was just an air of this being something shameful and dirty.) And this wasn't surprising when I read the sex education books that she'd had at my age, which still referred to "clearing out impurities" in the body and similar.

I wonder what messages young teens get today. Are they any better?

* An interesting side-point: a 14th-century London cleric wrote that some girls started menstruating "in the eleventh or in the tenth year. And at that point they are capable of conception." Which certainly doesn't seem to square with our ideas about medieval nutrition and health. (p. 55)

Drought and mental illness: a question of definition

The technical definition of "drought" is of prolonged, abnormally dry weather. Yet somehow, whenever I check in on the Australian rural world, most of Australia is "in" drought, or "just coming out of" drought, or "facing" a drought. There's a simple failure here to face the reality of the continent's climate. It is dry, normally dry, and Australian agriculture is often trying to do things that the climatic conditions cannot support.

I thought of this when I read a piece in the Guardian suggesting that one in ten pre-school children might be suffering from mental illness. Now I assume that most people would agree that mental illness is by definition an abnormality. But if one in 10 in a population is suffering from something, isn't that just a variation of normal, and something that should be catered to and allowed for, rather than "treated"?

Monday, November 28, 2005

What Do Women Want? The Women's Library Offers An Answer

"What do women WANT?" It is a classic question asked by an anti-feminist bloke, usually with a stagey layer of overlaid sarcasm, implying that half of the human race is unreasonable and impossible to satisfy. And if they are unhappy, it is neither this man's fault, nor any other man's.

The Women's Library has the perfect answer, in its exhibition titled simply What Do Women Want?" Drawn entirely from its collections, covering a span of around 150 years, it comes to the conclusion that women over that time have wanted broadly the same things - access to decisionmaking in public and private spheres, safety, opportunity, respect .... and they've had to keep fighting for them, because they have often not been delivered until decades of campaigning, and even when delivered, they've been continually under threat.

As is usual with Women's Library exhibitions there is a strong interactive component, developed here through an innovative design. It looks a bit odd at first glance, but it grows on you. Each section of the exhibition has its own "tower", from which accompanying artworks - created for it - are strung, while it also forms a desk where visitors are invited to write their comments. These contributions take up one whole wall of the exhibition, and as usual make likely reading.

Housework, and why it is still seen as a woman's job, is the scene of one of the hottest debates. Comments range from a joyous "hurray, don't do it", to a despairing "because it is crap work", to the sarcastic "because men don't do it 'properly' ... clever boys". Read more

"The Bridge of Sighs": Westminster suicides

I was questioning earlier today the claims that self-harm is a modern phenomenon, and a small piece of admittedly anecdotal evidence can be found in H.V. Morton's The Spell of London, first published in 1926. At this time there was a special river police station under Westminister Bridge. Morton, after reporting that nine out of ten suicide attempts on the Thames in London were made from this bridge, asks:

"How many Londoners know that day and night a police boat waits in the shadow of the bridge?
It is tied to its morrings by a loose knot. One pull and it is free. It is a curious boat. At the stern is a roller.
'Have you ever tried to pull anyone out of water into a small boat>' asked a policeman. 'If so, you'll understand why that roller is there.'"

Then Morton visits a nearby room for the reception of would-be suicides, including a hot bath and neat bundles of dry clothing, for men and women.
"Does a suicide repent and welcome rescue as soon as he touches the water?' I asked.
'Not often,' they replied.
'Mostly they fight and try to get back into the water,' said the patrol sergeant.
The three of us say in the Suicide Room, and the two policemen swapped memories of rescues. I wish I could tell some of the stories, but they were not quite -- You understand?" (pp. 42-43)

With such elaborate arrangements, you get the feeling there must have been an awful lot of suicides.

And of course the other "great" suicide spot of the era was what is now the Hornsey Lane Bridge over the start of the A1 in Archway. (I used to live just down the hill from it.) It was the higest public point in London for many years, so I've read, and it still has a Samaritans phone on it.

London's under-employed police - warning to cyclists

Watch out if you are cycling in central London. This afternoon at about 3pm at Holborn Circus there were eight - count 'em eight - police standing around (well two of them were on bicycles). Terrorist scare? armed robbery? you are probably thinking.

No, they are cracking down on cyclists' behaviour on the road. Not other road-users, just cyclists.

Now there are undoubtedly some cyclists who do need to be penalised - one tore past me when I was stopped at lights in Whitechapel a little later, scattering pedestrians. If he was booked, I wouldn't complain at all, except that I doubt the cops could catch him.

But what did a police officer have cause to take me to task for at Holborn Circus? I drew up at a red light, and since a taxi was occupying all of the marked bicycle space on the road, at the front of the queue, I went forward of the bicycle stop line, although still back from the pedestrian crossing space. I took back about a third of the space to which I am entitled, to make sure the taxi couldn't suddenly decide to turn left across the front of me.

So a middle-aged policeman came bustling over and started to lecture me. I pointed out that he should have been lecturing the taxi-driver, he claimed I'd been there before the taxi, I suggested that I'd be happy to look at the CCTV, since I knew I hadn't. He started to bluster, then the lights changed and that was that. (Well the bike courier bloke said "good on you" to me as he left.)

As I've posted previously, my encounters with London police have given me a general view of incompetence, laziness and bullying - now that feeling has only been multiplied.

Oddly enough, the policeman didn't pick on the cyclist beside me - a large, young, male courier, and he didn't pick on the taxi driver, who'd broken the law first, forcing me to do likewise if I had concern for my own skin (perhaps because the taxi-driver was a middle-aged bloke like him with whom he identified). I, however, was the helmeted, well-dressed, middle-class cyclist - perfect target, he thought, for a bit of hectoring.

I should be, by class and social position, a natural supporter of the police, but I've now decided there is nothing about the London force that is worth supporting. (And that's without mentioning the crazy way they drive - I consider a speeding police car one of the greatest threats to cyclists in London. Yes ambulance drivers go fast too, but they seem to do so with a great deal more sense - and usually, I suspect, more reason.)

But where's the evidence?

Perhaps I've become more critical over the years, or perhaps newspapers have got worse - probably it is a bit of both - but increasingly I read newspaper articles, get to the end, and ask, what? What evidence have you got to support the contention you've made here? Why is the paragraph that debunks the whole story (if it is there at all) buried in the depths of the article? (Well I know why, but why was the reporter allowed to get away with it?)

Two examples. They're from the Guardian and Observer, probably the least worst in their respective markets in this regard, but nonetheless, there they are, on their websites.

Case One

Today there's a piece about teenage self-harm. The headline reads: "Sense of failure: the scale of teenage self-harm. Study shows one in five girls has wounded herself. 'Must-have' culture brings feelings of inadequacy". And that's probably all a majority of readers will look at, and go away with the common message: "society is going to hell".

But I read on. And an alarm flag went up in paragraph two. "A survey published today by The Priory, which specialises in treating mental health problems and addictions..." A hunt through the rest of the story provides no more details about who conducted the survey - a university department, or even survey company, or an employee of The Priory. Mmmmm ... a survey company or employee finds that there's much more need for services of the company that commissioned it to do the survey. (Because had there been a university it would surely have been mentioned to bolster the story.) And this is the whole foundation for the story. Bit of a worry ...

Next: Applied to the general population, survey means more than 1 million British adolescents have considered self-harm and more than 800,000 (13%) actually inflicted injuries on themselves. But was this survey representative of the general population? No data provided, but I have a funny suspicion that it will have been conducted in London and environs, probably amid middle-class kids - the ones likely to end up at The Priory ... hardly representative of a whole country. Interesting too, that there is no attribution for who is making the extrapolation.

... A national inquiry into the prevalence of self-harm among British teenagers by the Mental Health Foundation and the Camelot Foundation is due to report next year. That, hopefully, will have proper methodology, and will be the study this story should be waiting for.

...According to Childline, the numbers of youngsters calling its helpline about self-harm has risen by 20% in the last 10 years, with a marked increase - 30% - this year. Has it increased services in that time, has it done more to encourage children to ring, has the issue got more publicity? Does this figure mean anything at all? (Except that the charity - probably with good intentions, wants more money?)

... According to Dr Griffiths, the increased reports of self-harm may also be a reflection of contemporary society and the media, with their emphasis on fame, celebrity and "instant gratification". I do like that "may".

Finally, the last paragraph .. According to The Priory, most self-harming is symbolic - typically involving small cuts that do not draw blood and are invisible to teachers and parents. The practice releases natural opioids which can be "incredibly addictive". So after we've all been having lurid images of wrists dripping blood and attempted suicide, we get small scratches. If, and it is a big if, we've read to the last paragraph.

So the one-sentence summary - Commercial company commissions survey that finds a greater need for its services. A bit weaker than the original, but more accurate.

Case 2
In the Observer, Why the have-it-all woman has decided she doesn't want it all. The sub-head reads: "As a new generation of mothers seeks to change the balance between work and home, Tessa Jowell calls for a debate on how we all live". And there's a "politics" section logo.

Paragraph two: "But now, the Having All It All generation are giving way to the Actually, I Don't Want It All - or at least, Not All At The Same Time generation. And their champion comes from a somewhat unusual quarter. The government's minister for women declares today that modern women are increasingly unwilling to bear the stress of trying to do everything at once - and calls on men to share more of the responsibilities at home."

So goes the whole story. The basic premise here is "we are responding to a fundamental change in what women want". But, wait a minute, where is the evidence that this has changed - maybe some statistics on workforce participation, some solid social science survey, hell, even a well-conducted "pop" survey?

None, nada, not a word. The whole story is built on a premise - a very large premise - that it makes no attempt to justify or back up.

But it is worse than that: More than half of British women are currently working in a job for which they are overqualified, often because domestic responsibilities leave them too little time or energy to pursue more senior positions. "Often" - what does that mean? I could equally say - and would say - "often" women are stalled in their jobs because of male prejudice and discrimination, "often" all workers, men and women, are stalled in their careers for all sorts of reasons - from their boss not liking them to their inability to move location because of their children's schooling ...

Now I don't want to pick on these two particular journalists - they are only cogs in the wheel, and the stories products of the huge pressure to produce great headlines. But such a pity those headlines so often have no solid foundation whatsoever, and yet these are what give readers their view of the world, that guides their votes and their actions.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Off for a few hours

I now have the lovely Sunday evening choice - the huge pile of ironing, or the overdue tax return ...

Actually have to do both, but which first?

Actresses I have known

My 19th-century "blogger" is today musing on the theatre, and particularly the great actresses and actors she has seen on the London stage. Her considered favourite in terms of skill is Mrs Siddons:

I can hardly conceive anything finer than the expression which Mrs. Siddons gave to the simple reply, 'A deed without a name.’ [in the witches scene in Macbeth] It seemed full of all the guilty dread belonging to witchcraft; and it is just this idea of guilt which seems to be so difficult to convey to our minds, which are engrossed with the folly of the whole thing that we not recollect it was a sin.

But Miss Williams Wynn isn't above a bit of gossip, referring to the famous love affair of Miss Farren, which was recently turned into fiction:
"I recollect (not the admirable acting in the famous screen scene but) the circumstance of seeing Lord Derby leaving his private box to creep to her behind the scene; and, of course, we all looked with impatience for the discovery, hoping the screen would fall a little too soon, and show to the audience Lord Derby as well as Lady Teazle."

Also making an appearance are Madame de Stael, Miss O'Neill, Kemble and Talma. And the editor's note is interesting. Writing in the 1850s, he feels compelled to apologise for the seriousness with which Miss Williams Wynn takes her theatre. Obviously a respectable lady writing respectfully about actresses was something he had problems with.

Britblog Roundup No 41

The best of the British and Irish blogosphere over the past week, as nominated by their peers ....

Starting with the high-tech end, Tim Ireland on Bloggerheads has created a presentation on the Iraq war by Leo Blair, aged five. (Not for the faint of heart or delicate of sensibility, but a powerful way to get the message across. Likely to be very slow on dial-up.)

But what was the issue of the week that really got everyone in the mood for satire? Two great posts with a similar view have the answer: Angry Chimp finds himself finds himself drinking "Unionist kneecap" and Old Spice in the early hours, while Diamond Geezer finds there's nothing like 7am Happy Hour - a yard of ale only £1.99.

Then, in the "we really should notice this" category - Antonia's Blog explains why local government reform really matters. Pay attention down the back and click - it really is an account of astonishing stupidity in bureaucracy, I promise.

Now since the roundup is visiting a blog that is, above all other categories, feminist, I'm going to privilege a few women bloggers here, at the top of the roundup, with an accompanying question to readers: how many women bloggers have YOU got on your blogroll?

Two blows to the legal protection from rape this week - the survey of public attitudes and the later dismissal of a case because the victim was drunk - have got a lot of people, me included, hot under the collar. But perhaps it is Emma on Gendergeek who made the point best, in her message to the Great British Public. Volsunga explains just how deep-seated the problem is, and Laurelin of Laurelin in the Rain finds Neanderthal views are all too common. (And Pickled Politics, providing a roundup of the Anglo-Asian blogosphere, points to a similar problem with a judge in India.

Kate on the Cruella-blog wonders why the NHS is so keen to promote cosmetic surgery, when it is so much more dangerous than unprotected sex.

Then to one of my longtime favourites: Greenfairydotcom is pursued by the Bridezilla monster, on a visit to Tottenham Court Road. (Glad she's reported back, so I won't have to go near it, even for satiric purposes.) Clare, on Boob Pencil, has meanwhile been having a very bad night in Manchester. Ikea comes into the story, and a panther.

On Early Modern Notes, Sharon Howard (in my view Britain's pre-eminent history blogger - and one of the earliest) has found a serious case of medical malpractice.

Finally in this section, a test to see how broadminded you really are: Creepy Lesbo muses on the flavours of 'girl custard'". (If you're easily offended don't follow the link - and if you do, don't complain you weren't warned.)

Turning back to politics, Jonathan Calder on Liberal England looks at the Liberal Democrats' problem, now that the Tories have realised Blair is a "right-wing polemicist" after their own heart. The Sharpner examines how Labour got to this point.

So this seems a good place to point to a Blairwatch campaign: Will you - yes you, the blogger, pay the price of freedom? Pledges have been made.

Politicalog - Fighting the Spin concludes Gordon Brown has cost us all £40bn, plus interest, plus inflation. Still on economics Tim Worstall, who can get a nomination this week, does the analysis on Jonathan Freedland's "class envy".

Then an unusual take on an endlessly debated aspect of the Tory leadership contest - if you can call it a contest - PooterGeek "outs" some unexpected Old Etonians.

On other domestic issues, The Mad Musings of Me considers social damage caused by the niqab. The Liberty Cadre questions the no operation if you are too fat" rule in east Suffolk.

Militant Moderate fondly remembers George Best. Blood and Treasure, however, offers an unappreciation of a wife-beater and man who lived "like a swine" and Cynical Bastard says all the fuss has a lot to do with men of a certain age in the 'meeja'. Coffee and PC, meanwhile, suggests why not add some extra detail in the deathbed reports, then make a best-selling compilation: Best, Arafat, Diana and the Pope. (Not to be missed.) Finally, wrapping up this section, Anthony on The Filter combines the Best and 24-hour drinking stories, with a manifesto putting the case for drinking.

Then a bit of blogging navel-gazing: The Jarndyce Blog has been disillusioned by bloggers' response to the chance of "fame".

But the mainstream media isn't getting off lightly - Rachel from North London comments on The Sun's treatment of a London bombing victim. (She speaks with the authority of one who was there herself.) And Gnus of the World (great title) deconstructs a Guardian non-story based on a dodgy survey about de-caff coffee. (The post's language is full-strength, BTW.)

Providing some musical accompaniment, Edward on One More Cup of Coffee reviews Bob Dylan concert at Brixton. (Which reminds me of a recent conversation with a twentyish security guard: "that old pop bloke", he said, "what's 'is name ..." Happens to us all.) Then, I don't think I'm being offensive in saying this, to the other end of the music business, a gig in Nottingham beautifully reviewed by Mike on Troubled Diva.

More on y'arts, Matthew on A Very Clever and Exciting Place for Words to Live gives the letter B a complete check-up. And I'm going to use the host's privilege of one link to point to my "other" blog, My London Your London, a review of a fascinating exhibition that gets behind British fashion to those who've given their life to it. But they're not the usual suspects.

Turning international, The Religious Policeman has a typically irreverent but penetrating look at blood money and executions in Saudi Arabia.

Chase Me, Ladies, I'm the Cavalry has found some surprising information about Arnie, who might just have been a bit surprised in Rio himself. opens a heated debate about the Yugoslav conflicts. Then Richard on How This Old Brit Sees It reports on the scandal of chemical testing on unprotected children in the US.

Adloyada finds a Guardian review reveals "Blair's Middle East envoy is really a representative of the Prime Minister of Israel".

Just across the Channel, North Sea Diaries sets out the tough life of a French train driver - NOT. (It does sound like a good gig.)

And is it time for space archaeology? Alun on Ancient Science and the Science of Ancient Things meets the man who wants to preserve Mir.

This is a one-time, special edition visit of the Britblog Round to Philobiblon; other, and future, editions can/will be seen on Tim Worstall's blog.

Thank you to everyone who sent in nominations. Hope to see you around again soon.

I'm putting this up a little early, so if you've rushed in an up-to-the-deadline, post-11am nomination, I'll add a special supplement here around 2pm.

UPDATE: And the final nominee, who gets to sit down in the front row, is The Road to Euro Serfdom, who is finding the EU is targeting baby hedgehogs.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Book Review: 2005: Blogged, Dispatches from the Blogosphere

Many newspapers put out a "best of the year" compendium, a book usually released just in time for the Christmas market. So it is a mark of the growing maturity of the blogosphere that this year the British component has its first such compilation, 2005: Blogged. Edited by Tim Worstall, of the eponymous blog (you'll often have seen it referenced here), it covers from November 2004 to October this year, an eventful enough period that covers the US election, the London bombings and even a royal wedding.

So how does it stack up? Is the best of the British blogosphere starting to seriously rival the traditional media outlets in quality of information, analysis and writing? I decided to put 2005: Blogged to the test, and a tough test, comparing it to The Bedside Years: The Best Writing from the Guardian 1951-2000.

There are some areas in which, you might be surprised to hear, the blogosphere wins out - offers something the Guardian compilation does not.

The blogosphere doesn't in general, have to worry about offending "the general public" - at least not any part of it that might by a particular newspaper. The preparedness to offend and not care, gives the blogosphere an edge over newspapers in the areas of satire and scathing comment. On the royal wedding, Mugged by Reality's headline is: "Embarrassing, irrelevant, inbred, half-witted Greco-Germanic anachronism to wed hideous, overprivileged, idle-rich moose." Even Julie Burchill might have trouble getting that past an editor.

Then there's a particular segment of the blogosphere that gives insider views you'd be unlikely to find in a newspaper; these are not journalists or public figures, but people, often after decades in a field of business, who can bluntly talk about what it is _really_ like. So, Grumpy Old Bookman explains how winning the Man Booker Prize is absurd, random, and utterly unfair. I doubt you'd ever see this article in a newspaper; editors have too much invested in being part of the literary world to so expose it.

Some of the these bloggers are, like the Bookman, semi-retired; others are deeply pseudonymous, and talk about their day job with rare honesty, such as the magistrate who writes The Law West of Ealing Broadway. There's a particularly fine post in the compilation in which he writes what he'd really like to say to some defendants: "Look, you stupid git. If you had been weating the [seat]belt the police would have left you alone. There is no specific offence of acting like a prat, but if there were you would be guilty of it."

Moving on to my second category, there are areas in which the writing of the blogosphere matches the quality of that of the Guardian compilation. Greenfairydotdotcom's account of going home for Christmas is quite the equal of Jill Tweedie's correspondence from January 1981 in which her Martha, "a striving woman of mature years," writes to her radical younger friend. (In all other case I've just linked to the general blog - you're meant to go out and but the book remember - but I'll make an exception in this case and send you straight to the post. Of course we've all got horrible family Christmas stories, but what makes this work is the economy of language and the preparedness to show, rather than tell. And I'm a Tweedie fan.)

The collection indicates that the blogsphere is undoubtedly patchier in coverage than in newspapers in general, but the quality of political, business and social analysis in Blogged:2005 stands up well against the Guardian's. The Yorkshire's Ranter analysis of the final fall of Rover matches rather nicely with Stanley Reynolds's "The Museum of the Horrifying Example", about 1984, post-industrial Liverpool. Chicken Yoghurt's analysis - and critique - of Live 8 matches up entirely to Normal Shrapnel writing up the "Lady Chatterley" debate in the Lords in 1960-1.

And on the big news - US elections, terrorist attacks, and similar - while straight news coverage might be patchy, the items published in 2005: Blogged again match up. Antoine Clarke's Election Watch (no longer up) -- Correction, to be found here -- dissects the (unintended) consequences of the Guardian's campaign on Clark County. And on the London bombing, there are examples of the on-the-spot, "live" blogging that the Net does so well.

What's missing, in comparing the two collections? Oddly enough there's little or no writing about television, and film - supposedly that great centre of popular culture - in Blogged:2005, while the Guardian collection features the ever-green Nancy Banks--Smith and Julie Burchill. Maybe bloggers are too busy blogging to watch the Box? (I know that it was the final straw that made me get rid of mine.)

There's also little sport. Maybe that's such a specialised sphere of the blogosphere that it hasn't mixed with the rest - there must be huge numbers of fanblogs out there. (To check I just put "Manchester United" and "blog" into Google and got 1.46 million hits.)

International travel and international politics are also thinly covered. No doubt this is in part due to the focus of the collection on Britain, but there are Britons out there blogging on these topics (think of all those VSO volunteers) - but probably, it must be admitted, not with the extensive sort of coverage you'd get out of the Guardian. (Honourable mention, however, to Black Triangle for a lovely little North Korean snippet.)

So, perhaps still some growing to do, but the blogosphere, in age a toddler, isn't doing too badly when stacked up against the full-grown adults of the "big" media. But it seems already to have acquired some of its bad habits. In the Guardian collection (perhaps not surprising since it starts in the Fifties), less than 5 per cent of the writing is by women. And I doubt 2005: Blogged achieves a much higher percentage. Something for the editor to work on next year ...

Declaration of interest: I have an entry in the compilation. It is my review, well account really, of a book about chess queens. Not what I'd regard as my finest post, but as always in these things, it is a question of "the mix" - something that also explains a lot of newspaper stories. So maybe we're more like "them" than we'd like to think.

British and Irish bloggers: final reminder

The Britblog roundup is visiting Philobiblon tomorrow, for one week only. Nominations must be in by about noon tomorrow. (ETA of the roundup about 2pm.)

Politics, arts, annoying personal habits of your nearest and dearest - whatever your personal passion this week, tell the blogging community about it. As usual, send your nominations - of your own or other's posts - to britblog AT gmail DOT com.

A nice little crop is sitting there already, but more will be very welcome!

Big brother, or big community?

Can the community take control of the electronic spaces of the city? That's an issue addressed in this morning's Guardian, in an interview with William J Mitchell, author of Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City.

He's an MIT man, so you might guess the answer is yes. There's more than a touch of the utopian about his vision, but it is seductive:

The bus passes the famous neon billboard displays that frame Piccadilly Circus, and again Mitchell is exercised by the possibilities. If those billboards were programmed with a coherent artistic vision rather than just advertising, he says, they could be used, a little like the old Georgian squares of London, to give an aesthetic consistency and a unity to the area. It's already being done in various places around the world, he says - those in the know call it "dynamic architecture" - and it's getting cheaper and more practical. The displays could be themed to change with the seasons or even at different times of the day. Piccadilly Circus could be made into a free speech zone, he says wistfully, a kind of digital speaker's corner activated by citizens dialling in from their mobile phones.

Utopian yes, but of course the technology is not deterministic about its use; it is up to us to mould the way it is used, and available to use, to make it happen.

Which brings me to Madonna. I'm really not into music - just sounds like noise to me - but I've always admired her, as the first female star to really take control of the system, to exploit it instead of being exploited by it. (As in say Tina Turner, abused by her manager etc.)

Apparently she's found, and is using, the next big thing, krumping. Add it to your vocabulary - at least it is a great-sounding word.

Then going back into some seriously scary history, the Polish government has released the Soviets' vision of nuclear war, the Telegraph reports.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Theatre Review: Cariad at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Imagine you've had a really, really, really bad day. After immense emotional turmoil, you, a sophisticated Londoner - and proud of it, have gone to a pub in a little Welsh town that feels like a foreign country. You've got rolling drunk, and only escaped from the local Lothario - chief characteristic that he spits when he talks - when scooped up by a strange woman, perhaps a madwoman. She misunderstands you, you misunderstand her, and she ends up chasing you around her living room with a cross and a knife, trying, perhaps, to kill you.

These are the rib-rattlingly funny opening scenes of Cariad, by the first-time playwright Sophie Stanton, who also plays the meaty role of the fey, rambling Blodwen. She's stayed in the town she was born in but, it emerges, her drunken visitor Jayne (also beautifully played by Rachel Sanders, who manages an entirely controlled stagger with great vermisillitude), was here until the age of nine. She's come back only to spread the ashes of her mother.

Nine's also the age of Blodwen's daughter Emily (Becky John), a sad, difficult child. Jayne says she "doesn't get on with children", yet she bonds almost immediately with the waif, so like her mother must have been.

But Jayne, even when sober, is understandably bemused by Blodwen, a woman jumps between tender solicitude and rambling, crazy-sounding soliloquoys, about everything from dinner being "burnt to a turd", to complaints about "my aching arseholes". Her crowning line is: "My mind is a fart in a colander."
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Review: Samuel Palmer at the British Museum

The introduction to Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape describes the artist as "one of Britain's greatest painters". Certainly a couple of his works are among of the nation's most reproduced. And this exhibition, which traces his entire career, suggests that "one of the most talented" would be a fair label. Overall, however, what is on display is a talent dissipated by the pressures of Victorian life.

The British Museum exhibition traces in detail not just his work, but his curiously modern life. A self-portrait at the age of about 19 shows a soulful young man, far too serious for his age. A Romantic, destined to die young, you would think. Yet his work at this time is conventional, picturesque landscape - one watercolors closely resembling a painting manual's model. (Echoes of the veteran controversy.)

But soon he was to find a mentor. He credited the artist John Lunnell with his transformation, describing him as "a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art". A sketchbook from 1824 shows a study of "The Bad Thief", a powerful, contorted figure menaced by a shark-mouthed Satan.

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Friday Femmes Fatales No 33

You know the score - ten new female bloggers, ten top posts, on my way to 400. It answers the question: where are all the female bloggers?

Patricia Lay-Dorsey is an American who has been delivering an anti-war message in Beiruit. What really grabbed me on her blog Windchime Walker, however, are her accounts of her travels. You'll have to read a few to realise that she has a serious disability.

Staying international, On A Whole Year: What I Wish I'd Known About Being the Parent of an Exchange Student, a mother talks about some of the memories her daughter has been left with - and why there's a touch of sadness in a smoking ban.

Turning scientific, Tara C. Smith on Aetiology reports how a myth about Komodo Dragons has finally been dispelled. (She's a great source for subtle science that won't make the headlines because it is, well, too subtle and nuanced.)

Now all of the humanities PhD students who read this blog, be warned: if you were doing the same thing in science, you'd also have to wrestle an array of dangerous instruments That report's from Disgruntled Julie: A PhD in Progress.

But just don't mention the maths, at least not around Laura, author of After the Ratrace, subtitled "Life After Marketing". She's training to be a counsellor, but having a statistical nightmare.

Turning literary, The Written Nerd is an "independent bookseller" (nice to know there are a few left). So you might want to check out her recommendations for plane reading. They're suitably eclectic.

Then on the personal front, Dry Bones Dance reflects on things to be thankful for at Thanksgiving.

There's a political take on holiday from Marisa Treviño on Latina Lista. I know what the Macy's parade is because it is one of those pictures that "foreign" newspapers run without fail every year, but this year there'll be a Latina character for the first time.

Then read an explanation from Minta's Midnight Musings on why there's really no reason to celebrate.

Finally, don't miss this post, a cautionary tale with an astonishingly good ending. Lucky White Girl kept her laptop in the oven for safekeeping, but ...


You can find the last edition of Femmes Fatales here.

Nominations (including self-nominations) for Femmes Fatales are also hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Feminist history, from the margins to the centre

I went to a fascinating talk at the Institute for Historical Research this evening by Kathryn Kish Sklar (State University of New York, Binghamton), its title "The Centrality of Feminism in American Political History, 1776-2000".

Her argument was that women's, labour and race politics and campaigns interacted, learnt from each other, and were forced by their members and social forces into a shifting array of alliances and oppositions, that all in turn interacted with "mainstream" politics, in ways that no one, or organisation, could always control. So separating out "women's history" in a ghetto makes little sense.

Some of her examples were lovely. (And bear in mind that I know almost nothing about American history, so this was all new to me.)

*There was Esther De Berdt Reed, who formed the Ladies' Association of Philadelphia. She was very much an elite woman, and ran a political salon that helped her husband be elected to office. The organisation was formed to raise funds for Washington's army in 1780 - although the subscription list had its smallest donation from a contributor recorded merely as "Phylis, a coloured woman".

Reed wanted to donate the money directly to the troops and had a very direct exchange with Washington on the issue, who thought they'd just drink and gamble it away. Reed was forced to yield, so she and her ladies started sewing shirts. But she died soon after from dysentry, which didn't normally kill healthy adults. Her obituary in the Pennsylvania Gazette concluded that the shirts had killed her. (Although bearing six children in ten years probably hadn't helped.)

She'd wanted to establish women's place as fundraisers, but this was publicly disparaged, since they were "just handing over their husband's money". But by artisan labour with those shirts, the group received much praise for its revolutionary efforts, and found a place for women in the struggle.

* The anti-slavery movement, at least the more radical wing of it, was so desperate for support that it was happy to enlist female support, and speakers, including the powerful Angelina Grimke. That provoked resistance from the clergy, which led Angelina and her sister Sarah to explicitly say: "whatever it is morally right for a man to do it is right for a woman to do".

* When Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to the conclusion that the "general portion" of life allowed to women was inadequate she called a convention (Seneca Falls), a natural thing to do since that was both what happened in state politics, and in the Negro Convention Movement. Many more women's conventions followed. There was often an attempt by the organisers to avoid issues of married women's property rights and divorce, but they almost alwyas emerged anyway.

* The extension of virtually full white male suffrage from the 1830s to 1860s effectively prevented the formation of a Labour party, as in Britain. The issue of married women's property rights was seen in association with this - part of the growing hegemony of the white middle class that wanted to protect their daughter's property and ease its sale and exchange by removing old common law rights.

* The struggle for women's suffrage involved black and white women mixing in ways that their male compatriots could not - the women had often been educated as teachers - needed during the great westward expansion. (At the 1888 convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union a number of black women represented racially mixed groups.)

The black women, because of this role, were sometimes about to achieve more results for their communities than were the black male leaders such as ministers. The campaigner Frances Harper, who denounced lynching in ways male leaders sometimes did not, or could not, said that women's suffrage would effectively end it, by getting rid of men with blood on their hands.

* Florence Kelly, founder and long-time president of the National Consumers League, fought for protective labour legislation for women and children, some of which was then extended to male workers in a alliance of an essential middle class movement with working class men.

NOTE: These are my impressions of the talk, not necessarily a detailed exposition of
what Professor Kish Sklar said.

Afterwards in discussion, I asked about the central question with which I keep wrestling - why do the women keep disappearing from history? The professor made a very interesting response I'm going to have to think a lot more about.

She noted that masculinity is a very useful rallying call in American politics, a way that Bush can transcend class politics by playing the all-male cowboy model. I commented how important I think sport is in that - in creating a collective model that is not, by and large, available to women.

And even when I look back to my 16th and 17th-century writers, because they were always a minority, and the next generations thought, as we do, that the past was a strange place, the following, male-dominated groups could at least identify in one way with the males who've come down to us as the canon.

More unformed thoughts at the moment than a developed thesis ...

A rape law time-warp: back to the Sixties

After the depressing findings about public attitudes to rape, more bad news: a British judge has thrown out a case on the basis that an alleged victim was too drunk to be able to say definitively that she had not consented.

The prosecution in the rape case had said it could not go on after the woman admitted that she could not remember whether she gave consent or not or whether sex had taken place. The jury at Swansea Crown Court was told: “Drunken consent is still consent.”
The judge agreed, instructing the jury to return a verdict of not guilty “even if you don’t agree”.
The drama student was allegedly raped by another student, who was working as a security guard, while she claimed she was unconscious through drink in a corridor outside her flat in a university’s hall of residence.
She told the jury that she had no recollection of events but insisted that she would not have agreed to sex with the man.

Now I wasn't sitting in court so I can't comment on the facts of this particular case, but let's imagine a hypothetical. A woman is huddled outside her room in a drunken stupor and a security guard, a man with at least a moral duty of care, comes along - on duty, (presumably) stone-cold sober

It is obvious the woman is drunk. And that she can't, in any meaningful sense of the term consent - she is temporarily mentally disabled. (Were she indeed a sufferer of a permanent mental disability, there would surely be no questions that this is a crime.)

If he has sex with her, is that not rape? Or should, at least, a jury be allowed to decide - based on the full details of the case, the demeanour of the witnesses before them, and their own commonsense.

I would have thought so, and I thought the law indicated so. But it seems it is time to work again to reform the law ... or maybe the judges.


Another time warp - John Kerry, remember him? One of his young speechwriters has set out what he thinks went wrong. The gist is that instead of relying on focus groups, set-up situations and all the tricks of the spin-doctor's trade, it might be time to pick a good, decent candidate, and let them campaign as their conscience dictates. Interesting thought. Would be nice to think it would work.

Disappointing royalty

My 19th-century blogger, Frances Williams Wynn, is today finding her close study of a collection of European royalty seriously disappointing. She reports:

At Oxford it seemed to me that there was a great want of dignity of manner among the assembled grandees. Even the dandy Alexander seemed to want it; though he was much better than any of his compeers, excepting, perhaps, our own king when he happened to be in good humour, which was not always the case during his visit to Oxford. As to the King of Prussia, he looked as stupid and as vulgar as I believe be really is. When complimented, he never could look otherwise than embarrasse de sa personne, bored to death, and could not even make a tolerably gentleman-like bow.

She's surprised and rather horrified that the Russian party cannot understand Latin and Greek:
It did not at that time occur to me as possible that these sovereigns might not understand one syllable of the elegant classical orations made in compliment to them. I have since heard from Dr. Crichton—a Scotch physician belonging to the household of the Empress dowager, who accompanied one of her grandsons, the brother of Alexander—that neither this young prince nor any one of a numerous suite, excepting one man, understood a word of Latin or Greek.

The way she writes this makes me wonder if she could. The Latin, perhaps is a distinct possibility, the Greek less so.

It seems Miss Williams Wynn wasn't the only one less than impressed:
The monarch was invited to Guildhall, at which 700 guests gathered. Italian singers did their best to charm the distinguished guests and the dinner was served on gold plates. Suddenly the Russian Grand Duchess Catherine abruptly asked that the Italians be silent, she detested music! Alexander was hard of hearing and didn't understand the embarrassed murmurs all around him. Her demand threw the company into great confusion and the monarch couldn't wait to leave this country that was so proper, cold and stiff.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Theatre Review: The Emperor Jones at The Gate

That a play written in 1920 should still feel entirely fresh and relevant 85 years later is either the sign of a great drama, or of a failure of the human race to progress. In the case of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, both statements are true.

When The Emperor (Paterson Joseph) swaggers muscularly into the Gate Theatre, revealing within seconds the nature of his regime, built entirely on brutality and bombast, recent parallels are obvious. Robert Mugabe sweeps into mind, then Ceascescu, Mobutu ... the list could go on and on.

And as America struggles to find "leadership material" in Iraq, O'Neill's play presents a society entirely corrupted by the exercise of absolute, violent power. There are no heroes here - it is the power of the Emperor's own conscience that will really get to him.

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Cycling in London: it is getting better

Having survived the weekend cycling adventure without the knees falling apart (at least entirely) today managed to cycle to Old Street and back, and play squash in between.

That left me musing at how - despite false starts and occasional disasters - (trying to follow route signs on the ground is definitely NOT recommended) cycle routes in London are improving. Knowing the route and the areas pretty well, I could avoid - except for a slightly hairy run along Clerkenwell Road - busy roads, and frequently have my own dedicated, separated from the road, route.

I was also checking out the Transport for London route planner, and found that it has a dedicated cycle option. I'm not sure that I always agree with its suggestions - it seems to go for the direct route sometimes, rather than seeking out the quieter routes - but it certainly offers a place to start when you're not sure of a route.

(It also covers Tube, bus and train travel.)

Angela Merkel takes over

Germany awoke this morning to its first full day under a female Chancellor. After much tooing and froing, much talk, the Bundestag finally voted her in yesterday (although with 51 less votes than her coalition is supposed to have).

Given the general conservatism of German society, its still extremely rigid gender roles, I get the feeling it is going to be a shock all around. (And it is going to mean that there will, finally, again be a woman at the table of big international summits.)

What makes it even more amazing is that she is the first former East German to hold the post, and was elected on a platform of radical social change, very approximately along the model of Thatcherism, although she is now in a "grand" coalition that has already ruled out much of that.

There's a lot of reasons why she might not succeed, but then all of logic would have said she wouldn't get where she is now.

The Der Spiegel article I've linked to above describes Germany as suffering from a "pathological pessimism about our future prospects". I was talking to a German friend (admittedly an expat who can't imagine going back) who also feels that Germany is just stuck in a deeply destructive rut. Several of her female friends, highly educated, one a doctor, have given up paid work and have no intention of going back. She's deeply disappointed in them, but it seems that they are only following the norms of their society, which surely can't stay that way.

Listening to history: Fashion Lives at the British Library

Lily Silberberg's story might be that of the 20th century - the good side of the period, not its darker hue. She was born in London in 1929, to Jewish parents whose had fled Russia after the Revolution. Her father was a "journeyman tailor", her mother an outworker spending her evenings sewing buttonholes late into the night by the light of a gas lamp.

Yet by the time Lily retired, well into her seventies, she had a full, satisfying, successful career behind her. She'd been a respected higher education lecturer, published a book, The Art of Dress Modelling, and spent the last years of her working life teaching her skills to the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets.

Not bad for a girl who'd at the age of 13 had been sent by her parents - no doubt scraping hard for the fees - to the then Barrett St Technical College (now the London College of Fashion) for a two-year course "intended to take the place of an apprenticeship". (Gentility came with an optional course in French, two hours a week.)

She'd been a star pupil, yet Lily speaks of the shock of going on to the factory floor. "The standards I'd been taught were of the highest haute courture, the standard of the Queen's coronation robe. But there had been a war and a revolution in the garment industry. ... They would shout at me in the factory: 'Time is money.' Can you imagine a bit of confusion?"

Some of her earliest efforts, tremendous labour for such small results, are on display in the British Library's Fashion Lives exhibition. There's a neat bunch of red roses embroidered on a handkerchief, made with, we are told, "material of a nightdress that belonged to her mother". But there's a lot more to the exhibition than objects, books and pictures, fabulous as some of those are.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Miss Williams Wynn in grand company

I borrowed a copy of Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670-1830 by Rosemary Baird because I found via an search (one more of the many useful bibliographic tools out there) that it was one of the few books listed containing a reference to my 19th-century "blogger", Frances Williams Wynn.

I can only be in sympathy with its general thesis, that many of the grand country houses of England, Scotland and Wales are primarily the result of their vision and organisational skills, while their husbands - who my limited studies in the area would agree - tended to be usually either away in London on business or politics, or tearing around the hunting field from dawn to dusk. But the men got the credit anyway.

In truth, however, it is one of those studies of aristocratic ladies that I find hard to be in sympathy with. There's a few too many descriptions of grand drawing rooms, and too few descriptions of real lives, to really hold my interest. And the author does seem to have something of a Daily Mail attitude towards the proper behaviour of women. Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough, as "unattractively aggressive" (p.44) is only one of such descriptions that grate.

But there was the hoped-for bit about the Williams Wynns, in particular Charlotte, Frances's mother:

"When Sir Watkins Williams Wynn died in 1789, he left his widow Charlotte to administer all his estates in Wales during the minority of their eldest son. He had enough confidence in her not to appoint anyone else to the task, whether as administrator, executor, guardian or trustee. His trust was well placed: when, in 19819, Charlotte handed over the finances of her youngest son Henry, not only were they intact, but she was able to tell him from memory and with great precision what he would have, namely 'somehat over £5,700 stock in your 3 per cents, which at £70 per cent (the price they bore the day it was settled) is worth £3,900 & I have a further sum of £71 to be placed in your Account with Coutts.' She also discussed whether he should have the money in exchange bills or stocks." (p. 39)

[The reference supplied is Rachel Leighton (ed) Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Willims Wynn & Her Three Sons (1795-1832), John Murray, 1920, a letter of 20 March 1801.)

And I did learn lots of other interesting snippets - the gardens at Kew owe their origins to two royal women, Princess Augusta, the wife of the shortlived Frederick, Prince of Wales (died 1751) and Queen Caroline, her mother-in-law. George III combined them. (p. 48)

And the Gunning sisters, about whom Miss Williams Wynn had much to say, also make an appearance, at a ball in 1757 held by Mary Blount, Duchess of Norfolk (1701-73). "The normally shy Duke appeared particularly relaxed: he danced all evening (it was the custom not to change partners very often) with Lady Coventry, one of the beautiful Gunning sisters. Mrsy Delany commented '... there was at least one happy woman for three or four hours.' The elderly Duke must have been happy too."

I was reminded too of my recent Women Latin Poets review (do please read it if you haven't already - it is a book that deserves to be celebrated and talked about) with Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Rutland (1780-1825). Baird says: "letters between her and Colonel Frederick Trench, a close family friend, show the COlonel commending her on Latin translations and discussing music with her. In 1819 she accompanied the Duke on another foreign tour, this time to Brussels and the Rhine. By then she was especially interested in cathedrals and churches, commenting on the architecture with assurance in Tournai Cathedral, where she disliked the mixture of Gothic and Grecian, and admiring that at Ghent ... in Brussels she though that John Nash, the great classical architect of the Regency period 'should certainly be sent here, to get some better ideas in his Head, how to improve London'." (p. 243)

I'm listening as I write to Five Live Radio, listening to some bloke mouthing off about women not being interested in science. He obviously hadn't heard of Margaret Portland's "museum". When it was sold off after her death, 30 days were spent, Horace Walpole reported, on selling shells, ores, fossils, birds' eggs and other items of natural history. (p. 60)

Britblog Roundup Comes Visiting

A special, one-week-only event: the Britblog Roundup will be visiting Philobiblon on Sunday. If you've seen any of the other carnivals here you'll get the general idea: the best of the blogosphere - in this case the blogophere written by Britons or Irishmen or women, or bloggers living in Britain or Ireland - collected in one post.

So nominate early, nominate often, to the usual address: britblog AT gmail DOT com. (But only one post from each blog please - either your own or other great posts you've read.)

I'll follow Tim in closing the nominations at midday on Sunday. Posts should have been in the week before that, but since this is a special case, perhaps reaching different corners of the blogosphere - I'll stretch that rule back a couple of days for blogs that haven't previously been on the roundup.

You'll find the last two weeks' here and here.

And if you'd rather read the book of the roundup (out now - although my copy hasn't arrived yet; you'll see the review when it does) - the Amazon UK link is in my sidebar. (Sorry American cousins, you'll have to import it from there.)

The horror of capital punishment

I simply cannot understand how people can advocate capital punishment. Can you imagine the horror of waiting for a day of execution drawing closer, not just for the convict - for whom I understand in some cases it is hard to feel sympathy - but for their family and friends, and even for their executioners and jailers? (That has to be one of the most stressful jobs on earth.)

My opinion was strongly influenced by hearing an interview many years ago with the cousin of one of the last people executed in Australia. He'd been a small child at the time - and with the kind of psychological brutality that is happily becoming less common today, was sent off to school as normal on the day his relative was to be executed. Can you imagine how that child felt?

That and even stronger, must be what the mother of the Australian Nguyen Tuong Van will feel today as she visits her son in jail, only days before his scheduled execution (on December 2). And this is Singapore, so the chances of a stay of execution are slim at best.

(The state known for its brutality has also behaved with particular nastiness even by its standards in this case. Notification that her son was to be executed was sent to her by letter, so she was alone when she received the news. Had consular officials been informed, they would have told her in at least a more humane manner.)

Kim Nguyen is an entirely innocent individual, who is being subjected to what can only be described as torture. The convict's twin brother too, if a man with a nasty past, has also done nothing to deserve this torture.

Nguyen admits trying to traffic heroin - although his destination was Australia, not Singapore; he was arrested in the transit area of Singapore airport, so the question might be asked whether the state that was never meant or going to be the subject of the crime has the right to inflict a punishment that the intended destination state (Australia) would not. (Capital punishment was last used in Australia in 1967).

And while he admits that he agreed to be a drug mule (he says he was trying to raise money to say his twin brother from gangsters - an explanation that I haven't seen questioned), he's not any sort of "Mr Big", simply a pawn in the drug game. No doubt after his heroin was seized the gangs will have another half-dozen mules lined up behind him. It is highly unlikely that a single heroin addict missed a single shot as the result of his arrest.

So what does killing him achieve? What?

Drumrollllllllllll .... Major Announcement

You might have noticed a couple of recent posts that consisted only of introductions, followed by a "read more" link.

If you've followed any of those you'll have found yourself on My London Your London, my new website. I'm not calling it a blog, because it is designed to appeal to readers who wouldn't necessarily read a blog.

Anyone who does read blogs, however, will instantly recognise the general format. (It is Wordpress - which I'm still learning but I have generally found to be excellent.)

It is designed to develop, I hope, into a significant cultural guide to London, with an average of two posts a day reviewing plays, museums and galleries, books and other "cultural" events in London. (That's from me - there might be other contributors as well.) It is, you might guess, something I hope to make some money from, by means of advertising - both pay per click and paid-up adverts.

The recent article asking "what happens if the old media dies too soon" has helped to crystalise my thinking about what I'm doing. Tom Foremski asks:

... what happens if we lose much of the old media before the new media business models are formed?
It is Silicon Valley's top companies, such as Google, Yahoo and Ebay, that are devastating the old media business models. But the new media business models have not yet "grown up" to support the quality journalism that we need as a society.
The New York Times, for example, pays about $1.25m a year to have a Baghdad bureau, not to mention the rest of its huge editorial infrastructure. In contrast, online publishing relies heavily on revenues from Google text ads--but Google ads won't pay enough to fund a global network of journalists."

The fact is, up until now, the blogosphere has provided very little original journalistic content. Look at the most successful blogs - in hits and revenue - and they consist mainly of links to the "old" media. But if the "old" media is dying, and I think it is, or at least being forced into massive, rapid change that it is ill-equipped to handle, there must be an opportunity for providing original quality content, while retaining some of the personal aspects of the blogosphere.

I can't set up a bureau in Baghdad. But I can use my skills as a professional journalist, and my reasonably coherent areas of interest, to offer something that is a quality, original product.

The key will be getting search engine hits. As the Guardian's online editor wrote recently, half of its hits are now coming via Google and other search engines, and I've found already with this blog that it is possible in fairly specialised areas to get pretty high on them. (There just aren't that many reviews of fringe plays, for example.)

There will also be - soon! - another, books website, featuring books by and about women. There's probably not so much advertising revenue there, but it does cover one of my main areas of interest. And there I'm hoping to encourage even more contributions. (Full announcement by the end of the week, I hope.)

What does this mean for Philobiblon? I hope it will become more coherent, because the reviews on this site will only be a couple of paragraphs, with the "read more" button, so the site will not be swamped by one long book or exhibition review. Everything else will continue much as it is now, including Femmes Fatales.

I might be starting this plan of becoming at least a semi-professional blogger too soon; I might be starting too late. The bank balance will tell. But I feel there is an opportunity, and I'm going to give it a shot.

Feedback, suggestions, and complaints welcome. And if you feel an overwhelming urge to tell me "you're mad", by all means feel free to do so.

(And should you feel like putting a link to My London Your London on your site, I'll be extremely grateful!)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Lighter reading

A pre-World War I murder mystery is solved, and the length of local memories in a French village revealed. (It is in the end, however, a rather common story - two blokes have a fight in a bar over a woman.)The killer's family always knew, and you get the feeling the village had a pretty good idea, but nobody was going to tell the local gendarme, the representative of outside authority anything. Or maybe he was in on what happened, but wasn't going to make it official.


If you think you've got an "odd-shaped" body, it is not you at fault, but the clothes manufacturers. Although I don't get the fact that I do actually meet their technical definition of an "hour-glass figure", but I still can't get trousers that fit. (If they fit at the hips, the waist is usually 10cm or more too big - don't know what I'm going to do when hipster jeans disappear, as the ridiculous fashion cycle rolls on.)


Even the Right is worried about Mailization of the British media. (To which I made reference yesterday.) Sir Peregrine Worsthorne writes in the Independent today about the Telegraph:

"What we are in danger of getting is not the revival of a newspaper which represented English conservatism at its nicest - as the Daily Telegraph was when Bill Deedes served as its editor rather than its fig leaf - but rather a cloned new version of the Daily Mail which represents English conservatism at its very nastiest. A double dose of the Daily Mail poison, could the English body politic really survive that?"

(Both of those Independent links will only work for a couple of days - sorry - due to the incredibly shortsighted policy it has of putting everything behind a paywall. Which is why I don't often link to it.)

Review - China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795

If you want to see great art, don't go to the Chinese exhibition at the Royal Academy. If, however, you want to be entertained and delighted, surprised and enlightened, then this is an unmissable event.

From the first room, with its giant portraits of the emperors of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns* and the astonishingly crafted garments that match those they are wearing, you are dazzled with brilliant colours and swamped in the astonishing detail and craftsmanship that produced these lovingly preserved samples of what must be largely lost arts.

Almost everything in this extensive exhibition was made to the greater glory of these three men, or for their entertainment**. They appear again and again in different guises, sometimes as fervent Buddhists, sometimes as hunt-obsessed leaders of fierce nomads, sometimes as sober Confucian scholars. (Although the extremely formidable-looking Xiaosheng, Empress Dowager, painted in 1751 for her 60th birthday, does get an airing in this first room.)

Read more

Rape: Victims are still blamed

There's an extremely disturbing report out from Amnesty International about attitudes towards rape in Britain. It is no wonder that conviction rates are so low, when the general public - which means of course the juries - just don't get that the rapist is responsible for his own actions, not the victim.

"A third of people believe a woman is partially or completely responsible for being raped if she has behaved flirtatiously, a survey suggests.
The Amnesty International poll of 1,000 people also found over 25% believe she is at least partly to blame if she has worn revealing clothing or been drunk."

Woman's Hour this morning had an excellent report on the Amnesty findings, and the broader issue. It seems that while there have been many improvements in police and other official attitudes (although they are still far from perfect), the next big step is going to have to be with public opinion.

Yet how to do this. How do you convince a Daily Mail reader?

I was thinking that the campaign that is yet to happen - one to empower men to report male rape - might have some answers here. If a man gets raped, was it his fault if he was drunk?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Frances Williams Wynn reveals something of herself ..

... while also talking about the great figures of her day.

She's writing about her first recollections of William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox and the Duke of Wellington.

But all of these pale before the man who seems to have been her first crush, Mr Windham. (Anyone know who he was?)

In my recollection, no person appears to have possessed the power of making conversation delightful as much as Mr. Windham. His peculiar charm seems to me to have been that sort of gay openness which I should call the very reverse of what the French term morgue.
To all, this must be agreeable, and it is peculiarly delightful to a young person who is conscious of her own inferiority to the person who condescends to put her perfectly at ease. During the party at Stowe to which I have alluded, I found myself embarked for the morning's or rather day's amusement, in a carriage with Lady King, Lord Braybrooke, and Mr. Windham. My mother was in some other carriage, my two sisters in a third.
When we all met in our own rooms, they with one accord voted they were a little tired and very much bored. I, though much more liable to both these complaints than any of the party, could only say I had been highly amused the whole day.
The fact was, they had no Mr. Windham to listen to, and I had; and yet, truth to say, when I was asked how he had contrived to amuse me so much, I had very little to tell even then; and now after so many years that little has passed away.

UPDATE 21/11: I think I've worked out who this is, or at least most likely is: William Windham, (1750–1810). The ONDB says of him:
"Acknowledged as one of the gifted young men of his generation, he numbered Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and Samuel Johnson among his particular friends, and was a pallbearer at Johnson's funeral. Windham vacillated between love of academic study and the duties of a public career. He was a talented linguist and wrote three mathematical treatises, albeit unpublished ones.
As late as 1790 he described himself as ‘a little of two characters and good in neither: a politician among scholars and a scholar among politicians’ (Windham Papers, 1.96). Deeply introspective and prone to bouts of indecision, Windham was nevertheless a popular figure in polite society. Wraxall deemed him ‘graceful, elegant and distinguished’ with conversation that displayed ‘the treasures of a highly cultivated understanding’ (Historical and Posthumous Memoirs, 4.73). A bachelor until his late forties, he married, on 10 July 1798, Cecilia (1750–1824), daughter of Commodore Arthur Forrest (d. 1770), and his wife, Juliana; they had no children."

Women's weekend: the good, the intriguing and the ugly

* After Africa elected its first female president, it looks as though South America is about to follow suit. Michelle Bachelet, a survivor of torture under General Pinochet, has a huge lead in the opinion polls for Chile's general election, which will be on December 11.

What makes this even more unusual is that she appears to be confident enough to be explicitly feminist, saying that she will ensure that 50 per cent of her Cabinet ministers will be female - a figure that I think has only been equalled or beaten in Scandanavia.

* Then a Japanese royal escaped from the palace. Princess Sayako renounced her status to marry a commoner. (Of course he might only be a bonus, when you think of how the poor princess who married in has fared.)

This Guardian article says it was a "dramatic break with the past, and that was driven home to me by an email letter today from the Ichiroya Kimono Flea Market. (They sell antique kimonos and other Japanese antiquities, but also write a newsletter in entirely understandable if slightly off-key English that gives a fascinating insight into another world view.) Yuka writes:

"I love the photos of the both Emperor and Empress when their only daughter entered and came to their table. You may not believe it but they are the first who attended their children's wedding reception. ... You can see how happy they looked and their peaceful smiles are the ones of ordinary parents. They greeted all the guests stayed until everything was over and thanked and sent the guests off -- it is a natural thing but was a very unusual thing in the royal family history.
... The children used respect language to the Emperor and Empress, and in public, we could never see them hug each other or speak frankly each other but in these short words, we could see their bond and warm caring of each other.
Many people lined the streets and wished their happiness. Some people said, they felt the royal family is now very close to them and they could never forget the smiles of relief of Sayako san's parents-they certainly looked different from the faces we see in their public appearance.

The BBC has a series of pictures.

* Meanwhile in France, the apparent president-to-be, Nicholas Sarkozy, has had a meeting with an editorial house. After that, his ex-wife's book was pulped "and deleted from the firm's computers". So much for free speech - although what's the bet it is on the internet within days?

The Lanes of St Albans

After a week pretty well glued to my keyboard, looking at the gorgeous blue skies outside, I decided on a break today, so joined a Central London Cycle Touring Club ride around the lane and by-ways of St Albans and environs, including Hatfield, Colney Heath, South Mimms, and Shenley, finishing at Watford Junction. So if you saw a red-faced cyclist in a black balaclava, puffing their way very slowly up a hill in those environs, while the rest of the party (several of whom I was giving at least two decades to) waited patiently at the top, yep, that was probably me.

Still, I did make 26 miles (42km) in the end - although I had my doubts a few times after lunch.

Things I learnt:

* South Mimms is quite a nice little village, not just a motor-way service stop. (The White Horse is a pleasant pub too - another cycling party, numbering well over 20 arrived just as we were leaving, and the staff were quite relaxed about the invasion.)

Looking around for this post, I found from this lovely little local history:

Vicars in the late 19th century criticized the prevalence of drunkenness: P. F. Hammond refused the pot of beer offered him at the church door in 1889 (Footnote 71) and his successor, W. H. Wood, urged that the number of public houses should be reduced. In 1894, besides beershops, there were eight public houses in South Mimms village, serving a population of 250.

Today I think there are only two; at least that was all I saw.

* A cold day in November will see lots of cyclists out - we saw a total of three other organised groups, including one group of boy racers, some of whom were wearing shorts! (The BBC tells me the top temperature in St Albans today was 5C.)

* Ice is quite possible in these conditions. One of the boy racers, drawing up very slowly at an intersection in front of us, fell over, and looked very embarrassed about it. (Apparently boy racers look down at CTCers.)

* I also learnt how to cycle on ice (which is rather like driving). Just try to keep everything pointed in a straight line, and pray. Or don't go out at all, which might be my future approach.

* On the architectural side, I learnt about Hertford spires, as on the church at Aldenham, and why a barn might be stood on mushroom-shaped posts. (The theory is that it would keep the rats out, since they couldn't climb around the bulging part.)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Theatre Review: Blackout at the Courtyard Theatre

You are sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In the intimate space of the Courtyard Theatre at King's Cross, you're not just watching, you are in the meeting.

Seven alcoholics are telling their harrowing life stories - simply, naturally, with only as much melodrama as comes naturally to their characters.

Jack (Riley Stewart), from an Irish background, comes from a family of alcoholics, his mother dying at the age of 13 left him an orphan. (Earlier, his father had drowned in a puddle while in an alcoholic stupor.) Jack drank to forget; he drank to find a family. Of course both efforts failed.

Then there's Tim (Gary Lawrence) who cries as he talks of his family - led by his macho football coach father - refusing to accept his homosexuality; he still can't use the word "gay". Then his story gets even darker.

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Saturday morning reads

Dominating British news is the shooting yesterday of a female police officer by robbers in Bradford. (And the officer has now been named.) A tragedy, and it would have been an equal tragedy had a male officer been shot, but it would not, I'd venture, have got anything like the same level of media attention.

And the term WPC (Woman Police Constable) has been resurrected for the occasion, despite its technical non-existence for decades. (It was used in the era when female officers were restricted to "safe" duties.) The Times has a good rundown on the change. (And there's a history of women officers in London here.)
No surprise that Martin Newland has quit as editor of the Telegraph. His is a salutary tale about how if you want to be and editor, and get to be an editor, you've also got to pick your proprietor carefully. And an ex-Daily Mail man is taking over. The Mail-zation of the London papers continues.
Australia's greenhouse gas emissions have increased 23 per cent over the past 13 years. A disgrace - and particularly stupid given that Australia is highly vulnerable to climate change.
Then a bit of light relief: Detrimental Postulation on how the simple concept of feeding a lock through a loop is too much for some people. Mind you I can sympathise with the bike man, in that fitting a lock through two parts of the bike, then an too-thick railing or badly designed bike rack, is a serious challenge. Note to all building owners: if you want bike racks, copy the ones at the British Museum, they are perfectly shaped and placed.

And, via Beyond the Sunrise, Lego for social theorists. Do you want to build Judith Butler, or Anthony Giddens?