Wednesday 25 August 2021

Mini-Review An Entertainment for Angels by Patricia Fara

 An Entertainment for Angels is a bit of a cheat. It looks like a full account of electricity in the enlightenment age but if you look carefully, the text is a little larger and spaced out than usual and the pages are on thicker paper, almost as if the book is a shorter one trying to look like a larger one.

So, it’s not as deep an experience as could be hoped for but it is an enjoyable romp through several decades of electrical history, with a particular emphasis on the showmanship of early electrical research, the piecemeal nature of scientific advance and the odd way in which advances in equipment came first and theory had to catch up.

One of the most enjoyable elements of the book was how knowledge of electricity and discovery of its effects grew up from a sense of play. The first battery (so named because like a battery of guns, the effect was increased by grouping them together) was discovered by accident. It was then used to attract objects to suspended orphans, or electrocute 400 monks. I particularly liked the story when the trick didn’t work and the current kept dying at one particular monk. They started to suspect the monk might be a woman in secret (though why that should break the current, I’ve no idea) but it turned out to be because they were standing on a wet patch of ground.

I loved all the talk of pranks and tricks, the cutlery that shocked the dinner guests, the hidden electric ‘mines’ in one person’s house. I loved how silliness built up phenomena to see and evidence which then led to electrical theories. I followed the description of the electrical theories pretty well but now I think I understand the false ways that eighteenth century scientists thought electricity works more than I understand how electricity actually works.

I very much enjoyed this book as a run through of electrical science in the 18th century, it told its story well, was very entertaining and gave me a few new ideas to play with. It wasn't enough to write the full article I was hoping for though.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Review: Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre by Jacqueline Riding


I read Jacqueline Riding’s book Jacobites with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and was excited to receive a copy of Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre in a ‘name-that-Hogarth-from-the-detail’ competition and, seeing as the 203rd anniversary anniversary occurs on the 16th of August, I’d read it.

In Jacobites, Jacqueline Riding shows how skilled she is at taking a complicated series of events with many players and shaping them into a text that is both engaging and coherent and she does the same with the story of the Peterloo massacre. I knew a little about it from ‘Victorians’ text books from school and I’ve seen the Sharpe episode with the Peterloo equivalent but beyond the headlines, I didn’t know the details. Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre told me a little more than I needed to know, gave me  a feel for the times, the tone of the language, the arguments in the pub and kept clarity and narrative momentum.

We begin with the rise of Hampden Clubs, meetings of working men sharing ideas of political reform - particularly about changing electoral constituencies to get rid of rotten boroughs and a desire for a vote per man (there wasn’t yet discussion of women’s suffrage, but it was considered a vote per man was one per household). These clubs were boosted by solid Sunday-school education and inspired by thinkers like Tom Paine as well as reading and sharing cheap newspapers. With waves of soldiers returning from Waterloo, a distant volcanic eruption that killed harvest and the Corn Laws which brought food prices up but did nothing to bring wages up with it  - the government were scared. It wasn’t helped that the official government position seems to have been ‘it’s not our fault’.

After multiple petitions were ignored, the reform groups decided to increase their pressure, one tactic was the ‘blanket protest’. Reading that it was a crime to present a petition in groups more than ten, it was decided to send a mass petition but to take it in multiple copies in small groups - all of them walking from Manchester to London and carrying a blanket to sleep outdoors. With Habeus Corpus suspended, the ‘blanketeers’ were arrested as they left the city, with the urban myth that only one man made it.

The next idea were ‘monster’ meetings, huge rallies with popular speakers designed to show how strong support for reform was. The plan was a series of huge meetings, culminating in a large Manchester one for the north, and a large Kennington one for the south. The magistrates of Manchester started getting nervous, organising a volunteer cavalry called the Yeoman and drafting volunteer constables. It wasn’t helped that the government were sending agent provocateurs to stir up trouble, nor that some speakers were appealing to audiences with more violent rhetoric. What’s more, bodies of men were training on the moors, learning to march in formation. Was this a way of ensuring calm and orderly movement en masse, or was this the training of working class fighting bands?

It wasn’t only men involved in the movement to reform, for the first time women formed organised groups. The first was in Blackburn, followed shortly by the Manchester Female Reform Society, led by Mary Fildes - one of those people in history that ought to be better known. I loved the moment dramatised in the book where the women are asked to vote for something for the first time and the atmosphere of nervous laughter grows to one of pride.

This moment comes from the autobiography of Samuel Bamford, as do many other sparkling and vivid descriptions. A poet as well as a radical, Samuel has a sharp (and sometimes withering) eye for describing other people. Riding hits a motherlode with his descriptions, whether it’s Sidmouth with his 'cavernous orbs' of eyes or Nadin with his 'full-size head'. There’s also a wonderful moment where he describes his beloved wife 'as fresh as Hebe'.

Other interesting people in this book include Dr Healy, whose accent is so thick he can’t be understood by his interrogators and who hands his proscriptions out with pro-forma cards that he fills numbers in because he’s illiterate. He tempers this with an excessive dignity which has him trying to act the gentleman even as he’s being arrested. He also created the most peculiar banner to take to the meeting - stark black and white, threatening looking even as the text read ‘love’. I was also drawn to Joseph Nadin, the Deputy-Constable. He struck me as a prot-Gene Hunt, fond of catching ‘his guy’ and certainly not afraid of violence. Despite originally being a thief-taker and having corrupt habits carry on after his more formal appointment, he redeemed himself a little in my eyes as using himself as a human shield against the voluntary constables when they tried to beat up the man he was arresting.

I may seem to be avoiding the actual massacre, it is the climax of the book after all. Throughout, Jacqueline Riding ratchets up the tension, discussing preparations on both sides and the growing paranoia of the authorities. Like the greatest tragedies, the massacre at St Peter’s field could have been easily avoided. As the size of the crowd grew, the authorities got nervous and sent for the Yeoman, the volunteer cavalry, who were drunk, clumsy and unskilled. The killed a 2 year old on the way to the field and then proceeded to wade into the crowd, trying to clear them with the blades of their swords. As one eyewitness said, “At Waterloo there was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder.”

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Review: Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in other Lands by Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole is buried down the road from me and a famous figure in the area so when I found she’d written a book I was interested in picking it up. I was also pleased how Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in other Lands has echos of Gulliver’s Travels.

Apparently there was some debate over whether this book was ghost written or not, if it was the ghost writer would have stuck very close to her narrative because this book has such a strong, individual voice to it, and very much the kind of voice that someone would have if they did the things Mary Seacole did. It’s tough and folksy, with a strong optimistic streak tempered by a will of iron. Mary believes that “We were born to be happy” but is fully aware of the obstacles to that and wants to do what she can to alleviate them. 

Born in Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and Scottish father, Mary Seacole would have considered it rather presumptuous to be grouped into black history as she saw herself as ‘that yellow woman’. There was a Jamaican tradition of hotel/club/shop/hospital run by women with traditional healing methods and Mary grew up in it, her dolly being her first and most suffering patient. She took this tradition, first to towns in Panama thrown up during the Gold Rush, then outside Sebastopol during the Crimean War. 

Although famous for her work in the Crimea, the sections of this book dealing with her running a ‘hotel’ in Panama are possibly more entertaining. She talks about the difficulty of her journey, that her dress got all ‘clayey’, that when she arrived at her brother’s place and he had nowhere private for her, she was grumpy and made her own bed under a table. She talks about how the porters ‘had not neglected the glorious opportunity to rob a woman’ and how porters and lawyers were thieves everywhere. She describes how she got a cheap rent on a run down shack with no roof, which she describes as ‘a charming residence - very openly situated and well ventilated’. Her voice is funny, colloquial and a tad sarcastic and she makes brilliant company.

When it comes to the usual mainstay of books about ‘other lands’, geographical description, she calls it, ‘information uninteresting enough, I have little doubt, to all but few of my readers.’ Instead she talks about scaring away a thief by pretending to prime a non-working gun with coffee powder, or about how she stole the body of a dead orphan to dissect and learn more about the medical arts than she already did. Another source of amusement is her characterisation of Americans as dirty, rude, spitting, pretentious thieves. She admits she’s prejudiced against Americans but only because most of the ones she’s met were vile and because they still held people who looked some-what like her as slaves.

Then we get to the Crimea. Mary Seacole tried to get through legitimate means, but Florence Nightingale’s agents turned her down so she gathered investors and set off by herself. It was probably a good thing, for both her and the soldiers on the front. Mary Seacole had a years of experience and a personality disinclined to take instruction, she and Nightingale would not have made happy colleagues although they did get on when they met. It also meant that Seacole could set up her British Hotel closer to the front lines, providing more direct medical aid and a source of comfort and dignity. A lot of the work of the hotel was providing home comforts, and she was very proud of her sponge cakes and rice pudding particularly.

Thieves were again a problem, the Zouaves, professional French soldiers, were known as being fierce in battle and light-fingered when not fighting. They were large, red pantaloons which served as very useful shoplifting aids, with one Zouave managing to take a whole cooked chicken. One time, Mary Seacole got hold of a pig and everyone was looking forward to some pork and pre-ordering the cuts they were after. Then someone stole the pig and she sent ‘her boys’ out with the words;

  “Go my sons and save my bacon!” 

There seems to have almost been a Muppet Show vibe to Seacole’s British Hotel, a fun and ramshackle club with lots of laughter and chaos. It wasn’t all fun and games though, Mary Seacole also went out into the front line with bags of sandwiches and bandages to help as she could. When Sevastopol finally fell, she found herself the first woman in the captured city, again with her bag of sandwiches and bandages, occasionally needing to duck from shots from the last of the Russian defenders. One of the first things she saw, was a group of English soldiers who had looted a house of women’s clothes and were wandering around in drag - of course. The Hotel kept going as the camp broke up until she had a building full of stock but no one to buy it. In the end she had to sell what she had at a massive loss and returned to England bankrupt, where she wrote the book. There is an element in the book of Seacole justifying her actions, especially the fact that she charged for her services at the British Hotel. She was loved though and by the time she died she was a revered and comfortable figure.

I don’t think Mary Seacole is unfairly forgotten, she may have been of more practical benefit in the Crimea but she took her fame and used it to set up a massage business and live a comfortable life amongst friends - which is a very good thing to do but does mean her significance was to those alive at the time and faded as those people died. If anything, her being mixed race has not made her unfairly forgotten by history but has encouraged her remembrance where she may not have been after all. Which is not to denigrate Mary Seacole in any way, she was an amazing woman with an amazing story and she tells it in an entertaining and forthright voice.

Wednesday 4 August 2021

Review 'On Happiness' at the Wellcome Museum

A wise philosopher once said, ‘happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess’ but what is happiness? Where does it come from? Are there ways of living a happier life? I went with all these questions and more to the Wellcome’s exhibition ‘On Happiness’, hugely happy to be going to an exhibition after so long.

The exhibition was split into two parts, ‘tranquillity’ and ‘joy’, I also picked up an audio guide to hear extra details. It started with the interesting reminder that the concept of emotion is a relatively new one and springs from increased scientific ways of conceptualising people that developed in the nineteenth century. Before then, what we know as emotions were known as passions or sensibilities and had a certain moral weight. I’d have liked more about the transition in the relationship between people and their own feelings but it wasn’t really developed.

The first main room in an installation. At first glance it is tranquil, there are people doing yoga projected around, a fake fire burning in a log and a large glowing crystal. Listening to the commentary, however, and the peacefulness is built on exploitation. The yoga takes an Indian tradition but has no time for brown skin, the log represents South American forests being destroyed for incense and the big gem represents the unfair conditions they are mined in. The whole piece is called ‘My Body is a Temple of Gloom’ (great title) and it doesn’t really say anything about tranquility, more about the abuses of the wellness industry.

The next room contained a range of ways people feel tranquil, from meditation, to gardening, to noticing small pleasures, to.. fixing socks? There were also audio clips on the guide about how vitamin d aids happiness. There was also a beautiful almanac, a family medical textbook.. and a picture of a redwood tree. There were definitely interesting things in this section, but they were disparate and didn’t really come together to say much about tranquility. Indeed, the descriptions spent far longer talking about anxiety, and how things like gardening or sunlight can restrain anxiety that it said very little about tranquility at all unless it was to say that anxiety is our natural state and we have to do unusual things (or exploitative things, in terms of the first room) to avoid it and gain tranquility. Personally, I think tranquility is probably a goal in itself and is more important than merely avoiding anxiety. In a position of tranquility we can make better decisions, act kinder and fairer and wiser, which is worthwhile in itself.

The last room was my favourite and was inspired by the Japanese idea of ‘tree-bathing’. There’s research to say that simply being in nature is good for a person’s mental health - which is where I find the whole mental health language so anaemic, hanging around woods is not simply good for mental health, but for the spirit, the soul even. The room had huge photos of forests with nature sounds and (apparently) smells seeping into the room also. It was a very peaceful experience but mainly made me want to get out into some real woods.

The next part of ‘On Happiness’ was about joy. It started with a picture of someone laughing at someone else and the quote ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’ The first installation showed people in black and white ‘dancing’ but there was no happiness on their faces, the movements looked like they were being told to move and the music was scary more than it was joyful. Far from dancing for joy, it looked like they were being forced into it. 

There was another piece by the same artist who tries to smile through the Nat King Cole version of the song ‘Smile’. For one thing, the song is not a song of joy, it’s about smiling though your heart is breaking. For another, the artist can’t maintain his smile through the song and it becomes a frightening grimace. It would seem the artist doesn’t understand the concept of joy.

The next room had a range of things including the fun doodles of David Shrigley. I like his pictures but they have a self-conscious, awkward quality that while making me smile do not summon up the notion of joy. There were pictures of a tarantella, a dance supposed to heal spider bites, not an expression of joy. Indeed, the joy part of the exhibition not only lacked joy but seemed to suck it out. The only joy in the room came from two children running about and playing. Where were the kids games or football celebrations or wedding dances or the birth of a child? 

I think the ultimate message of the exhibition was that we are not solitary figures, that happiness requires us to function in society and with nature though I think it rather fudged it.