There’s a moment in Arnold Bennett’s 1923 novel Riceyman Steps when the scullery maid Elsie, having secretly taken in her sick lover, discovers that besides being a down-and-out ex-convict, Joe has none of the documents that an interwar Englishman might rely on to raise him up again. Elsie is rightly shocked. ‘The absence of the sacred “papers” disturbed her. Every man in her world could, when it came to the point, produce papers of some sort from somewhere – army-discharge, pension documents, testimonials, birth certificate, etc., etc. Even the tramps … had their papers to which they rightly attached the greatest importance.’ The reason for Joe’s paperlessness, it turns out, is no more than the simple bodily exigency of hunger. ‘I sold ’em yesterday morning,’ he tells Elsie, ‘to a man as came to meet a man as came out of Pentonville same time as me … he gave me four-and-six, and then we went and had a meal after all that skilly and cocoa and dry bread.’ (more...)
Honoré Daumier, Le Mélodrame, (c1860-64)
In Daumier’s Le Mélodrame, a heaving crowd watches the climax of the play. On stage, a woman swoons. The love triangle is resolved, a man lies dead. Meanwhile, outside, Hausmann’s plan is taking shape. Homes as well as playhouses are coming down, streets opening up in new lines of sight and force. Wide streets make manageable spaces. Room for artillery, for crowd-control. But this is a dark place, full of the energy of the audience. The Gaîeté, maybe, or the Théatre de Porte Sainte-Martin. The wrecking crew is on the way, right behind the stagehands. This city, Paris, is an old set, too, waiting to be struck for the next opening night. The Paris Commune is only a few years away. But here in the darkness, a man is leaping up — or better say he is caught up — on his feet. He isn’t part of the crowd any more: he’s part of the play. (more...)
It is already late in August when we catch the train north, but in Scotland the branches are empty. Pallid fruit cling singly here and there to the few apple and plum trees in my mother’s garden. Inside the nets my father has strung up to protect a clutch of low plants from peckish deer—nothing there, either. It has been a dismal, barren summer here, a season of steady drizzle and chill. Everywhere across the country, fruit crops are dwindling.
After dinner the local news carries an item about this weird sterility, each interview — a farmer, an orchard keeper, a beekeeper — adding to the general bewildered sense of some glitch in nature. The beekeeper blames an unusually wet early summer: to a bee, he says, a rain-drop is the size of a boulder. You can’t blame them for staying indoors, out of it. We stay indoors drinking till quite late, then go to bed. (more...)
In September 1928, while preparing to travel, Dr Grigoriy Ivanovich Rossolimo died. Soon after death, the brain was removed from the corpse and preserved for transportation to the new Moscow Brain Research Institute, where it would be carved into thirty thousand slices as thin as paper. According to the records of the Institute, it weighed precisely 1,543 grams.
In a university town on the west coast of America, tents are floating in the sky. First one, then another is lofted into the air, each held up by its own rig of white balloons. In front of of the plaza’s main building – a grandiloquent bit of collegiate neoclassicism – a banner reads OUR SPACE in letters fifteen feet high. It too is held up by balloons, a kind of sky-writing that won't disperse.
Nearby, a small bivouac of books has already popped up, each volume propped open on the ground like a child’s line-drawing of a tent.
Where did it come from, this wonderland architecture of floating dwellings and drink me miniaturism?
What can it mean? (more...)
On October 24, 1875, the New York Times published a notice on behalf of the Royal Aquarium Society, announcing the birth of a grand project – and seeking American investors. The Royal Aquarium would occupy a prime site in the centre of London, facing Westminster Abbey across Broad Sanctuary: a living microcosm at the heart of the Empire that ruled the waves. Well-stocked tanks would line a vast hall the length of a football pitch, rising to a long roof of Rendle’s patent glass running the length of the building. Everything would have its place in the metropolitan kingdom of the deep. Touting not just sea-life, but ‘reading-rooms’, ‘galleries’, ‘lectures, and conversazioni, &c.’, the transatlantic prospectus for an aquatic future builds up to a watery fantasy of moral improvement, directed at readers of the paper of record:
The playful porpoise and the sprightly shrimp will here be taught that they have respectively higher duties than to plunge in a purposeless manner, and to be formed into sauce for turbot. It will be their proud privilege to aid in the education of the masses – to teach the great majority something of the inner life of the ocean. (more...)
It started on the morning of Armistice Day. Amid the distributed hubbub of Twitter, a few people began to voice surprise at a series of messages posted from the official account of the Public Order Branch of London's Metropolitan Police:
There is a policing operation in place to preserve the dignity of the 2 minute silence #Armistice Day #remember
Though no textbook example of public relations nous, that first intervention seemed innocuous enough. It took a few more dispatches before the response rose to incredulity, though on reflection the hashtagged injunction to '#remember' should have been fair warning. As it popped up on two more tweets, some started to wonder out loud whether it was really the job of the Met to compel the forgetful fringes of the nation. Did 'dignity' now fall within the jurisdiction of Scotland Yard? (more...)
We may assume we are in the presence of covert culture when we note a recurrent pattern of inconsistent or seemingly illogical behavior. When most people in a given society or sub-society adhere to inconsistencies in their actions, when they resist with emotion any attempts to reconcile their actions with their expressed beliefs, and when they persist in this behavior over an extended period of time, then presumably we are dealing with covert culture.
Late in 1957, a rocket roared up from Kazakhstani soil and into the panicked unconscious of the Cold War West. For a civilian population reared on myths of supremacy, the payload was psychic as well as technical, a space-age Puck girdling the earth in just over ninety minutes. Sputnik. In Russian, the name meant fellow-traveller, as though the Kremlin had defrosted its sense of humour long enough to put a mocking orbital exclamation point on the life of Senator Joe McCarthy, dead of alcoholic hepatitis in May. In England, a New Statesman article by J. B. Priestley was about to become the foundational text of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Atomic weapons research was pushing on, first at Orford Ness in Suffolk, and later at Aldermaston. In total secrecy, scientists were developing biological weapons on Salisbury Plain at a place called Porton Down. Londoners, Glaswegians, Liverpudlians — in fact, the inhabitants of most big British cities — lived on an archipelago of atomic targets. Vast parts of the American southwest had been requisitioned as testing sites. Toxicity in the food chain. Downwinders already sipping contaminated groundwater. ICBMs and the spectre of that nuclear bloom at home. (more...)
In a Virginia court room, away from the press, the US government is embarking on a grand jury investigation into the affaire WikiLeaks. Having learned from its mistake — storing classified data in a networked archive accessible to millions — it has resolved to take secrecy seriously. No one could say for sure that this particular grand jury hearing was actually about WikiLeaks and its éminence grise, Julian Assange, until the end of April. Confirmation came when a man in Boston, Massachusetts was subpoena’d to appear in a proceeding that would involve the 1917 Espionage Act: a law modelled on British legislation passed before the First World War. The absurdity of the whole thing, the spectacle of an administration falling over itself to prosecute someone, anyone, with a rule-book drawn up while filing cabinets were the cutting edge of bureaucratic technology, puts the question of official secrecy back on the table. (more...)
Late September on the coast of Suffolk, with the sky curdling into low cloud. From the mainland pier, Orford Ness is a low flat slate-grey spit, tapering to a wire of horizon at each end. Between here and there, the narrow channel of the River Ore sweeps southwest down the coast to the North Sea, bearing a few fishing smacks and weekend motorboats whose prows point into the tide. Across the water, on the skyline: a lighthouse; a distant array of reticulated radio-masts; a cluster of concrete barrows like brutalist burial mounds. A union flag is drooping on its pole at the end of the quay. (more...)