Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Unsung scientists

I always enjoy revisionist history. Some years back, the Channel 4 series The Dragon has Two Tongues featured Gwyn Alf Williams, who argued the importance of ordinary people in the context of Welsh history, which traditionally was presented as a list of the reigns and conquests of various kings. His Marxist view of history has since become far more mainstream; it no longer makes sense to look at a pyramid as an outstanding monument and achievement of a Pharaoh without considering the cultural context that made him a god-king able to draw on the workforce and the resources of a civilisation.
      In this light, I was very interested to read A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks" by Clifford D Conner, which brings a similar perspective to science and technology. The idea persists of a history of science driven by a succession of "Great Men with Great Ideas", and Conner's aim is to survey that history "from the bottom up" to demonstrate the origin of science in the collective activities of working people.
      The eight-chapter book is organised chronologically. After a scene-setting chapter, it begins with Were hunter-gatherers stupid?; this attempts to get at prehistory, with a particular focus on Polynesian navigation in the Pacific. This can hardly be called anything but a science, involving an astonishing body of memorised data based on a 'sidereal compass' and knowledge of ocean swells and their refraction around islands. More on this at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology online exhibit, Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific: A Search for Pattern).
      What "Greek Miracle"? debunks the idea of ancient Greece as the originator of science. The ancient Greeks themselves didn't believe it, crediting Egypt, and A People's History looks at this and other bodies of science: the much-maligned Roman science (if not "scientific", an originator of long-lasting impressive practical technology) and the now better-known contributions of the Islamic world and China.
      Blue water sailors and the navigational sciences focuses particularly on Prince Henry the Navigator, whose PR paints him as originator of sailing out of sight of land. Commodore Collins of the British Admiralty scoffed at the idea of the "persistent myth" of coast-hugging, so dangerous that he said the idea clearly wasn't originated by a sailor. A People's History provies many examples of cross-ocean voyages prior to Henry the Navigator, noting that most of the required navigational knowledge (for instance, how to use the Gulf Stream) was originated collectively by unknown or little-known sailors. The heroes of exploration often simply acquired that knowledge by kidnapping locals.
      The remainder of the book explores the development of a scientific elite from the 1500s to the present day. There are honourable examples of independent scientists from mundane backgrounds who got the credit they deserved (such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek). But Conner reveals a repeated pattern of now well-known figures being remembered for discoveries made by little-known craftsmen and artisans, either before them or working for them. Tycho Brahe, for instance, was in his later career effectively the administrative head of a research institution: a form of organisation that Conner argues came to dominate science, first via the academies then via a Victorian 'union of capital and science' that persists until today.
      Backed up by a wealth of well-referenced historical detail, this is a fascinating investigation of a largely hidden part of scientific history. - Ray

Tuesday, 19 September 2006


Shiver me timbers! The great grand house opposite the fine bookshop be flyin' the flag as ye see in the photo, and it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Here at How To Be Speakin' Pirate-Like be advice for ye scurvy dogs on how to be doin' it.
      Enough of that. Why pirates should talk that way is a combination of regional accent (seafarers of the 1600s-1700s tended to come from the English West Country) and stereotype, helped along by cinema and the wonderful Robert Newton (last year the excellent Language Log discussed in some detail - R!? - theories for pirates' strongly rhotic accent). Check out Modern Drunkard Magazine for a nice article, Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum, on the interesting mix of reality and myth that forms our view of pirates.
      I've one book recommendation today: George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. Fraser is the author of the Flashman series novels, but this book has an even looser grip on reality: an impeccably researched, yet thoroughly anachronistic (Gucci boots, tannoys and Kleenex) comic yarn based vaguely on the exploits of Long Ben Avery with cameos of most of the famous pirates that ever lived. It also has the distinction of the longest starting sentence I know of, an evocation of a fictional Merrie England...

It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shinning on the silent snow, and Chad Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets , teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husband's guineas; and England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers' fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton's heart good; where threadbare pedlars with shard eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of 'Hudibras' and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves, and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o'er everywhere

...that Fraser instantly demolishes with the reality about sanitation and poverty. There be a fine bibliography o' pirate books at its stern end, an' here be a review by the New York Times - Buckling down the swash. Read on, ye landlubbers, damn ye for a lizard else. - Ray

Saturday, 16 September 2006

Pope and Wain's Cat Scouts

The co-authors of The Cat Scouts, a scarce children's book written by Jessie Pope and illustrated by Louis Wain, make an interesting partnership.

The Cat Scouts, written in 1912, is somewhat gung-ho, all about the merits of discipline and bravely putting up with hardship (the cat on the left is not about to be murdered, but released after punishment for playing marbles on duty). But Pope's style came into full flow with her WW1 pro-war poems, such as The Call and Who's for the Game? The anti-war poet Wilfred Owen, who knew first-hand that the trenches were far from the jolly game she portrayed, wrote a pointed dedication to her on the first draft of his Dulce et decorum est. The subject of World War 1 poetry is a very large topic; read Where death becomes absurd and life absurder for a good overview. One redeeming feature for Jessie Pope, though, was her recognition of the significance of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and brokering its publication, even if its first edition appeared in her bowdlerised version that trimmed much of the socialist content and turned it into a more conventional "working-class hardship" story.

Wain's work, of which The Cat Scouts is typical, comes across as twee by present standards, though he has a following (see Catland) and he deserves credit for a major role in fostering a positive attitude toward cats in Britain in the late 19th century. Much of the interest nowadays is in the pathological aspects of his art. In later life, he developed schizophrenia, and its manifestation in his work - cats becoming increasingly threatening and psychedelic until they lose all resemblance to cats - is classic in the neurological field. See Cats Painted in the Progression of Psychosis of a Schizophrenic Artist. This Cat Fanciers' Association article, Louis Wain - Cat Artist, has a good short biography and bibliography.

- Ray

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Underground London

Last week I was somewhat disappointed, as I was half-way through reading it, to sell our only copy of Nicholas Barton's The lost rivers of London, a fascinating book that started out as a PhD thesis. Barton documents the history of rivers such as the Fleet and Walbrooke; although long since piped and buried, they still remain an influence on placenames, surface features and underground planning.
      There's a nice map at The Open Guide to London Lost Rivers page, and a good overview at Barryoneoff's Rivers that disappeared. This defunct Heritage Magazine article, The Underground City, with topological map, gives more context on how the main rivers interact with other features. London Geezer's series of blog posts, Reviewing the Fleet is a superb study of the complex history of the River Fleet (now a sewer).
      For anyone with an interest in London of the past, Henry Mayhew's 1851 London Labour and the London Poor is more or less required reading. A three-volume compilation of an article series Mayhew wrote for the Morning Chronicle, it combines scholarly research with sympathetic interviews of a broad spectrum of people at the lower end of London's social scale. The account of Jack Black, " rat and mole destroyer to Her Majesty", gives an idea of the flavour.
      The Bolles Collection on the History of London has a full searchable text: for instance, accounts of the sham indecent trade (a con involving the sale of sealed packages of allegedly pornographic material, that turn out to contain rubbish); snail-sellers; death hunters (who sold false news of celebrity accidents); a depressed street clown; 'pure' finders (dog dung collectors); 'screevers' (who wrote begging letters for others); disaster beggars; and more. The full text is heavy going, especially to read online, but there are many selective editions about, such as a Penguin paperback. If you do want to tackle the full version, the first three volumes are the most interesting; the fourth 'Extra Volume' on prostitutes, beggars and thieves is mostly written by co-authors and (maybe out of coyness and/or legality) departs from Mayhew's detailed interview format in favour of lengthy dissertation and statistics.
      A third book recommendation for Londonophiles: Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. A book that rather fell between genres - literary and SF - this uses the vehicle of the HG Wells Time Machine to take the narrator, the archaeologist David Lambert, to the year 2500. If for nothing else, this book is worth reading for its stunning descriptions of Lambert's exploration of overgrown tropical London - one of a long history of apocalyptic visions of that city (see Where London Stood). - Ray