Monday, January 28, 2013

James Burke's Connections

First shown in 1978, James Burke's amazing 10-part history of science, Connections – an Alternative View of Change, is up on YouTube to watch in full. It's an extraordinary piece of work, full of brilliant insight and gutsy pieces-to-camera, such as this one that I've gibbered at before:

The main problem with science documentaries (having made a short one, “Entropy Explained”, that, despite a well-qualified and engaging presenter, I think doesn't quite work) is how to illustrate the argument without distracting from it. A personal bugbear is documentaries that show pretty pictures of space or CGI that aren't even connected to what's being said. At the same time, just having a talking head addressing the viewer can get dull very quickly – telly is all about moving pictures.

That's why Brian Cox gets sent all round the world, spelling out the science in a way that's visually appealing – and related to what he's saying (if also riffing off this). In the 1970s, Jacob Bronowski was commissioned to link science to art, which makes for better visuals in the amazing The Ascent of Man (1973). Later, Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) dramatised lots of moments from history – and at great expense – while Carl himself hosted the show from the inside of spaceship (I can't help thinking it looks like the inside of the Pinky Ponk from In the Night Garden...).

But James Burke is quite the master at thrilling, engaging and boggling ways to put across his ideas. He cut his teeth presenting Tomorrow's World and the Apollo Moon landings. You can see a little of this early work at the BBC Archive's Tomorrow's World collection, while the excellent Apollo 11: A Night to Remember DVD features clips of Burke putting a spacesuit through its paces or testing the rocket escape system. All this shows his flair for simple and direct ways of talking technology in a way that we'll remember. 

But Connections is something altogether more impressive: a 10-hour thesis on the history of and our dependence on technology.

The first episode reminds me, in terms of strategy, a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That film consists of four separate but related stories: early man making a discovery; something happening on the Moon; something happening in a spaceship; a journey into the unknown. Each sequence is visually and aurally stunning, and each sequence ends with a startling, gosh-wow revelation that takes us somewhere new. As a whole, it aims to simply and vividly boggle our sense of where we come from, how we got here, and where we're going next.

Connections' first sequence is remarkably simple. Burke addresses us directly:
“Would you do me a favour? I'd like to stop talking for a minute and when I do, take a look at the room you're in and above all at the man-made objects in that room that surround you – the television set, the lights, the phone and so on – and ask yourself what those objects do to your life just because they're there. Go ahead.”
Watching it now, it's striking how much more dependent we are on clever telephonic and electronic devices since the series was made, so it makes the point even harder: we don't know how these things work and yet we're in their thrall.

To make that case, Burke then spells out what happened in the New York City power blackout in 1965, dramatising scenes and speaking to witnesses. It's as fascinating for its depiction of human behaviour – passengers on a tube train sharing birthday cake and wine as they waited in a dark tunnel – as for the explanation of how a single protective relay caused chaos.

Burke shows us the offending relay before telling us what is, inviting us to guess. It's a very effective way of drawing us in. The point is that we are reliant on gadgets and networks we barely understand.

Next, he spells out a nightmare scenario of how long we'd survive in a world where technology stopped working, making the brutal choices horribly vivid – we'd need food and shelter, but would we be prepared to kill someone to take their house, or protect our own? Again, he gets in our heads, and plays to 70s concerns about how far we removed ourselves from the means of production and essential skills, played out earlier in Terry Nation's Survivors (1975-7).

But this is all merely a prelude. Burke is then in Egypt to trace the origin of our dependence on technology. I gather from my in-house expert that what follows is based on the work of the archaeologist Flinders Petrie

About 10,000 BC, at a result of climate change, mankind's behaviour radically altered. Around this time, the glaciers receded and the temperature rose, and water became scarcer. The hunting nomads had to come down from the high grasslands in search of food, and did so, says Burke, in northern India, central America, Syria and Egypt (and possibly also Peru). In Egypt, where Burke bases his argument, they found a lucky accident of nature. A yearly flood of the river Nile created a very fertile ribbon of land stretching some 750 miles, in the midst of what was otherwise scrubland and desert. This fertile land supported plants the nomads could eat. About 5000 BC they settled permanently in the area. They dug and sowed crops, irrigating them by hand and perhaps with basic tools for nearly 1,000 years, and then an odd-shaped bit of wood transformed everything ever after.

Burke's explanation of what happened as a result of the invention of the plough is quite long but well worth following. It's a brilliant, eye-popping series of consequences, just as gosh-wow as 2001.
“Initially the surplus [food] produced by irrigation and ploughing permitted non-foodproducers to operate within a community, and in the beginning these may have been the men who dug and maintained the irrigation systems, and those who organized them. These administrators would have derived their authority from their knowledge of astronomy which gave them alone the magic ability to say when the flood would come, when to sow on the land wet from the receding waters, and when to harvest. The grain needed storage room out of the weather, and dried clay daubed on woven reed baskets gradually gave way to more permanent containers as the demand for them increased with the crop. Fire-hardened clay pots, made from spiralling loops of wet earth, came to be used, and the first evidence of solid burning is of piles of these pots heaped together to form a form of central granary. The need to identify the ownership and amount of grain contained in a pot or a granary led to the development of writing. The first picture-words came from before 3000 B.C and comprise lists of objects and totals of figures contained in pots and chests. The surplus grain paid for craftsmen: carpenters, potters, weavers, bakers, musicians, leather-workers, metal-workers, and those whose task it was to record everything – the scribes. The need to ensure regularity of harvest in order to support those members of the community demanded a taxation system, and so that it should be operated fairly skills were developed to assess each man's due. Initially this may have started with the measurement of field boundaries destroyed each year by the flood, but as time passed and the irrigation systems grew more complex, the process demanded greater sophistication, calling for mathematics to handle the measurement of distance, area and cubic amount. 
These early forms of arithmetic and geometry grew from the demands of canal building: how long, how wide and how deep? It may have been the need for tools to do the job which spurred interest in the copper deposits across the Red Sea in Sinai, and this in turn would have stimulated the use of metal for weapons. Weapons were needed by those whose task it was to protect the land and crops from invasion, as the surplus food and the goods financed by its production began to be used as barter with neighbouring communities, some of which looked with envy on the riches of Egypt. Metal tools gave the Egyptians the ability to work stone, initially, perhaps, in blocks for strengthening the irrigation ditches. The Nile is bordered for 500 miles south from Cairo by limestone cliffs, and it is from this stone that the first pyramid was constructed. 
A mere hundred and fifty years after the first use of stone for the construction of buildings, the massive step pyramid of King Djoser was erected. It rises out of the desert as Saqqara, south of Cairo. Built by the king's chief minister, Imhotep, it is the oldest extant stone structure in the world, dating from around 2800 B.C. It was constructed using the tools and the theoretical knowledge developed by the canal builders, and it shows a high degree of precision in the use of both. By the time Djoser was being laid in his pyramid, Egyptian society had developed a form that is little changed today. At the top came the Head of State, served by his cabinet of advisers; these were aided by a civil service which organized every aspect of life in the state, gathering taxes from craftsmen and farmers to support themselves and the army. The regulation of the state's business was effected through the application of laws, which rested for their observance on the availability of an annual calendar, by now divided into twelve months or thirty days each. By 2500 B.C. the Egyptians (and their neighbours the Mesopotamians) had a developed and sophisticated society operating with a handful of essential tools: civil engineering, astronomical measurement, water-lifting machinery, writing and mathematics, primitive metallurgy, and the wheel. With these tools the Egyptians administered am empire whose power and influence was unparalleled in the ancient world, based on an agricultural output made possible by the plough. Its use had ensured the continued survival and expansion of the community and set in motion the changes that resulted from that expansion. 
The first man-made harvest freed mankind from total and passive dependence of the vagaries of nature, and at the same time tied him for ever to the very tools that set him free. The modern world in which we live is the product of that original achievement, because just as the plough served to trigger change in the community in which it appeared, each change that followed led to further change in a continuing sequence of connected events.” 
James Burke, Connections (Macmillan London Limited: 1978), pp. 10-12. 
 The final sequence in this first episode sees Burke in Kuwait, showing how oil transformed the country in a single generation, so that people whose parents were nomads (as people were in Egypt before the invention of the plough) are now millionaires, racing through the desert in the latest Rolls-Royce. It's an awe-inspiring thesis, that a single invention or discovery can so transform our lives, and in ways the inventor or discoverer could never have predicted.

In each of the next eight episodes, Burke traces the discoveries that led to a key invention that he says define modern life – such as nuclear weapons, the space rocket and television. It's a shrewd and often very funny series drawing together myriad threads. Burke has a dry wit and love for historical irony. We learn, for example, that in the hunt for the cause of malaria (literally “bad air”), Napoleon ordered a bad smell map of Egypt.

I expect Douglas Adams was watching that first episode the night it was broadcast on 17 October 1978. He'd soon be working on a Doctor Who story about an alien who forced the progress of mankind. An episode first broadcast on 13 October 1979 – a little less than a year later – includes this from the alien:
Achievement? You talk to me of achievement because I steal the Mona Lisa? Can you imagine how a man might feel who has caused the pyramids to be built, the heavens to be mapped, invented the first wheel, shown the true use of fire, brought up a whole race from nothing to save his own race? 
“David Agnew” (David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams), Doctor Who: “City of Death”, part three (1979) 
Connections is certainly of its time. Burke not unreasonably assumes the viewer remembers the launch of Apollo 11 and the stirring of emotions that went with it. There's the irony, for a series about technology, that he could never have predicted how this show would be watched or by who all these decades later. And in some ways it feels prehistoric.

Burke addresses himself to a straight male audience, and makes a whole load of other assumptions, too. At one point he asks us not to be distracted by a pretty girl in shot. Later, he asks us to recall his argument, “the next time your wife asks you to change a plug”. I imagine a few chums would find the patrician tone too condescending and arrogant, but that's a shame because there's so much to enjoy. For example, in discussing the Apollo programme and the criticism that it cost too much, he says, “in the same period, American women spent the same amount on cosmetics”.

But there are other things that seem from another age. For all this talk of technology feeding into our lives, computers are things that only affect us in the workplace. Yet when he talks about the relatively new-fangled credit card and how it will change “future” transactions, it seems prophetic. He explains in episode 8, that the credit card is more than just a substitute for cash. The magnetic strip on the back is a moral judgment on you, your life and your credit worthiness. The powers that make these judgments are secret and immutable, based on patented algorithms and business practices. More than that, they drive you to behave in certain ways which were, until recently, thought wholly immoral: encouraging you to live outside your means. As he says, chillingly, at the end of this sequence,
“What will happen when being in debt all the time is the normal way to live?”
Burke is also good at looking for connections between the different stories and episodes, to understand what aids progress and what stands in its way.

In episode 3, he argues that many inventions key to industrial development in the West – gunpowder, paper, magnets – had existed commonly in China for hundreds or even thousands of years. What made the West different, he says, is that China was a Taoist state, and believed that everything and everyone had their rightful place. In Europe, however, there was more social mobility and competition, so people were constantly looking for any advantage that might make them rich and lift them up the social order.

It's interesting to join that up with the BBC's other seminal, authored series of the time. Kenneth Clark in Civilisation (1969) argued the essential element for civilisation was the courtesy to discuss new ideas without fear of reprisals or death. Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man made the case for knowledge over certainty – good evidence is key not just to science but law and history, too. To this, Burke adds opportunity which allows and encourages experiment and play, so that those who make discoveries or find new ways to apply them can fully reap the rewards. Effectively, without social mobility progress grinds to a halt.

Finally, in episode 10, Burke tries to sum up all we've seen: the surges of communications technology through letters, a postal system, telegraphy, satellite phones. He concludes that,
“The faster you can communicate, the faster change happens.”
He predicts – and more accurately than he could ever have imagined – that the near future would depend on,
“Information... what you do with the facts”. 
 He argues that the defining question in the technological arms race will be,
“How easy is it for knowledge to spread?” 
 He also says that lack of access to this information will equal powerlessness, just as if someone were deaf and dumb and blind. Watching it now, that all feels chillingly right.

And yet Burke's also under no illusions about how difficult it is to predict the future. After all, the inventions he's covered in the series led to things no one could have predicted. And he concludes by connecting up the eight inventions from the series to one that will (he thinks) dominate our future – the bomber carrying nuclear bombs. Luckily, he was wrong.

There's a Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch that parodies Burke, with him telling us something, then contradicting it and then contradicting that contradiction. That's unfair, and though he does something a little like that in this last episode it's to make a serious point. He says he can't predict what will happen, or what developments will dominate our lives. In effect, he's saying, “It's more complicated than that” - itself a paraphrasing of all of science.

And he leaves us with something more potent and compelling than a dodgy prediction. Because the last moments of the series are an even more effective gosh-wow. Again, he directly appeals to us, telling us to become discoverers ourselves. He tells us that new discovery depends on challenging authority, religion and ideology that keep us in our place. As he says, science is sometimes seen as hard and emotionless because it “removes the reassuring crutches”. But he's not calling for some kind of revolution or new dawn of atheism. Instead, he simply spells out that all we need for progress is to ask the right questions.
“Ask for explanations. And ask yourself if there's anything in your life you want changed.”
I know what I'd like changed. I'd like a souped-up Region 2 DVD or Blu-Ray of Connections, please. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Something really solid to bite on

In a British Red Cross shop, the Dr found me a lovely 1956 World Books monthly edition of Nevil Shute's Requiem for a Wren (1955) - at least, it would have been if the price sticker hadn't torn the cover. I loved Shute's bleak tales of earnest people facing all the horrors that life can fling at them when I'd borrowed them from the shelves of my late grandfather's house. On the Beach (1957) is an especially extraordinary post-apocalyptic miasma of despair.

In Requiem for a Wren, Alan Duncan (no, not the MP for Rutland & Melton) returns home to the family farm at Coombargana, outside Melbourne. Alan is a war veteran who lost both feet in a plane crash, but the shadow that really hangs over him is the death of his brother Bill, killed in Normandy helping to prepare for the invasion. Alan has spent the years since the war struggling to get used to his disability, and also trying to track down Janet Prentice, Bill's girlfriend who Alan met only once.

When Alan arrives home to the farm, he finds his elderly parents quietly distraught over the suicide of their maid. As Alan concludes late in the book, 
"a war can go on killing people for a long time after it's all over."
Nevil Shute, Requiem for a Wren (1955), p.246.
We follow Alan's efforts to piece together what happened to Janet, and failure to track her down. With Janet's faith in providence and justice, and the grief not merely for the war dead but also the excitement and freedom of the war, it reminded me a lot of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1951), and it has the same chilling bleakness that lingers long in the mind.

There's plenty to like here: the stark, no-nonsense prose, the eye for quirks of character and speech, even the way on page 216 Janet contracts "it would" as "it 'ld" - with a space and an "l". She and the other Brits all speak in the clipped accents of In Which We Serve and A Matter of Life and Death, and are admired for their steely, practical manners through the conflict.

Throughout the book, it's underlined how much better it is to be doing things rather than dwelling on the past, and of the despair that sets in when there's nothing to be done. That's laid out early on, for instance, when we learn that Alan's younger sister,
"had picked up with a chap called Laurence Hilton who worked for the B.B.C. and put on plays for the Third Programme. She married him in 1947 and had not been home since; they had one child, rather an unpleasant little boy ... She seemed happy with [Laurence] and had adopted most of his views, including the one that Australia was a cultural desert that no decent person would dream of living in. His earning capacity, of course, was quite inadequate for the life they wished to lead. They have a very pleasant house in Cheyne Walk overlooking the river where they entertain a lot of visitors from ivory towers, and Coombargana pays.
I annoyed Laurence very much one day by referring to my father as a patron of the Arts. I'd probably have annoyed my father too if he'd known."
Ibid., p. 13.
Much later we learn that Alan's sister felt little of the war's effect at home in Australia - if anything, the prospect of doing war work in industry gave her and her friends the excuse to escape home, live in the city and go to more parties. There is a gulf between them on Alan's first return home - her flighty and silly, he morose with his injury. That helps us to understand her and her choices, but it also comes late in the story and so doesn't redeem her.

In contrast, there's Janet, and Viola Dawson and the other girls Janet served with in the Wrens. Janet takes great pride in cleaning and expecting guns and ensuring everything works properly for when "the balloon goes up". She's also a very good shot - which is also the start of where things go wrong.

At one point, Janet is involved in what might be a case of friendly fire (Shute nicely makes the dilemma more difficult because we're never quite sure). In need of someone to talk to, and with Bill out on operations, Janet goes to see her father - an Oxford professor who missed serving in the first war but has just been called up to help with the Normandy landings. His glee over this means Janet can't bring herself to share her own woes. As she says, her father is having the time of his life:
"'You know,' he said in wonder, 'really - I believe I am. It's having to do with things, I suppose, after spending one's life dealing with ideas. It's having something really solid to bite on. Something definite to do."
Ibid., p. 108.
When Bill dies, his colleague Albert Finch writes to Janet to tell her. There are three short, matter-of-fact paragraphs - Albert isn't allowed to say how Bill died - and the last is that Albert will have to shoot Bill's dog unless Janet can find a place for it. Again, it's a blunt and practical concern, but it's an awful thing to put on her, and we really feel the pressure and guilt as she struggles to convince her superiors to let her keep a dog where she's stationed; we also feel the desperate relief when something gets arranged. Shute perfectly judges the awfulness of something so simple and real, and the whirl of emotions under the stiff upper lip.

But there's also something darker going on about the shared experience of war. On Alan's first return home after the war, he's morbid and drinking too much. His father comes to meet him at the harbour to drive him back to the farm (it's a long way, but Alan is too fearful of flying). On the way, Alan's father matches his son's heavy drinking and they share war stories. It's a mark of understanding between them, a strong and male bond in the face of such horror. But it's also telling that for all he experienced in the first war, Alan's father was delighted by his sons both joining up.

Viola Dawson tells Alan,
"until we're dead, we Service people, the world will always be in danger of another war. We had a good time in the last one. We'll none of us come out into the open and admit it. It might be better for us, if we did. What we do is to put our votes in favour of re-armament and getting tough with Russia, and hope for the best ... For our generation, the war years were the best time of our lives, not because they were war years but because we were young ... Everyone looks back at the time when they were in their early twenties with nostalgia, but when we look back we only see the war. We had a fine time then, and so we think that if a third war came we'd have those happy, carefree years all over again. I don't suppose we would - some of us might."
Ibid., p. 185.
The ending is a little glib, and in the last two pages Alan turns things round to win the girl. It doesn't sit true with the bleakness of the rest of the book, and a note of uncertainty - that he hopes to win the girl but doesn't know if he can - would maybe have sat better. But apart from that, it's an enthralling, disturbing read.

I also liked the ad on the back cover for the next titles in the World Books monthly series. How strange to see a James Bond book being sold without mention of Bond.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens is full of what George Orwell, speaking of Dickens' strengths, called the “telling detail”. There's the irony of this so-English author who called himself a citoyne of France. As so often, the reality is richer and more interesting than the myth. And there's a great deal of myth around Dickens.

As Simon Callow observed last year (the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth),
“Dickens the domestic monster has become part of the intellectual landscape, along with some increasingly lurid speculations about his sex life.”
Callow spells out the evidence to the contrary, but Tomalin sticks to the "domestic monster" version, and details how the master of prose was expert at weaving convenient fictions round his misdeeds. A fantasist who treated those around him as if they were his own creations, it reads as a warning about the ego of writers.

Tomalin seems to like Dickens for his role in social reforms and she also appreciates some of his (male) characters, but generally she finds his work overwrought. The sense is that his books have been spoiled for her because of what she knows about his life.
“You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858.”
And yet I felt Tomalin was sometimes just as guilty as Dickens of massaging facts to suit a moral purpose. She indulges in conspiracy theories about Ellen Ternan – not merely whether Ternan and Dickens has sex, but whether Ternan had a son by Dickens (Tomalin spells out a tragic supposition where the child dies in France), and whether she was with Dickens when he suffered his last stroke. Tomalin presents what scant evidence exists for and against these claims, though makes her own beliefs plain - I thought not wholly convincingly. The truth is that we don't know: the evidence is too poor and a lot of it merely circumstantial. But having raised the possibility of a child with Ternan – and listed the historians who disagree – Tomalin then treats it as fact.

She is also rather shocked at his ruthlessness to family, but he's given these people multiple chances and hand-outs, and generally they abuse his kindness and sense of duty. I felt more sympathy for a man whose relatives continually expect him to rescue them financially and abuse his patience. His struggles with money, and his need for an appreciative audience, struck a chord with this particular writer.

I wonder at Tomalin's own perspective as the wife of a famous novelist and playwright. There's no sense of the strange relationship with readers – for example that writing is painfully slow and lonely, yet a reader who responds will find the work immediate and intimate. I'd have liked more on his method: the volume of words per day, the number of revisions, his planning and ability to adapt his plans as a book progressed. It doesn't especially explain what made Dickens' work so different or appealing – either in his own time or today.

A BBC documentary last year dared suggest that Dickens' work invented the forms of early cinema. Given Tomalin's assessment of Dickens' amateur dramatics, I think its truer to say early film used lots of the forms of theatre, which was also an influence on him. His rich characters ache to be performed, his plots creaking under their strain. That often leads to actors hamming them up, but in the books themselves and the best adaptations, the more these larger-than-life people are played absolutely straight, the more effectively we will feel for all that they are put through. (That's why I think The Muppet's Christmas Carol is the best ever adaptation of Dickens: Muppets playing out a kitchen-sink drama absolutely straight is a perfect match for Dickens.)

Rather, Tomalin concentrates on conjuring the man himself, and it's a vivid and distinctive portrait. She paints Dickens as a hypocrite – the generous, jolly, social reformer is a predatory bully and bore. I think that's a little unfair on a hard-working man who lifted himself out of poverty and tried to help others too. That drive and purpose also makes this a difficult read: a man so full of energy and things to say withers away page after page, so many of his friends and family dying poor and prematurely. The story doesn't end with Dickens' death in 1870: Tomalin continues to explore his legacy and the damage wrought by his affair up until 1939, and the deaths of the last of his children. It's the shadow of a monster, not a cause of celebration. So it's a captivating book, but not a joy, and the monster not wholly convincing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Shadow of Death and Logic

More of me that you can buy in shops. Next month, Doctor Who: Shadow of Death sees the Second Doctor and his chums on a remote world orbiting a pulsar. Frazer Hines is, as ever, utterly extraordinary at playing both the Doctor and Jamie, and narrating, while the magnificent Evie Dawnay plays a character I named after my GCSE astronomy teacher.

Then, in August, I have another Blake's 7 adventure: Logic. It's about Pol, an ordinary woman living an ordinary existence inside the domed city on Earth… until she is visited by strangers who bring chaos to her life. I'm thrilled that as well as starring Paul Darrow as Avon, Sally Knyvette as Jenna and Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan, my chum Louise Jameson stars as Pol. I wrote it with Louise in mind, and the nice people at Big Finish agreed she'd be perfect. Hooray!

Excitingly (or terrifyingly), Logic is part of a box-set so you'll also get Blake's 7 stories by Una McCormack and James Goss, too. 

Friday, January 11, 2013


A space lion from
Doctor Who Adventures  #302
- pic by John Ross
Issue #302 of Doctor Who Adventures, out in shops this very day, features a four-page comic strip written by me and illustrated by the amazing John Ross. In "All Change", shape-changing companion Decky Flamboon gets hiccups and keeps changing into more and more ridiculous things. It is all quite silly.

John, who's illustrated every one of the Doctor Who strips in more than 300 issues, has also just been interviewed by Down the Tubes about his work

Monday, January 07, 2013

"The Bank can never 'go broke'."

Splendid chums Nyssa1968 and Nimbos popped round yesterday for a contest of Doctor Who Monopoly, which I received for Christmas. The Dr won, quite spectacularly, with some loss to her leftie credentials. I'd forgotten quite how aggressive a game it can be, as you struggle to bankrupt your friends.

I was also much taken by two rules, both of such prominence to be included on the "Set it up!" spread. First,
"It is important that the Banker keeps their personal funds and properties separate from the Bank's."
After all my time transcribing debates in the House of Lords, I wanted to point out that something being "important" is not the same as it being a requirement, and that perhaps we should leave out, "It is important that", and change "keeps" to "must keep". (There could then be an hour-long debate on the legal precedent on "must" versus "may", which is always a favourite.)

"The Bank can never 'go broke'. If the Bank runs out of money, the Banker may issue as much as needed by writing on ordinary paper."
A cynic might say that this is exactly what got us into our current economic snafu. But perhaps I'm still reeling from John Lanchester's "Let's call it failure" in the current London Review of Books, which explains in plain and gossipy style just how bad things are:
"In June 2010, in his first budget, Osborne said the structural deficit was 4.8 per cent, and that with three years of reduced spending, the figure would be down to 1.9 per cent. ... If you reverse the creative accounting and add the interest from the quantitative easing back where it used to be, as a Bank of England asset, it adds 0.6 per cent to the structural deficit. That takes it back up to 4.9 per cent – higher than it was when the coalition came to power."

Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Lunacy" and the Bride of Frankenstein's Mum

The Dr has been much absorbed by the second most festive of her Christmas presents, Inconvenient People - Lunacy, Liberty and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise (2012), a history of mental health institutions with lots of horror stories worse than what happened to the first Mrs Rochester.

The book, says the Dr, debunks a lot of myths: men were much more likely to be incarcerated, and people were often locked up because they were an embarrassment to their families or because of disputes over money and inheritance. She was particularly pleased to show me this account following the introduction of the Lunacy Act 1890, by turns amazing and chilling:
"The first major case for the new law came in 1895. Edith Lanchester was the epitome of the New Woman of the Nineties: educated to degree level, she was a white-collar worker, a Socialist, a feminist, and determined to spend the rest of her life with her lover, James Sullivan, a railway clerk, in their Clapham Junction lodgings, without marrying. Her father, a wealthy architect, was having none of this, and on the evening of Friday 25 October 1895, he and two of Edith's brothers dragged her to a carriage, tied her with rope, and deposited her at The Priory, Roehampton. It was all very old-fashioned. 
An 'urgency order' had been written by Dr George Fielding Blandford [...] Blandford's rationale for authorising Lanchester's detention sounded decidedly quaint in 1895, and indeed there was some sniggering when his diagnosis became public: 'She says she is going to live with a man below her in station because marriage is immoral. This she argued in a wholly irrational manner.' Blandford stated that certification would have been unquestioned if Miss Lanchester had threatened suicide; as it was, she was threatening 'social suicide', which had justified his saving her from 'utter ruin... She had a monomania on the subject of marriage, and I believed that her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.' 
Coincidentally - and fortunately - just two days later the Commissioners in Lunacy turned up at The Priory for a statutory visit; and as her father had not yet had time to obtain a magistrate's order and a second lunacy certificate, they immediately freed Edith. She was brought back to Clapham in triumph by her comrades from the Social Democratic Foundation, who helped to keep the tale of 'The Socialist Romance' in the newspapers for weeks. Fresh from his destruction of Oscar Wilde, the Marquess of Queensbury - atheist, divorcĂ© - wrote James Sullivan a supportive letter offering to pay any legal costs: 'I should like to shake you and your wife [sic] by the hand... You have a chance now of making a public protest, as everyone's attention is attracted. What is their idiotic [marriage] ceremony?' (Lanchester and Sullican never married and lived together until James's death in 1945; their daughter, Elsa, went on to be the Hollywood star of Bride of Frankenstein - a different kind of horror story.) 
The Lanchester case had shown that the new lunacy system seemed to be working, as the victim had been speedily freed. However, some things clearly hadn't changed. The Commissioners refused to take any action against Blandford or the Lanchester family. Her counsel also warned Edith not to go ahead with a private prosecution, as it would be an expensive failure to try to prove in court that malice - rather than a genuine mistake - lay behind the attempt to have her certified."
Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People - Lunacy, Liberty and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (2012), pp. 377-8.
(The Dr's most festive present was of course Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust).

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Happy new year. I resolve to finish my original novel and also blog a bit more often, but then that's what I promised last year.

The Christmas edition of New Scientist is full of splendid things, but I'm especially taken by Richard Smyth's one-page piece, "Wiping Up", on the history of toilet paper which reveals that the word "bumf" is short for "bum fodder", or any printed material so lacking in value as to be used in the bog. There's also this:
"Consumer expectation does not seem to have been high. Northern Tissue's declaration that its paper was 'splinter free' in the 1930s gives a startling indication of how eye-watering some early offerings must have been."
Richard Smyth, "Wiping Up" in New Scientist #2896/2897, 22/29 December 2012, p. 75.
Smyth has written a book on the subject, too: Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper (Souvenir Press, 2012).